Two of Ann Arbor’s most stalwart & savvy progressives talk politics
Anyone who has worked with me in organizing things in the Ann Arbor area knows that I’m fond of holding meetings at Arbor Brewing Company in Ann Arbor or the Corner Brewery in Ypsilanti. They have an inviting atmosphere, vegetarian-friendly food, and excellent beers. However, since 2010, I have occasionally had pushback for giving them my business from Democratic purists who can’t get past the fact that the owners, Matt and Rene Greff, donated to fellow Ann Arbor business owner Rick Snyder during the 2010 Republican primary.
To hear some people talk, you would have thought that the Greffs had gone out and campaigned for Rick Snyder. While these same critics will patronize nearly every other business in Ann Arbor without administering a political litmus test, Rene and Matt seem to get special attention and invective others do not.
In 2011, Rene made her position clear in a comment on Mark Maynard’s terrific blog MarkMaynard.com. She explained how she and Matt had seen the handwriting on the wall with respect to the chances of a Democrat winning the gubernatorial election and, given the far right extremists who were running, felt it was better to get a reasonable Republican as the nominee rather than someone like Pete Hoekstra.
A couple of weeks ago, the Greffs announced that they would be holding a fundraiser at their home for Democratic candidate for governor Mark Schauer. Anne and I sat down with the two of them last Friday night in Ann Arbor to talk about their experience in the Democratic limelight over the past few years, their long history of supporting Democrats and progressive causes, and their excitement about the Schauer candidacy. During the conversation, we joked about them doing a “Greff Apology Tour” but the fact is, they were far more level-headed and realistic about the state of the race in 2010 than most of their critics and, in fact, do NOT apologize for their decision.
Photos by Anne Savage.
Thanks for sitting down with us tonight. I have to confess, sometimes I get so frustrated with Ann Arbor progressives. I mean, they don’t go to Kroger and ask the manager how he voted, right?
RENE: Well, we laugh about that. You know, it’s personal. What I remind myself of every day is the fact that our businesses have not suffered; they’re doing better than ever so I have to ignore the people who say, “I’m telling all my friends not to go to your businesses.” My thought is, “If you need to do that, fine. But where are you going? Because there are only like four Democrats that own restaurants in Washtenaw County!”
I wanted to talk to you because I’m involved with a lot of local progressives, particularly in the Ann Arbor area, and there’s this sort of dysfunctional attitude that some people have about the two of you. I guess my first question is why do you think you guys get singled out?
RENE: I think it’s because our politics have always been so obvious. Other business owners don’t want people to know their politics because they don’t want to take the risk of alienating anybody. But our business is such an extension of our personal lives and there’s always been a connection. We’ve always been the spot for election night for Democrats. We’ve been so connected with progressive causes.
MATT: Maybe people felt betrayed.
RENE: Yeah, they definitely feel betrayed. I think the hard thing for us is that we also felt betrayed.
Betrayed by the customers who were boycotting you?
RENE: Yeah. Because we had built up 20 years of goodwill, really being out there. Things like being picketed by right to lifers because we did a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood. We were doing things that we considered courageous and that our investors might have thought were reckless sometimes in being so out there in our support of progressive causes.
MATT: People would turn on us without even asking us or picking up the phone or emailing us.
RENE: We’re so accessible, it’s not like it’s hard to find us! That was the hard thing. People didn’t say, “So what’s up with this?”
So, your support of Rick Snyder was for the primary, right? You didn’t support him against the Democratic candidate in the general election?
MATT: Yes, exactly. We saw the handwriting on the wall. A Republican was going to win and it was a scary batch of Republicans. And we do have a personal relationship with Rick Snyder and we do like Rick Snyder so we were like, thank God there’s somebody half sane…
RENE: … who doesn’t have a radical right wing social agenda.
MATT: The very first time we met with Rick, we actually met with a group of Deaniacs that we were very involved in the Howard Dean campaign with. We met here in this room, in fact, and we had a long conversation about whether Rick should run as a Democrat, an Independent, or a Republican. This was obviously a good year before he even announced. So, it was more the pragmatic reality of what the political situation was and it was interesting to see someone like Rick WANT to get involved. I mean why else would you want to be governor if you’ve got all that money and time on your hands?!
Are you still friends with him?
RENE: Well, we’re not that close to him and we’ve never been that close to him. We’re really good friends with his nephew so that’s the connection with how we met Rick. There was a point in our business when we needed to rewrite out operating agreement with our investors and Rick helped us with that.
MATT: Our friend arranged a meeting so that we could sit down to discuss our business and restructure it. It was more of a personal favor to his nephew that he did it for us.
He’s also a big wine connoisseur so we also had that in common. We went out a couple of times to drink some glasses of wine and talk about what was important to him. Let’s face it, a Republican was going to win last time. An argument that people have made is if a crazy nut job Republican had won the nomination then a Democrat would have had a better chance of beating him. I honestly don’t believe that was true. Look at our legislature. The Michigan electorate was not going to vote Democratic. They just weren’t. And we did not do ourselves any favors with how the whole Cherry/Bernero situation went down.
I feel that Democrats, instead of pointing fingers at us, we also should have been pointing fingers at ourselves and asking, “What are we doing? Why don’t we have a better bench of people? Where is the candidate recruitment?” And nothing against Virg, but it was not a good candidacy.
Based on what you know about Rick and just sort of your general feeling, do you think that if we had a different legislature that was a bit more sane that we’d be seeing different results right now? I don’t see him as this ideological, dogmatic sort of politician.
MATT: I don’t either and I think we would be seeing different results. For example, the fact that he’s fighting for Medicaid expansion… there’s just a lot of things that if you go down the list of his positions and asked “is this a Democrat or a Republican?”, you’d be shocked to find out it was a Republican.
I think he has made some decisions that none of us on the left are happy with that are based mostly on … being a bit presumptuous here … reelection and not getting attacked from the right in a primary. But, yes, I think that if the legislature were even a moderate legislature, you probably wouldn’t be seeing a lot of this stuff.
Right to work and things like that? I don’t think he went out there to pursue right to work.
MATT: Right. He was very clear about not wanting to take that on. An argument that his office made, and of course politics is politics, and it’s somewhat legitimate — although I disagree with it and would never fight it like he did — but his office said, well the unions made it an issue by trying to put it in the constitution. So, once that happened, the right wing Republican party said, fine, you want to play that game, then we’re going to play that game, too. They claim that they wouldn’t have touched that issue if hadn’t come to the forefront by the unions.
Whether that’s true or not I don’t know. But, either way, it was a really crappy thing for our state.
RENE: One of things we get asked about most is, “What are you disappointed in most about what you got or what we got as a state from Governor Snyder?” and I think our disappoint is that we had a conversation before we supported him in the primary. And we told him, we cannot support you and we can’t ask our friends to support you if you will ever sign legislation that harms the LGBT community or takes away a woman’s right to choose. Those are non-negotiables. And he said, “I have no interest in that” and we pushed it and said, “I know you’re not interested in that but if it comes to your desk, are you going to veto it?” and he said, “That’s not my agenda and I’m not going to support that legislation.”
And then he’s done that.
RENE: Yes. I still feel like more crazy bad things would have gotten signed with Hoekstra or Cox but…
MATT: He vetoed that Blue Cross Blue Shield bill specifically because of the women’s health issues that were in that. So, it could have been a lot worse but it’s still extremely disappointing.
I want to go back and talk a bit about the people that are being ridiculous, in my opinion, about your supporting him in the primary. I was involved in running GOTVs around here, I’ve been organizing around here for a long time, and we’d get done at the end of the evening and I’d say, “Let’s go over to ABC and grab a beer” and I’d hear, “Oh, no, I can’t go there. They supported Snyder. I’m going to go over to … wherever…” And I’m like, have you talked to them about who they supported???
MATT: Hah! I could give you the answers if you want to see them!
RENE: Unless you go to the Aut Bar or the Sidetrack… [laughs]
I guess I would say that it’s a testament to the fact that the two of you have such a well-known, established progressive stature in the community and I suppose that’s a good thing.
MATT: Obviously it’s a little bit hurtful and a little bit bothersome. I mean we’ve been in business now for 15-16 years before this went down so we’re a little bit more thick-skinned now in dealing with it. But we have always, with our lives, and our personal and social and business lives are all intertwined, we’ve always just tried to do what we believe in and be honest about it and go out and say “This is what we believe and this is why we’re doing it. This is what we’re supporting and why we’re supporting it.” This was one of those times where we thought this was in the best interest for our state. It was basically, let’s tread water for four years until we get our act together. I think you get fallout from being out there and being in the public.
We do worry, because there’s not just us but there’s staff involved who are just innocent bystanders, we have investors involved, we have banks involved, and it’s been really reassuring to us because our sales have continued to grow over the past few years. So, if there’s a small group of people who are angry because they think we sold out, at least from a purely business standpoint, we can withstand that and the business is more on it’s own than whatever Matt and Rene might be involved in.
Talk a little bit about the protests you’ve seen from the right. It seems like you would get more of that than attacks from the left.
RENE: Well, yeah, that’s the funny thing. That is still hard for me but I was kind of used to getting attacked from the right. My most famous group of right wing “haters” are a group from Arizona called “Save Our State”. Several years ago, there was an immigrants’ strike. We had an employee here that was involved with an organization at U of M that was pulling together a team of attorneys to do pro bono work to represent restaurant worker rights, immigrant restaurant workers’ rights.
MATT: Legal or illegal, they get exploited.
RENE: Right, because they don’t know the law so people can say, “You have to do this, you have to come in and I’m not gong to pay you overtime” and all that stuff. So he was part of this rally to get the public on board and raise some money for this group. So, I spoke at that rally and, I think it was a week later, was the immigrant strike. And I was quoted in the Ann Arbor News that what we did was to get a bunch of our front of the house staff for the day so that all of our kitchen staff could go down to the rally. We had servers back there flipping burgers and doing dishes.
MATT: It was a beautiful showing of solidarity by this whole staff.
RENE: So those two things got me on the list. It’s tapered off lately but, for a long time, I would personally get hate mail. I would get mail saying, “You hate women” and “What you’re doing is destructive to the community” and they had all these talking points.
Because you were supporting immigrants?
RENE: No, because they said we were hiring illegal aliens which, obviously, we don’t. But they were saying that I hire illegal aliens and that does all these bad things to women and the community so clearly I don’t care about my community.
Well, clearly they had me on their RSS feed so whenever I got appointed to a board, whenever my name or the business name came up in any media, they would have a whole bunch of people send letters. So, if I was on a new board, they would send letters to the board saying, “Do you know that your new board member employs illegal aliens?” They would also send letters to all of our elected officials. The County Commission, the City Council…
So I had to spend all of this time every time that would go out dealing with this. People like Washtenaw County Drain Commissioner Janis Bobrin said, “Oh, we can’t do Democratic events anymore at Arbor Brewing Company because they employ illegal aliens.”
MATT: And did they ever think of asking us? No, apparently not. And then the city turned us into Homeland Security because they got this stuff.
RENE: [Ypsilanti] Mayor Schrieber said, “Well, I thought it was my duty to turn it over to the city attorney who contacted Homeland Security.”
MATT: We have a great relationship with Mayor Schreiber but, we’re like, “You seriously did that and didn’t even contact us about it first?”
RENE: So there’s that.
MATT: And when we got involved in the anti-Iraq War protests, we had several protests, mostly here at ABC. And we had notes taped to the front door of our house.
Wow. So they were coming right to your house?
MATT: Yeah, it was taped to our door. It started “Smelly, smelly peaceniks…!” [laughs]
And then there’s the Planned Parenthood protests. We had a fundraiser, I think it was in the winter time, and I got a call from our manager who relatively new, just freaking out because there were these protestors out front and she didn’t know what to do. So I dropped what I was doing, drove out, and set up a bar stool in front of the door and sat out there with the protesters the whole time, just keeping them away from our staff.
President & CEO of Planned Parenthood Mid and South Michigan Lori Lamerand gets a beer at a fundraiser at Arbor Brewing Co. in October 2011
So, I guess the point here is that you’ve stuck your chin out there a little bit and people have been taking a swing at it, and the people who you’re actually supporting are in the back of you going, “But you made this one choice a long time ago and we’ll never forgive you!”
MATT: Absolutely. We’ve taken much bigger risks for our business. We’ve had people email us with really nice, thought-out emails and say, “Love your place but, because of the Planned Parenthood stuff, I just can’t in good conscience spend my money there.” And I’m like, that’s fine, I totally get that.
So, Matt, people have accused you of supporting Rick Snyder so you could get on his liquor regulation advisory board.
RENE (laughing): We didn’t even know that that was even going to exist!
MATT: He was doing this department by department so it wasn’t just the MLCC [Michigan Liquor Control Commission]. It was part of this whole effort to streamline government. It was a group of 22 people from all different areas that are impacted by liquor sales. So there was a sheriff on it and party store owners, gas station owners…
RENE: The funny thing about it is that my guess is that even if we had never gotten involved in that primary at all, Rick still would have tapped Matt because he needed a brewery representative and he knew Matt.
Sure, his office was literally two doors down from here.
RENE: Right next door! So you’re going to contact the person that you know for a position like that.
So that wasn’t something that you had talked about prior to the campaign?
RENE: No! Like I said, we didn’t even know that that was even going to exist.
I’m guessing that he didn’t even know that either since he hadn’t been chosen as the Republican candidate yet at that point. I guess the assumption is that 8 or 9 months before the election you knew that he knew he was going to set up this commission and you supported him to get on it.
MATT: Yeah. And it was great. In typical government fashion, don’t expect anything useful to come out of that. It was a basically a committee decides which committee decides which committee decides … [laughs] Anyway, the idea that there was some quid pro quo is just silly.
Seriously, though, it was a really amazing experience and it was a great honor and I’m really happy that he gave me the opportunity to do that. That’s how politics is. He knows that we’re a flaming Democratic household and business but it was still a no-brainer for him since he personally knew someone who is directly involved.
RENE: And we had talked to him about the three-tier system and how it is incredibly unfair to small breweries.
You guys can’t even ship beer from one of your breweries across town to the others yourself, right?
MATT: Right, exactly. And you tell anyone that story and they’re like, “Holy crap!” I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican or a member of the Chamber of Commerce…
It’s basically set up to favor the distributors.
MATT: Yeah. Absolutely.
So, Mark Schauer. Do you guys know him?
MATT: Oh, yeah, we love Mark Schauer. We always laugh, we call it the “Goose Pimple Test”. Like with Howard Dean for us was definitely goose pimples. John Kerry was NOT goose pimples! Mark Schauer is just … definitely goose pimples!
We met him when he was running for the Congressional seat the first time and were just blown away by what a sincere, good guy he is. He’s a hard-working, principled, sincere, great guy. You know, we’re all involved in politics. You know that you can’t really say that about a lot of people no matter which side of the aisle you’re on.
The fact that he had to be talked into running…
RENE: And, again, the same group of haters is all, “That was all theater, that’s just a game, he planned on running all along, he put together the Draft Mark Schauer page…” and it’s just not true!
MATT: We saw Mark at the Clean Water Action event last spring. We were lucky enough to be the recipients of an award from Clean Water Action in Lansing and he was there. It was like seeing an old friend. We had been talking to a friend of ours, Stephanie White, who did the Draft Mark Schauer Facebook page, months before this Clean Water Action thing and we were like, “Mark should run” and she said, “Mark should TOTALLY run!” So, when we saw Mark, he was like a kid in a candy store. He was just grinning and we were like, “Dude, you gotta run and if you run, we want to be the first people to throw you a party in Ann Arbor because this is your territory. You can win big in this area and erode a lot of Rick’s support elsewhere.
RENE: And we knew, of course, that it would be big news and everyone would be going, “Oooo! Matt and Rene are fleeing the Snyder camp to support Mark Schauer!” [laughs]
MATT: This is why I love Stephanie and think she’s such a great political strategist…
RENE: She’s like, “You guys need to own it. [laughing] You guys are kingmakers!”
MATT: Yeah, kingmakers. “You guys chose Snyder and he won. Now you’re choosing Schauer and he’s going to win!” [laughs]
So, you guys have a fundraiser coming up on July 13th?
MATT: We do. We honestly didn’t know if he was going to run because it’s so taxing.
I didn’t think he would run. His wife Christine seemed uncomfortable with it and…
MATT: It’s so hard. And Gary Peters is going through the same thing. He’s been through it already. There’s been redistricting, it’s just tough.
But, I’ve never been more excited for the Democrats actually getting their act together. Putting up two uncontested, strong candidates for two very important offices. I keep asking myself, “Is this really my Michigan Democratic Party?”
One thing I’ll say about Democrats is that they don’t buy any of this “Well, it’s his turn” crap about candidates. We need to put up the best candidate that we have at the time for any given race. That’s what happened with Cherry. I was like, “Seriously, you’re just going to turn the keys over to him because it’s his turn?” So choosing Mark and Gary is just exactly what we need.
Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. So, is there anything else you’d like for people to know?
RENE: Well, I think for us, this is a bigger deal for other people than it is for us. We feel like there are a small number of stone throwers out there who don’t know us but stand in judgement anyway. At first it was hard to hear the criticisms but our friends, people like Stephanie and Emma and the others that we met as part of the Deaniac group, made us realize that we just need to brush it off and keep on going.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling small-minded, I just want to say, “Let’s go toe-to-toe. How many doors have YOU knocked over the last twenty years? How much money have YOU given to Democratic candidates? What have YOU done to get Democratic candidates elected? If any of you can beat me then, fine, stop coming to my place and judge me.”
MATT: [State Senator] Rebekah Warren is one of our dearest friends and we adore her. We used to do a Democratic fundraiser every year. We do Octoberfest out here in the street. Since everything was already set up on Friday, we’d just leave it up and, on Saturday, we’d do a fundraiser for the Washtenaw County Democratic Party. It ended up being way too much work for us. It was an exhausting weekend for our staff, it was just hard.
But, for Rebekah’s kickoff campaign for her Senatorial run, we did that for her. So, she called me three nights and go and said, “So, it would be really great to do that again…” And I was like, “My God, you’re up again already?!” And so, of course, we immediately said yes because it’s Rebekah. So now we’re looking at an exhausting day and a lot of expense and it’s taxing on our staff. Thankfully we have a great progressive staff that loves this stuff. But it’s a lot of work.
And I have to ask, how come we don’t get props for that kind of stuff? I guess the haters would rather just focus on that one decision three years ago. But those folks who know us know that we’ve been supporting Democrats, and I mean REALLY supporting Democrats all along.
Note that Mark Maynard has also interviewed Rene about their fundraiser and you can read that interview HERE.