By Spencer White
Randy Richardville, ’81 alumus, is the Senate Majority Leader for the Michigan State Senate. Richardville then spent time in the private sector, working at both furniture manufacturers La-Z-Boy and Herman Miller before first running for the legislature in 1996. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1998, and then the State Senate in 2006. On Wednesday, April 30, Richardville returned to his alma mater to give a talk on civic engagement. I was able to sit down with the Senator beforehand to talk about his life and work.
The Pleiad: How did your experience at Albion College contribute to your professional success? What skills and experiences did you take away from undergrad? Also, what was your major and what programs were you involved in?
Senator Richardville: I was a part of what we called the Professional Management Program, which is now the Carl A. Gerstacker program. So I studied economics and management as a major, but was also required to take public speaking, some computer classes, technical writing classes. It was a well-rounded curriculum. A liberal arts education teaches you a little bit more about how to think than what to think. That was the starting point.
What was your experience in the private sector like? What was your experience when you got out of college and started your career?
Well, I did some work at Starr Commonwealth as an intern while I was at Albion College. I worked with teams of young people who were in the process of getting their lives back together. Rather than jail or juvenile hall, this was a place kind of in-between, where something called positive peer culture would get the group together and try and have them put peer pressure on bad behavior and change it into good behavior. So I got to do some of that while I was in college, and stayed there for a year and worked. Then I went to La-Z-Boy, where I was a division controller. I was about 23, 24-years-old in South Carolina. I stayed there for a few years and then went to Herman Miller. Both of those companies were among the best to work for in the United States. They use team approaches. You had to manage a bottom line, obviously, and I did financial planning and operations management. So all of those things, especially the management and teamwork, were good for preparing me for working with people.
What led you to switch from Starr Commonwealth to La-Z-Boy?
I’d planned on being in business all along, but the economy in 1981 was very rough. Since I had done an internship there [at Starr Commonwealth], a business internship, a job opening came up where I worked directly with the kids, and so I took it, and thought maybe I would do that as a career. After about a year, the La-Z-Boy opportunity came along, and that was more in-line with my education, so I decided to make that switch and go back into business full-time. But I do enjoy the time I spent with Starr Commonwealth.
What led you to public service?
In Michigan in 1990, the voters voted term limits in. And so the House Republican Campaign Committee were looking for potential candidates to fill the holes of those that would now have to retire because of term limits. They went into effect in 1998, but the House Republicans thought they could get a jump on things by having me run in 1996. That way, even if I won, it’d be a surprise, a new person running against a 14-year incumbent or something. But if I lost, it would set me up with some name recognition, learning how to go out and meet with the people, and how to campaign and prepare for ‘98 when that incumbent had to go and leave an open seat. So in ‘96 we lost, the top of the ticket on the Republican side was Bob Dole, and he didn’t do real well in that district, and I did a little better than he did, in fact, about ten percent better than he did, but still not enough to win. But that set us up to win in the next term, which was 1998, and that was the beginning of term limits in Michigan, a term-limited legislators, where out of 110 members, we had 64 rookies that had no experience. I was a part of that class.
How is Michigan doing as a state? What challenges does it face, and how should it best face those challenges?
We’ve faced some really difficult challenges in the last three years. I would say we’re not there yet, but maybe we’ve turned a corner. We’ve started to become successful. Our economy drives everything else we do. Without the economy going well, then the taxes don’t bring in the revenues and we can’t do the social programs and other things that we’d like to do. So getting the economy on track, getting the budget done and balanced on time are among our first priorities. In the three years that I’ve been in leadership and Rick Snyder has been the governor, we’ve cut the unemployment rate from 14.2 percent down to 7.5 percent, so we’ve almost cut it in half. The budget had a 1.8 billion dollar deficit. Now, it’s balanced and has been for three years in a row. We didn’t use to get the budget done until sometime in September, or close down the government October 1st, This time, we’ve done it four months in advance of October 1st, the beginning of the fiscal year. We’ve done that every year for the last three years. We started with two million dollars in our rainy day fund, our savings fund. Now we have about 700 million. We’ve put literally hundreds of millions of dollars towards our long-term debts. Unsecured liabilities, I get that from my business school days. It’s kind of like a credit card. We’ve paid off a lot of our credit card debt over the last three years. Literally hundreds of millions of dollars, which will save the taxpayers billions of dollars over the long run because we’re paying them off now. Those are some things that we’ve done to get the budget underway and create a climate where people who create jobs can create jobs. Moody’s, Standard & Poors, Fitch, all those organizations have upgraded our bond ratings over the last three years and said that we are a positive environment for businesses, where before we were just a stable environment for businesses. That’s attracting us some new jobs, and we’ve created about, and I say the private sector has created about 250,000 new jobs in the last three years. It doesn;t fill all the jobs we lost in the automotive crash, but we’re making more cars today than in 2007, and the unemployment rate has been cut almost in half, and we’ve made almost 250,000 new jobs in the private sector. So, we’re turning the corner. We’re getting there. We’re still not there where the economy is buzzing, but at least we’re keeping our heads abouve water and there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel. We eliminated the Michigan Business Tax, and that was for small companies, limited liability corporations, S-corporations, those that have 100 employees or less. These are mom n’ pop kind of companies and little businesses. We said “instead of taxing inventory, instead of taxing healthcare, instead of taxing all these things in a very complicated way of doing business, we’re going to tax whatever profits you make. Whatever you take home, we’re going to tax the rest of it, and we’re done.” It streamlined it a lot, and I think that it also stopped penalizing people for investing in their workers or their company. When you tax inventory, or you tax healthcare, or when you tax hiring new employees, that’s a disincentive to grow your business. If instead you say “Run it however you want to and at the end only pay taxes on the profits,” it’s a lot simpler and makes a lot more sense. It encourages investment. We’ve watched that growth in the private sector.
What is your opinion on state-employed financial managers running Michigan communities that are in financial trouble? Do you feel as though they are an effective means of steering communities out of trouble?
Well, here’s the thing. Some people say that we shouldn’t have financial managers and just let them run however they’ve always run. The problem is you can remove the financial manager from the city, but you can’t remove the emergency. You know, my background is financial management and analysis, and the cities we’re talking about, the school districts we’re talking about, they have structural problems that can’t be fixed without surgery, if you will. So an emergency financial manager is somewhat like a surgeon. You can say “well, just go ahead with the disease, the cancer” or whatever it is that’s killing your school or community because we don’t like surgery. Well, without the surgery, you die anyways. So, you have to, in an emergency situation, act, otherwise, you’re not living up to the responsibilities of the office. I know that analogy might not be real easy to see, but if you just elect new people with the same structures and they are not empowered to make tough decisions that sometimes are political decisions, and you’re just going to end up with the same situation.
What has the value of public service been for you? Are you satisfied with the career you’ve had as a legislator? What pieces of legislation are you proud of?
I’ve been fortunate. The greatest gift you get from public service is relationships with people you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to know. This isn’t necessarily a famous person or a rich person or a powerful person, but you understand struggles that people are going through you never would have known about. Maybe it’s a family with an autistic child. The Autism Alliance just an recognized me for the second time for my work with autistic children. [About] 15,000 families in Michigan have an autistic child. The divorce rate in those families is 90 percent. They can’t have two incomes because someone has to stay home because day care is so expensive. And yet, we train people in Michigan to provide treatment, something called Applied Behavioral Analysis, ABA, and then we don’t have a network, we don’t provide treatment, so they go to other states to get jobs. One of the bipartisan things I did in 2011 was work closely with the other side of the chamber in passing very creative autism legislation that allows more people who have access to coverage, so that those 15,000 families have a way now to find that solution.
What do you like to tell college students when they ask what they can do to improve their communities?
Well, it really comes from within. I’ve watched a lot of people do it – be involved in the community or be involved in politics for political reasons, motivations, maybe. Getting to a higher office or something. I think you really have to do it from somewhere inside. You really have to give back to the community. Really, there’s three levels. One is that of a politician. In a crude way, a politician is someone who knows how to get elected. He understands the politics and what to say to get the votes and to get into office. That’s the first level. There are two jobs when you’re an elected official. One is to get into office and what you do there. The concept of a servant-leader, someone who leads by serving, understanding in a very similar way to what Jesus professed, that you are not here to be served but to serve. It’s the concept of an inverted pyramid. You’re not, because you’re a leader, at the top because you’re at the bottom supporting everyone above you. If you understand that, I think you’re eligible for the next level. After years of understanding that, living that, and building confidence and trust in people, you’re looked to as a leader of leaders, and I think you get to the third level. The third level is that of a statesman. A statesman is someone they make statues about, that they do honor not because they wanted to be honored, but because they humbled themselves to serve people and people recognize that. Those are the three levels I see. A politican, a servant-leader and that of a statesman. I hope that someday when people look back on the time I served and they at least consider me at least in some regard to have been a statesman.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons