Environment Picture

Lana winds down 12 years at MEC

Michigan Environmental Council President Lana Pollack steps down at the end of 2008 after a 12-year tenure overseeing unprecedented growth, tremendous victories for the state’s natural resources and an increasingly robust influence in the corridors of power at the State Capitol.

But for the first two years, fear kept her going.

“I was constantly afraid I would be exposed” for a lack of knowledge of complex environmental issues, she admitted recently. “I lived in constant terror.”

As she prepares to step down it’s hard to imagine Pollack fearing any environmental complexity, political battle or policy challenge.

Under her leadership, MEC has expanded from a full-time staff of five to twelve and realized a budget increase from roughly $320,000 to $2.3 million. The organization’s clout and policy expertise has earned it and its 70 member groups a seat at the table when most of the state’s most important environmental policy decisions are made.

“She’s elevated protection of the environment to a whole new level in Lansing,” said Dave Dempsey, an environmental historian and ex-MEC interim director who helped hire Pollack. “We wouldn’t have seen many of the major accomplishments that MEC has worked on without her.”

Former Gov. William Milliken said Pollack’s vision of a healthier, more vibrant Michigan inspired him.

“I developed a tremendous respect for her and her commitment to making Michigan a better state,” Milliken said. “She has tremendous intellect and insight. I trust her instincts so completely and admire her commitment to good government. She’s been an inspiration to me.”

Pollack began her love affair with Michigan’s splendorous natural resources growing up on the shores of Lake Michigan in Ludington where she played on the beaches and explored the Pere Marquette River.

She earned degrees from the University of Michigan in political science (BA) and Education (master’s), earning a teaching certificate in 1971.

Alas, she couldn’t get a full-time teaching job. So, she ran for and won a seat on the Ann Arbor Board of Education where she was immediately embroiled in a heated issue over the teaching of “Black English” that had gained national attention.

Her bluntness on the Board of Education was either refreshing or infuriating, depending on whether you agreed with her. It was a pattern that would last the rest of her career.

“I remember the superintendent saying, ‘If I would have known I could have kept her off the school board by giving her a full-time job teaching, I would have!’” said Pollack.

By this time she was already active in Democratic Party politics, volunteering on campaigns and impressing the party bosses, many of whom weren’t sure what to make of the pixie-ish, pigtailed dynamo.

She married University of Michigan professor Henry Pollack, whose measured, soft-spoken demeanor provided yin to Lana’s yang. She accompanied him on sabbaticals in England and Zambia, returning home to—among other things—teach dance, including ballet and disco.

In 1982. she was elected to the Michigan State Senate, becoming with Connie Binsfeld who was elected the same year, only the fourth and fifth women elected to that body.

She served notice that she was not to be trifled with when crass U.P. Senator Joe Mack patronizingly squeezed her shoulder on one of her first days on the floor of the Senate and said something condescending: “Take your hand off of me,” colleagues recall her telling Mack. “And don’t ever touch me again.”

He didn’t.

The expected role of a freshman senator—observe, keep quiet and let others take the lead—did not suit the new firebrand from Ann Arbor. The Capitol press corps, enamored of Pollack’s outspoken quotability and her trademark braids, quickly took to referring to her as “Hiawatha.”

In her legislative career, she battled tirelessly for women’s equality, civil rights, criminal justice reform and, of course, the environment.

Her landmark “Polluter Pay” law, enacted in 1990, was a tremendous step toward holding polluters financially accountable for their deeds. It was short-lived, however, when portions of the law were weakened in 1995 under the administration of Gov. John Engler—the beginning of a long and storied clash between titans of opposite political parties and environmental philosophies.

Other of her notable legislative crusades included:
  • Legislation requiring equal pay for equal work;
  • Advocacy for a woman’s right to choose abortion;
  • A ban on corporal punishment in schools;
  • Compulsory high school attendance until age 18;
  • “Potty Parity” legislation requiring equal restroom resources for women; and
  • A law banning discrimination against women in allotting golf course tee times.
The golf course legislation was particularly instructive, she recalls. Many influential Republican women golfers joined her cause—resentful that courses regularly allotted choice tee times for men only. Not only was the practice unfair, but it was yet another barrier to business women trying to break in to the “Good Old Boys” networks.

“I worked closely with some women who I’d never spoken to before, and never spoken to since,” Pollack recalls. “A lot of business was transacted on the golf course, and they were shut out. They sent me roses after it passed.”

Lana’s Senate staffers became familiar with the Pollack that MEC’s staff came to know: A tireless, indefatigable and whip-smart maverick (yes, maverick!) in perpetual motion.

“We used to have to follow her into the bathroom to get a word in with her,” recalls former Senate staffer Annette Lozon. “The men in the office would be out in the hallway screaming, ‘Not fair! Not fair!’”

She ruined coffee makers. Was incapable of mastering her computer. And was constantly losing her glasses (a trait she retains).

But the flip side was a tremendous esprit de corps and a sense that she—and those she surrounded herself with—were making a real difference. Another trait that continues today.

“It was so obvious she cared about the issues she worked on, and about all the people who worked for her,” Lozon said.

In 1994, she ran for the U.S. Senate, losing the Democratic primary by a whisker to Bob Carr. It was a devastating defeat, but one that in retrospect might have been a blessing in disguise for Michigan’s environmental community.

After a brief stint founding and running Michigan Monthly magazine, Lana interviewed for an open position as the head of the Michigan Environmental Council. The organization had rebuilt itself after nearly going bankrupt in the early 1990s, and President Carol Misseldine and Policy Director Dave Dempsey were looking for someone who could take MEC to the next level.

“Lana Pollack, of course, was number one on our list,” Misseldine recalls.

Pollack remembers being impressed with MEC testimony at various legislative committee hearings, and believing it was a group with a vast unrealized potential.

“I thought ‘this is a terrific organization that’s pretty politically insignificant,’” she recalls. “They were strong in the head and weak in the muscle.”

It was just the sort of challenge she thrived on.

A lunch meeting at a Big Boy restaurant in Fowlerville sealed the deal, and Pollack decided she’d devote five years to building the organization before moving on.

“I never dreamt I’d stay this long,” she said.

The growth of MEC’s budget and staff under Pollack’s leadership is reflected in a much more muscular presence at the Capitol.

Her philosophy has been that coalition building with like-minded groups across the state can create movements much larger than the sum of their parts. Such coalitions are often unwieldy, subject to intra-family squabbles, and high maintenance. But the payoff is policy wins.

“The best times are when we get everyone’s oar in the water at the same time,” she said.

For example, the recent Great Lakes Great Michigan coalition, which succeeded in passing significant water protection legislation, included more than 60 organizations.

Wins like that weren’t always possible.

Pollack’s early years were dominated by “playing defense” against the policies of Gov. Engler, who Pollack says consistently tried to erode environmental protections.

Pollack’s MEC was instrumental in obtaining a ban on drilling below the Great Lakes under the Engler Administration, and in obtaining voter passage of two environmental bond issues in 1998 and 2002.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm has been a far better friend to the environment, Pollack said. Under her leadership, and with the support of MEC and its many allies, key victories have been won, including tighter rules on power plant mercury emissions, key protections for the Great Lakes and the state’s first energy efficiency and renewable energy standards.

In 2005, Gov. Granholm appointed Pollack to a seat on the state’s Natural Resources Trust Fund Board, which oversees the distribution of more than $30 million annually to projects that benefit natural resources and public recreation.

But even friends like Granholm aren’t immune from Pollack’s wrath when she believes they put the state’s natural resources in jeopardy. She once famously threatened that Granholm should “stop playing pussyfoot” with polluters or she would “get it right between the eyes.” To this day, no one’s sure what she meant.

Alongside the high-profile policy victories have been uncountable small, incremental gains in state and even national environmental protections that fly under the headlines. Pollack’s MEC has toiled hard behind the scenes in arcane venues like administrative rulemaking workgroups, sparsely attended subcommittee hearings and informal, back-channel meetings and phone calls with power brokers and their minions.

As she prepares to leave, she sounds almost apologetic about the goals the organization has yet to realize: “I’m sorry I didn’t come to realize MEC’s full potential as a force that can force the legislature and governor to protect Michigan’s resources at a level consistent with the public’s passion. I realize we’re up against industrial and factory farm interests who have multi-client lobbyists and budgets that dwarf ours. There’s no confusion that this is a contest for power within the political process.”

But she sees great hope for an organization that has become a solid force at the Capitol and is benefitting from a rising tide of public awareness of the importance of environmental issues to children’s health, the state’s economy and quality of life.

“I hope, I think, I’m leaving this place in good hands,” she said.

Pollack said she knows not what challenges she’ll take up next. She vows not to take on any new projects or volunteer work for six months after she leaves MEC before charting a new course.

No one on her staff believes she’ll last through February. Neither does Gov. Milliken: “I, like others, believe she will never be able to settle down.”
RELATED TOPICS: legislation, MEC Member Groups
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