POLITICS OCTOBER 21, 2009
It's two p.m. on a workday, and the casino parking lot is completely full. Hundreds of people have come for the $20 gambling coupons offered to those willing to donate blood. Turnout for the drive was "above and beyond" expectations, says Frank Cloutier, a spokesman for the Saginaw Chippewa Indians, who run the 800-slot complex. The nurses are already turning people away two hours before closing, and they will soon run out of blood bags.
"We get free money!" one woman tells me, clutching her coupon as her friends nod in agreement. An older gentleman says with less enthusiasm that he only comes once or twice a year. "Just when I'm trying to help pay the light bill," he admits.
Standish, a town of 1,500 people, is the seat of a county with an unemployment rate of nearly 25 percent. It is one of the most impoverished counties in Michigan--the state hit hardest by the recession. In June, two months before my visit, things had gone from bad to worse: Governor Jennifer Granholm announced that the town's main economic engine--the Standish Maximum Correctional Facility, which funds about one-quarter of the city's budget and is the county's largest employer--would be shuttered.
Panic ensued among residents. But on August 2 came the possibility of a lifeline: news from the White House that Standish Max was one of two prisons under consideration for a transfer of inmates from Guantánamo Bay, which President Obama has pledged to close.
Buoyed, local politicians lined up to support the transfer. "First and foremost, our goal is to keep the prison open," Republican State Representative Tim Moore told a House committee. The mayor is on board, as is the outspoken city manager, Michael Moran. "If anybody did escape, they'd have a surprise. We're a community of hunters," said Moran, a former Air Force policeman. Standish's U.S. representative, Democrat Bart Stupak, backs the idea; so do both Michigan senators.
It seemed to be a perfect match--a president in search of a place to send prisoners, a town looking for a way to save its biggest employer. That is, until Pete Hoekstra got involved.
Hoekstra, a Republican, has represented Michigan in Congress since 1993. Born in the Netherlands, the former Fortune 500 executive ousted the incumbent, a longtime National Republican Congressional Committee chair, by riding his bike across Michigan's second district--the most Republican in the state--preaching a populist message.
Seventeen years later--having broken his pledge not to serve more than six terms--Hoekstra is better known for his gaffes than for passing legislation. In 2006, as chairman of the House intelligence committee, he erroneously proclaimed that weapons of mass destruction had been discovered in Iraq. Later that year, The New York Times reported that a government website Hoekstra had championed contained detailed information on how to construct a nuclear weapon. On a trip to Iraq earlier this year, he breached protocol by divulging details about the delegation's whereabouts via Twitter.
Ever since Obama announced his intention to close Guantánamo, Hoekstra has led the effort to stop him. In May, he co-sponsored the Keep Terrorists Out Of America Act, which would prohibit the transfer of detainees to any state without the consent of its governor and legislature. "Quite understandably, Americans do not want 240 of the world's most dangerous captured terrorists brought into their neighborhoods," he said in June.
A few months before, Hoekstra had announced that he was giving up his seat to run for governor in 2010. While Michigan is considered a blue state, Granholm--a Democrat who is term-limited--isn't terribly popular; and the likely Democratic nominee, Lieutenant Governor John Cherry, is hobbled by her low-30s approval rating. For Hoekstra--already obsessed with the detainee question and needing an issue to raise his profile in
the state--the Gitmo-to-Standish news could not have come at a better time.
Hoekstra argued that the move would hurt Michigan economically by dissuading businesses and tourists from coming to the state. He also resorted to old-fashioned fear-mongering. He told the Michigan Senate that a transfer would bring into the state "committed, hard-core radical jihadists who have sworn a religious oath to kill as many Americans as possible." One senator told The Grand Rapids Press that the presentation sent "chills down my spine." Local residents "should be scared," Hoekstra told me in a mid-October interview. "They want them all dead!"
Of course, dozens of convicted foreign terrorists--including Zacarias Moussouai, the alleged twentieth hijacker--have been held for years at Colorado's Florence Supermax prison without major incident. Nor has the surrounding community suffered economically, according to both a county official and the head of the Florence Chamber of Commerce. When ten former military and national security officials sent Hoekstra a letter criticizing him for "stirring up panic and distorting reality for political purposes," Hoekstra's spokesman dismissed it as the "opinions of a bunch of out-of-state Democrat contributors and partisans" (though the mix of signatories was bipartisan). Hoekstra has been equally dismissive of the effect the closure of Standish Max would have on the surrounding area. "This is not a local community decision, excuse me," he told the Detroit Free Press on August 2. "This is a national security decision."
Dave Munson is a soft-spoken tavern owner from Standish--and an unlikely organizer for the "anti-Gitmo" rally being held at Resurrection of the Lord Church. Back in June, Munson had actually traveled to Washington to convince Michigan politicians to consider a detainee transfer as a way to save Standish Max. It appears, however, that the lobbyist was lobbied: Munson ran into Hoekstra at a cocktail party and left a convert. Munson is cryptic about his change of heart, telling me that Hoekstra is "privy to certain information." (Munson
was more candid with The Washington Post: "He told me things that really scared the heck out of me.") Today, Hoekstra is headlining Munson's event.
About 200 people have showed up; some are activists who drove hundreds of miles to attend. Hoekstra, after an introduction from Munson, begins by saying, "I'm not here as a candidate." He then quickly launches into his usual talking points about the detainees. "I think that there's information I may have access to that I believe the state of Michigan should have access to, that [local leaders] should have access to, that the people of this community should have access to"--but that the federal government is keeping secret. (He later tells me the Obama administration is "more secretive than Cheney.") Hoekstra spends much of the meeting arguing that national security ought to trump local self-interest. Taking the prisoners, he argues, would be like accepting the "40 pieces of silver" Roman authorities gave Judas to betray Jesus. (It was actually 30 pieces.)
The speakers who follow Hoekstra spend most of their time invoking scenes of terrorists hurling bodily fluids, taking schoolchildren hostage, and detonating a bomb in this church. "You folks are the soft targets," says Debra Burlingame, whose brother piloted the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on September 11. "If they are brought here and a federal judge orders them to be released, where do you think they're going to go?" Brent Snelgrove, a Standish businessman, stands up to confront the speakers. "I'm disappointed in this panel," he says, calling their words "almost hysteria."
A decision from the administration isn't expected until next month. But on September 28, a Fox News item cited an administration official claiming that Standish Max was no longer being considered. Though the claim was countered by federal officials, Hoekstra told The Detroit News that he was "ninety-five percent convinced" it was true, based on conversations his staffers had with Pentagon officials. "The word we're getting through back channels … is that it's unlikely that these folks are gonna come to Standish," he told me.
If the detainees aren't transferred, and Hoekstra is able to claim credit for keeping them out, it will no doubt be a boon to his gubernatorial bid. And the struggling people of Standish? There is always the chance they will get lucky at the casino.
Chris Bodenner is a staff editor at TheAtlantic.com.