Meet The Chairman
Bobby Schostak, leader of the Michigan GOP, talks strategy and the future of the party.
For five years, first as finance chair and then as the elected chairman, Robert “Bobby” Schostak has lent his efforts to building up the Republican Party in Michigan. No one can argue he hasn’t done a good job: the GOP has a clean sweep in the state, holding the governor’s office, state House, state Senate, attorney general and secretary of state as well as a conservative-leaning state Supreme Court.
He was re-elected chairman this year, defeating Tea Party contender Todd Courser.
Schostak lives in Bloomfield Hills with his wife, Nancy, and attends Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. They have three adult children and two grandchildren.
He sits on the board of his family-owned business, Schostak Brothers & Company Inc., which operates commercial properties in 19 states as a full-service real estate development, management, leasing and consulting company. Schostak has been active in the commercial real estate business since 1976.
A longtime conservative activist and Republican fundraiser, Schostak became an active player in the state Republican Party after the 2008 election, during which he had volunteered on John McCain’s campaign. He was asked by then-chair of the party Ron Weiser to become the finance chair of the state party. Generally, a finance chair is someone who puts in a few hours each week raising money.
“After six years of [former Gov. Jennifer] Granholm, we saw that Michigan would be ready for a significant change in Lansing,” said Schostak, who got together with his brothers Mark and David to discuss the opportunity.
“I decided that I would go into it with gusto and really put more than a traditional volunteer effort in place. Instead, I gave it a full-time effort.”
He and Weiser worked together to raise record sums of money and Republicans swept the ticket in 2010, going from a 16-seat deficit in the state House to a 13-seat Republican majority. The GOP also went from a majority to a supermajority in the state Senate.
“We won the governor’s race; we won the attorney general; we won the secretary of state,” Schostak said. “And in the Supreme Court, which was 4-3 in favor of a more liberal-leaning elected court, we took it to a 4-3 conservative rule-of-law court.”
After Gov. Rick Snyder took office, he asked Schostak to run for party chairman. “I discussed it with my family and decided to run,” he said.
He was elected in January 2011 and spent the next few years building the party, raising money, and working with local grassroots county operations and Tea Party groups leading up to the 2012 elections.
“In the 2012 elections, people from across the board were questioning the direction the country was going on spending, debt and the rest of it,” he said. “We were out to protect Michigan and Gov. Snyder by making sure that our state House majority returned, making sure we kept our Supreme Court rule of law, and making certain that the proposals to amend the constitution were defeated.”
The most significant of those proposals was Proposal 2, which sought to amend the state’s constitution to guarantee public- and private-sector employees the right to organize and collectively bargain.
“We defeated collective bargaining,” Schostak said. “We kept our state House majority and our Supreme Court, which allowed the governor to continue his agenda and Michigan’s re-invention for the next two years.”
What made that success so sweet was that President Barack Obama had won the top of the ticket by nearly 9 points.
“With that kind of strength at the top of the ticket, we should have been wiped out down the ballot and we were not,” Schostak said. “That shows the strength of our political plan. That shows the strength of our grassroots operations.”
Recently, Schostak stopped by the offices of the JN to answer questions about the future of the state GOP.
Q: Are there schisms between the Tea Party wing and traditional wing of your caucus? If so, how does that affect the governor’s agenda?
Schostak: I’m a social conservative, constitutionalist Republican Party chairman. That’s who I am to the core as an individual. I’m very supportive of the Tea Party as I’m very supportive of our conservative Republicans. We have factions in the party (as do the Democrats) that lean more to the right on social issues, government spending and taxation issues. That’s what makes our party dialogue vibrant and productive.
We have proven in the last several elections that Republicans and Tea Party organizations can work together productively, proactively and constructively toward electing good, solid conservatives.
Gov. Snyder follows his heart in doing what he believes is best for all Michigan citizens, and people will disagree with him on areas. That hasn’t dissuaded him from doing what he thinks is right. There are going to be disagreements. What party or political operation doesn’t have opposing views on issues? That’s the democratic process. There are certain people in our party in the legislature who will not vote for Snyder’s agenda because they feel strongly it’s not the right thing to do. That’s their choice. It’s not my job to referee that.
Q. Traditionally, the majority of Jews vote Democrat. How is the Republican Party in Michigan trying to attract Jewish voters who might agree with the Republican Party’s fiscal policies but not its social policies, such as efforts to limit women’s reproductive freedoms?
Schostak: In the last election, the largest increase in votes by any coalition out there, from Democrat in 2008 to Republican in 2012, was the Jewish community across the country. I believe it went from 24 percent of Jews to 30 to 31 percent of Jews who support the Republican Party.
I think that, as a party, we need to be certain that all voting Americans, all citizens understand the complete message of the Republican Party, what we stand for. Our national platform includes traditional marriage. While we respect the law, we’re opposed to abortion.
Our job is to make sure the Jewish community understands the full gamut of what the GOP stands for. I’ll say that 80 percent or more of what we stand for most Americans, and certainly all Jewish Americans, would agree with. Some of them will decide that social issues carry the day, and I can respect that.
At the last Democrat National Convention, they couldn’t even reach a vote on Israel without gaveling it through, which would offend Jews in ways that are probably even more significant than some of the social issues.
Q: The lame duck session at the end of last year, in which Right to Work legislation was passed, angered many voters. Do you think there will be consequences for Gov. Snyder’s re-election prospects?
Schostak: When Snyder came fresh into office, he’d never been an elected official. He won the general election by nearly 20 percentage points. People saw him as a better leader for our state than his opponent.
Any incumbent now has a record. That record is available for debate.
Snyder has accomplished many things for our state — from deregulation to tax policy to efficiency of government, to budgeting to paying down long-term debt to rainy day funds, etc. His list is well over 700 items. As a voter, you weigh that record against a couple of things you may not agree with.
Right to Work was a choice issue. It doesn’t outlaw unions. We can’t do that, even if we wanted to. As a member of the workforce, you can decide going forward if it serves you best to join that union. If you think it does, you can pay your dues and join the union. If you decide you don’t want to join the union, but you still like working for that company, then you are not required to join the union. Yes, it was passed during lame duck, but the discussion about Right to Work has gone on for the past 10 to 15 years. It comes up every cycle. This was no secret.
Snyder said during his campaign that he was in favor of Right to Work. He thought it to be divisive at that particular time, but if ultimately the circumstances were appropriate, which he found to be the case, he would support it. He worked very closely with the unions to try to have a constructive relationship, particularly as it related to Proposal 2, and yet they went ahead and put it on the table. He was put in a position where he was left with not a lot of choice and signed Right to Work into law. It will ultimately prove to be a very bold, a very smart, productive and job-creating piece of legislation that will be part of the whole plan to bring Michigan back.
Q: The Michigan Republican Party recently unveiled a new strategy to help broaden its base. Can you explain it?
Schostak: I asked our team in Lansing to study the last several elections and come back to me with an approach on how Michigan’s Republican Party could go about building relationships with all coalitions of voters on a long-term basis, which will lead to voter identification and voter turnout.
We’re decentralizing and regionalizing our state political operations and pushing as much as possible out of Lansing and into the field. Five offices opened July 1 and, ultimately, we’ll have 10 offices, including a Detroit office to connect with different coalitions: black Americans, Jewish Americans, women, sportsmen, clubs, schools, etc. We want to build coalitions with those Americans on a peer-to-peer, friend-to-friend basis.
Traditionally, the state party has had a victory program that opens up in June of the election year, identifies voters and introduces them to candidates and hopefully turns them out to vote — then shuts down and reopens again two years later. These offices will remain open continuously throughout the year and stay open indefinitely.
We’ll have to raise more money, of course, but we have a very vibrant donor base in Michigan. Our plan is receiving a lot of attention nationally. The RNC in Washington has endorsed it and will be helping us. Our donor community is stepping up as well, and we’re receiving the kinds of financial and operational support we need to pull this off. It’s a major commitment.
Q: Describe the difference between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to support of Israel.
Schostak: I think all organizations understand, Jewish and other, the necessity for Israel’s right to defend itself and to secure its borders.
While I believe Democrats are supportive of Israel, and Republicans and Democrats in both chambers would call for support for Israel, you just don’t know what President Obama’s response would be. You think you know, but we’ve seen the Arab spring unravel in front of our eyes, and we’re seeing botched policies in Syria and Libya and so forth.
We just can’t hesitate when it comes to Israel. With a Republican president and Republican leadership, we would not hesitate to step in and do what’s necessary. We are unconditional on Israel’s right to defend itself and wouldn’t hesitate to step in if Israel should need our government’s support.
Q: Can you tell us about any up-and-coming Jewish Republican candidates in the pipeline?
Schostak: I can’t get into any specific names. But there is a lot of interest in the Jewish community about getting more active in Lansing and Washington. There are numerous Jews today that are active inside our party that have run for state party offices at our conventions, or for the house and the senate.
We’re seeing a lot of young people in that 25- to 35-year-old range, young professionals, men and women, who are getting very active politically and are asking what can they do to help their local county parties, helping in campaigns or considering running for office themselves. It’s pretty neat.
Many in the Jewish community are concerned for Michigan and want to create a good future for our children and grandchildren. Historically, the Jewish community looks ahead several generations: What are we going to be? Where are we going to go? How are we going to be successful?
Education is top of mind in the Jewish community. Fiscal responsibility, top of mind in the Jewish community. Fair government that takes care of its business in a responsible way is important to the Jewish community as it is to all communities. I think that the Jewish community in Michigan, although it isn’t a big percentage, is a pretty good-sized voice.
Q: What are your top goals?
Schostak: To take this political plan — this ground game for all campaigns in Michigan — to launch this thing and really see a wide spectrum of Republican operatives — Tea Party, activists, libertarians — volunteer and work toward re-electing our governor and maintaining our majorities in the house and senate.
Two, I want to raise record sums of money so we can facilitate our new strategy.
Finally, I want to continue building our party by reaching out to more and more independents and unaffiliated voters and getting them to vote our way.
An Open Seat
One thing the state GOP failed to do in 2012 was to topple Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who was up for re-election. Former Congressman Pete Hoekstra won the primary, but was easily defeated by the incumbent come Election Day.
Republicans will soon get another shot at a U.S. Senate seat. Sen. Carl Levin announced his retirement in March, confirming that he wouldn’t run for re-election in 2014.
Democrats have coalesced around Rep. Gary Peters, who announced his candidacy for the seat in the spring.
Presumed Republican frontrunner Mike Rogers announced he would not run for the Senate seat last month, leaving former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land as the first (and only) Republican to publicly announce her campaign. But there will be more candidates, Schostak said.
“Sen. Levin’s retirement gave us lots of notice, way earlier than normally anyone would have expected,” he said. “It is still early in the process as far as we’re concerned. Generally, we like to field candidates for a primary between Labor Day and the end of the year.”
Some candidates target the GOP’s Mackinac Leadership Conference, this year Sept. 20-22, to announce their candidacies, he said.
By Jackie Headapohl|Managing Editor