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The Man Who Would
Be(en) Governor

In 20 years of public service, former Michigan lieutenant governor Dick Posthumus never lost an election. Then along came Jennifer Granholm … For Posthumus, losing the 2002 gubernatorial race to Granholm — the woman he calls the best campaigner the Michigan Democrats put up in over 50 years — certainly was disappointing. But today, after settling into his private life, Posthumus continues to honor the same commitments he held dear during his time in public service: commitments to family, to West Michigan, and to individuals who need help understanding and working with state government.

By Curt Wozniak
Photography by Michael Buck

A cozy fourth floor office in one of downtown’s premiere business addresses is hardly the place one would expect to find a farmer from Alto. Heck, it’s hardly the place Dick Posthumus would have expected to find himself a year ago.

Nevertheless, that’s where Grand Rapids Magazine found the farmer-turned-state politician-turned-consultant. Six months after losing his 2002 bid to become the first governor in Michigan history from Kent County, Posthumus bounced into a position with Varnum Consulting, directing the firm’s new Strategic Public Policy Group. While politicians enter consulting every election cycle, Posthumus admits that it took time for the idea to grow on him.

“ I didn’t think of myself as going to work for a law firm,” he said, “that just was never who I was.” After all, Posthumus has had to reconcile big-city ambitions with small-town values at every rung of his political climb.

Posthumus’ introduction to politics came in 1970. He spent the summer before his junior year at Michigan State University managing the successful state congressional campaign of his friend and former MSU classmate, John Engler. Of course, Posthumus had to finish his farm chores before making the daily drive to Engler’s district, which at the time covered Isabella and Montcalm counties.

After graduating from MSU in 1972 with degrees in agricultural economics and public affairs management, Posthumus returned to Alto. He married Pam Bartz, his high school sweetheart, and spent the rest of the decade working as a full-time farmer.

A strong desire to promote economic growth and improve public education in the state drew Posthumus back into politics in 1982. He ran for and won a seat in the Michigan Senate, but the young public servant was also a young father, so he and Pam came to an agreement: Dick would go to Lansing to represent the people of the 31st district — but he would come home every night.

In the 20 years Posthumus spent working in Lansing, he hardly spent a night away from the family farm. “When Pam and I first talked about this,” he recalled, “we decided that if I ran for office, I was going to come home almost every single night, stay here and never get a place in Lansing.” And that’s exactly what he did, rarely missing, he proudly noted, a single football, basketball or soccer game played by any of his four children.

With his middle class background and personable demeanor, Posthumus quickly became a star in the state Republican Party. He was elected speaker of the House in 1990 and lieutenant governor in 1998. And he continued to commute to Lansing, even as the second highest elected official in Michigan.

As hopes to succeed his friend and boss, Gov. John Engler, formulated during his term as lieutenant governor, Posthumus finally leased out part of the operating management of the family farm. During his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, he even rented a Bloomfield Township apartment to increase his visibility on the east side of the state. Of course, in the end, it wouldn’t be enough.

Thanks to Jennifer Granholm, we’ll never know whether or not Governor Posthumus would have continued to commute to the capital. (OK, we asked, so we know. He and Pam would have moved, but planned to return to Alto on weekends.) The loss to Granholm — his first election defeat — was obviously disappointing to Posthumus. “There were some challenges in economic development and public education that I still wanted to meet,” he said. But lessons learned through a life in agriculture served him well in dealing with the abrupt end of his 20 years in public service.

“ As a farmer, you really learn about the nature of things,” Posthumus explained. “There are some things you can control, some things you can’t. You work hard every day. You plant a seed. You plant a crop. But no matter how hard you work, if the weather goes bad and you have a drought, that’s just the way it is.

“ But if you don’t work hard, then nothing ever happens.”

It’s not always easy to read politicians. They have a singular ability to light up a 1,000-megawatt smile in the face of woeful job figures or dire economic forecasts. But when Posthumus talks about the 2002 campaign 18 months removed from its pressures, he’s not speaking as a politician. The other side of his “boyish charm,” which The Detroit News pointed out during the campaign, surfaces. There’s also a boyish wistfulness in him.

“ I have worked extremely hard for 20 years,” Posthumus said. “I think I set up a great record of integrity and hard work, and yet I just happened to be placed in a campaign against the best Democratic political campaigner since G. Mennen Williams in Jennifer Granholm … Probably against almost any other candidate, West Michigan would have had its first governor, but it just wasn’t meant to be. So I think, having been in agriculture, it helps you to learn not to be bitter about those things and understand them.”

At a spry 53, Posthumus clearly feels he has a lot more to give. And although he wishes he could have shared those gifts in the office of governor, at Varnum Consulting he’s found an avenue in the private sector through which he can continue helping the citizens of Michigan.

“ Basically, what I do (at Varnum Consulting) is help individuals or organizations that have public policy problems or want to develop a strategy in dealing with public policy issues,” Posthumus explained. “As an elected official, 25 (percent) to 30 percent of your time you spend helping constituents solve bureaucratic, red-tape problems. And so in one sense, it’s really doing the same thing.”

And the commute is much less taxing.

“ For me, (losing the election) wasn’t like I was coming back home,” Posthumus mused. “I had been going away a lot, and I just had to give that up. This was really giving me the opportunity to spend more time at home, even though I’ve always been at home.”

He added: “I love west Michigan. My family has been here since my great-grandfather moved here from the Netherlands to farm. I think it’s a great place to live and a fantastic place to raise a family.”
Posthumus’ family agrees. His oldest daughter, Krista, and her husband purchased and renovated the house in which Posthumus grew up. His daughter Lisa and her husband bought the house next door, which used to belong to Posthumus’ grandparents. His college-age children haven’t ventured far from home either. Heather is a junior at the University of Toledo and Bryan is a freshman at dad’s alma mater, MSU.

Vocationally, they haven’t strayed much, either. Heather is majoring in public policy and political science and Bryan in agribusiness. Lisa is actively involved in state politics, working in the Lansing office of Rep. Glenn Steil Jr. (and commuting from Alto). And dad’s work in education reform must have had an influence on Krista; she’s a teacher in Middleville.

Posthumus said he has enjoyed reconnecting with family and friends since returning to private life, and he doubts voters will see a rematch of the 2002 gubernatorial race in 2006. He may consider a run for the MSU Board of Trustees, however. “I bleed green and white,” he said, “and I really believe that higher education is going to be one of the keys to the continued economic growth of West Michigan and the state, so I have some interest there.” And even though he still sits on the executive committee of the Kent County Republican Party, Posthumus’ major political ambitions seem to be satiated.

“ I don’t miss it a bit,” he said frankly. “It’s great to have my life back.” GR

Curt Wozniak is the Grand Rapids Magazine staff writer.

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