MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. – It’s been a return to normalcy on Mackinac Island for the annual policy conference. (Not in every sense; the weather was unusually cooperative this time around.) But I talked to quite a few attendees who remarked at the simple beauty of looking one another in the eye again and having so many face-to-face conversations with nary a ZOOM screen in sight.
This conference has been criticized for years for being an unnecessary junket held too far away from the region it hopes to serve. But in the many years I’ve been covering the conference, I’ve often noted that its potency rests in its ability to bring people together for conversations whose paths might never cross back at home. And that felt especially true this year with a palpable sense that those who made the trek were seemed to luxuriate in the one foundation that has long been the conference’s main pillar - conversations.
I felt it, too, and some of those many conversations are available here (or see the embedded video below). For someone like me who has suffered a lifelong affliction of curiosity, spending one moment talking to DTE CEO Jerry Norcia about advances in nuclear power and the next asking former U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider about the unfortunate advances in cyber crime makes for a fascinating string of days. (Schneider told me that recent developments with voice mimicking technology led to a business executive unwittingly wiring several million dollars at what he believed was the bidding of his boss who calmly instructed him to make the transfer in a phone call. And why wouldn’t he? This wasn’t a phone email or phishing scam; he thought he’d heard it from the boss’ mouth.)
The conference can usually be counted on to deliver some big announcements and those came courtesy of Ford (a massive $3.7B investment, much of it coming to Michigan), Tom Gores (committing $20M for a Detroit recreation center) and Stephen Ross (who vowed that we will see a groundbreaking on the Detroit Innovation Center next year). And there is always a fair amount of political intrigue that is especially focused on court decisions at the moment — Michigan courts deciding the fate of gubernatorial hopefuls who failed to turn in qualified petitions signatures, and the Supreme Court which is expected to soon deliver a decision on the fate of Roe v Wade.
There were also quite a few candidates in attendance. (The field of those running for the 13th district seat is almost large enough to hold its own conference. And by the way, there is absolutely no consensus on which candidate will emerge to win that seat in Congress.)
Thursday afternoon’s GOP gubernatorial debate offered a glimpse of the personalities that will be vying for the right to take on Gretchen Whitmer in the fall. Four of the five who qualified for the ballot took part while Ryan Kelley felt the conference COVID policies were too onerous for him to attend.
Among the others, there really doesn’t seem to be a sliver of difference in their stances on the issues, though Tudor Dixon did snag the endorsement of Michigan Right to Life. All of them are now vying for the endorsement of former President Trump though several politicos I talked to here wondered at why at least one of the candidates didn’t take a less Trumpian path if only to separate themselves from the others.
The main stage presentations were rather star-studded this year. On Wednesday, I waited in the green room with U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sandwiched between presentations by journalist (and guiding light to yours truly) Ted Koppel and historian Jon Meacham. I thoroughly enjoyed what I felt was a candid conversation with Mayor Pete (you can watch that here).
Thursday saw the NBA take over with remarks from Pistons owner Tom Gores and Los Angeles Clippers owner and Detroit native Steve Ballmer. I’ll note here it was also great to see NBC’s Mike Tirico play a big role in this year’s conference as a moderator and interviewer in the Grand Hotel’s theatre.
All in all, it felt quite normal. And in 2022, that’s not a bad thing at all.