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House D’s Hold ‘Come to Jesus’ Session

October 10, 2023

Those watching the comings and goings of the state snapped to attention the other day when some of the House Democratic first-termers published their list of priority items for the rest of the fall session on social media.

By itself, this wasn’t an earth-shattering event, but it was unusual. On the following day, House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) outlined to the press the House Democrats’ priorities as he saw them, and the two lists weren’t in sync.

Later in the week, the House Democrats met in a members-only, closed-door caucus where some bubbling tensions were aired out. Some members stayed at the meeting for more than four hours.

“The Speaker was direct,” was one observation, which is to say he had lots to say about everyone not marching together.

“There needed to be a Come to Jesus meeting (and) all of this has been hashed out,” said another person with knowledge of the conversation.

The freshman group members were advised that to advance some of the items on their agenda “would put some of their colleagues at risk” in the next election. These lawmakers also were asked if they were members of the team. If so, a team effort was needed for everyone to be successful.

The issue wasn’t necessarily the policy that folks like Rep. Noah Arbit (D-West Bloomfield) and Rep. Betsy Coffia (D-Traverse City) were pushing. Some of it, like paid leave, has been advocated by the governor. However, when members appeared to be upstaging the Speaker on the caucus’ fall priorities through a social media poll, that was seen as going too far.

At the heart of the tension, isn’t necessarily a progressive-moderate/leadership dynamic. It’s the degree to which the Democratic trifecta can get policy adopted before the November mayoral elections, when the partisan split in the House could fall to 54-54 if Rep. Lori Stone (D-Warren) becomes mayor of Warren and Rep. Kevin Coleman (D-Westland) becomes mayor of Westland.

The members feel that if they have polling and public opinion on their side, there’s no reason why mental health parity or repealing the “Death Star” law, for example, can’t be taken up now.

“With 5 weeks until mayoral races that could have us out a majority for months, there are definitely tensions about how much we can accomplish,” Coffia said. “I can confirm I was one who apologized for offending another member talking about their bill, and am glad we will be moving forward together. There definitely seems to be an edge to things lately.”

At one point, Arbit apologized after a remark he made in the caucus group chat wasn’t interpreted by some as it was intended.

For those unfamiliar with the pace of the Legislature, the meeting was designed to let it be known that one member’s priority may not be another member’s priority. It can take years, sometimes, to build the needed support needed to pass an initiative.

To punctuate that point, a whip count was taken on repealing the “Death Star,” legislation permitting local governments to set minimum wage rates and benefit mandates higher than the statewide standard, undoing an eight-year-old Snyder-era preemption. It came back with several Democratic no votes.

The point was that issues being advanced this fall, like the Detroit Mayor’s Land Value Tax, have been kicked around this town for a while.

Some issues need stakeholders, coalitions, and time to marinate. To rush through a progressive wish list too quickly can put the Democrats’ majority in a precarious situation unnecessarily.

From the freshmen’s perspective, there’s no better time than the present to advance public policy while the window is open. If there is an issue with getting the votes, the caucus should talk it out and come up with a different plan of attack. They see their friends in labor and other interest groups as only being there for them if their priorities are advanced. How can Democrats win in 2024 if their friends aren’t there to support them?

The Democratic caucus includes 28 freshmen, which is a majority of its members. Some members see from now until Dec. 31, 2024, as a finite window. If the majority disappears, at least they accomplished as much as they could.

For leadership, in order to keep the majority past Dec. 31, 2024, certain interest groups need to be kept on the sidelines. Going too fast too soon creates more enemies and generates more dollars for the other side.

The Speaker, as is his nature, was not heavy-handed, sources said. He looked to build consensus and build a team that doesn’t need to rely on working with House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Kalamazoo), who the Speaker’s team doesn’t feel comfortable working with due to some of his prior requests. The impression is that Hall is only trying to run out the clock, that he’s doing what he can to delay whatever the Speaker wants to pass on any given day.

Sources tell MIRS the caucus seemed more united coming out of the meeting than it did going in. One pointed out that the Democratic caucus is still more unified than the Republican caucus, with its Freedom Caucus members operating on their own island since the inauguration.

Interestingly, Arbit was on Facebook Thursday with a post reading, “Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.” He editorialized on the quote by writing, “If you know, you know.”

Coffia quipped to MIRS when contacted about Friday’s report, “This story is very interesting as it’s been stressed repeatedly by leadership that we are not to discuss what happens in caucus.”

Article courtesy MIRS News for SBAM’s Lansing Watchdog newsletter


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