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How Will Dems Approach Their Trifecta?

December 20, 2022

Courtesy MIRS News for SBAM’s Lansing Watchdog e-newsletter

Attribute it to a virtuoso ’22 election performance or Republicans shooting themselves in the foot, come January the Michigan Democrats will control the governor’s office, the Senate and the House. Then what?

Will they forge ahead, crossing off items from 40 years of to-do lists and assuming their four-decade drought has — for sure — finally played out? Or will they tread lightly, fearing that being overzealous could be tantamount to tempting the fates to again move against them?

No doubt, reading the collective minds of political advisors and numerous newbie and veteran politicians would be impossible. Nonetheless, Monday MIRS asked a panel of political pundits what approach they’d expect the Democrats to take once the levers of government are firmly in their hands. We asked them three additional questions just for good measure.

Q.  Considering their 40-year hiatus from total power, would you expect the Michigan Democrats to approach the next two years as a limited opportunity for asserting as many of their policy positions as possible before the “total control” window possibly closes again?

“Yes, I would,” said Bill Ballenger of The Ballenger Report. “Of course, whatever historians might be left in and around the state legislature should remind the new Democratic lawmakers – and even the veterans – why they lost their majority in the Senate after only one year (1983) — because they raised the state income tax and, to use then-Gov. Jim Blanchard’s phrase, ‘spent their money like drunken sailors.’ 

“That led to the famous recalls of Democratic Senators Phil Mastin and David Serotkin. The Republicans won both those seats in subsequent special elections and assumed an unbroken series of majorities from 1984 through the end of this year. It also vaulted John Englerinto the position of Senate Majority Leader, which he used for seven years to position himself to run against Blanchard in 1990 and beat him. 

“1983 remains the only year since 1938, until now, when Democrats possessed all three legs of the ‘three-legged stool’ — the governorship plus majorities in both legislative chambers,” Ballenger continued. “Do they want history to repeat itself? They should be very careful. That’s hard to do for a lot of Democrats who have historically had a tendency to ‘overreach’ when they attain power.”

Communications strategist Jen Eyer said the Dems’ political drought can in part be traced back to them allowing themselves to be intimidated.

“Michigan Democrats lost the majority 40 years ago in part because, in the face of constant recall threats from Republicans, they became too timid to take on big issues,” she asserts. “When they finally regain control in January, Democrats need to take immediate, bold action: Repeal right to work, reinstate prevailing wage, amend Elliott-Larsen to include LGBTQ protections, re-enact Polluter Pay, pass tax cuts for working families and repeal the retirement tax.”

“For 40 years, Democrats have been telling their loyal constituencies in the labor, environmental and social justice movements: “If only we had the power. “Well, now they do, and it’s time to use it or they risk losing more than just the next majority,” Eyer continued. “They risk losing the very faith of their core constituencies. Democrats must not repeat the mistakes of the past and end up in the wilderness again for another 40 years.”

According to Dennis Darnoi, founder of Densar Consulting, it would be smart if the Democrats understand their limitations as well as their opportunities.

“Michigan Democrats should recognize that one-seat majorities in each chamber does not constitute a legislative mandate,” he said. “There are plenty of issues that they can tackle that voters would expect to receive bi-partisan support. 

“If Michigan Republicans choose to use their minority status to obstruct and reject common sense legislation, then they will be gifting talking points for the Democrats to use in 2024. If Democrats want to push an agenda that will allow Republicans to gain traction with center right and independent voters, especially in those districts, which will determine control of the state House next cycle, then the window may close sooner than they expect.”

Angela Minicuci, a partner with Martin Waymire, said the Democrats should tread lightly when necessary.

“I think Michigan Democrats would be wise to approach the next two years with caution,” she said. “The majority they hold is extremely narrow. Total power is a bit of a stretch as they’ll need to get some Republican votes on issues where some Dems may disagree. Now is not the time for revenge or 40 years of pent-up policy frustrations. Working across the aisle and finding solutions on the issues voters care about is going to be paramount as they put together their legislative agenda.” 

Q. Would you be surprised if the Democrats don’t pass legislation to send voters relief checks (of $500 or a similar amount) to Michigan households?

“I wouldn’t just be surprised, I’d be shocked,” Eyer said. “Democrats have repeatedly put forth legislation to ease the tax burden on working families. Not just with $500 checks, but also by increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit rate to 20%, repealing the retirement tax and increasing penalties for employers who engage in wage theft and job misclassification. There’s no reason to think these important pocketbook bills won’t be on the agenda.”

Darnoi suggests the Dems and Republicans might find common ground on something along these lines.

“Over the next two years, Michigan Democrats have a fantastic opportunity to pass legislation that addresses the concerns and anxiety of voters,” he said. “Certainly, if there is an opportunity to put money back in the pockets of taxpayers, Democrats would rightly expect that Republicans would support such a move. Neither party has a monopoly on great ideas and passing a bi-partisan measure to provide tax relief to residents is simply good governance, no matter which party puts forth the idea.”

According to Minicuci, there could be numerous options to choose from.

“Tax relief of some sort seems like an easy enough win for Democrats in the new year, especially with the amount of money left on the table this session,” she observed. “Whether it takes the form of a refund check is another question, especially as we hold our breath to see what happens with a potential recession. There are plenty of other sustainable and easy wins to consider — the bipartisan-supported earned income tax credit being one of them.”

Ballenger said he’d be surprised if the Dems don’t find ways to put dollars into the hands of voters.

“I would be surprised, yes, and that may be a danger for them for the reasons I just cited,” he said. “The big difference between 1983 and today is that there was a crisis in state finances 40 years ago, with huge deficits, whereas today the state treasury is flush with cash. Republicans have generally had an instinct to save much of whatever extra revenue the state gets by putting it in the ‘Rainy Day Fund’ whereas Democrats’ first instinct is to spend it. That might seem like a popular move if they do it now, but maybe not so much later. Ask incoming state Senator Tom Albert, who resigned as House Appropriations Committee chairman a few months ago precisely because of his difference of opinion with House Republican leadership over this very issue.”

Q.  Would you be surprised if the Republicans don’t end up working with Detroit-area African Americans to challenge Michigan’s “new” House and/or Senate political maps?

“I would be surprised if Michigan Republicans’ first, second and third priority wasn’t to do everything they can to quickly get their house in order,” Darnoi said. “As disappointing as 2022 was for Michigan Republicans, there is a pathway to retake the state House in 2024. Given the overwhelming amount of debt they need to retire, that would seem to be the number one priority.

“Then they need to take a long hard look at how their top of the ticket fared statewide and fully appreciate the impact their candidate for US Senate will have on their ability to retake the state House,” Darnoi continued. “They also need to identify the winnable seats and the ones they need to preserve to take back the House and then decide if uniformity of thought is preferable to electability. So sure, if they can knock all of that out in quick order, they can then help support challenges to the state legislative maps on the grounds that they violate the Voting Rights Act.”

Minicuci, said she’d be surprised if the maps don’t at least face a few challenges. 

“I expect we’ve not heard the last on redistricting challenges,” she said. “Michigan’s maps were successful in balancing out political imbalances in districts, but there’s still much to learn about the potential unintended repercussions of that, such as the impact on race representation. While I’d be surprised to see the Republicans carry that torch, there will still be plenty of debate about the maps beyond 2022.”

According to Ballenger, he fully expects the Republicans and members of the African American community to get together on this issue.

“I think this is very likely,” he said. “The African American community obviously got hosed by the new maps drawn up by the MICRC, which tore up Detroit and parceled pieces of it to the suburbs to create more competitive districts, most of which the Democrats won, giving them their new majorities.” 

“The big issue in the courts will be whether this violated the federal Voting Rights Act,” Ballenger continued. “I expect the Republicans will be totally on the black community’s side because it may sway some court (probably the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals) to demand that Wayne Co., at least, be redrawn for the 2024 election, and maybe elsewhere in the state, as well. That would give the GOP another bite at the apple.”

Eyer said ‘yeah,’ the Republicans have a long history of pursuing these kinds of angles.

“Michigan Republicans will take any opportunity to attempt to gerrymander themselves back into power,” Eyer said. “In Michigan 47% of adults identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, while only 34% identify as Republicans or lean Republican. We are a Blue state, and Republicans know it. That’s why they fight so hard to suppress votes and draw undemocratic districts. They can’t win on the issues — and that’s only becoming more true as their party has gone off the rails with Donald Trump at the helm.”

Q.  Which of the announced candidates for Chairmanship of the Michigan Republican Party would be the one most likely to successfully rescue the party?

“Unfortunately, of those who have officially announced their candidacy for the Republican Party chair, I don’t think any of them are capable of righting the ship,” Minicuci said. “Kristina Karamo and Matt DePerno have committed themselves to false and disproven election conspiracies. Beyond them, many of the others who have expressed consideration for the position are also tied to MAGA (Make American Great Again) claims that have largely pushed Republican voters away. Unless and until the party can find someone interested in actually listening to voters instead of peddling political nonsense, they will continue to flounder.” 

Ballenger said there doesn’t seem to be anyone competent in the field.

“I don’t see one,” Ballenger said. “They’re all flawed for various reasons. The GOP had better hope someone comes forward with the ability to ‘rescue’ the party by uniting its fractious factions, and that seems unlikely.”

According to Eyer, the MiGOP’s warts are impossible to hide.

“As long as the Republican party on a national level is led by Donald Trump and his enablers, it doesn’t matter who the party chair is in Michigan,” she said. “They will keep alienating voters and losing elections with their far-right extremism and seditious actions against the country.” 

Darnoi compares the MiGOP to the Titanic.

“To successfully rescue the party, the next Chairperson is going to have to raise, or personally contribute, an incredible amount of money,” he said. “To raise that kind of money, the Chairperson is going to have to oversee the recruitment of candidates that can actually win a general election. That person is also going to have to understand why Republicans, despite increasing turnout in small rural counties, had smaller margins of victory in the top two Republican leaning counties while sustaining larger margins of defeat in the six most populous counties, which account for 52% of the total statewide vote. 

“If Michigan Republicans don’t want to take a serious look at where they are or chart a new course to help them return to the majority, then they should name the ghost of Edward John Smith as their new chairperson and help him rearrange the deck chairs.”

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