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The Lifestyle of Politics at the Mackinac Policy Conference

Published June 6, 2019 by

What happens on the island doesn’t stay on the island.

By Andrea Walker-Leidy

Featured photo via Grand Hotel

Mackinac Island— They say the “real work” of business gets done over lunch, or cocktails, or on the golf course. If this is true, the annual Mackinac Policy Conference is a four-day cocktail lunch on the golf course for Michigan’s leaders.

It’s not often that political, nonprofit and corporate leaders, along with a speckling of lobbyists, activists, and marketing professionals, maroon themselves on an island to talk about government policy. What is unique about this policy conference, is the amount of policy that is not talked about. Actual policy talk pales in comparison to the focus on initiatives, inspiration and innovation in the state. But, what better way to drive policy, than to have your state’s leaders talking about what it takes to move innovation to the next level.

Andrea Walker-Leidy for SEEN

Sandy Baruah, Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, said in his opening remarks during this year’s May conference, “What happens on the island, does not stay on the island.” The relationships built, the topics discussed and policies positioned, will continue to have ripple effects on our state and our region for months and years after the conference.

Possibly one of the biggest movements at the 2019 Mackinac Policy Conference was Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s signing of a bipartisan no-fault insurance bill on the front porch of Mackinac’s Grand Hotel. On a porch filled with both Democrats and Republicans, on an island that doesn’t allow cars, Whitmer signed a bill that will ripple out, reaching every driver in the state. This is the Mackinac Policy Conference.

Hours after the bill was signed, that same porch is filled with cocktails, Champagne glasses, hors d‘oeuvres and shoulder-to-shoulder mingling. But still, what happens at the Grand Hotel, and on its famous porch, is a small portion of the “work” being done on the island. Hundreds of politicians, lobbyists, special interest groups, business leaders and community leaders are on the island, not attending the conference. The word has spread that “anyone who is anyone in Michigan” is at this conference, and they all come to join the “office party.”

Andrea Walker-Leidy for SEEN

Whitmer encouraged this relationship building during her keynote address stating, “When you’re at the Pink Pony later, talk to your legislators about the important issues.”

Much of the focus of this year’s conference was on education. Whitmer’s keynote highlighted the work needed to be done in order to engage and strengthen education for Michigan students. From test scores to teacher shortages, Whitmer claimed that years of under-investment in Michigan children has done damage to its students.

Launch Michigan, a partnership of Michigan business, education, labor, philanthropy and civic leaders, took center stage at this year’s conference. On an island bursting at the seams with many of these aforementioned leaders, the partnership, and its innovative ideas for education, was able to gain momentum. Conference attendees donated more than $11,000 to help Launch Michigan achieve its goal. The goal, according to Consumers Energy President CEO Patti Poppe, is to help ensure the soil conditions are good for our students, and to give Michigan children the maximum advantage.

After the keynotes, and after the sessions. After talent growth panel discussions and political roundtables. And after the Grandest Hour on the Grand Porch. The parties have just begun. Filled with new knowledge, new initiatives and statistics about the state of Michigan, and the state of its affairs, hundreds gather in the restaurants, bars and tents. It is in these casual, often sponsored, cocktail times when politicians and residents level the playing field. They talk. They brainstorm. They ask the tough questions — and are comfortable enough to answer some of them.

Andrea Walker-Leidy for SEEN

While early mornings are spent with dozens of media outlets in the Grand Dining Room on Media Row being interviewed, evenings are spent on a level playing field. Whitmer was right. People talk to their legislators at the Pink Pony. Municipalities connect with corporations at Horns. And nonprofits get a chance to tell their stories to the media at Goodfellows. This is the Mackinac Policy Conference.

For those who put in the work. And, for those who take the opportunity to make every carriage taxi ride count, the conference becomes fuel for the rest of their year’s work. Their ideas lead to new policies. And their connections lead to new business. Once a year. On a secluded island. Michigan leaders gather for what seems like a four-day party. But this party, the Michigan party, truly drives change in our state.

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