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What Happened The Last Time The Senate Tied 19-19?

October 25, 2022

Article by MIRS News, for SBAM’s Lansing Watchdog e-newsletter

The year was 1971. For the first and only time in Michigan history, the previous November voters elected an evenly-split state Senate — 19 Republicans and 19 Democrats.

Sen. Charles O. Zollar (R-Benton Harbor), a wealthy, tight-fisted industrialist who chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee, had just suffered a mild heart attack days before the state Constitution-mandated start session for the Legislature.

Republicans believed they had grabbed the upper hand in the state Senate by virtue of having Lt. Gov. Jim Brickley’s tie-breaking vote. But Zollar’s illness threw a wrench into the gears.

Democrats saw an opportunity, with an 19-18 edge, to seize control of the chamber for the coming session, according to reporting at the time from The Detroit Free Press.

But on Jan. 13, the official first day of the Legislature, an ambulance carrying Zollar traveled from the hospital to the Capitol by the Michigan State Police. He was brought into the Senate chambers in a wheelchair, surrounded by guards, nurses and oxygen equipment.

He took his oath from the wheelchair and then was wheeled to his Senate seat “where he sat puffing a curved, long-stemmed pipe” with his wife and a nurse at his side.

At the last minute, the Democrats backed down and let the Republicans organize in the majority on the promise from bombastic Democratic Floor Leader Coleman Young that “the battle and maybe the blood” were yet to come.

The plan was to keep the proceedings at 10 minutes so Zollar could return to the hospital, but things lasted more than an hour. In exchange for letting the Republicans organize in the majority as it looked the session before, the Democrats received assurances that the GOP would back off immediate plans to make $110 million in budget-balancing cuts.

For the long-term, the Democrats wanted an equal share of power, but they were going to defer until after they heard Gov. William Milliken’s State of the State address before laying out their plans to exert their political power.

That day never really came, according to two of the last three surviving members of that historic session. The Republicans retained the chairmanships as they did when they had 20-18 majority the session prior.

“It was a totally different time,” said former Sen. Daniel Cooper, who was a Democrat from Oak Park. “By and large we all got along. We went out together. We had drinks together. There was a member who I played tennis with regularly. Most of the time, we could work things out.”

The Republicans understood their power was not absolute. If Democrats wanted to stop a bill, a member could always take a walk and not vote. Without the 19-19 tie, Brickley didn’t get a chance to cast the tie-breaking vote. Without the 20th vote, the Republicans could not get a majority of those elected and serving to pass legislation.

Outside of a procedural vote at the beginning of the session, former Sen. Bill Ballengersaid he can’t remember Democrats using this tactic much, if at all, during the session.

“Back in those days, you had some wild-card mavericks in the Democratic caucus like John Bowman or Joe Mack or John McCauley who were more than willing to cut deals,” Ballenger said. “I think they were just as happy to have the Republicans in control, to be honest.”

Also, at the time, the Democrats held a majority in the House. So even if the Republicans had wanted to push a bill to Milliken’s desk, then-House Speaker William Ryan (D-Detroit) would have put a stop to it.

Issues rarely broke down along party lines as they do today, anyway, Ballenger said. Caucus discipline wasn’t what it is today. For example, Ballenger said the Senate passed a bill that expanded access to abortion and 13 of the caucus’ 20 members voted yes.

The Democrats in the House, particularly Ryan, an Irish Catholic, stopped the bill prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.

Budget-balancing cuts was a quarrelsome issue at the time, but that, too, never unraveled along party lines. 

“There were a lot of contentious issues, but we never had a breakdown in comity or procedure that would lead to rancor, deadlock and chaos,” Ballenger said.

There were plenty of opportunities when things could have gotten hostile.

In late 1973, Sen. Charles N. Youngblood was convicted of bribing a Liquor Control Commissioner in exchange for liquor licenses for some Farmer Jacks grocery stores in Detroit. Prior to the 1974 session, Youngblood maintained his innocence and refused to resign.

But it was pressure within his own Democratic caucus, not from the Republican caucus, that drove him to resign from office on Jan. 10, 1974, according to The Ann Arbor Press.

The Democrats quickly found themselves down two members with the loss of Youngblood and Young, who won election to be Detroit’s mayor in 1973. Milliken quickly called for special elections, ushering in two new Democrats — John Hertel and David Holmes — who took office by March 19.

A month later, Sen. Tony Stamm (R-Kalamazoo) died after being immobilized for five months by a massive stroke. The event gave Democrats a 19-18 voting edge. With 37 members in the chamber, 19 votes became a majority of those elected and serving.

Democrats could have attempted to take majority of the chamber, but Senate Democratic Leader George S. Fitzgerald (D-Grosse Pointe Park) quickly opposed the move, according to The Detroit Free Press.

“It would be morally wrong and politically irresponsible to make such an attempt,” he told the paper at the time.

With partisan fairness being the primary objective of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, the chances of another 19-19 split in the Michigan Senate after the Nov. 8 election is real.

Were that to happen, the Republicans and Democrats could agree to let the party with the Lieutenant Governor organize as the majority as was done in 1971, or things could go down a different path.

Cooper was in the state House when the chamber split 55-55 after the 1958 elections. In 1959, the Republicans claimed control of the chamber when Rep. Josephine Hunsinger (D-Detroit) was ordered to stay at the hospital on the first day of session after having undergone major surgery days prior.

Democrats planned to push for a better lot than Republican control when Hunsinger returned, but then Rep. Fred Dingman (D-Detroit) died in late January. By the time Democrats got their members back, a Dem member who was feuding with Democratic Leader Joseph Kowalski, sided with Republicans and kept Don Pears (R-Buchanan) on as speaker.

Thinking forward to 2023, Cooper still follows politics from his temporary housing in Florida. His place in Bonita Springs was heavily damaged by Hurricane Ian and it likely won’t be repaired for a few months. For now, he’s staying at the winter residence of his old friend, former Speaker Gary Owen.

Do lifetime relationships and friendships like this still exist in the state Legislature in this deeply partisan, term-limited environment? Cooper is doubtful.

“I fear greatly for our country. It’s unbelievable what people accept as truth,” he said. “The camaraderie doesn’t exist today.”

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