27 Sep A Retrospective on the 32nd Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference
This past weekend, thousands of Michigan Republican activists, legislators, leaders, donors, and candidates gathered for the state GOP’s 32nd biennial Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference.
Since 1955, Presidents and Vice Presidents, Presidential hopefuls and Party Leaders across the country state and national leaders have vied for the opportunity to speak at this important conference, which has become the largest, most significant Republican gathering in the Midwest (shy of the every-four-years Iowa caucus that is).
Past speakers include Presidents Ford, Reagan, Bush and Bush, and a who’s who of GOP presidential wannabes.
I have been attending this conference since 1985; as a senior at Central Michigan University, I was given the opportunity to volunteer by then-State Chairman Spence Abraham – which meant my room (five of us guys piled into one of the floral-patterned Grand Hotel guest rooms) and meals were covered in exchange for three days of indentured servitude.
In addition to stuffing welcome bags, working the registration desk, and standing outside meeting rooms as a directional guide my main job was to escort dignitaries flying to the island airport back to the Grand Hotel. It was my responsibility to know what time guests were arriving and how many people they were bringing with them so I could bring the right size carriage to the airport at the right time.
The carriage ride to the airport takes about 30 minutes – longer if the horses need to rest. In 1985 we had no cell phones, so once I departed the Grand for the airport, there was no further way to communicate (the airport is unmanned, and the landing lights are triggered by pilots as they approach) so the margin of error was nil.
1985 marked the attempt by Michigan Republicans to conduct a first-in-the-nation caucus – jumping ahead of even Iowa in the queue. This prompted lots of lawsuits and state rivalries, but it also made Michigan the focal point of early candidate organizational efforts. As a result, every Jack, George, Bob and Dick who were considering a run for President in 1988 felt they needed to be at Mackinac. This made my escort job quite busy.
On the final night of the conference, my last assignment was to meet former Congressman Jack Kemp and his team at the airport. They weren’t scheduled to arrive until close to 11:00, and would have a party of four. So I secured the appropriate carriage and we set out to meet the group. Of course, they were late. Normally this wouldn’t be a huge issue, but it turns out that the weather on Mackinac Island in late September is always a crap shoot. It can be 80 degrees, or it can be 8. On this night it was closer to 8, and as a poor, ignorant college student I was of course not properly dressed. I had no coat – only the Republican uniform – blue blazer and khaki pants. So without a warm room to wait in or a heated carriage to take the chill away, the driver and I froze as we hung out waiting for Team Kemp to arrive.
Finally, two hours later, we saw the landing lights come on, meaning a plane was approaching – it had to be Kemp, finally. As the plane landed and taxied to the Quonset Hut-styled terminal, we climbed out of the carriage and prepared to greet our arriving guests. When the plane finally stopped and the door was thrown open, people started flowing out – and more and more kept coming – it was like a clown car. Kemp’s posse consisted of 10 people (with luggage) and I had a carriage large enough to fit six. So including the driver and myself, we were without sufficient space to handle the group, and no way to get to the Grand and back without forcing folks to wait for over an hour.
So we piled everyone into the carriage. We got eight people inside, sat two next to the driver and threw the luggage on top of the carriage. The only place left for me was on top of the luggage on top of the carriage. So I climbed up and held on for dear life as we made the late night trek back to the Grand.
Shortly after departing, in a moment Murphy must have a law to describe, I was wondering to myself how things could get any worse when it began snowing, and continued to snow for the entire 30 minute ride back to the hotel. Upon our arrival at the Grand, Team Kemp climbed out of the carriage for the warm confines of the lobby, while I was frozen in place on top of the carriage in my Republican uniform, gripping the luggage rack with the Congressman’s garment bag digging into my groin.
That was my first Mackinac Conference experience. Most everyone who has worked this event has a similar origin story. Ironically, mine would include going on to become the Michigan Republican Party’s Political Director, with the responsibility of actually running this conference in 1987 and 1989. Under my watch, all carriages bound for the airport had walkie-talkies (still no cell phones) so that we could make adjustments as necessary, and any future male interns could have a rewarding experience without having to risk reproductive capacity to frostbite.
Mark Pischea is a managing partner at Sterling Corporation, a LE&A company.