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by Zachary Gorchow, Executive Editor and Publisher

The Chatfield Scandal: What We Know Tells A Lot

Posted: January 11, 2022 4:47 PM

The unknowns in the scandal surrounding former House Speaker Lee Chatfield will rightfully get the focus in the days and weeks ahead.

Those unknowns:

  • Whether he will be charged criminally amid allegations from his sister-in-law, Rebekah Chatfield, that he sexually assaulted her going back to when she was either 15 or 16 years old and a student at the Northern Michigan Christian Academy owned by Mr. Chatfield's family and where he once taught. Mr. Chatfield has claimed, through his attorney, that the two had a consensual sexual relationship that began after she was 18 (if it took place before she was 18, as she alleges, by law it cannot be consensual because of the teacher/student element).
  • What financial wrongdoing is Rebekah Chatfield alleging? Her attorney has suggested Mr. Chatfield committed unspecified financial wrongdoing.
  • Is this a scandal primarily affecting Mr. Chatfield and his family or is this going to spread to the Lansing realm and envelope those close to Mr. Chatfield during his time in the House from 2015-20 and speaker from 2019-20?

But there's a whole lot we *do* know at this point and all of it is incredibly damning of Mr. Chatfield.

First, he had sexual contact with his sister-in-law – yes, his sister-in-law – for years while married.

If one takes away the legalese in the extraordinary statement Mr. Chatfield's attorney issued Friday, it in effect said (my translation), "Mr. Chatfield is not a rapist but rather someone who cheated on his wife for years with his brother's girlfriend, fiancée and then wife. He behaved horribly but not criminally."

Second, Mr. Chatfield's prolific fundraising and spending of that money is about to get rare scrutiny for a politician's funds. In my nearly 20 years of covering Michigan government and politics, I have not seen any legislator who could raise money like he did, hauling in so much money that he created four PACs just so he could provide quadruple the maximum contribution to candidates he could with one PAC (editor's note: this story has been changed to correct the number of PACs Mr. Chatfield controlled). Then there's his secretive nonprofit fund, which is likely to be the major focus on any potential investigation into financial improprieties.

Third, while hypocrisy runs rampant in politics, Mr. Chatfield has taken that trait to a new extreme.

He unseated then-Rep. Frank Foster in the 2014 Republican primary largely for two reasons: He hammered Mr. Foster over his support for extending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to gays and lesbians and for allegedly spending too much time in Lansing.

In a 2014 Petoskey News-Review story about the race, Mr. Chatfield said he ran because he "decided my family and my freedoms were more important than my friendships."

It's already been well-chronicled that Mr. Chatfield partook in the perks of power in Lansing, regularly topping the list put together by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network of legislators who received lobbyist-paid meals. The story in Bridge Michigan took that to new heights, however, with Mr. Chatfield's brother, Aaron, Rebekah's husband, saying he served as his brother's driver to various bars and strip clubs.

Before he became speaker, Mr. Chatfield was able to get his two brothers on the House payroll as staffers, a fact reported by Gongwer at the time and a major red flag. They left the House staff once Mr. Chatfield became speaker and had hiring and firing authority for House employees. Still, the use of the old "friends and family plan" with taxpayer funds would hardly be considered consistent with Mr. Chatfield's 2014 push against insiderism.

And after making the importance of one man, one woman marriage a centerpiece of why he challenged Mr. Foster in 2014, Mr. Chatfield's multiple affairs, as revealed in his attorney's statement, shows his defense of marriage to be a sham.

Fourth, and while this is not the most important element of this scandal, it is the latest chapter on what a disaster the 1992 term limits law has been. It is not the existence of term limits in general that has wreaked havoc on the Michigan's legislative branch but the specifics of the Michigan constitutional language.

The six-year lifetime limit in the House has thrown the leadership of the House into turmoil producing speakers with two or four years of experience, some of whom were up to the challenge and others who were not.

When Mr. Chatfield left office in 2021, there was talk of him as still a rising star on the Michigan Republican bench. He's been mentioned as a possible successor to U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet) whenever Mr. Bergman decides to retire. His name was bandied about for governor. Instead, he took an economic development job in Kalamazoo that swiftly ended in his departure after an uproar in the community about his views on gays and lesbians.

There's still a lot we don't know about this scandal.

Which makes the overwhelming nature of the little we do know at this point that much more staggering.

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A Season Of Change In The Capitol Community

Posted: January 3, 2022 2:38 PM

With the start of 2022, some of the Capitol community's longest-tenured, most influential leaders are retiring or moving to new positions.

Not all of these changes happened in concert with January 1 but some of them were close enough.

Among those who are moving on (apologies to anyone I overlooked):

  • Rob Fowler, longtime head of the Small Business Association of Michigan;
  • David Gregory, longtime partner and lobbyist at Kelley Cawthorne;
  • Mike Hansen, longtime president of the Michigan Community College Association;
  • Roger Martin, co-founder of Martin Waymire;
  • Charlie Owens, longtime head of the Michigan chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, who moved up to a regional role within NFIB's national organization;
  • Rich Studley, longtime president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce; and
  • Ray Telman, longtime head of the Middle Cities Education Association.

Particularly on the business side, this is a lot of turnover. Mr. Fowler, Mr. Owens and Mr. Studley have helmed their organizations for many years.

Let's take a look at who is taking the helm at these organizations:

  • Brian Calley, the former lieutenant governor who has spent the last two years transitioning into succeeding Mr. Fowler;
  • Partners Rob Elhenicky, Dave Ladd, Carrie Linderoth and Melissa McKinley continue in their roles leading Kelley Cawthorne;
  • Brandy Johnson, who was in the Whitmer administration and before that founded the Michigan College Access Network, succeeds Mr. Hansen;
  • Mr. Martin and his co-founder, Dave Waymire, sold the firm to three top leaders at the firm, Josh Hovey, Angela Minicuci and Andrea Poole (Mr. Waymire will continue working at the firm another year);
  • Amanda Fisher, a longtime official for NFIB Michigan, succeeded Mr. Owens;
  • Jim Holcomb, a fixture around Lansing for many years and with the Michigan Chamber for the past 13, completed a two-year transition into succeeding the retiring Mr. Studley; and
  • Peter Spadafore, previously the deputy executive director at the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, succeeds Mr. Telman at Middle Cities.

Best wishes to those moving on as part of the – as Mr. Gregory adeptly labeled it – #GreatGraduation. Congratulations to those succeeding them – familiar faces around town who have been working for years for these kinds of new opportunities.

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The Important Contradiction In The Redistricting Commission Documents

Posted: December 22, 2021 10:47 AM

News organizations scored an important victory for open government this week when the Michigan Supreme Court ruled the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission improperly went into a closed meeting and had to publicly release several memos from its attorneys.

And let there be no doubt, it was a big, big win. A goal on par with this legendary Detroit Red Wings one:

It pried loose the documents, and more on those in a minute. Most significantly, a 4-3 majority of the court ruled on the meaning of the constitutional language passed by voters in 2018 that includes this sentence: "The commission shall conduct all of its business at open meetings."

One of the key footnotes in the opinion from Justice David Viviano said that the commission, in justifying its decision to go into a closed session, proposed defining business as "decisional actions." That sent shudders down the spine of anyone who cares about open government and open records.

Mr. Viviano stated the obvious in response.

"If the only meetings that needed to be conducted in the open were those at which decisions are made, then the commission could operate mostly in secret, popping out into the open only to cast a 'decisional' vote on matters discussed and deliberated upon in private," he wrote.

If that's not a victory for public meetings being open to the public, I don't know what is.

The Michigan Press Association put out a call for donations to its legal foundation, and Gongwer News Service contributed because we believed they were right on the law and believe fighting for open government and open records is a core journalistic function. Will other organizations with a vested interest look to spin the results of the ruling to their advantage? Of course. That happens with any major story a news organization publishes or broadcasts.

Now about the actual content of the documents. It's a good thing they are now public because two of them completely contradict each other, and if it wasn't for Bridge Michigan, the Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News and the MPA filing suit, no one would know that the commission's attorneys have provided conflicting legal advice on a critical matter involving the U.S. Voting Rights Act.

A memo from the commission's legal counsel, Bruce Adelson, says the Voting Rights Act "does not require the creation of any majority-minority districts." But a separate memo from Mr. Adelson on the history of discrimination in the state of Michigan and its influence on voting, Mr. Adelson discusses U.S. Supreme Court precedent on the U.S. Voting Rights Act and says there are three preconditions that must be established to prove illegal dilution of voters based on race in districts:

  • The minority group is large and compact enough to be a majority (emphasis mine) in a single-member district;
  • There is significant political cohesiveness within the minority group; and
  • The current majority group is able to vote as a bloc to usually defeat the current minority's preferred candidate.

If those factors are met, then a court does further evaluation based on a host of factors.

But had Mr. Adelson been on yesterday's phone call with reporters featuring the commission's spokesperson and one of its members, we would have asked him how on the one hand he could advise the commission that the Voting Rights Act "does not require the creation of any majority-minority districts" and yet on the other hand advise the commission that one of the preconditions for violating the U.S. Voting Rights Act's prohibition on diluting voters by race is when the minority group is large and compact enough to be a majority as is the case in several jurisdictions in Michigan.

Mr. Adelson's guidance to the commission that the Black voting age population of districts need not be at least 50 percent to comport to the U.S. Voting Rights Act is the major legal question about the maps the commission has advanced to public comment. Majority Black communities and parts of communities have in many cases been split up and instead attached to white suburban areas.

Maybe Mr. Adelson has a good answer to this question.

Had news organizations not filed suit to contest the redistricting commission's actions, we wouldn't even know to ask.

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Michigan Supreme Court Faces First Major Redistricting Test

Posted: December 16, 2021 1:57 PM

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a lawsuit brought by three of the state's top news organizations and the Michigan Press Association seeking to force the release of two memos from attorneys for the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

It is the first real test of the new commission's work before the court, not counting an earlier ruling the court issued denying the commission's request to delay the constitutionally mandated deadlines for it to complete its work.

The memos in question involved advice from commission attorneys about the U.S. Voting Rights Act and the history of racial discrimination in voting.

Let's get this out of the way: I think the memos should be public documents.

It would be one thing if the commission went into closed session after getting sued to discuss litigation. Attorney-client privilege is a sacred concept. But this closed meeting to discuss the memos came as the commission was getting ready to finalize the maps it intended to submit for public comment. By all indications, this advice and guidance would play a role into how the maps, which are foundational to our democratic system, would be drawn. The spirit of the 2018 constitutional amendment was clearly to open up what had been an ultrasecretive process in 2001 and 2011, when Republicans had full control of the government and drew the maps, and before that for decades was handled by the courts in a mostly closed process as well.

I give the Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, Bridge Michigan and the Michigan Press Association a lot of credit for taking this case to court. They could win and set important precedents for how the commission must conduct business and shed light on the information commissioners used to inform their decision-making. Fighting for open government records is a core journalistic value, even when we don't know if the records will be illuminating or turn out to be as bereft of anything interesting as Al Capone's vault. Or they could lose and at least everyone will know the rules going forward.

Either way, this is not a slam dunk legal case for the news media. For many reasons.

One, this is all new ground. The Supreme Court could rule on several precedential matters here, such as whether the Open Meetings Act applies to the commission (and the Open Meetings Act clearly allows for closed meetings regarding matters of attorney-client privilege). Two, what does "all business" – the language in the Constitution about what the commission has to conduct in public – mean? Does it mean commission actions only? Or does it cover every time it meets?

Third, and maybe most significant: All seven justices, as required by the Constitution, are attorneys. All presumably hold the concept of attorney-client privilege in great reverence.

And one could see during the oral arguments that they were struggling with this idea of how and whether to limit when the commission's attorneys could provide confidential advice.

The competing factor for the justices will be that voters passed this constitutional amendment and the spirit of it was to open up the process. It is a fascinating balancing test for the court, the will of the people against a basic legal precept like attorney-client privilege.

This one is hard to predict. A 7-0 ruling either way would not surprise me.

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Government's Great Shrug At COVID 4th Wave

Posted: December 3, 2021 12:10 PM

COVID-19 is killing people rapidly in this state, at least among those who have chosen not to be vaccinated.

The fourth wave of the virus, which began in July, is now deadlier than the third wave that ran from mid-March to the end of June. Death rates in this state have exploded in the last two months. From November 17-23, an average of 72 people died of the virus each day. 72. Each. Day.

The collective response from state government has essentially been hands-off.

Once COVID-19 vaccines became widely available at the start of the year, Governor Gretchen Whitmer radically shifted her approach from interventionist, one of government restrictions on gatherings and mandates on face coverings to, in effect, a Darwinist approach. There are vaccines that are free, safe and effective, and face coverings can help too, Ms. Whitmer has said. People now have the tools to protect themselves, Ms. Whitmer has said. The governor has never said these words, but she has in effect declared that if people choose not to use these tools, become infected and die, well, there are consequences for the decisions we make.

What has been jarring is the extent to which Ms. Whitmer now seems to want to talk about anything other than COVID-19. When she got her booster, it was given the Friday news dump treatment, announced with no advanced notice via a news release just before 5 p.m. on Friday, November 5. This is the time of day when elected officials usually put out bad news, knowing that internet traffic, television news and newspapers all see fewer eyeballs on Friday evenings and Saturdays.

When in Owosso to announce some new jobs there in November, Detroit News reporter Craig Mauger, who was there, said reporters asked Ms. Whitmer several questions about the fourth COVID wave. Eventually, someone asked about the jobs announcement, and Ms. Whitmer signaled some annoyance at all the COVID questions.

I could go on, but it has been apparent for months that Ms. Whitmer has shifted her public messaging emphasis from stopping COVID to the economy and spending the federal largesse pouring into the state instead.

The governor could go down the mandate road if she wanted but it's obvious she opposes doing so. Recall that the Department of State Police had decided to require new troopers to be vaccinated and then abruptly jettisoned the requirement minutes after State Police Director Joe Gasper advised Ms. Whitmer's staff he was getting media inquiries about it.

All this said, the impact of a Whitmer barrage urging vaccinations might not be very significant. The people who have chosen not to be vaccinated are intransigent, no matter how many times it is reported that during the fourth wave, roughly 75 percent of the COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are among the minority of the population that is unvaccinated.

There has been a big effort to improve the low vaccination rate in Detroit, where just 40.6 percent of those 12 and older have completed vaccination. This is a heavily Democratic area but the vaccination campaign there has hit a wall.

Many of those refusing the vaccine also rebelled at Ms. Whitmer's COVID-19 orders from last year. It's hard to imagine they would follow a vaccine mandate.

Which brings us to the Republicans who control the Legislature.

They have the policy they demanded during 2020 of Ms. Whitmer: laissez-faire.

But what remains astonishing to me, given how widely accepted and appreciated vaccines have been in my lifetime, is their refusal to urge vaccinations.

There have been some exceptions. Sen. Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) and Sen. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington) both posted photos of themselves getting vaccinated and some others did too. Mr. Nesbitt also posted information on where to look online for a nearby provider.

But House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Farwell) has declined to say if he has been vaccinated.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) has gone the opposite direction of his longstanding request of Ms. Whitmer to "inform, inspire and encourage" safe behaviors during the pandemic. He's spread disinformation about the efficacy of the vaccine, insisting – despite several studies to the contrary – that natural immunity from having had the virus provides more protection than the vaccine.

No doubt natural immunity is real, but it's still unclear how long it will last and how it will fare against new variants. Will it be like those of us who had the chicken pox before there was a vaccine and never had to worry about having it again? We just don't know yet, so maybe don't make pronouncements that natural immunity provides more protection than the vaccine.

Mr. Shirkey once spoke of doing public service announcements to encourage constituents to protect themselves during the pandemic as a preferred alternative to government mandates. It's too late now, the anti-vaccine disinformation campaign already has misled too many people to the point where they are unlikely to be swayed otherwise by anyone, but wouldn't it have been something at the beginning of this year if Mr. Shirkey and Mr. Wentworth stood side-by-side with Ms. Whitmer at a news conference or for a prerecorded message encouraging everyone to get vaccinated to protect themselves, their families, their neighbors, their fellow Michiganders?

I remember thinking the vaccine had a good chance of success because its initial approvals came while former President Donald Trump was in office and then was broadened and rolled out en mass as President Joe Biden took office.

But here we are, almost a year after vaccines first started going out to health care workers, and we're sitting at only 55 percent of the vaccine-eligible population having completed vaccination (60.4 percent when counting just those 12 and older since those 5-11 were only recently approved for the vaccine). It's simply not good enough to start putting this damn virus into the rearview mirror, witness the record number of cases and hospitalizations and soaring death rate seen in the past week in this state.

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Special Election Drama: House Republicans In A Pinch

Posted: November 9, 2021 4:05 PM

Majority House Republicans are about to enter a stretch where they have no margin for error and in effect need every one of their members to pass legislation.

Republicans began the 2021-22 term with a 58-52 majority over the Democrats.

Now they are, for all practical purposes, down to 54 members.

Rep. Andrea Schroeder (R-Independence Township) died in October. Rep. Mark Huizenga (R-Walker) and Rep. Douglas Wozniak (R-Shelby Township) won special elections to the Senate last week and will resign their House seats in a matter of days. Those three vacancies, plus the upcoming resignation of Rep. Abdullah Hammoud (D-Dearborn) to become Dearborn mayor, will drop the House to 55 Republicans and 51 Democrats.

At 106 members, 54 yes votes are required to pass bills.

Then there is Rep. Steve Marino (R-Harrison Township), who has disappeared since the revelation of his sending threatening text messages to Rep. Mari Manoogian (D-Birmingham), who obtained a personal protection order against him. Unless and until Mr. Marino reappears on the House floor, Republicans are in the difficult position of needing all other members to be present and voting for a bill to assure passage, unless it's a bill that has some Democratic support.

This explains why Republicans are anxious for Governor Gretchen Whitmer to call special elections, so anxious even that they were asking her to call the special elections even though three of the four seats were not yet vacant, meaning she had no power to do so.

The Constitution requires the governor to call special elections to fill legislative vacancies but does not provide a timetable for the election to occur after the vacancy, giving the governor discretion.

There is an example of what Ms. Whitmer did after an odd-year election produced a legislative vacancy. In November 2019, then-Rep. Sheldon Neeley won the Flint mayor's race. A solidly Democratic seat, Ms. Whitmer wasted no time filling it, setting the special primary for January 7, 2020, and the special general election for March 10.

However, when the late Rep. Isaac Robinson, who also held a solidly Democratic seat, died in March 2020, the governor opted to do what the last two governors often did: time the special election to coincide with the regular election. The special primary was in August and the special general election was held in November. The seat was vacant for about eight months.

The disadvantage of calling a special election when no other elections are occurring is the local governments in the district have to pay for it (though House Speaker Jason Wentworth made a point of saying the state should cover the costs in these cases), but the disadvantage of waiting for regular elections is residents of those districts go without representation for longer.

After the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. resigned, then-Governor Rick Snyder used the regular election schedule for the special election, resulting in the seat sitting vacant for 11 months.

There's another unique disadvantage this year to timing the special election with the regular elections: redistricting. Clerks would have to run the special election for one set of communities while running the full-term election for another. In 2012, a similar situation led to David Curson winning a partial U.S. House term and serving all of seven weeks even as Kerry Bentivolio won the full term.

The last time vacancies played this much havoc with a House majority was in 1993 when the House – then split 55-55 – saw two vacancies resulting from Democratic members winning mayor's races in their hometowns. A third vacancy occurred after a Democratic member resigned as part of the House Fiscal Agency scandal.

While Republicans held the majority and gained a major advantage to pass their bills, the shared power rules agreed to by House Democrats and Republicans at the opening of the term meant they could not reorganize the House under their sole control unless they reached 56 seats.

Then-Governor John Engler set a special primary election for March 15, 1994 – timed with the statewide election for Proposal A – and a special general election for April 26.

It should be noted that Ms. Whitmer herself benefitted from a swift special election. In 2005, then-Sen. Virg Bernero won the Lansing mayor's race. Then-Governor Jennifer Granholm scheduled a special primary for February 21, 2006, and a special general election for March 14. Ms. Whitmer virtually walked into the seat.

Ms. Whitmer has an interesting decision to make. She could make life harder on the Republican majority by waiting to fill the vacancies. It's difficult to imagine Republicans would not retaliate in some way if she does so. Or the governor could swiftly schedule special elections and hope that creates some goodwill that carries over to other issues. Similar hopes that have accompanied past agreements with Republicans did not pan out.

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Benton Harbor, Flint Water Crises Different, But There Are Echoes

Posted: November 2, 2021 5:11 PM

No, Benton Harbor is not a replica of the Flint water crisis.

Benton Harbor has been under local control since it first began exceeding the action level for lead in its drinking water in 2018. Flint was under the control of an emergency manager appointed by Governor Rick Snyder.

State-influenced decisions created the lead-in-water crisis in Flint. A succession of emergency managers in Flint felt the Detroit water system was overcharging the city, so they decided to use the Flint River as the city's water source while they awaited a new locally led system to come online. The state recommended against applying corrosion control treatment. Disaster ensued. We don't yet know why Benton Harbor has high lead levels, but it definitely was not a repeat of what transpired in Flint.

Unlike Flint, where for a long time the Department of Environmental Quality (now the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy) vigorously denied any lead-in-water problem, even mocking the idea, EGLE has always acknowledged Benton Harbor's water exceeds the federal action levels and has been trying to help the city, which runs its water department, correct the situation. Instead of deriding the concerns of activists, as a then DEQ spokesperson did in Flint, EGLE officials today have acknowledged they need to take a hard look at the criticisms and see how they could have done better.

Having said all of that, there most definitely are some echoes of what happened in Flint.

A group of local activists for years has been demanding far more aggressive state action. Finally, on September 10, in a move that seems to have precipitated the much more aggressive state response since then, they petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to effectively take over Benton Harbor water oversight from the state. Today, the EPA issued an order regarding Benton Harbor water though it did not cite the petition but rather a joint inspection of the city's system at EGLE's request. The language of the order puts the onus on the city for the problems, not the state.

EGLE has been working for years to adjust the water chemistry in Benton Harbor to see if adding more corrosion control treatment will bring down lead levels. What has infuriated various activist groups is why, in tandem with that action, the state didn't provide bottled water to residents years ago and move more quickly to replace all lead service lines in the city. Under state policy, Benton Harbor, because of its lead exceedance, is required to replace 7 percent of its lead service lines annually.

The Whitmer administration proposed an even faster timetable, five years. Activists said that was still too slow given the dangers posed by any amount of lead.

It was on October 6 when the state's posture toward the situation changed. The Department of Health and Human Services issued a news release advising residents "out of an abundance of caution" not to drink the water, nor use it for cooking or making baby formula. For the first time, the state announced it was taking action to bring bottled water to the community. On October 14, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced what she called a "whole of government" response to the situation. The 18-month lead line replacement schedule, as well as the distribution of bottled water, won praise from activists.

It also raised many questions.

When Ms. Whitmer, who campaigned on clean water, took office, one of her first actions was designed to prevent another Flint water crisis. She issued an executive directive requiring state employees aware of an imminent threat to the public health, safety or welfare to immediately report the situation to the director of that department or agency, with the director then required to take a series of actions, largely involving reporting to the compliance officer in the Executive Office of the Governor. It was seen as a response to Flint.

When Ms. Whitmer reorganized DEQ into EGLE, she set up a new environmental justice advocate and clean water advocate, positions designed to assure public complaints about environmental problems don't get lost in the department.

Right now, the biggest questions are why the state waited as long as it did to provide the city with bottled water and what was the level of communication in the administration since 2019 regarding Benton Harbor water. Did systems function as designed? What were the discussions and machinations in the administration that led to the October 6 announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services that bottled water was on the way?

Our news organization and assuredly others are working to find answers to those questions.

Will the governor declare a state of emergency in Benton Harbor? She is resisting the idea. One of Mr. Snyder's regrets about his handling of Flint was not declaring a state of emergency much sooner. Ms. Whitmer herself has not appeared in public very much since the decision to provide bottled water in Benton Harbor occurred and has said little in person on the topic, instead relying on written statements from her press office.

After reports of long lines for bottled water and a lack of volunteers at bottled water stations, the Whitmer administration announced it would start paying volunteers. It is still declining to declare a state of emergency or activate the National Guard, which is skilled at the kind of logistics involved in bottled water distribution and was used in Flint.

No, the Benton Harbor water crisis is not the same as Flint's.

Once again, though, a city with a large low-income, Black population that has been struggling for decades has a major lead-in-water crisis putting the health of its residents, especially children, at risk. Once again, there are complaints that the state did not take the situation seriously enough.

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Tuesday's Very Strange House Hearing On Child Safety Seats

Posted: October 27, 2021 5:49 PM

On Tuesday, the House Transportation Committee held a hearing on the latest attempt to bring Michigan's child car seat law up to best practices and federal standards. Again.

For multiple terms, advocates have worried Michigan's child safety seat law has fallen far behind the times and is putting children at risk. Bills to update the law to reflect the safest practices for car seat use have been introduced but never gotten out of the Legislature.

Current law says all children under 4 must be in a federally compliant child safety seat in a motor vehicle and positioned in the rear seat if there is a rear seat. Further, children from ages 4 to 7 and less than 4 feet 9 inches tall must use a booster seat.

The bills would require drivers transporting a child to secure the child in a child restraint system that complies with federal standards but instead apply the law to those 12 and under. Children would have to be in a rear-facing seat until they either turn 2 or reach the weight or height limit of the rear-facing system. Further, after meeting both of these thresholds, the child would have to be in a forward-facing system with a five-point harness until they either turn 5 or reach the weight or height limit of the system.

Then, after hitting both of those thresholds, the child would have to sit in a belt-positioning child booster seat with a lap-shoulder safety belt until they either turn eight or reach 4 feet 9 inches tall.

Upon a child reaching both of these thresholds, they would have to sit in the rear seat if one is available and the other rear seats are not taken up by children until they turn 13.

This seems like a straightforward issue. Good: Children in safety seats based on what makes sense scientifically. Bad: Insufficiently protected children injured or killed in a traffic crash.

But a pair of Republicans on the committee questioned the bill. Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain) got into a lengthy back-and-forth with the bill sponsor, Rep. Bronna Kahle (R-Adrian), questioning various aspects of the bill that led to Ms. Kahle having a drop the mic moment when she began quoting the bill to him and he admitted he didn't have the bill in front of him.

"You don't have the actual bill?" she asked. "It should be in your computer. It's always nice when you can see it for yourself."


Mr. LaFave then began asking, if safety seats save lives and are so great, why not mandate them for 95-year-olds who are under 4 feet 9 inches?

The committee chair, Rep. Jack O'Malley (R-Lake Ann), seemed incredulous.

"Rep, I understand where you're going with this, but I've got to say, just from a common-sense standpoint, I can make a decision and I could sit in the back seat if I wanted my wife to drive, but a two-year-old has to rely on their parent and the design of the car," he said. "Are we offering the safety of this child?"

Mr. LaFave countered that the bill also speaks to 12-year-olds not just two-year-olds.

But it was when Rep. Steve Carra (R-Three Rivers) had his turn to ask questions that the meeting really moved into the realm of the bizarre. Department of State Police Lt. Kim Vetter was at the witness table in support of the legislation.

"So, when we suggest that just following the recommendations today as opposed to having these laws, would that be child abuse, is that the suggestion here? If we didn't follow. Do we need these new laws or else is it child abuse, is that the argument?" he asked.

Ms. Vetter paused and said, "I don't believe that anybody that's testified today has said anything about child abuse," knocking down the straw man argument Mr. Carra created.

Mr. Carra then compared the standards for how children can safely ride in motor vehicles with deodorant. His comments ramble but here they are in full.

"So, I guess with the proper role of government, you know, promoting the general welfare sounds great, but mandates, I don't see how that's constitutional, unless there's an aggrieved party," he said. "So, if parents are making their best decision, are we making the argument that a one-size-fits-all approach mandated by government is better than leaving this to the private sector in the interest of, you know, people may be recommending like – my girlfriend for example, she likes to have deodorant that doesn't have certain chemicals in it, she checks to see what the rating is from the private sector. A vested interest from a private sector compared to one size fits all, are we just trusting government to make this decision for us, is that the plan?"

Ms. Vetter responded: "No sir, there have been several experts earlier that testified to the science behind these recommendations from the American Association of Pediatrics and there are other scientific studies that show that the safest way for children to travel are these recommendations."

I asked Mr. O'Malley, who supports the legislation, if he was concerned some members of his party on the committee saw the bill as some type of incursion on personal freedom.

"I think there are some people there who think it's an incursion in whatever," he said.

"Whatever" is about the best word I can think of to sum up what happened.

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Whitmer Tacking Right, Quickly

Posted: October 21, 2021 11:17 AM

In 1995, after Democrats lost control of Congress, then-President Bill Clinton began a move that his strategist Dick Morris dubbed, "triangulation": positioning himself between the more liberal Democratic congressional minorities and the conservative Republicans now running Congress to set him up for his 1996 reelection bid.

The comparison isn't exactly apples to apples but a look at Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer's year so far sure has echoes of that path as she heads toward a reelection campaign that has the potential to be much, much more challenging than her 2018 safe, landslide win.

2018 was an ideal environment for Ms. Whitmer. There was an unpopular Republican president in the White House, you may have heard of him. Democrats, especially women, were eager to storm the polls to vote, particularly for Democratic women candidates. The incumbent governor was a Republican and, when Ms. Whitmer won, it made her the fourth consecutive candidate for governor to win an open seat race since 1982 who was the opposite party of the outgoing governor.

2022 will not be an ideal environment for Ms. Whitmer. She will have the advantage of incumbency. No Michigan governor has lost a bid for a second term since the advent of the four-year term in 1966 (six wins, zero losses). However, Ms. Whitmer will be the first governor seeking reelection with their party controlling the presidency since 1974, when then-Governor William Milliken narrowly survived, and the first Democratic governor in that situation since 1962 when then-Governor John Swainson lost.

We'll know a lot more about the impending environment after the Virginia gubernatorial election in a couple weeks. If the Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, wins narrowly, let alone loses, it will confirm what several special elections have suggested this year, that Republicans have the momentum, Democrats are nowhere near as engaged as they were while Donald Trump was president and 2022 is shaping up as a typical midterm year where the president's party gets clocked. A McAuliffe win along the lines of what the current Democratic governor had in 2017, 8.9 percentage points, would suggest that Republicans have some big obstacles toward a midterm win, namely that without Mr. Trump on the ballot, a portion of their base will not turn out.

Looking at Ms. Whitmer's actions and tone this year, however, strongly suggests her team has a sense of how much different the environment will be in 2022 versus 2018.

This was crystallized for me in a statement she issued Wednesday regarding a proposal to pump $32 million into policing.

"We have to work together to fund police and reduce crime because every Michigander in every community deserves to live safely," she said.

"Fund police" – as in NOT defund the police, the politically calamitously concept some demonstrators began demanding following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. Republicans used the "defund the police" moniker against Democrats and there is some evidence it worked in U.S. House and state legislative races. In 10 years of tracking local property tax millage proposals statewide, it is exceedingly rare to see a tax increase or renewal for police lose. The public supports robust funding for law enforcement. Ms. Whitmer could be facing a former police chief (James Craig) in the governor's race next year.

In 2020, Ms. Whitmer carefully sidestepped questions about whether she agreed with the idea of moving some funding for police to other services like mental health and health care. In 2021, she is now squarely siding with law enforcement and cultivating relationships in that community. Officials from three leading police organizations were quoted in the official press release from the governor on the topic.

Then there's COVID-19. In 2020, the governor was at the vanguard of Democratic governors taking an aggressive approach to curbing the pandemic. Now, she is among the most aggressive at resisting any new mandates. Many of her allies on the left are furious that the governor has refused to issue a statewide mandate for masks in K-12 schools, leaving it instead to school districts and local health departments.

There appeared some tactical wisdom in this strategy. Areas of the state where the governor is unpopular might be more apt to listen to their local health department than to her. But in Berrien County this week, which had such an order (rescinded in the wake of language in the budget threatening to pull their funding, which Ms. Whitmer declared unenforceable), the health officer and communications director resigned, overwhelmed by the invective and hatred directed their way by residents.

When the Department of State Police planned to require any new troopers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, it rapidly changed its mind not long after the Executive Office of the Governor became aware of news media inquiries.

In September, after the Legislature passed the negotiated budget with Ms. Whitmer, there was some interesting framing by her office.

The headline on the news release said, "Gov. Whitmer on budget that puts Michiganders first without raising taxes."

That sounded like a Republican talking point. And strange. There had been no discussion about a tax increase as part of this budget. Further, the very first item in the subheadline of the release boasted about "the largest one-time deposit into Michigan's rainy day fund" with mentions of investments in education, child care, infrastructure, health care and clean water coming afterward.

Cheering the size of the Budget Stabilization Fund? It could have been former governors John Engler or Rick Snyder.

Overall, after a stretch from fall 2019 through the 2020 election when Ms. Whitmer moved away from her initial mantra about building bridges with Republicans to engaging in regular partisan strife, sometimes initiated by the governor, often initiated by the Republicans, Ms. Whitmer has emphasized turning the other cheek this year and seeking to work with the other side.

Republicans are often quoted in Ms. Whitmer's official news releases now. My eyes about bugged out of my head when I saw Rep. Matt Hall (R-Marshall) included in one on a relatively low-profile tax issue. Mr. Hall chaired the House Oversight Committee in the previous term and was a major thorn in the Whitmer administration's side.

The Whitmer campaign from 2018 said it succeeded on two fronts. It capitalized on the wave of Democratic voter intensity, then layered on top of that "dinner table issues" that appealed to Obama/Trump voters. There was great pride that Ms. Whitmer carried Macomb County after Mr. Trump won it by so much.

Right now, Ms. Whitmer appears to be positioning herself in the middle, trying to remind swing and independent voters why they voted for her in 2018 and counting on her Democratic base, whatever frustrations might exist right now, to still be there in the end.

There's a long way to go, and we have no idea whom Republicans will nominate for governor, but if Ms. Whitmer is talking about not raising taxes and the size of the Budget Stabilization Fund, that tells us a lot about where she and her team think the 2022 environment is headed.

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Gongwer Expands, Restructures Reporting Staff

Posted: October 18, 2021 10:48 AM

Gongwer News Service today expanded its Michigan staff, adding a new staff writer and moving some staff members to new reporting roles.

Joining the Gongwer staff is Alyssa McMurtry, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan who was Gongwer's news intern from July 2020 through August 2021. She is a native of Madison Heights who covered government and politics for U-M's student-run newspaper, the Michigan Daily.

Ms. McMurtry will cover most of the state's departments and agencies for Gongwer. She can be reached at

Jordyn Hermani, a Gongwer staff writer since 2019 covering most departments and agencies, has been named the company's new House of Representatives reporter. She also will continue to cover the Department of Corrections. She can be reached at

Managing Editor Alethia Kasben, who has been the House of Representatives reporter since joining Gongwer in 2013, will now serve as senior legislative reporter in addition to her managing editor duties. Ms. Kasben also will continue to cover the Marijuana Regulatory Agency.

Staff Writer Ben Solis, who currently covers the courts, redistricting and the departments of Health and Human Services and Insurance and Financial Services, will become Gongwer's lead reporter on criminal justice and the courts. He will add coverage of the Department of Attorney General and Department of State Police to his beat with Ms. McMurtry picking up DHHS and DIFS in addition to most other departments. Mr. Solis will continue to cover the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. He can be reached at

Executive Editor and Publisher Zach Gorchow, who leads coverage of the governor's office; Chief Information Officer Chris Klaver; Staff Writer Nick Smith, who covers the Senate and the Public Service Commission; and Legislative/Digital Specialist Miranda Hutchings continue in their roles.

This is the third expansion of the Gongwer staff in the past three years as part of the company's commitment to continue bringing its subscribers the best, most reliable news and information on Michigan government and politics.

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As Expected, Redistricting Scrambles U.S. House Races

Posted: October 15, 2021 2:14 PM

Going into the redistricting process this year headed for the first time by an independent commission and the accompanying uncertainty, the one certainty seemed that Michigan's 14 U.S. House incumbents were headed for upheaval.

While the map for Michigan's soon-to-be 13 U.S. House districts is far from final, the tumult appears more certain than ever.

The big variable as the public hearing phase begins next week is whether the four draft maps will need wholesale revision in metro Detroit for possibly violating the U.S. Voting Rights Act, which dictates that redistricting cannot reduce the number of majority-minority districts in a state. In 2011, Michigan had two U.S. House districts with a majority Black population. Each of the four draft maps have two districts with more than 40 percent Black residents.

Commission staff have suggested that will satisfy the Voting Rights Act. I have yet to hear from anyone following this process outside of the commission and its staff who agrees.

So, it is possible, maybe probable, that revisions will stretch what the commission now has as the 1st District (most of the city of Detroit and several Downriver communities) and the 2nd District (much of western Detroit plus several western Wayne County suburbs) into southern Oakland and Macomb counties where there are communities with large numbers of Black residents. Those changes would scramble things but even still, there's a pretty good sense at this point of how dramatically different a landscape the state's U.S. House incumbents face.

Let's start off with who faces the fewest problems. It's not often U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet), U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain (R-Bruce Township) and U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton) have anything in common with U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit).

Mr. Bergman has an easy-breezy, deeply Republican district that now reaches a little farther south into the Lower Peninsula but retains a base of deep-red voters in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula. Mr. Walberg keeps much of his existing south-central Michigan district in staunchly Republican territory but gets rid of the few pockets of Democratic turf in Eaton and western Washtenaw counties and picks up bright red territory in Cass and St. Joseph counties plus Republican-trending Calhoun. He avoids the potential pitfall of his home county of Lenawee getting joined to bordering and heavily Democratic Washtenaw. Ms. McClain keeps a heavily Republican district in northern Macomb and the Thumb and picks up strongly Republican areas of Oakland County.

So, who has problems?

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) under three of the maps gets drawn in with U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Township) and under the other map gets drawn in with U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn). In both cases, she loses almost all of her existing turf.

Ms. Dingell did better than I expected. I figured she would get drawn in with Ms. Tlaib but in three of the four maps, she has a district to herself in safely Democratic western Wayne County. Probably no one is more vulnerable to changes to these configurations to address Voting Rights Act concerns. Or perhaps Ms. Dingell runs in the new 7th District, where no incumbent lives (most of Washtenaw and a portion of Downriver and western Wayne County, much of which she now represents), allowing someone else to run in the 2nd District.

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) did not get paired off with Mr. Levin as many thought would happen. The good news is she would get a district with no other incumbents. The bad news for her is she loses almost her entire district and gets pushed into more conservative territory in Macomb County. Republicans have to be salivating at the thought of using Ms. Stevens' anti-gun views against her in a district like the one that's been drawn.

Weirdly, Mr. Levin might be a better fit for what would be Ms. Stevens' new district considering he represents much of that area now. Ms. Stevens would be a good fit for the new district where Ms. Lawrence and Mr. Levin live.

Should Ms. Dingell go for the Washtenaw/Downriver/western Wayne seat, that could enable Ms. Lawrence to run in the 2nd. Ms. Stevens could look at either of those districts, portions of which she now represents.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) told The Detroit News what had seemed apparent for a while, that she would move to the Lansing area to run in a new capital region district. This could potentially set up a huge clash with state Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte), who would be in this district and had his Senate seat wrecked in redistricting and is reportedly considering a congressional bid.

As expected, a new Flint/Tri-Cities district is taking shape that would pit U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) against U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Midland). Maybe. Allies of former Attorney General Bill Schuette put out the word this week that perhaps Mr. Schuette would run for one of the Midland area seats and Mr. Moolenaar the other. Presumably, Mr. Schuette would then take on Mr. Kildee and Mr. Moolenaar would run in the new open 13th District stretching west and covering parts of 20 counties. That would give Mr. Moolenaar much of his existing turf (the new Flint/Tri-Cities district would be all new territory for him) and a safe seat. We shall see.

Probably no one is holding their breath more than U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids). Three maps give him a comfortably Republican seat covering all of Kent plus western Ionia and eastern Ottawa counties. The other map joins Grand Rapids and its more Democratic suburbs with Kalamazoo and its more Democratic suburbs. It would be a Democratic seat and create big headaches for Mr. Meijer.

Finally, there's U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland), who are combined in a new 9th District where territorially Mr. Upton would have the advantage. Mr. Huizenga has tacked right of Mr. Upton and is a good deal more conservative than he was in his state House days, perhaps making him a better fit with today's Republican electorate than Mr. Upton.

Does Mr. Upton intend to seek another term? Or perhaps Mr. Huizenga runs for that new 13th District though it would be mostly new territory for him. It's hard to imagine the two facing off.

One clear loser from all the maps so far is state Rep. Steve Carra (R-Three Rivers), who has said he is running against Mr. Upton. But all maps put him two counties away from Mr. Upton. No, he does not need to live in the district to run there but running from so far away is a reach. He could stay in his House district and move west to get closer but still cannot move into any of Mr. Upton's potential districts without moving out of his state House district, which would force him to vacate his current job.

The commission's decisions thus far have added some clarity about what will happen with the state's U.S. House incumbents but the move to put four potential maps out for consideration, as well as the uncertainty about compliance with the state Constitution and federal law, mean considerable uncertainty still abounds.

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What We Have Learned So Far With The Redistricting Commission

Posted: September 29, 2021 10:42 AM

Two of the central goals of those who backed an independent commission to redraw the state's maps, removing that authority from a Legislature that had largely done so with its Republican majorities' political objectives in mind for two decades, are badly teetering.

The backers of Proposal 2 of 2018 had several goals:

  • Stop having maps drawn by self-interested elected officials;
  • End partisan gerrymandering;
  • Discontinue "weird-looking" districts;
  • Create more competitive seats that, in theory, would force candidates to campaign toward the middle and reduce the polarized nature of the Legislature where most members get there by moving far to the right or far to the left to win their party's primary and then coast to an easy general election victory because the seat is so solidly Democratic or Republican.

The first objective has clearly been met. Incumbents are getting gored, seeing their districts torn up or drawn in with other incumbents.

The second objective has also been met, though the end result so far isn't looking how Democrats had hoped. The draft maps for the House and Senate lean clearly Republican. The problem for Democrats remains that geographic polarization has so heavily concentrated their voters into urban and suburban areas that they win too many seats by huge majorities and can't compete in the more diffusely populated white working-class areas where they once won with some regularity.

Having the commission draw the map is clearly better for the Democrats than if the Republicans were doing the work, but if the draft maps hold (they most likely won't once they are evaluated to meet the constitutional criteria), Republicans are sitting pretty and that's just based on the map, let alone the usual advantage they will hold in 2022 as the party out of power in the White House.

It is the third and fourth objectives where it appears the lofty promises of the commission's supporters will not be met.

One of the ads from Voters Not Politicians in 2018 memorably promised a map with a neat-looking grid of districts. That, of course, was absurd. But there's been a lot of emphasis on spaghetti-like districts being inherently unfair.

Well, take a look at the maps the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission has drawn so far. There are some really strange looking districts. There are too many to count here but the Senate district that goes from northern Berrien County into southern Kent County looks weird and let's face it, is weird. What community of interest is met there, I don't know. In the House, northern Bloomfield Township, eastern Auburn Hills and Orion Township are combined into a strange reverse "C" district that also looks bizarre.

The House districts in and around the city of Detroit are a ganglion.

But it was the fourth objective that was the most important and right now looks to be a big whiff.

There appears to be no appreciable difference in the number of competitive districts under the proposed maps than the current ones. This is not a great shock. Voters are largely living with liked-minded neighbors and there just aren't many areas that are 50/50 anymore. Even if one draws a 50/50 area, the changes that are happening now are happening so fast they could be outdated quickly. Suburban Muskegon went from the ultimate swing area to solidly Republican in one election cycle. Bloomfield Township and Birmingham went from reliably Republican to reliably Democratic in one election cycle.

We shall see what happens when the commission applies the partisan fairness requirement in the Constitution. But that does not apply to each individual district, it's more about whether either party has a fair opportunity to win majority. That could eventually equate to, in the House, 49 solidly/likely Democratic districts, 49 solidly/likely Republican districts and 12 districts that are up for grabs. In the Senate, that could mean 16 solidly/likely Democratic districts, 16 solidly/likely Republican ones and six competitive seats. That's not much different than what currently exists.

Some of the 24 House seats that on paper show under PlanScore to have a projected gap of eight points between the parties' vote share in reality are irretrievably going to favor one party. The proposed 13th District along Lake St. Clair in Macomb County shows as a projected 54 percent Republican to 46 percent Democratic district. That, on paper, seems like perhaps the Democrats could compete, but there is no way in today's political environment that a Democrat would win a district anchored in Harrison Township and northern St. Clair Shores with a dash of Anchor Bay.

The idea that the installation of a commission would somehow magically countermand the partisan polarization sweeping the nation was well meaning but idealistic. The Legislature will remain largely stocked with dedicated partisans and few members breaking party lines. The old days of having a block of a dozen center-right Democrats and a dozen center-left Republicans who would vote with the other party on various issues are long gone.

Tensions are running high. Republicans have a group of operatives hammering at the commission on a daily basis as a chaotic disaster. Democrats, who have been more supportive of the commission, are getting frustrated and alarmed (and maybe in the back of their minds wishing the commission had never happened and the new Democratic majority on the Supreme Court was doing the drawing). Commissioners are suddenly finding themselves subjected to opposition research efforts and news media scrutiny. Some of this is sound and fury and working the refs.

Taking a step back and looking at objectives of creating the commission in the first place, it's looking like a mixed bag.

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Gongwer Michigan Turns 60

Posted: September 27, 2021 10:56 AM

On September 25, 1961, a news organization with an unusual name published its first edition in Michigan.

The Gongwer News Service, Inc., as it was known then, had embarked on its first expansion beyond the borders of Ohio, where it began in Columbus in 1906, founded by its namesake, Charles S. Gongwer.

Printed on 8½ by 11 goldenrod paper, stapled in the upper left corner, the logo in blue, the first edition was not really a news report so much as an affirmation of what prompted the expansion to Lansing. It was news that the Board of State Canvassers had certified the election of the delegates to the 1961-62 Michigan Constitutional Convention and a list of all those delegates.

With that, an experiment was born.

The Michigan Report initially relied on delivery to a close circle of interested parties near the Capitol and the U.S. mail, the internet still more than 30 years away. From A.B. Dick copiers to ditto machines to hulking Xerox copiers, paper would be the lifeblood of the company an Associated Press reporter would lovingly refer to as "an obscure mail-order newsletter" for the first half of its existence in Michigan.

Some 60 years later, Gongwer News Service is now a household name in Michigan government and politics, using electronic platforms that deliver its products more quickly and more widely than the founders of the company could have dreamed at the time. It has transformed from a daily digest of relatively short stories and logs of legislative activities to publishing anywhere from 10 to 25 stories a day, with breaking news posted any time on any date, and an advanced tracking service allowing its subscribers to track bills, administrative rules, news coverage by topic and boards and commissions.

When Gongwer opened its offices in the Michigan National Tower in 1961, the Gongwer family's 55-year ownership history was on the verge of ending. Mr. Gongwer's son, Burr Franklin Gongwer, who inherited ownership of the company in 1935, died in February 1961 after a long illness. His wife, Dorothy Morris Gongwer, had served as the company's president for some time.

By the end of 1961, William F. Baird, a longtime leader in the Gongwer Ohio office and an enthusiast about expanding to other states, would purchase the company from Ms. Gongwer (her name, D.M. Gongwer, last appeared in the masthead of the Michigan Report in the spring of 1962) and helm it as owner until his death in late 1992.

The Gongwer name, however, would endure.

In 1961, Gongwer's work in Michigan was limited to the Constitutional Convention.

That spring, Michigan voters had narrowly approved the calling of a Constitutional Convention, attracting the interest of Gongwer leadership about potentially expanding northward.

With the convention moving toward making the Legislature full time, the company elected to broaden its commitment to continuous, complete, daily coverage of all of state government starting in January 1962.

In the early years, the company's coverage could be cheeky and the writing style even a bit eye-rolling. Suggestions that legislative debates neared "physical violence" were not uncommon. Sarcastic headlines occasionally appeared. Perhaps most surprising given the company's longtime reputation for serious news coverage is that in the early years, one of the names in the masthead was "P.D. Quick" – and the consensus among those who would later join the company and helm it for decades is that was a made up name.

About the initials – D.M. Gongwer, for example – for most of Gongwer's first 50 years, staff were identified in the masthead using initials for their first and middle names, presumably as a space saving technique. Mr. Baird was W.F. Baird, for example. This ended sometime in the 2000s after the company moved away from paper, space in the masthead no longer a concern.

In the late 1960s, the company took a stab at political cartoons. Drawn by one of the first managers of the Michigan office, Jack Burdock, these are the subject of company lore. Some officials got less than flattering renditions.

In fact, for most of the 1960s, Gongwer's reports looked much different than the format that would come in the 1970s. The reports were printed on legal size paper. Legislative activity logs were blended into the news stories, as opposed to the separation of those products that began in the 1970s.

Two early hires would move Gongwer's Michigan presence from experimental and uncertain in the 1960s to an enduring part of life in and around the Capitol. And it was a short-lived attempt at expansion to Wisconsin that would help enable it.

In 1972, Gongwer Michigan Editor Dick Wheeler agreed to manage a new Gongwer operation in Madison, Wisconsin. That opened up the management of the Michigan office. Not long after arriving in Wisconsin, the Gongwer experiment in that state's capital ended and Mr. Wheeler founded The Wheeler Report, which continues today, 10 years after his death.

Alan Miller, then a Gongwer staff writer in Columbus, was named manager of the Michigan office by Mr. Baird and moved to the Lansing region. Larry Lee, a part-timer who grew up on a dairy farm in Marion, Michigan, was hired by Mr. Wheeler in 1970 and quickly promoted to full-time staff writer, was named editor.

For 20 years, Mr. Miller and Mr. Lee would run the Michigan operation and build the foundation, both in its subscriber base and its reputation for serious, trustworthy, independent reporting. Mr. Miller led the business side with a mission to grow the company's subscriber base and Mr. Lee helmed the news side. In 1992, following Mr. Baird's death, Mr. Miller, Mr. Lee and the late Robert Drumheller would become the company's owners. Mr. Miller would return to Columbus as the new company president. Mr. Lee would take on both the business and news sides in Michigan as one of two vice presidents (Mr. Drumheller, in Ohio, the other).

In 1993, the company would become an early adopter of what was then the little-known idea of having a website. A web hosting service approached Gongwer about going online, helping develop something that would attract eyeballs with scrolling headlines. That step is why the company's online archives date to September 1993.

The company made a critical decision. Unlike other news outlets that elected to make their initial websites free and open to the public, Gongwer's subscription-based model would carry over to its Internet presence.

For about the first 10 years of its existence online, the Gongwer website, with a few redesigns, would essentially mimic the company's paper product. All stories would be posted and readable in one click, with publication taking place in the evening. By 2002, the company had completely converted to electronic publication and delivery.

In 1999, there was a news story that prompted the Michigan office's leaders, Mr. Lee and John Lindstrom, who would soon become editor and later publisher in the Michigan office, to determine it merited immediately delivery. Then-Secretary of State Candice Miller, expected to challenge then-U.S. Rep. David Bonior for reelection, decided against running. The story was distributed immediately via email, the start of a gradual movement toward more immediately posting news that is familiar to today's subscribers.

A major tech-side innovation took place in 2003, when the company introduced as part of its website a database of all legislation, creating the platform that would allow the development of the advanced bill tracking system offered today. That transition also set the stage for countless other service enhancements, including interactive schedules, government directories and much more.

Today, the full-time staff of the Gongwer Michigan office numbers seven: Executive Editor and Publisher Zach Gorchow, Managing Editor Alethia Kasben, Chief Information Officer Chris Klaver, Staff Writers Jordyn Hermani, Nick Smith and Ben Solis and Legislative/Digital Specialist Miranda Hutchings.

Sixty years after the company's namesake founders took a chance on Michigan, the company remains ever committed to its original mission of providing "information pertinent to legislative and state department activities" and looks forward to continuing to serve its subscribers with trustworthy news and information and new and innovative services.

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Power Of Trump Endorsement Set To Be Tested

Posted: September 21, 2021 9:25 AM

The elected and institutional Republican establishment is watching as the activist wing of the party builds toward a moment a decade in the making, near total control of the Michigan Republican Party apparatus.

Starting in 2013, when Bobby Schostak barely held off Todd Courser for state party chair, the activist wing of the party has slowly built its power base among the delegates who control state party conventions. They suffered a setback in 2014 when the institutional wing of the party outmaneuvered them in precinct delegate elections and were able to stack the convention pool with supporters who would defend then-Lt. Governor Brian Calley against an uprising in the base.

Once Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, the shift has grown more and more pronounced, from Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Clement getting roundly booed at the 2018 convention to Ron Weiser deciding that in order to reclaim the chair's position he had to cut a deal with the leader of the activist wing, Meshawn Maddock, to serve as his co-chair, after the 2020 elections.

Now coming into the 2022 elections, the activist wing is in position to do something they have struggled to do in the past, win the biggest prizes the convention has available: the secretary of state and attorney general nominations. The winners will take on Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel.

Their efforts got turbocharged this month when President Donald Trump endorsed Kristina Karamo for secretary of state and Matt DePerno for attorney general. Far from the traditional conservatives out of the elected, business or government wings the convention has nominated in the past for these positions (Tom Leonard, Mary Treder Lang, Ruth Johnson, Bill Schuette, Terri Land, Mike Cox, John Smietanka, Candice Miller), Ms. Karamo and Mr. DePerno come straight out of the party's insurgent wing.

Both have been at the forefront of falsely insisting, all evidence to the contrary, that fraud occurred in the 2020 election. Ms. Karamo is a new face to the party. Mr. DePerno has loomed as a distant but nettlesome figure for years in the party, representing Mr. Courser in his legal problems. They filed a groundless lawsuit against The Detroit News, and Mr. DePerno's antics resulted in a judge ordering him and Mr. Courser to pay $79,701.63 in sanctions to the newspaper, eventually settling for $20,000.

Mr. DePerno has remained a leader of the conspiracy fringe, throwing figurative Molotov cocktails at Antrim County election officials who made an honest mistake in how they programmed election equipment that incorrectly showed now-President Joe Biden beating Mr. Trump in the solidly Republican County. The problem was caught and corrected and has been found by multiple inquiries to have been an isolated mistake, not the fraud conspiracy Mr. DePerno and others continue to claim.

Can anyone defeat Ms. Karamo or Mr. DePerno at a Republican convention stocked with the most ardent Trump supporters in the state?

Someone has to first step forward and so far, no one has.

On the attorney general side, one promising potential candidate – former U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider – already has said he will not run. Many Republicans are hoping, to put it mildly, that former House Speaker Tom Leonard, the party's 2018 attorney general nominee, will give it another go. He has not said what he will do but there is some optimism he will run.

Should Mr. Leonard run, it will prove a valuable test of where the core of Michigan Republican activists stands. He is a staunch conservative. He was a Trump nominee for U.S. attorney in the western district of Michigan. There's no room to his right, except perhaps on the 2020 election. He has not yet weighed in on the fraud conspiracy theories. If Mr. Leonard runs against Mr. DePerno, he will have to answer that question head on at some point.

Then it will be up to the activists, who backed Mr. Leonard by a good margin at the 2018 convention against a quality challenger, to decide whether he or Mr. DePerno would best represent the party against Ms. Nessel.

On the secretary of state side, Republicans have a problem. None of the county clerks are likely to go near the race, having taken enormous heat over their disavowal of conspiracy theories surrounding the election. Elected officials like Rep. Ann Bollin (R-Brighton), a former township clerk, also are passing. Now anyone who has pondered the race has to confront challenging Mr. Trump's preferred candidate.

All this said, neither Mr. DePerno nor Ms. Karamo has any experience at winning a convention campaign, of the blocking and tackling needed to get delegates who support them elected to the state convention from each county convention and then make sure they show up at the state convention. This is something the Republican establishment knows how to do.

Right now, it's unclear who, if anyone, can benefit from that advantage. It's also unclear whether that tactical edge will carry the day or if Mr. Trump's sway will prove too much this time.

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It May Take Ballot Proposal To Decide Abortion In Michigan

Posted: September 7, 2021 2:32 PM

Almost 50 years ago, about one year before the U.S. Supreme Court held that women have the legal right to abortion, Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot proposal to rescind the state's longtime law making it a felony for someone to perform an abortion and instead allow abortions at 20 weeks or less of pregnancy.

With the court's Roe v. Wade precedent now hanging by a thread at best with an apparent 5-4 majority of the court allowing a Texas anti-abortion law to take effect and a case out of Mississippi coming before the high court soon that would offer an opportunity to overturn Roe, anticipation about the Michigan impact is building. For those opposed to abortion, they are sensing a 50-year quest to bring back Michigan's ban on abortion, which dates to 1846, is nearing success. For those who support a legal right to abortion, there is great fear about Michigan's law coming back into full force.

The U.S. Supreme Court probably will not rule in the Mississippi case until June 2022, and there's no guarantee it will fully overturn Roe. The court could, for example, uphold the Mississippi law, which bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, but avoid a broader overturning of Roe, which might leave the legality of abortion in Michigan unchanged. Or it could overturn Roe entirely, leaving the issue to the states, and bringing Michigan's mostly dormant abortion ban back into effect.

That uncertainty probably means Michigan's abortion ban isn't leaving the books anytime soon. Groups favoring a legal right to abortion might be hesitant to start an initiative petition now when the court has yet to rule. Historically, 2022, with a Democrat in the White House, also would tend to mean more Republicans voting than Democrats, which might make for a questionable electoral climate to put a ballot proposal before voters.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer today reminded voters she is among the strongest elected supporters of Roe and the legal right to abortion with her call on the Legislature to repeal the abortion ban. But she and everyone else knows the Legislature, with its anti-abortion Republican majorities, supports keeping the ban in place and will take no action.

That sets the 2022 elections as the first marker. Democrats will need to re-elect Ms. Whitmer and win control of the Legislature to repeal the abortion ban and pass a law legalizing abortion in Michigan. Watching the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission redraw the lines, it's apparent that at best, Democrats can hope for a fighting chance to win control of the House and Senate. Democratic dreams of the independent commission virtually assuring control of the Legislature based on their better performance in statewide races are fading fast. The geographic polarization of voters has made the Democratic path to majority in the House and Senate challenging though certainly better than if Republicans were drawing the maps again this year.

There have been exactly four Democratic sweeps of the governor's office and the Legislature in a single election cycle in state history: 1890, 1932, 1936 and 1982. It would take a special confluence of events for it to happen.

That said, if the U.S. Supreme Court fully overturns Roe and abortion becomes a felony again in Michigan for those providing one, the women voters who defined and dominated the 2018 election cycle would be at maximum motivation to turn out and that could upend what the electorate looks like.

If Democrats are unable to sweep control, that leaves supporters of a legal right to an abortion with only one other option: a ballot proposal. They could either seek an initiative petition to amend the mostly dormant statute or a constitutional amendment that would trump the abortion ban in statute.

The 1972 vote will provide no guidance. Only a small minority of current voters in the state were 18 or older and voted in that election. You would have to be 68 or older and lived in Michigan.

How Michigan voters would come down on a new proposal is hard to say. Voters are famously nuanced when polled on abortion. Most say they support Roe. Most also say they support the types of restrictions states have enacted to regulate abortion. Supporters of a legal right to abortion would have to carefully weigh whether to include some of those restrictions if doing so would give a proposal a better chance of passing. That will be a difficult discussion.

Right to Life of Michigan and the Michigan Catholic Conference will be ready to work to defeat such a proposal. The progressive groups that became a force while former President Donald Trump was in office, combined with an ACLU that is far flusher with cash than it was for most of the 50 years Roe has been in place, would be expected to lead the way for the side pursuing legalization of abortion in Michigan in a post-Roe climate, if it happens. Out of state money would pour in for both sides.

It would be an emotional, titanic struggle if it happens.

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Remembering Paul Mitchell

Posted: August 24, 2021 6:12 PM

Paul Mitchell so badly wanted to get elected to state or federal office.

Once he got there, he was so disappointed with the climate in Washington, D.C., that he left after just two terms and even quit the Republican Party, dismayed at its embrace of former President Donald Trump's false election claims. I never would have expected after all he did to finally win a high-level elected office that he would give it up the way that he did.

From 2013-16, Mr. Mitchell changed his voter registration address three times, running for, nearly running for or maybe considering running for four different offices.

A joke made its way through Michigan politics that if one of the state's Republican members of Congress decided not to run in 2016, Mr. Mitchell would move and run there. Sure enough, U.S. Rep. Candice Miller decided not to run, and Mr. Mitchell moved his voter registration to property he owned in Lapeer County within the 10th District. This time, he won.

From afar, looking at the millions of his own fortune and all the moves, it appeared to me Mr. Mitchell wanted nothing more than the status of holding office.

I was very, very wrong.

Mr. Mitchell died this week after a short bout with cancer robbed him of what should have been a robust new chapter in his life.

What we quickly learned about Mr. Mitchell was he really hoped he could make a difference in Congress. He was not seeking attention, how else to explain that he wasn't trying to make himself the next big Republican player on Fox News Channel.

He was devoutly conservative, at least by the standards that existed prior to the election of now former President Donald Trump.

And that's where fate intervened. Mr. Mitchell, when he ran in 2016, probably anticipated either serving as a foil for his strongly Republican constituency to a President Hillary Clinton or working hand-in-hand with a Republican president like Jeb Bush. Instead, Mr. Trump won and some of Mr. Trump's actions and comments deeply upset Mr. Mitchell.

Mr. Mitchell celebrated working with Mr. Trump where they agreed, like on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement trade pact. He condemned Mr. Trump's admonition to U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) and three other devoutly progressive women of color in the U.S. House to "go back" to the countries from which they came (three of the four were born in the U.S.).

He also sharply criticized Mr. Trump after the former president mused in a speech about whether former U.S. Rep. John Dingell, who had recently died, might be in hell.

When he announced his decision not to seek reelection in 2020, it was a shock. Political rhetoric had overwhelmed Washington and his goals of working on policy, he said then.

Then when a huge swath of the Republican Party refused to accept the 2020 election results showing Mr. Trump lost, Mr. Mitchell quit the party.

Five months after leaving office, Mr. Mitchell disclosed he had stage IV renal cancer. Ten weeks later, he is gone.

It's a terrible shame. One wonders what he might have accomplished had he been elected at a different time.

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Gongwer Announces New Board, Commission Tracking, Other Features

Posted: August 10, 2021 9:47 AM

Gongwer News Service today announced an exclusive and groundbreaking board and commission tracking system, along with several other upgrades that assist subscribers in monitoring Michigan's executive branch activities.

The services allow subscribers to track executive agency boards and commissions and receive alerts when those entities schedule meetings.

Further, new Gongwer pages for key boards and commissions include member information, contact details and long-term schedules, and will include future Gongwer articles regarding those entities.

From the State Board of Education to the Public Service Commission to the Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development to the State Transportation Commission, and scores of other boards, this new service delivers resources unavailable anywhere else.

Built on Gongwer's leading tracking system, subscribers who track boards and commissions can choose to receive updates via email or text message and can choose to receive those messages in real time or at the end of the day.

The new system is integrated with Gongwer's Michigan Report and scheduling services, continuing efforts to make Gongwer products the most interactive and reliable service on the market.

With new service, the track buttons in the Michigan Report also now will show as "Tracked" if users already are tracking that bill, administrative rule, legislative committee or board/commission.

Subscribers are already able to track several other items, including legislation, administrative rules legislators, committees, keywords, MCL sections and more. (Tracking page)

This year, Gongwer has released several new service enhancements, including alerts for news coverage categories, improved legislative status reports and a legislative staff contact service. That's on top of major, exclusive features announced in 2020 like tracking of administrative rules activity, real-time updates on administrative rules and a dedicated page on the Gongwer website for the redistricting process.

Additional service enhancements are in development and will be announced in the near future.

Subscribers with any questions about the new boards/commissions feature or interested in a demonstration should contact

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In Carl Levin, Michigan Had Something Special

Posted: July 30, 2021 1:23 PM

I've covered too many elected officials and candidates to count through the years.

U.S. Sen. Carl Levin was a challenge though when it came to remaining objective. I think I felt about him maybe the same way his generation did in Detroit about Hank Greenberg, the Detroit Tigers' Hall of Fame slugger who was Jewish and a hero to Jews everywhere.

I grew up in an area of metro Detroit where I was for most of my upbringing either the only Jewish student in my class or at best one of a couple. No, I didn't face the anti-Semitism that existed in the 1930s and 1940s when Mr. Greenberg served as a powerful symbol against it. But I was still something of an oddity at my elementary school when it came to the holidays and I would sometimes get pressed in the schoolyard about my beliefs.

Yet on those occasions where I felt different, there was this towering figure to admire – Mr. Levin, one of the state's U.S. senators. Elected in 1978, just before I turned 3, Mr. Levin, the state's first Jewish U.S. senator, was brilliant, thoughtful and principled. He became a national force, not just someone with a reputation that ended at Michigan's borders. He was funny. He was a constant presence on the political scene even after his retirement from the Senate in early 2015.

He was a senator for all of Michigan. Yes, he was a liberal from Detroit who held views on taxes, spending, guns, abortion and other views completely at odds with Republicans and conservatives. But he ran an elite constituent services operation. The Republican in Hudsonville knew if they had a problem involving services from a federal agency, they could call Mr. Levin's office, and his team would fix it, same as if a Democrat from Detroit made the same request.

So, yes, he was a senator all of Michigan could admire, even if they disagreed with him on policy.

But for Jews, he was our senator. As the public relations specialist Matt Friedman pointed out last night, "Put a mensch in the U.S. Senate" was an actual campaign slogan. Mr. Levin showed that if you work hard and treat others well, success is possible.

It's why one of my college friends, who is Jewish and grew up in Michigan, messaged last night upon hearing the news, "Shit, Carl Levin died."

So as a reporter, this made covering Mr. Levin difficult. As an intern with The Flint Journal in 1997, Mr. Levin was speaking to some students at Mott Community College and I was assigned to cover it. I knew what I had to do – ask good, relevant questions and write what happened, fairly and accurately, as is the standard always.

Some of the details are lost to memory but as I recall much of the discussion was about his criticizing the budgeting of the Republican-led Congress. He went through a professorial explanation (of course) of how holding spending at the same level from year to year is actually a cut in spending because of inflation. I think he said something like, "If I get $1 million to buy 1,000 widgets in 1996 and the same $1 million in 1997, now I can only buy 990 widgets." Or something like that.

Afterward, I was asking him some questions and he was more than happy to make time for a 21-year-old intern. At one point, he didn't know the answer. Instead of shrugging his shoulders, he picked up a phone and called his office to get the answer. I couldn't believe it and started chuckling, and he seemed to appreciate that I appreciated what he was doing.

So yes, when the news broke Thursday night that Mr. Levin had died, tears welled up (and damn it, it's happening again). It was like part of my childhood died.

Mostly, however, I am grateful for Mr. Levin. Say hi to Mr. Greenberg for us.

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The Jewell Jones Fiasco, #HOLLA

Posted: July 27, 2021 3:31 PM

Rep. Jewell Jones (D-Inkster) became the youngest member of the Legislature in state history when he was first elected in 2016.

He had been handed a gift borne of tragedy. Rep. Julie Plawecki had filed to run for reelection earlier in the year but died suddenly in June. With no candidates for the Democratic nomination in the 11th House District, it was up to the local Democratic Party to choose a new nominee – and in effect, Ms. Plawecki's successor because of the district's staunch Democratic tilt.

They went with Mr. Jones over a bevy of other hopefuls, including Ms. Plawecki's daughter, Lauren (who would instead fill out the remaining seven weeks of her mother's term).

It was a feel-good story in many ways. The first state legislator from Inkster in memory. The youngest-ever state legislator, and one who could not attend the Democratic Party meeting because he was training with the U.S. Army in Kentucky.

Five years later, all the hope the self-proclaimed "hope dealer" who lives on social media, ending nearly every post with "#HOLLA" brought has vanished in a series of bad choices and an apparent disinterest in taking his mounting problems seriously.

The event that started everything, his getting arrested after a traffic crash in Livingston County in April and eventually bound over to stand trial on four counts of resisting/assaulting/obstructing a police officer, all felonies, as well as misdemeanor counts of driving with an extremely high blood alcohol content, operating while intoxicated, reckless driving and possession of a weapon while under the influence of alcohol was bad, certainly. But they remain allegations and Mr. Jones is merely one in a long line of legislators who have made the huge mistake of getting behind the wheel after drinking.

Still, the event is a huge problem for Mr. Jones, but it's what's transpired since then that has undermined his credibility at the Capitol.

First, he violated his bond conditions, misleading the court by using his military service as a way for him to get out of drug and alcohol testing while out on bond. He claimed he had been ordered to report to Camp Grayling between June 12-26. In fact, he was at House committee meetings on June 15 and mindbogglingly tagged himself on social media the next day at a local gym in Wayne County.

Then, with drug and alcohol testing ordered, Mr. Jones didn't pay his alcohol monitoring fees. Weirdly, after the tether monitoring company contacted Mr. Jones repeatedly to pay, he responded by saying, The Detroit News reported, "No worries. I see the email. Thank you! I don't get a discount???"

That mess got him a $1,000 fine.

When a budget for the Department of State Police – the arresting agency in his case – came up on the House floor, he cast the lone no vote. Even if Mr. Jones thinks the State Police railroaded him, that looked like a petty retaliatory vote cast out of vengeance. Better to abstain in such a situation if he is so angry at the department he can't bring himself to vote to fund its basic operations. Or possibly he thought it was a joke since he told officers he controlled their budget during his arrest.

Monday, Mr. Jones submitted his campaign finance report for fundraising and spending activity so far this year, and it was a doozy. Money spent at a strip club, money spent at a club in Harlem purportedly to meet with constituents. The Michigan Campaign Finance Act is very loose when it comes to how elected officials can use their campaign funds, but Mr. Jones dropping $221 at a strip club in Dearborn to – as his report said – "discuss potential economic projects in Inkster" sounds patently absurd.

Mr. Jones is of course presumed innocent until proven guilty on the charges against him. And many a legislator has rebounded from the depths of personal struggle to become a strong leader.

The problem for Mr. Jones, and increasingly his legislative colleagues watching this ongoing mess, is he seems intent on digging himself into an ever-deeper hole.

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Equity In K-12 Funding? Anyone Remember The Hold Harmless Districts?

Posted: July 8, 2021 4:14 PM

There's been a lot of celebrating in the past week about the 2021-22 fiscal year budget for the state's K-12 public schools, and understandably so.

The long-sought goal of eliminating the gap between those districts funded at the minimum level per pupil and the basic level will be eliminated under the budget Governor Gretchen Whitmer is expected to sign next week.

This was the goal of Proposal A of 1994, to end the gap between the basic and the minimum level. Technically, the goal at that time was not – as some have said – to equalize state funding per pupil. That only became the goal in the late 2000s when the Legislature and Governor Jennifer Granholm consolidated the three funding tiers under by Proposal A – minimum, basic and maximum – and set the basic level the same as the maximum.

It's a massive achievement.

However, it does not – as many, including Governor Gretchen Whitmer, have described – bring equalization of per pupil funding.

On Wednesday, while signing a historic $4.4 billion supplemental K-12 appropriation for the current 2020-21 fiscal year, Ms. Whitmer, referring to the full-year budget, told those gathered for a news conference they would no longer be seeing wide disparities in per pupil funding.

It is true that every district will now receive a basic foundation allowance from the state of $8,700 per pupil.

But there are still 43 of the state's more than 500 traditional public school districts that will have more per pupil to spend in their basic amount per student because of a provision written into Proposal A to assure that communities with higher property values didn't erupt in protest and oppose Proposal A.

These were communities – Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills, Farmington, Farmington Hills, part of Madison Heights, Southfield, Troy, Royal Oak, West Bloomfield, the Grosse Pointes, among others – where voters had long ago approved higher property taxes to pay for schools. Of the 43, 24 make use of this provision with the other 19 getting to spend more per pupil because of various carve-outs in Proposal A that I will not get into here.

These 24 were the communities highlighted in the leadup to Proposal A of 1994 about how they were then getting about $10,000 per pupil while many others in the state were getting something in the $3,000 per pupil range.

As a tradeoff to avoid having a key voting bloc revolt at Proposal A, they were designated "hold harmless" districts, meaning they would be held harmless from Proposal A and allowed to continue levying the taxes locally to bring them to the foundation allowance they had at that time.

For 2021-22, Bloomfield Hills will get $12,535 per pupil, Birmingham $12,455, Southfield $11,502, Lamphere $10,960, Farmington $10,576, Grosse Pointe $10,395, Center Line $10,034, Ann Arbor $9,701, Troy $9,486, Royal Oak $9,289 and West Bloomfield $9,327, among many others, including several in different parts of the state.

The distinction is important for a couple reasons. Parents of students in most districts could be excused for thinking based on the litany of press statements from elected officials in both parties for thinking their student would now be funded the same as those in the Bloomfield Hills Schools.

In fact, there's still a long ways to go before true equity in per pupil funding has been reached in Michigan.

The other reason it's important is that administrators, teachers and students in the hold harmless districts have been coping with tiny increases for years while their lower-funded brethren got twice as big an increase in raw dollars (and substantially more in percentage terms).

The $171 per pupil increase Bloomfield Hills Schools will receive for 2021-22 is a 1.4 percent increase, below the rate of inflation. That's largely been the case for that district for the past decade.

Meanwhile, the $589 increase per pupil the Chippewa Valley Schools (where Ms. Whitmer signed the supplemental appropriation Wednesday) and most other districts are getting is a 7.3 percent increase.

So if you're a superintendent in one of the hold harmless districts whose been coping with at best inflationary increases for more than 20 years, isn't one of the questions on your mind amid all this talk of achieving equity whether your district will finally enjoy parity with other districts in year to year funding changes?

The governor and the Legislature will have some major decisions to make come next year when deciding the 2022-23 budget on this topic and whether they consider the equity battle truly concluded.

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The Fateful 2014 Republican Decision To Save Colbeck

Posted: June 29, 2021 2:56 PM

It's sometimes better to be lucky than good.

This is a cliché that comes to mind when thinking of Pat Colbeck's political career, or at least the beginning of it, namely his 2010 rise from obscurity to state senator and Republicans saving him from near-defeat in 2014.

Eventually, however, Mr. Colbeck's complete disinterest in lifting a finger to help other Senate Republicans and becoming a regular irritant to then-Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) earned him the equivalent of a legislative death penalty for his second term.

First, he had the embarrassing distinction as the only senator (and a second-termer at that) not a member of top Senate Republican leadership denied the opportunity to chair a Senate committee or Appropriations subcommittee.

Second, he had the sum total of just two of his bills in his second four-year term becoming law, neither of which would be classified as a policy lift he led, and none in his final 17 months in office.

Finally, in October 2017, Mr. Meekhof stripped him of all his committee assignments. No reason was publicly given. But sources at the time said Mr. Colbeck, by this time campaigning for governor, had made several campaign stops in communities represented by fellow Senate Republicans during which he criticized actions taken by the Senate majority. Mr. Meekhof's action also followed a harangue Mr. Colbeck gave other senators at a closed Senate Republican Caucus meeting, which prompted other members to unload on him.

Upon leaving office in 2019 following one of the least effectual Senate terms possible and a poor performance in the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary – a distant third-place finish with 13 percent of the vote – one might have thought the state had heard the last of Mr. Colbeck.

Far from it. Instead, he has begun a second act as one of the leading purveyors of false claims about the 2020 election, continuing to espouse all sorts of wild, debunked, evidence-less assertions that Democrats stole the election from former President Donald Trump.

Anyone who has followed Mr. Colbeck's political career cannot be surprised he would go down a rabbit hole of false conspiracies. He became a modern-day Joe McCarthy during the 2018 gubernatorial campaign when he – without any evidence whatsoever – claimed a Democratic gubernatorial candidate was a plant of the Muslim Brotherhood as part of a false conspiracy theory that a plot existed to plant Islamists into elected office in the United States. To quote Luke Skywalker in "The Last Jedi" when he confronts a delusional Kylo Ren, "Amazing, every word of what you just said is wrong."

That Mr. Colbeck got elected to office at all was something of a fluke.

The Democratic landslides of 2006 and 2008 put them in control of all the House seats within the Senate district Mr. Colbeck would win in 2010. That left no clear Republican heir apparent for the 7th Senate District in 2010 with the incumbent term limited and resulted in a B-team or worse level field featuring Mr. Colbeck as a newcomer, a former state rep who had not been on a ballot in 14 years and a couple of Republican activists. Mr. Colbeck rode the tea party energy to a close primary victory and then the Republican tsunami to victory in the fall.

The 2011 reapportionment led by the GOP was supposed to make the 7th District more Republican by adding Livonia and dropping the more Democratic portion of the district Downriver. Today, the current 7th District is a far better draw for Democrats than the old version given the shift of college-educated suburban voters to Democrats (Livonia) and the shift of white working class voters to Republicans (Downriver). But that wasn't yet the case in 2014, and Republicans had the perfect candidate at the top of the ticket for college-educated suburban areas in Governor Rick Snyder.

Of the two-party vote for governor in the 7th District that year, Mr. Snyder ran up a big win, 61 percent to 39 percent over Democrat Mark Schauer. This should have been an environment that allowed Mr. Colbeck to roll to reelection, even though he faced a quality Democratic candidate in then-Rep. Dian Slavens of Canton Township.

However, as the November 2014 election neared, Mr. Colbeck was having problems. He was raising paltry money. He had spent just $47,200 from late August through mid-November and had just $52,000 remaining.

Democrats weren't putting much money into the Slavens campaign, but Senate Republicans were clearly seeing some worrying numbers.

Many longtime lobbyists around Lansing can recall then-Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville assuring them earlier in the election cycle that the caucus would not be spending money on Mr. Colbeck's campaign. He had managed to alienate a wide swath of the Capitol community. And with a 26-12 supermajority, Republicans were at no risk of losing majority to the Democrats even if Mr. Colbeck did somehow blow a one-foot putt and lose.

But as the election drew nearer, Senate Republicans started to fret their supermajority status. Democrats at the time seemed to have a good chance of flipping two or three seats. While reapportionment assured Republicans of gaining a seat, they could only lose back one and maintain their two-thirds supermajority.

In rode the Senate Republican Campaign Committee to Mr. Colbeck's rescue with $263,000 in in-kind contributions for television commercials in October.

This was quite the unholy alliance. The donor class that loathed Mr. Colbeck coming in to help save Mr. Colbeck, who loathed them right back.

Whether that late cash infusion made the difference or not, who knows, it had to help: Mr. Colbeck topped Ms. Slavens by just 5.48 percentage points, 52.74 percent to 47.26 percent, or 9 percentage points behind Mr. Snyder.

Had Senate Republicans made the decision not to support Mr. Colbeck and he lost, they would have kept their supermajority. Republicans swept every contested seat in 2014 and wound up with a 27-11 majority, meaning a Colbeck loss and a 26-12 majority still would have meant two-thirds of the seats and the procedural advantages that affords.

Instead, they got another four years of Mr. Colbeck, one of the most toxic member-leadership relationships in the modern history of the Legislature and a platform for Mr. Colbeck to take his brand of fabricated conspiracies statewide as a quixotic candidate for governor.

And now he has stepped into the void to continue the false "election was stolen" conspiracy as well as insisting, all evidence to the contrary, that the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol to prevent the certification of President Joe Biden's victory was a false flag by liberal activists to make Mr. Trump and his supporters look bad. And he continues to hawk his book about his difficult time in the Senate, even setting up a table at the recent Capitol rally for yet another audit of the 2020 election in Michigan.

The Senate Oversight Committee report, written by Republicans, did not name names but Mr. Colbeck's spang to mind as one example when reading the following passage: "The committee strongly recommends citizens use a critical eye and ear toward those who have pushed demonstrably false theories for their own personal gain."

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Benson Betting Big On Appointments-Only System

Posted: June 22, 2021 5:07 PM

Secretaries of state tend to win reelection because they are well known (it's nice to have your name on the sign at every branch office in the state), and as long as they don't royally screw up, they deal in relatively noncontroversial matters that don't stir up the type of partisan acrimony that appears elsewhere.

Further, knowing the difficulty of unseating an incumbent, it's rare to see a strong candidate – and one sufficiently funded – from the opposition party.

In general, as long as the branch offices are running smoothly and people are getting their licenses, plate renewals and other records of importance without a problem, the secretary of state isn't going to have a problem winning a second term. It took the unfortunate situation of a fine human and public servant, the late Secretary of State Richard Austin, trying to stay on one term too many and making a major gaffe during a debate in a cycle where he faced a strong opponent (Candice Miller) and a Republican wave (1994) for the incumbent to lose.

Which brings us to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and her decision to discontinue walk-in service at the branch offices in favor of an appointment-only system.

Amid a sea of backlash, Ms. Benson already has backed off a little by making sure staff is available to try to help those who walk up to a branch office without an appointment. Nonetheless, one still has to go online and make an appointment to get service at a branch office. And that's not always an easy process.

As luck would have it, I got a chance to use the appointment-only system recently myself. I had to visit a branch office earlier this month with my older daughter to get her Stage 1 driver's permit/license. No surprise, when I checked in the evening, the soonest appointment available at the East Lansing branch office was not until August. The way to get an appointment at many branches offices in the near future is to check at 8 a.m. and noon on weekdays per department protocols.

I checked the East Lansing branch office at 8 a.m. one day early in June. No appointments available for a month. That was, well, pretty terrible. Then I remembered there's another secretary of state branch in Lansing's western suburbs. The branch is about 20 minutes away, which in commute-free Lansing feels like the 45-minute to one-hour commute that is part of daily life in the Detroit region, but worth a try.

And it worked! Lots of appointments were available the next day and all that week. I made the appointment, and everything went fine from there. I did wince when we pulled up to the office and saw people clustered outside, thinking that looked like an ugly line, but it turned out to just be COVID protocols. It was a little confusing for a couple minutes, but a branch office staffer came out soon after our 12:30 p.m. appointment time and brought us and others inside to a waiting spot. Our turn came quickly, staff processed everything without issue, and we were out of there pretty quickly.

All in all, it was painless.

And I have had my share of ugly in-person experiences at branch offices through the years. I can remember waiting in a massive line for more than an hour at a Dearborn branch more than 10 years ago. Or an hour-plus wait at the downtown Detroit branch about 15 years ago. Going to the old downtown Lansing branch, which no longer exists, generally made one question the state of humanity.

Ms. Benson has said trying to have the online appointment system function side-by-side with walk-up service was a failure. Her predecessor and self-appointed top critic, now-Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly), has led the charge for such a side-by-side system here, and it's sometimes difficult to separate fact from the mutual loathing society the two have established. Ms. Johnson certainly was a big proponent of the appointments system, lest we forget the kangaroo-laden public service announcements she put together as secretary of state about saving time and hopping online instead.

The motoring/voting public doesn't care about any of that, however. They would just like to be able to get their business done at the secretary of state's office and, oh, by the way, Ms. Benson ran on a 30-minute guarantee on how long it would take to get in and get out. And for as long as the secretary of state has been managing these matters, people have been able to go to their branch office and take care of business if it was a matter they couldn't handle online. Even if it meant a long wait.

There are more than a few Democrats wondering what Ms. Benson is thinking, that for every person who struggles to get an appointment in a timely way or shows up at a branch office for service only to be turned away, that means 10 people that person is going to tell about their frustrations. Not everyone has a schedule that allows them to go online at 8 a.m. or noon sharp to find an appointment when they need it. And unlike Lansing, not every area of the state has multiple branch offices within a reasonable drive.

The Republicans' television commercials virtually write themselves: Show video of Ms. Benson in 2018 talking up her 30-minute guarantee and then cut to video showing a person checking the computer and seeing the soonest available appointments two months out.

For as much as Ms. Benson's passion is the election side of the job, it's having smoothly running branch offices in every corner of the state that will play a bigger role in determining whether she wins reelection.

I had a good experience at a branch office recently. Not everyone can say the same. And that's going to become a threat to Ms. Benson winning a second term if the number of those in the latter category starts to grow.

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How Public Will Governor, Legislature Be On Budget?

Posted: June 15, 2021 2:39 PM

The administration of Governor Gretchen Whitmer and top legislative leaders are going through the annual budget target-setting process as we speak where high-level details for the upcoming 2021-22 fiscal year budget are negotiated and General Fund spending levels for each department are determined.

Usually, this would involve the sides making a deal here to achieve one side's priority and a deal there to attain another side's and overall meet somewhere in the middle on spending levels.

There's nothing usual about this year, however. The state has some $12 billion in unanticipated funds available thanks to revenues wildly exceeding forecasts and the mountain of federal aid from the American Rescue Plan. This is more than an entire year's worth of revenue to the General Fund.

In many ways, Budget Director Dave Massaron and legislative appropriators are building a new budget from scratch and not just for the upcoming fiscal year. They also must build huge supplemental appropriations bills for the current year.

Saying this is an unprecedented amount of money does not do the current climate justice. It is doubtful we will see something like this again.

These target meetings are especially delicate. As you might have heard, budget negotiations have gone really poorly between Ms. Whitmer and Republican legislative leaders since she took office in 2019. Save for the successful rush job on the current year 2020-21 budget put together last September, every other budget action has devolved into acrimony and each side testing the limits of their authority to stick a finger in the eye of the other side.

But all indications are this negotiation is going well so far and a target agreement is close.

Sometimes I think these target discussions, which take place behind closed doors, resemble the last scene in "Spies Like Us" where a U.S. delegation, led by the immortal Emmett Fitz-Hume and Austin Milbarge, is "negotiating" nuclear disarmament with a Soviet delegation based on who wins a game of Trivial Pursuit.

Last year's budget, while successful in the sense that Ms. Whitmer and the Republican majorities in the Legislature agreed to a budget, was the least transparent budget in memory. None of its spending details were made public until hours before the House and Senate sent it to Ms. Whitmer for signature.

It's now been six years since a target agreement was last made public. It used to be that once the governor and legislative leaders signed the target agreement, the details of that agreement would be made public. Then the chairs of the House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees would begin working out the finer points of the budget for each department and major budget area. It wasn't perfect but it allowed a good amount of detail to be put out to the public prior to the bills landing on the governor's desk.

In recent years, however, target agreements have not been released. There's never really been a good reason given other than that the principals don't want to do so. This also has followed a consolidation of decision-making authority on the budget in the hands of leadership and the Appropriations chairs. The subcommittee chairs, the ones who spend months building the details of each departmental budget, of late have been pushed aside for whatever reason.

The House, Senate and State Budget Office have loosely committed not to repeat last year's one-day budget rush delivery. In that instance, there was a target agreement with no details released and then about a week passed before the Legislature voted on those bills. The fiscal agencies made details of the bills public in the morning, and then, before anyone not directly involved in the process had a chance to comprehend them, the House and Senate passed the bills.

With the new July 1 deadline to present a budget to the governor, the calendar is setting up for something similar. There could be an agreement with Ms. Whitmer and legislative leaders sending the message of "Trust us, we found agreement, so it has to be good." There's once-in-ever money at stake here. Does the process end again with no opportunity for stakeholders and the public to share some thoughts on the agreement?

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An Interesting Split Between Nessel, Progressives On '18 Initiatives

Posted: June 8, 2021 4:40 PM

Attorney General Dana Nessel and the activists who in 2018 pursued initiative petitions to raise the minimum wage and assure paid sick time for workers have in recent months seen a split form between them.

It's an interesting one because by all accounts they share the same policy goals.

It all goes back to two initiative petitions in 2018 and a ruthless tactic employed at the time by then-Governor Rick Snyder and the Republican-led Legislature.

Two separate progressive groups wanted to put on the 2018 ballot proposals to raise the minimum wage to $12 over a period of years and implement required paid sick time for workers. They gathered the necessary signatures. But under the Michigan Constitution, initiated laws first go to the Legislature, not the ballot. If the Legislature did nothing, both proposals would have gone on the November 2018 ballot.

Republicans and their allies in the business community, fearing voters would pass these measures, employed for the first time a tactic called adopt and amend. The Legislature adopted both initiatives, enacting them into law, in September of 2018. That kept them off the ballot. But then in the post-election, lame-duck session, the Legislature passed – and Mr. Snyder signed – new bills essentially gutting the initiatives as though the Legislature never enacted them in the first place.

At issue is what is legally superior, that the Michigan Constitution says nothing about the Legislature amending an initiative it adopts, or whether what the Legislature did invokes the absurdity doctrine?

In other words, why would the framers of the 1963 Michigan Constitution devise a mechanism for the Legislature to work with citizens to craft a law to evade a governor who opposes it only to then let that same Legislature render that law null and void with the cooperation of the governor? If there's a candidate for the most poorly drafted portion of the Constitution, the initiated act language has to be one of them. As I've written before, how does it make sense to make 8 percent of the total vote for governor (the number of signatures needed to get a proposal sent to the Legislature) equal to the governor (who as long as the two-party system holds sway will need at least 45 percent of the vote, usually more, to get elected)?

Lawsuits were vowed. Democrats swept the statewide offices in the November 2018 elections, and in early 2019, the newly sworn in Ms. Nessel was asked for a formal attorney general opinion on the adopt and amend tactic.

Her predecessor, former Attorney General Bill Schuette, had overturned an opinion from former Attorney General Frank Kelley saying the Legislature could not amend an initiative it adopted in the same legislative session. Progressive groups hoped Ms. Nessel would reverse Mr. Schuette's opinion. Attorney general opinions are binding on state agencies, so if she had done so, the state would have then begun enforcing the initiative petitions as enacted in September with business groups then presumably filing suit and the matter heading to the courts for an eventual major ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court.

Except the Legislature then asked the Supreme Court for an advisory opinion on the topic. The matter now before the courts, Ms. Nessel could no longer issue an opinion.

The court, as is its wont, declined to issue an advisory opinion. It's rare for the court to do so.

Then the issue kind of vanished.

Ms. Nessel did not resume work on an opinion. Ms. Whitmer did not ask for one. And the groups that pursued the initiatives did not file suit against the adopt-and-amend tactic.

Two years later, however, the groups have revived the issue and put Ms. Nessel in a predicament.

They have asked her to issue an opinion on the matter. Ms. Nessel has declined to do so. Now they have filed suit to force the issue. Ms. Nessel issued a statement on that Monday venting some frustration and especially at the groups' attorney, former Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer.

"I believe the actions undertaken by the Republican Legislature to adopt and then gut the substance of the One Fair Wage and Paid Sick Leave Act were unconstitutional and undermined the will of Michigan residents," Ms. Nessel said. "Mr. Brewer knows that the surest way to resolve this issue is by bringing suit against the state of Michigan and arguing the merits of the case in court. Instead, he chose to take an adversarial stance against an ally by suing the Department of Attorney General. Mr. Brewer's actions do not serve his clients, nor will they bring necessary resolution to this issue."

From a tactical standpoint, however, a Nessel opinion would, in fact, significantly change the legal playing field.

If she issued an opinion holding the "adopt and amend" tactic unconstitutional, it would be binding on state agencies, which would then revert to enforcing the language of the initiative petitions adopted in September 2018.

That would force business groups to sue the state to challenge the attorney general's opinion with the state defending the initiative petitions.

Instead, Ms. Nessel not issuing an opinion forces advocates for the larger minimum wage and paid sick time to sue the state and pay the cost of the litigation with the state defending the more business-friendly gutted versions of the laws.

In early 2019, Democratic elected officials seemed eager to get the 2018 initiatives restored to their initial language and the adopt-and-amend tactic declared unconstitutional. Ever since the Supreme Court declined to issue an advisory opinion, however, it's been crickets.

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Redistricting Wildcard: Communities Of Interest

Posted: May 25, 2021 4:09 PM

When Michigan voters approved a ballot proposal amending the state Constitution moving control over redistricting from the Legislature to an independent commission, one of the provisions declares that districts for the U.S. House and Legislature "shall reflect the state's diverse population and communities of interest."

Subsection 13, part "C," of the new Section 6 in Article IV of the Michigan Constitution provides some guidance on what a community of interest is, such as "populations that share cultural or historical characteristics or economic interests," but the commission can use other definitions as long as it does not include a relationship to a political party, incumbent or candidate.

After making districts equal in population and keeping districts contiguous, drawing districts that reflect "the state's diverse population and communities of interest" is the next biggest priority.

Further down the priority list are that districts "shall not provide a disproportionate advantage to any political party," "shall not favor or disfavor an incumbent elected official or candidate," "shall reflect consideration of county, city and township boundaries" and be "reasonably compact."

Ever since the adoption of the Apol standards with the reapportionment prior to the 1982 elections, one of the top priorities has been that districts break as few municipal and county boundaries as possible. Even when Republicans had sole control of redistricting in 2001 and 2011, there was a big focus on preserving local borders.

How the commission applies the communities of interest category is a huge wild card looming over the upcoming reapportionment of the state's 13 U.S. House districts and 148 legislative seats.

Could the commission decide county borders and municipal boundaries don't really matter and draw ultra-squiggly looking districts to bring together people of the same race or religion scattered in places? What about districts that stretch along shared shorelines? An argument could be made that communities like South Haven, Saugatuck, Holland and the lakeshore townships adjacent and in between have more in common with each other than they do with their inland communities within the same county.

What about grouping Battle Creek, Jackson and Albion together, stitched by a thin line of land along I-94, given the larger Black populations in each of those cities?

What about consolidating census tracks with larger Black populations in southern Oakland and Macomb counties to create more majority-minority districts?

The same could be applied for other communities. Linking together census tracts with the largest Jewish populations? Chaldean populations? Muslim populations?

The potential for a lot of weird-looking districts would be at odds with one of the promises of Proposal 2 of 2018, that districts would look neat and not so strange (see the 20-second mark in the below 2018 ad from Voters Not Politicians).

Of course, right now, we have no way of knowing what the nascent commission will do and what it will mean for partisan control. Neatly drawn districts will definitely help the Republican cause because Democrats are so ultra-consolidated in smaller places. More sprawling, strange-looking seats would have the potential to help the Democrats (the Democratic-drawn map in Illinois would serve as a template for how to slice and dice municipal boundaries to help the Democratic Party).

For a long time, the priority of keeping municipal and county boundaries together has held a lot of sway. That could be about to change in a big way and it will be a new world if that's the case.

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Outdoor COVID Limits End June 1; Indoor Limits Boosted To 50%

Posted: May 21, 2021 8:35 AM

The end of state-imposed requirements and restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic is now in sight, with Governor Gretchen Whitmer announcing Thursday all outdoor limits will end June 1 and that all indoor venues will move to 50 percent capacity on that same date.

Virtually all limits are set to end July 1.

Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel will issue the formal order Monday, Ms. Whitmer said at a news conference held in Midland at the city's minor league baseball stadium. It was the first time since probably the State of the State address in January that Ms. Whitmer – now fully vaccinated against the coronavirus – appeared at a public event without a mask.

Ms. Whitmer also announced two significant changes for bars and restaurants. While they remain governed under a 50 percent capacity limit, as has been the case for a couple months, the 11 p.m. curfew and 100-person cap on indoor dine-in capacity will end June 1.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's revised guidance, issued two weeks ago, prompted Ms. Whitmer to ditch the "Vacc to Normal" plan she unveiled three weeks ago tying the reopening of the state to the percentage of people 16 and older receiving the first dose of their vaccine.

Ms. Whitmer said the "Vacc to Normal" plan had to "go vacc to the drawing board" after the CDC announcement that fully vaccinated people are safe, maskless, in virtually all activities and that outdoor activities are safe for the unvaccinated as well.

"The CDC kind of changed the landscape. It was a little bit of a surprise. Good news to be sure. But we had to recalibrate our plan, and that's what I think you see," she said. "We wanted to make sure that our policies mirrored the CDC's recommendations."

Still to be resolved: the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration emergency and permanent workplace rules governing employer and employee requirements for in-person work. Those rules are substantially in conflict with existing and forthcoming DHHS orders. Ms. Whitmer said there would be more detail Monday on that front.

However, in the evening, Ms. Whitmer and legislative Republican leaders reached a framework regarding the budget and pandemic management that would mean MIOSHA withdraws the permanent rules (see separate story).

The end of outdoor limits means the Detroit Tigers, currently limited to 20 percent at Comerica Park, or about 8,000 fans, can fill theoretically fill the stadium this summer. The end of all limits, indoor and outdoor, means the state's college football teams, as well as Detroit's other professional teams can sell as many tickets as they can when their next seasons start (large indoor venues were limited to 750 people under the soon to end order).

Summer festivals, fairs, golf tournaments and concerts will be able to go forward without restrictions.

The fairly strict limits that had been in place for indoor event spaces for items like weddings and conferences will now be replaced by a 50 percent capacity limit.

Nontribal casinos and gyms, limited under the soon-to-expire order at 30 percent of capacity, will move to 50 percent.

The idea behind the "Vacc to Normal" plan was to encourage more Michiganders to get vaccinated with more activities opening up as that happened.

As of Thursday, 57.1 percent of the state's population 16 and older has received its first dose of the vaccine. Further reopenings were to occur when the state reached 60 percent, 65 percent and then full reopening at 70 percent. There has been an emphasis on 70 percent as the number when the state is at or near herd immunity.

Asked how upending this plan for a date certain regardless of vaccination would affect vaccinations, Ms. Whitmer said she remains hopeful the state can get to 70 percent.

Affected industries mostly praised the announcement though there was some criticism that Michigan remains behind other states in lifting its COVID orders even with the schedule Ms. Whitmer announced.

Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the group welcomes the clear guidance from the state "and takes solace in knowing that our advocacy on behalf of event and banquet centers will prevent the outright loss of another wedding, graduation and conference season."

Mr. Winslow said the state's hospitality industry would now pivot to meet pent-up demand for dining and travel free of restrictions and helping restaurants, hotels and resorts meet staffing needs.

"It would be a preventable tragedy if Michigan's hospitality industry, which endured 159 days of closure and 16 months of occupancy restrictions, was rendered incapable of realizing its newfound opportunity because well-intended, but outdated policies discouraged a full return to the workforce," he said in a statement. "Michigan's labor participation rate ranks 42nd in the nation and as such we need bipartisan solutions to address this immediate threat to our hospitality revival."

Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, said Thursday's announcement was an important step for small business owners.

"First, and more importantly, it gives a date certain when epidemic emergency orders will end," he said in a statement. "Second, it makes near term changes that will allow banquet halls, convention centers and other indoor gathering facilities to start to ramp up operations in June. And finally, it will allow for many of the festivals, fairs and other community events that make our state so special to commence this summer."

Mr. Calley said SBAM looks forward to MIOSHA streamlining its temporary rules with CDC guidance and abandoning its proposal for permanent COVID-19 workplace rules.

The MIOSHA rules, which are substantial and intricate, were the subject of much of the reaction from business organizations anxious for the state to end those requirements. These statements were issued prior to the announcement the permanent rules would be withdrawn.

"The confusion among employers as to the contradictions between COVID-19 orders emanating from the MDHHS and MIOSHA needs to end now", said Charlie Owens, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business Michigan chapter, in a statement. "We have been waiting for clear direction from the administration on this issue for too long".

John Sellek, spokesperson for the Reopen Michigan Safely coalition of business organizations and others said Ms. Whitmer's "teaser of reduced economic restrictions is welcome news but what job creators need is for the administration to immediately withdraw MIOSHA's permanent COVID rules proposal, which our members formally requested yesterday. Emergency rules cannot become a permanent burden on our economic recovery."

House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Farwell) offered perhaps his most positive appraisal of the year of a Whitmer administration decision on the pandemic, if still wrapped in criticism.

"I am glad there is finally a clear and growing consensus that Michigan can manage this pandemic and improve metrics across the board without taking away people's paychecks, without holding children back for another year, and without cutting off critical state services," he said in a statement. "Now we are even making progress undoing the damage of previous restrictions. Let's keep it going and roll back all remaining limitations on Michigan families."

Tori Sachs, executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund, called for Ms. Whitmer to immediately rescind all emergency orders and rules.

"Vaccines are available to anyone over 16 who wants one and Michigan is ready to get back to work," Ms. Sachs said in a statement. "Instead, Whitmer is clinging to lockdown rules that contradict science and devastate workers, families (and) schoolchildren."

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A Seeming Nonstory Turns Into A Story, And A Headache, For Whitmer

Posted: May 18, 2021 1:27 PM

This mess Governor Gretchen Whitmer now finds herself in regarding her trip to Florida to visit her ailing father, Richard Whitmer, started out from my standpoint as a nonstory.

The governor's father has been battling a chronic condition for some time. He was not doing well while at a second home in the Palm Beach, Florida, area. The governor did what anyone with an ailing parent would do, go visit to help.

Republicans have claimed Ms. Whitmer did what she told others not to do during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that's just not the case. There were no travel restrictions in place. There have been no government-imposed limits on travel in more than a year.

Yes, Ms. Whitmer around the time she went to Florida in mid-March responded to a reporter's question about whether she had concerns about people traveling to Florida for spring break in the affirmative, that she was concerned. But she did not tell people to stay home. And there is a big difference between going somewhere for spring break and all that entails – drinking and dancing at crowded bars in a state with a laissez-faire approach to the virus – and hunkering down at your dad's residence for a long weekend and doing not much else.

Yes, the Department of Health and Human Services would a few weeks after Ms. Whitmer returned from Florida issue an advisory against travel. This came after Michigan's third wave of coronavirus cases had exploded. When Ms. Whitmer left for Florida, cases had bottomed out about a week earlier and were only slowly trending up.

So other than "bad optics," what was there really other than the governor looking in on her dad? Nothing.

But the governor and her staff were creating problems for themselves. For starters, they allowed the story to leak out, let others frame it and put themselves in a reactive posture. Meanwhile, the governor and her staff said little about the trip once stories started to appear – even where and when it happened – citing security concerns.

No doubt, this governor has to exhibit more caution about security than any other Michigan governor after the events of 2020 amid a slew of death threats, at least one of which resulted in charges, and the plot to kidnap her. The staff is dealing with threats. It's a terrible situation. But there was no explanation that made sense as to why revealing that the governor went to Florida to visit her father between March 12-15 a month after it happened would compromise the governor's security.

How different things might be if on March 16, upon returning, Ms. Whitmer held a news briefing to say she had traveled to visit her father because he was ailing, explained how long she had been gone, where she went and detailed how she got there?

How she got there. That was the one nagging piece of what started out as a nonstory and now has become a significant story.

Some digging by Deadline Detroit's Charlie LeDuff revealed Ms. Whitmer had used a high-end Gulfstream jet owned by some of Michigan's most prominent business executives (who also happen to be among the largest donors to Michigan Republican politics, which as an aside probably meant this trip was never going to stay secret and should have been revealed by the governor not long after she was wheels down in Michigan).

That raised two issues. One, how did the governor end up getting access to this plane? And two, how was it paid for?

The governor and her staff again tried to stonewall questions about the topic, saying the trip was neither a gift nor paid for at taxpayer expense but then also saying they would have nothing else to say about it.

Usually when an elected official says they have said all they are going to say on a topic, they will find themselves saying more about that topic in the not too distant future once that story starts to spiral out of control.

It doesn't help when the governor and her staff come up with varying descriptions for the trip length – "two full days," "two full days or less," etc. Finally the trip was acknowledged as leaving on a Friday and returning on a Monday. Why not just say that from the beginning instead of looking like there was something to hide?

Some of the governor's allies have privately been tearing their hair out at her handling of this story, wondering why she would not have been more transparent about something that if not handled well could become a problem. Other continue to defend Ms. Whitmer's trip and say this remains a nonstory.

There are a couple reasons I now see a story where at first I did not.

Let's go back to that first question, how did the governor get access to this plane. Someone had to ask. Yes, we now know that the governor used a 501(c)4 fund set up to help with inaugural costs and since converted to an account to defray executive office expenses from the taxpayers. Is it a good idea for the governor and/or her staff to be asking to use a plane owned by people who own companies heavily regulated and permitted by the state (PVS Chemicals and the Detroit International Bridge Company)? No, it is not. Yes, the governor used a fund she controls to pay for it, but it still looks like asking a favor. How are they supposed to say no? That's not a good position for the state to be in or to put someone in.

And now the second question, how the flight was paid for. Whitmer Chief of Staff JoAnne Huls, in a memo to Executive Office staff that the governor's office released late Friday, revealed it was the 501(c)4 Michigan Transition 2019 doing business as Executive Office Account that paid the $27,500 for the flight. Ms. Whitmer then reimbursed the fund $855 for the cost of her seat. Ms. Huls said in her memo this was in compliance with the law. And yet there are now a lot of questions being asked about whether reimbursing the cost of a personal trip fits within what the IRS permits a fund like this to cover. Maybe it was all above-board, I'm not an expert on the IRS, but again this would have been a great topic for the governor and her staff to address head on at that hypothetical March 16 news briefing.

The hypocrisy on display in both parties is something to behold right now. Democrats who lambasted Governor Rick Snyder over his nonprofit fund (remember the NERD fund?) now suddenly are unconcerned. Republicans who themselves control a vast number of 501(c)4 accounts that do not disclose their donors or expenses now suddenly find themselves V-E-R-Y concerned (skypoint to the late Hugh McDiarmid Sr.) about the governor's use of her fund.

The governor was in a bad spot. She needed to help out her ailing father in Florida. She needed a secure way to get there. It was going to cost a lot.

The decision not to be upfront from the get-go about the trip has resulted in a different kind of cost.

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The Craig-Duggan Subplot In Craig's Gubernatorial Musings

Posted: May 11, 2021 4:56 PM

There will be a lot of time to dissect a potential Republican primary featuring retiring Detroit Police Chief James Craig and a potential general election matchup against Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

But in the wake of Monday's news conference where Mr. Craig announced his retirement, one thing that stood out to me was the careful dance Mr. Craig and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan performed under somewhat awkward circumstances.

Mr. Duggan inherited Mr. Craig, who was hired by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, when he became mayor in 2014. The two did develop a good working relationship, however, and Mr. Craig was the longest-tenured Detroit chief in many years following seemingly annual changes in what might be the third most high-profile government job in the state after the governor and the Detroit mayor.

Mr. Duggan is, of course, a Democrat. Mr. Craig declared Monday that he is a Republican. He did not say if he was going to run for governor but made clear he's seriously considering it once he officially retires June 1.

If Mr. Craig does run, and if he wins the Republican nomination, it will create some awkwardness for Democrats. Any criticism of Mr. Craig's record as chief will amount to de facto criticism of Mr. Duggan. It was telling that the Michigan Democratic Party's official statement about the Craig press conference focused on his declining to answer a question about the accuracy of the 2020 election, not his record as chief.

Democrats will be counting on Mr. Duggan to help turn out the big Democratic vote in Detroit for Ms. Whitmer, and that will mean having to make the case against Mr. Craig.

Monday, Mr. Duggan chose his words carefully about Mr. Craig, and it seemed he was seeking to avoid saying anything that could be clipped by Republicans to use in an ad promoting Mr. Craig. He offered appreciative but restrained words, like "thank you for your service," but did not say anything like, "Chief Craig did an amazing job as chief," or "I think we've had the best police chief in America."

If Mr. Craig does run, the rollout probably won't be viewed as a textbook example of how to do it. Word leaked Friday that he was planning to run. That meant much of Monday's news conference focused on a possible bid for governor, not his eight years as police chief. It led to him dodging that question about the accuracy of the 2020 election. More significantly, it meant Mr. Duggan was asked if he would vote for Mr. Craig. Mr. Duggan was clearly ready for the question.

"My perspective is pretty simple," he said. "I think Gretchen Whitmer has been the best partner the city of Detroit has had in the governor's office in decades, and I will be supporting her. But as Chief Craig can tell you, he and I have disagreed on a number of issues, and I suspect that might be one of them."

Ouch, that's not the kind of quote Michigan Republicans who have encouraged a Craig bid wanted to have appear in every story about Mr. Craig's retirement.

Mr. Craig, for his part, reciprocated the pleasantries he received from Mr. Duggan at the news conference.

One wonders if the same will be true in the fall of 2022 if Mr. Craig is the Republican nominee.

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Federal Windfall Not Jumpstarting Settlement Talks In Unemployment Case

Posted: May 4, 2021 5:02 PM

It is the lawsuit that will never end. Perhaps more accurately, the lawsuit that will never start.

Nearly six years ago, a class action lawsuit, Bauserman v. Unemployment Insurance Agency, was filed in the Michigan Court of Claims accusing the state of violating the constitutional rights of almost 40,000 wrongly found to have committed fraud to obtain unemployment benefits.

In 2013, the UIA put in place a computer system, the Michigan Integrated Data Automated System, that had total or near total control in adjudicating fraud cases. The vast majority of fraud determinations, subsequent audits and investigations found, were bogus and unjustified.

Further, state law and practices in place at the time socked these wronged individuals with tens of thousands in repayments of principal, interest and massive penalties. Wages were garnished and income tax refunds intercepted. Had the Flint water crisis not erupted at almost the same time, it would be remembered as one of the most serious errors by state government in its history.

Those wrongly found guilty of fraud have long since been repaid what the state took from them. But for the more than 1,000 who filed for bankruptcy and unknown number of others who lost houses and other assets – as well as everyone who endured the nightmare – it's hard to argue they have been made whole.

It's been said that suing is a bad mechanism to obtain justice. The Bauserman case is a sad demonstration of that theory.

Almost six years after filing, the plaintiffs have yet to even get the chance to make their case thanks to a state government determined to defend itself against what looms as a massive judgment easily in the nine-figure range. First under Governor Rick Snyder and now under Governor Gretchen Whitmer, the state has appealed after repeated losses. The case has bounced all around the courts and is on its second round at the Supreme Court, where the case has been pending for 16 months.

It was the Snyder administration that was responsible for what happened. However, the Whitmer administration has continued the state's defense, unlike in the Flint water cases where Ms. Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel began moving toward a settlement not long after taking office.

I thought maybe with the state receiving a $5.65 billion windfall from the federal government as part of the American Rescue Act, maybe that would prompt the Whitmer administration to consider a settlement to eliminate the last remaining major litigation threat to the state's fiscal picture. But the plaintiffs' attorney, Jennifer Lord, said there has been no sign of any settlement. Instead, the state and the plaintiffs continue to trade briefs on just the question of whether the Supreme Court should hear the state's appeal of a Court of Appeals ruling holding that people can sue the state for damages based on a constitutional violation.

Even if the Supreme Court rules for the plaintiffs a second time, that only simply means the case can finally begin. It would go back to the Court of Claims where the plaintiffs could subpoena for documents and depose witnesses. That still puts the case, best case, on a trajectory for a judgment many years from now.

In January 2020, when Ms. Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel decided to appeal to the Supreme Court, Ms. Lord said she was "heartbroken that the agency has added years to the process to compensate the victims it harmed."

She was not wrong about the timetable.

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Gongwer Enhances Tracking System With Special Coverage Alerts

Posted: April 29, 2021 11:04 AM

Gongwer News Service today continued enhancements to its tracking system by allowing subscribers to receive alerts based on special coverage categories.

For years, Gongwer subscribers have been able to view coverage that falls into a wide range of subject matter categories. Now, users can elect to receive alerts whenever a new article matches a category of interest.

To receive an alert based on a category, subscribers can click the green plus sign next to the name of any category of interest on the Special Coverage page.

Alerts can be delivered via email and text message. Subscribers can set preferences for how alerts and other messages are delivered on the Update Profile page.

All tracked categories are displayed on the Gongwer Tracking page.

The new service continues Gongwer's recent service enhancements, including:

  • Allowing the display of positions and posting of documents on bill status reports;
  • Permitting the use of multiple logos and customized headers on status reports;
  • Allowing tracked bills to be exported into Excel spreadsheets;
  • Creation of a dedicated state budget resource;
  • Development of a dedicated redistricting page, and;
  • Integrating committee webcasts in schedules.

Additional service enhancements are in development and will be announced in the near future.

Notice regarding text alerts: Gongwer subscribers who receive messages via text and who may have changed mobile carriers are encouraged to update carrier information on the Update Profile page. Those users may need to restart their devices to receive text messages after changing carrier information.

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All-Out Battle On Election Law Is At Hand

Posted: April 21, 2021 3:36 PM

A vicious fight over election law in Michigan is underway that will have echoes to the toxic post-election environment following the 2020 elections in this state.

Republican lawmakers have introduced a large number of bills, particularly in the Senate, that would put new regulations in place regarding voting and the counting of votes. There are a number of noncontroversial bills in the package, but some of them are clearly a direct response to the anger former President Donald Trump stoked about absentee ballots and the unsupported claims from some Republicans about how votes were tabulated in heavily Democratic Wayne County.

Two factors produced an enormous increase in the number of ballots cast via the absentee process compared to in-person voting at Election Day precincts: Proposal 3 of 2018 removed the limits on who could cast an absentee ballot and the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many voters to vote absentee instead of crowding into a school, church or other venue with other voters.

Democrats tended to vote absentee. Republicans tended to vote in-person. Under Michigan's counting procedures, generally in-person votes are tabulated first, followed by the absentees, which take longer. That meant the count showed more votes for Mr. Trump for about the first 20 hours after the polls closed until Wednesday evening when absentee ballots were tallied and President Joe Biden went ahead to stay.

Some of the Republican bills are clearly designed to make the absentee process, depending on who's doing the talking, more difficult for voters or more secure.

For starters, voters would have to present a copy of photo identification when applying for an absentee ballot or be routed into the provisional ballot process. Absentee ballot drop boxes, which became popular last year, would see several new regulations and limits. The secretary of state would be barred from mass-mailing absentee ballot applications. And clerks could not provide an envelope with prepaid postage for voters to return their ballot. There are many other measures.

If and when the Republican majorities in the Legislature pass the bills, Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer will likely veto them.

That's when it gets interesting.

Michigan's Constitution allows voters to initiate a law through a petition. If signatures from registered voters at least equal to 8 percent of the total vote for governor in 2018 are collected, the initiative petition goes before the Legislature, which can enact the law through a majority vote with no opportunity for the governor to veto it.

Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser has said the state party is prepared to go this route. He also has said it would be a more narrowly, yet to be determined, set of proposals than what is now in the Legislature.

The 340,047 valid signatures from registered voters is a relatively low bar for a well-funded, well-organized petition drive as one would expect the Michigan Republican Party to put together. If Republicans can move these bills quickly to the governor's desk, let's say sometime in the next month, a petition drive would be organized in time to collect signatures during the summer months. The COVID-19 pandemic has made signature collection more challenging but both Unlock Michigan and Fair and Equal Michigan showed it can be done.

That should put a petition, presuming enough signatures are gathered, on course for enactment sometime in 2022.

Democrats will have a few options on how to respond.

They could sue and hope the courts would find the new law runs afoul of the language in Article II, Section 4 of the Michigan Constitution added in Proposal 3 of 2018 providing all voters in Michigan "the right" to vote in all elections. Republicans could counter that subsection 2 of that section makes clear the Legislature has the right to "enact laws to regulate the time, place and manner of all nominations and elections, to preserve the purity of elections, to preserve the secrecy of the ballot, to guard against abuses of the elective franchise, and to provide for a system of voter registration and absentee voting."

But such a case would mark a big test for the new Democratic majority on the Michigan Supreme Court.

Democrats could mount a counter petition drive. Realistically, that would have to start this year. There might not be enough time to wait for enactment of the Republican initiative to start a petition drive. That would likely mean a constitutional amendment, which would trump a voter-initiated statute by the GOP, that preempts the kind of changes Republicans have proposed.

There's a couple problems with that approach, however. First, it would require voter approval and there's no guarantee of that. Second, even if approved, it would come too late to prevent the Republican law from affecting the 2022 elections.

There's the possibility of putting the Republican law up for referendum. If Democrats gathered enough signatures, it would suspend the law and prevent it from taking effect until voters decided the matter in November 2022.

But Republicans will presumably put an appropriation into their initiative petition to inoculate it from a referendum. Under a 2001 Michigan Supreme Court ruling, any statute containing an appropriation, no matter how small, cannot be subject to referendum. Maybe Democrats would like to get the chance to put the appropriation topic before the Democratic majority on the court to revisit one of the most controversial, most criticized Supreme Court rulings in the past quarter-century. By all accounts, the intent of the language was to prevent anti-government zealots from putting the entire state budget up for referendum and shutting down the government, not to allow the Legislature to drop $10,000 into a bill to prevent a referendum.

One also has to wonder at what point Democrats might consider a constitutional amendment to eliminate legislative enactment of voter-led initiative petitions and require all such petitions to instead go to the ballot for voters to decide. Republicans have adroitly used this mechanism several times in recent years. Democrats have not had control of both houses of the Legislature and the ability to use it since 1983. Such a change wouldn't affect this issue, however.

Republicans have the advantage on this issue right now thanks to the 1961-62 Constitutional Convention allowing for legislatively enacted petition drives. The worry among Democrats is palpable, and their options for countering the GOP are challenging.

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An Unexpected Biden-Whitmer Dispute

Posted: April 13, 2021 4:47 PM

A disagreement between Governor Gretchen Whitmer and close political ally President Joe Biden about the best way to respond to Michigan's worst-in-the-nation coronavirus situation underscores the difficult position for the governor as the state confronts a third wave of virus cases and a sharp rise in deaths.

The Biden administration is calling for Ms. Whitmer to implement stay-home order type restrictions. Ms. Whitmer instead wants the federal government to boost the state's vaccine allotment. Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II has said the state should try to vaccinate its way out of the surge in cases. Federal health authorities have said it is not possible to do that because of the time it takes for someone to become vaccinated.

Having an anonymous source from the Whitmer administration describe the contents of Ms. Whitmer's phone call to Mr. Biden to The New York Times and say (as paraphrased by the newspaper) that Mr. Biden "seemed to have inaccurate information about what restrictions remained in place" is not exactly how one would have envisioned the Biden-Whitmer relationship looking two months into his presidency. The newspaper described the source as "a state official with knowledge of the call." Ms. Whitmer has been careful to praise Mr. Biden's handling of the virus, but this is a significant disagreement, no doubt about it.

Ever since the number of coronavirus cases began rising in late February, Ms. Whitmer has embarked on a completely different path in response to the virus compared to the aggressive approach she took in 2020. Starting in January, and especially since Elizabeth Hertel became Department of Health and Human Services director at the end of the month, the Whitmer administration has moved to relax restrictions even after the third wave kicked into high gear in March.

To be clear, Michigan still has a number of regulations in place – mandatory face coverings, a myriad of workplace requirements for in-person work if permitted, gathering limits and capacity limits for retailers, restaurants, bars and event venues.

But nearly all the changes in January were to ease up on those restrictions, letting school athletics start up, reopening dine-in service at bars and restaurants, raising gathering limits, etc.

And now, with Michigan clearly in the worst shape of any state in the nation, the governor has strongly indicated she will not issue new restrictions to slow the spread of the virus.

Pop quiz, who said the following, Ms. Whitmer or Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake)?

"Policy change alone won't change the tide. We need everyone to step up and to take personal responsibility here."

Okay, if you're reading this piece, you likely know the answer is Ms. Whitmer, last Friday.

But for those who have been following the response to the pandemic from Ms. Whitmer and Mr. Shirkey for the past year, the change in tone from the governor in the past month has been startling and has echoes of Mr. Shirkey's calls for government to "inspire" residents to do the right thing instead of set regulations or take actions. Mr. Shirkey's critics would say he has hardly followed his own call to inspire, particularly given his delayed and seemingly reluctant acknowledgement he contracted the virus and inconsistent use of face coverings.

There are a growing number of voices on the left urging Ms. Whitmer to impose new restrictions.

For the Republicans, there's been a scattershot response to Ms. Whitmer's decision not to impose new restrictions. A handful have praised Ms. Whitmer. Several have instead continued to pillory the governor, saying Michigan's case surge shows restrictions don't work. House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Farwell) said Ms. Whitmer should now lift all restrictions as some other states have done. That would seem to render dead the legislation passed by the Senate to set statutory metrics on when restaurants, bars and event spaces can be open for in-person service and to what extent or closed.

In fact, far from SB 250 *offering an opportunity for discussion, as I wrote about a couple weeks ago, it's just another point of dispute. The House seemingly has distanced itself from it. The Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association (which proposed the framework on which the bill was based) criticized Ms. Whitmer's call for people voluntarily not to dine indoors even as the bill, if it was now law, would have automatically closed dine-in service several days ago. And Ms. Whitmer said Monday the bill proves orders from the executive branch are more nimble than statutory actions to handle the pandemic, noting her administration's orders have kept dine-in service open while the bill would have closed it.

Ms. Whitmer is wrestling with all manner of crosscurrents: a public that is fatigued with restrictions, a hospitality industry workforce that has been economically hammered, a health care workforce that is exhausted and on the verge of getting overrun with patients again, Republicans who appear intent on blocking her at every turn and some natural allies wondering what happened to her aggressive mitigation strategy from 2020. The governor herself said recently that no matter what course she follows on the pandemic, there will be pushback.

The surprise in the past week is that the pushback has been coming from the Biden White House.

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Does Bill Offer Path Out Of Whitmer, GOP COVID Stalemate?

Posted: March 30, 2021 4:17 PM

For the past year, Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican-led Legislature have agreed on little to nothing when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ms. Whitmer has favored an aggressive response led by the executive branch through emergency orders. The governor has said she is willing to work with the Legislature and would like to see it pass a bill making the state's mask mandate a statute instead of a public health order. But she's also said many times she is not willing to negotiate on public health with the Legislature and will take the executive actions she deems necessary to protect health and safety.

The Republican legislative majorities have mostly taken a hands-off posture when it comes to how government should respond to the pandemic. They have opposed a mask mandate and fumed that instead of working with the Legislature, Ms. Whitmer has ruled by executive fiat. But they by and large have not taken action to set government regulations designed to slow the spread of the virus.

Until last week.

The Senate, on a party-line 20-15 vote with Republicans in support and Democrats in opposition, passed a bill (SB 250*) that would set clear metrics on when restaurants, bars and event spaces can be open and to what extent they can be open depending on the prevalence of the virus.

The legislation was largely modeled on a proposal from the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, whose members and the employees of those members have been battered by the pandemic.

From mid-March through mid-June last year, dine-in service at restaurants and bars was closed under Ms. Whitmer's orders. Then they could open at half capacity. Then in mid-November, the Department of Health and Human Services closed dine-in service again amid the second wave. Restaurants and bars were allowed to reopen at 25 percent capacity in February and then were boosted to 50 percent capacity earlier this month.

The bill uses the positivity rate (the percentage of people tested for the virus who test positive) or the percentage of hospital beds occupied with COVID-19 patients as the metrics to determine the level of openness permitted.

I'm going to mention the positivity numbers only here for simplicity's sake. Here's the framework in the bill:

  • If the average positivity rate during a seven-day period is less than 3 percent, restaurants, bars and event spaces (such as weddings and conferences) operate with no limits.
  • If the average positivity rate during a seven-day period is between 3 to 7 percent, indoor dining occupancy drops to 50 percent and consumption of food and beverages can only take places in designated dining areas where people sit. Meetings and events at restaurants, bars and event spaces would be limited to 50 persons per 1,000 square feet with a maximum of 250 indoors and 500 outdoors.
  • If the seven-day average positivity rate is more than 7 percent and up to 10 percent, the 50 percent capacity limit holds for restaurants and bars with the meeting/event limit dropping 25 people per 1,000 square feet and caps of 150 people indoors and 250 outdoors.
  • If the seven-day positivity rate is more than 10 percent up to 15 percent, indoor dining is capped at 25 percent, meetings/events are limited to 15 people per 1,000 square feet with a maximum of 50 people indoors and 150 outdoors.
  • If the seven-day positivity rate is greater than 15 percent up to 20 percent, dine-in service is closed and meetings/events are limited to 10 people from not more than two households.
  • If the rate exceeds 20 percent for 14 days, then dine-in service is closed and meetings/events cannot take place at restaurants, bars and event venues.

As of Sunday, the state's seven-day positivity average was more than 12 percent, meaning under this bill, if it were to become law, restaurants and bars would be facing a stricter limit on capacity than they have now under DHHS order.

One difference, however, is that the bill does not require restaurants and bars to gather patron information for contact tracing. It only encourages it. DHHS orders currently require it.

Sunday and Monday both saw the positivity rate above 15 percent in Michigan. If that continues for another five days, under the bill, if it became law, dine-in service would close.

At present, and of course this could change, Ms. Whitmer seems very reluctant to reimpose restrictions. She's in something of a no-win position. The governor told Crain's Detroit Business on Monday that any decision she makes is going to leave many people unhappy. Republicans have fumed for months about the limits on restaurants. Now some of Ms. Whitmer's allies are frustrated that she is not reimposing restrictions with the state in the throes of a third wave of cases.

This bill seems to offer a path and one where both sides would give each other some cover. It would provide the clarity the industry says it needs. There's enough months' worth of reliable positivity data to see how it would affect the industry. It offers a clear metric on when the industry could operate free of restrictions. Based on the data, it provides in some ways a stricter rubric than what DHHS has in place now. It would have been more lenient during the second wave, however. Restaurants and bars would have been limited to 25 percent capacity in late November and most of December instead of closed outright.

Ms. Whitmer didn't seem wild about this proposal when asked about it a couple months ago, but she didn't reject it out of hand either.

After months and months of bitter disagreement on how the government responds to the pandemic, SB 250 *will offer a telling signal.

Republicans in the Legislature and the Whitmer administration could talk about how to refine the bill so that it is satisfactory to all. Or the Republicans could quickly put the bill on the governor's desk and take their chances.

There is enough here to seem worthy of what has been all too uncommon in the last five months, however: discussion of a compromise between the executive and legislative branches.

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Congress '22 Kicks Off With Carra Announcement

Posted: March 23, 2021 5:13 PM

Republican first-term state Rep. Steve Carra wants a shot to take on U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, the 18-term Republican and political juggernaut from southwest Michigan who has angered former President Donald Trump's supporters by first voting to impeach Mr. Trump and then voting to have QAnon supporter U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia removed from committees.

We won't know for many months whether Mr. Carra will in fact get the chance to take on Mr. Upton in the Republican primary next year because redistricting will take place between now and then. Mr. Upton also has yet to declare his intentions about reelection.

But it is the first domino to fall in what promises to be the most unpredictable U.S. House cycle in Michigan since probably 2002, when reapportionment prompted two Democrats to face off in a primary, caused others to run for state office instead and set up open seats that fueled political careers.

First, let's acknowledge that someone legally does not have to live in a U.S. House district to run for it. They just have to live in Michigan. And the state has seen a recent example where someone who did not live in the district still won the district, now-U.S. Sen. Gary Peters when he won a third term to the U.S. House after Republicans gutted his district. Nonetheless, it's generally politically advisable to live in the district.

Under the maps now in place, Mr. Carra, a Three Rivers resident, lives in Mr. Upton's 6th District, which neatly covers the southwest corner of the state.

However, some bright minds with mapping software have been experimenting with potential U.S. House maps using relatively recent population estimates and coming up with potential maps for the 2022 cycle. And some of those maps would move St. Joseph County, Mr. Carra's home county, out of Mr. Upton's district and instead place him in the district of U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton), among Mr. Trump's most ardent supporters and someone Mr. Carra presumably would have no interest in ousting.

If you're on Twitter, I recommend following @im_sorry_wtf and @UMichVoter, both of whom are experimenting with maps and coming up with a variety of interesting ideas. Until the census block data comes out later this year, it provides for some interesting fodder. Both are Democrats, so Republicans you'll have to put up with some Democratic tweets in between maps.

Both have come up with maps that would put Mr. Carra in Mr. Upton's district and others that would not.

The scenario where the two would be split up relies on how the new Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission interprets the constitutional mandate to keep communities of interest together. There is a case to be made that Berrien County has more in common with the counties to the north hugging the Lake Michigan shoreline, and St. Joseph County has more in common with other counties along the Indiana and Ohio border than they do with each other. Of course, they do share a media market.

Another possibility is Cass County, most of which Mr. Carra also represents, stays with Mr. Upton's district but St. Joseph does not. Mr. Carra could move to, say, Dowagiac (always good to get a Dowagiac reference in) and remain in his state House seat (which by law he must) and still be in the Upton district. That presumably wouldn't bother Mr. Carra since he swiftly moved to Three Rivers to run for the open state House seat in 2020 after losing a bid for a seat on the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners in 2018.

In looking at the maps from the folks I mentioned earlier and others, it's clearer than ever that other than U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet), every one of Michigan's U.S. House incumbents must be prepared to scramble.

A number of versions are drawing U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) into a district with U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Midland) in what immediately would become one of the top races in the nation.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) keeps getting drawn into the same district as either U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) or U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit). U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Township) and U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) stand a good chance of facing each other in a primary. U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) might have to move to Ingham County or face a starkly Republican district. There's another scenario where she picks up Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, drops Ingham County and part of Oakland County, her district becomes safely Democratic and everyone prepares for a possible clash of the titans between Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte) and Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing) for an open seat. The list goes on.

Because of the census data delays, it's going to be a long time before we know what Michigan's political maps will look like for the next decade. Candidates and potential candidates, however, will have to see whether declaring their bids is enough to start building support even with all the uncertainty. Mr. Carra will make an interesting test case.

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Whitmer, GOP Legislature Conflict Appears Intractable

Posted: March 16, 2021 3:28 PM

Only 10 weeks into the 101st Legislature, the relationship between Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican-led Legislature appears broken and the odds of that changing look unlikely.

This is a carryover of the ugly end to the 2019-20 legislative term when the Republican Legislature sent a COVID relief bill to Ms. Whitmer's desk without negotiations, and Ms. Whitmer line-item vetoed portions of it.

On the latest COVID-19 relief bill, Ms. Whitmer proposed a $5.6 billion plan while Republican legislative majorities decided to build their own $4.2 billion plan that they plopped on the governor's desk, again without her input. Once again, Ms. Whitmer busted out the line-item veto pen and may see if there's a way legally to disburse $841 million for K-12 schools that Republicans tied to the governor agreeing to transfer some pandemic management powers from the state to local health departments.

There's still about $2 billion in federal money unappropriated from the second federal COVID relief bill, and now there's billions more on the way. Not to mention the annual regular budget. Could the state be headed to yet another ugly budget standoff like what happened in 2019? It sure has that feel.

Meanwhile, besides the budget, the Legislature is firing up investigation machinery into the separation agreement the Whitmer administration and former Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon signed when he resigned. The Senate is putting new DHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel through the most extensive set of advice and consent hearings I have seen. This appears to have nothing to do with her qualifications, which are clear, but simply because she is an appointee of Ms. Whitmer. So said Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) to JTV's "The Bart Hawley Show."

"She raises everybody's standard on a policy issue because she's sincere and she's honest," said Mr. Shirkey, who worked closely with Ms. Hertel when he was in the House and she was a House Republican policy staffer. "But she's an appointee of our current governor and for that reason she had a fair amount of opposition in our caucus."

The driver here, of course, is the coronavirus pandemic.

Ms. Whitmer will not yield to Republican demands that she cede executive powers to manage the pandemic. Republicans have now decided they will give her no input on the budget. That's all well and good, but the governor still has the power of the line-item veto.

Which makes one wonder why the Legislature won't use the equivalent tactic on the pandemic. There is nothing stopping the Legislature from passing legislation changing the Public Health Code with some type of a threshold system putting in place restrictions depending on the severity of COVID-19 cases. But throughout the pandemic – including the period in October after the Michigan Supreme Court ruling nullified the executive orders Ms. Whitmer had issued – that hasn't happened. Yes, the governor could veto it. But why not try?

Absent the passage of a bill and placement of it on the governor's desk, the only conclusion one can draw is that Michigan's Republican legislative majorities see no role for state government to slow the spread of the virus through regulations and restrictions. Mr. Shirkey said as much recently, praising the actions of the Texas governor to lift restrictions.

Meanwhile, Ms. Whitmer has said many times she will not negotiate on public health, which would seem to make any legislative action setting regulations a fruitless exercise.

Except, there have been some instances where the governor has taken feedback about restrictions and then changed those restrictions. She has denied that feedback had an impact. But her administration has acknowledged discussions are happening with the Detroit Tigers about raising capacity at Comerica Park beyond the 1,000-person limit DHHS has imposed (whether the team would draw more than that after Opening Day given its talent-barren roster is a separate question). Both times the governor agreed to allow high school sports to resume it was clearly done while she held her nose.

So one presumes the Republicans see this and think, negotiate with us too.

Throughout this, as an academic exercise, I wondered what would happen if Ms. Whitmer went to Republicans and offered to lift most restrictions in exchange for a strict face covering mandate if they would agree. Mr. Shirkey has made it clear he opposes a mask mandate and Republicans have rebuffed the idea from the get-go. A solid percentage on the House GOP side don't wear masks during session and committees, though more do than don't for the most part. Even if the governor was willing to negotiate pandemic management, it's not clear exactly what Republicans would concede.

Then there's all the personal animosity between the players. The mutual loathing society of Mr. Shirkey and Ms. Whitmer has been well documented. On the House side, the new Appropriations chair, Rep. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell), has emerged as a strident Whitmer critic, recently giving a speech on the House floor when he falsely claimed the governor had "literally" locked people in their homes during the pandemic.

There's 2022 electoral politics of course. Ms. Whitmer is up for reelection.

That brings us to where things currently stand. Ms. Whitmer sees no partner on pandemic management and so is running that operation on her own. The Republicans see a governor acting unilaterally on the pandemic and so have decided to impose maximum will in a place where they have it, on the budget.

How any of this gets untangled or resolved, I have no idea.

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Separation Agreements Again Show Michigan FOIA Is Broken

Posted: March 3, 2021 2:33 PM

Michigan's Freedom of Information Act, the law designed to assure the public can obtain records to understand the operations and actions of its governments, is a dumpster fire.

More accurately, government officials since the law's enactment in 1976 have turned a well-intended breakthrough in opening up government to the public following the Watergate scandal into a shield to make obtaining government records an infuriatingly difficult, outrageously expensive, ineffective process.

News reporters, who by and large as the ones who interact with the law the most, have been ranting about the FOIA's problems for years. Whether the government official is a Democrat or Republican, at the state, local government, school district or some other level of government, the goal has been and remains to use whatever tool/loophole available in the law to prevent the release of public information.

I could go back to one of the first major FOIAs I filed while a reporter at The State News in the 1990s for various Michigan State University police records. The university denied them for reasons I do not recall but were wholly unjustified under the law. We appealed. The MSU president at the time, Peter McPherson, granted the appeal and basically admitted to our editor-in-chief the university only denied the records to see if it would discourage us from pursuing them. Welp.

Every reporter has FOIA war stories. Processing fees in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Denials without legal justification overturned on appeal that delayed the processing of information by months. Getting approval of document requests only to see public bodies sit on the actual processing and release of the information for months because nothing in the law spells out a timetable for the government to release that information. Having to go to court and take the chance that a loss in court would leave the news organization out a big chunk of cash for legal fees.

Which brings us Governor Gretchen Whitmer and former Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon.

In probably the most publicly awkward split between a governor and one of their direct appointees in my time covering state government, Mr. Gordon abruptly resigned January 22 without explanation. A short while later, Ms. Whitmer's press office put out a prepared statement announcing the appointment of Elizabeth Hertel as the new DHHS director that comically did not bother to mention Mr. Gordon resigning until the last paragraph of the release, which said only, "Robert Gordon has resigned from his position, and the governor has accepted his resignation."

This prompted many news organizations, this one included, to file FOIA requests for emails sent to and received by Mr. Gordon for some period of days leading up to his resignation. The state wanted to charge Gongwer more than $900 for the week's worth of emails we requested. So we began the process of informally appealing that charge, which was ridiculous. Eventually word came that some other entity had paid for the same request, so there would be no charge, which is nice for us but still led to needless delays and how fair is that to whoever did pony up the money?

Weeks and weeks passed without word and then finally on Monday, a response came – not to us but to the The Detroit News and possibly the Detroit Free Press too. The News had asked for two days of emails and was charged $300, staff writer Craig Mauger said on Twitter. The response yielded exactly the type of explanation reporters were seeking for the public – Ms. Whitmer and Mr. Gordon had agreed to a separation agreement that paid Mr. Gordon $155,000 in exchange for him promising not to disclose information to the public and not to sue the state.

Why the governor thought this was a good idea, I have no idea. At this point, I have yet to find anyone, Democrat, Republican or neutral observer, who understands why the governor thought this made sense politically or operationally.

The governor as Senate minority leader once slammed these types of deals as "golden parachutes" but now finds herself defending them. And now the governor has handed the Republicans in the Legislature a valid reason to open an inquiry and start sending subpoenas. Also, unless Ms. Whitmer was really worried about Mr. Gordon suing or saying something damaging about state operations, the upside of this deal is a mystery. He was an unclassified appointee serving at the pleasure of the governor who could be replaced at any time for any reason.

One of the great worries reporters have, being the competitive animals we are, when filing FOIAs is who else is filing for something similar and whether the information will be released at the same time to all parties. That almost never happens, as occurred this week. We were informed our request for the seven days' worth of Gordon emails is still in process, eventual delivery date unknown.

Reporters began asking who else had separation agreements. DHHS, to its credit, relatively quickly – and without requiring the submission of a FOIA request – distributed one given to Sarah Esty, a now former deputy director in DHHS.

The Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, however, pulled a classic FOIA tactic when reporters began asking about whether a separation agreement existed for former Unemployment Insurance Agency Director Steve Gray, who resigned in November in what had all the hallmarks of a forced resignation. The department confirmed there was one but said to obtain it a FOIA would be required.

This is a vintage example of using the FOIA as a shield. There is nothing – repeat, NOTHING – that requires public bodies to route requests for records and information through the laborious FOIA process. What should happen in these instances is that the public body simply sends the information. All too often, the public body will demand a FOIA be submitted. This meant, in the case of the Gray info, a delay in transmittal of the document for five to six hours for several news outlets or some 15 hours for us, well after we had published the previous day's report. It could have been much longer with the allowance for five business days to respond.

Ms. Whitmer promised it would not be this way.

Speaking to the Michigan Press Association one month after taking office in 2019, the new governor issued an executive directive she vowed would "close loopholes that have been used to slow down the FOIA process for state departments" and said, "We're going to solve some of the problems that continue to plague FOIA."

Nothing seems to have changed, however. The governor backed away from a campaign promise to issue an executive order applying the FOIA to the governor's office, which the FOIA exempts, saying she instead wanted to see the Legislature pass bills ending the exemption for both the Legislature and the governor's office.

Unsurprisingly, the Legislature did not pass such legislation (the House did, but not the Senate). So while legislative Republicans have a valid reason to investigate, it does make their tut-tutting of Ms. Whitmer for a lack of transparency eyeroll-inducing considering not only does the Legislature remain exempt from FOIA but the bills the House has passed (and the Senate killed) to open up some legislative records to the public are riven with exceptions that make them milquetoast at best.

It will take a wholesale change to FOIA, and an airtight one, to make it a functional, effective tool for the public to obtain records about their government. Among those changes, at minimum, must be the complete prohibition of charging a single penny to process a FOIA request. Public information should be public for everyone, not those with hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands to spare.

And there must be a firm timetable for when records must be produced, maybe a sliding scale to acknowledge there's a big difference between producing a five-page police report and a 10,000-page set of documents. A harsh system of fines should be put in place for late responses.

Then there's the "frank communications exception" that public bodies have long used as a shield to avoid disclosing information.

When I tweeted my frustrations with FOIA yesterday, it brought a large response from other reporters who also are fed up.

I don't hold out much hope for change. Exhibit 5,431,895 is probably just days away.

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What's Next For Chatfield?

Posted: February 23, 2021 4:17 PM

Former speakers of the House and majority leaders of the Senate generally have landed high-powered jobs for years, both before and after term limits.

In that context, former House Speaker Lee Chatfield's resignation from his post as CEO of Southwest Michigan First, an economic development organization in Kalamazoo, after two weeks of intense criticism, was shocking. Looking at just this situation, however, it was not surprising so much blowback occurred.

Mr. Chatfield got elected to the Legislature in 2014 principally because he opposed the expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to sexual orientation and gender identity and unseated the Republican incumbent in the socially conservative 107th House District, former Rep. Frank Foster, who supported expansion of ELCRA. As speaker, he made it clear for two years he would not support legislation to expand ELCRA.

Kalamazoo County has become a liberal county that strongly supports expansion of ELCRA and protections against discrimination for the LGBT community. It is a community where LGBT persons have held major leadership positions, such as former Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo). The idea that Mr. Chatfield could slide into a major role in the county, almost 300 miles away from the area where he has lived and represented in the House, without an outcry about his record on LGBT issues was naïve at best.

This would be roughly the equivalent of the Hillsdale County Chamber of Commerce hiring a Democratic former legislative leader from metropolitan Detroit who had taken strong positions supporting the legal right to an abortion, strict gun control measures and major new regulations on farms.

In general, the job Mr. Chatfield accepted looked different than what most former speakers and majority leaders have done in their post-legislative careers:

  • Tom Leonard is heading up the government affairs practice at Plunkett Cooney;
  • Arlan Meekhof opened his own political and government consulting practice;
  • Kevin Cotter left politics entirely and became general manager of an aggregates company;
  • Jase Bolger opened his own politics and government affairs consulting practice;
  • Randy Richardville did some economic development work and is now back on the Monroe County Board of Commissioners;
  • Andy Dillon became state treasurer in the Snyder administration;
  • Mike Bishop practiced law before winning a couple terms in Congress;
  • Ken Sikkema went to the public policy organization Public Sector Consultants;
  • Craig DeRoche has become a national leader on criminal justice reform;
  • Rick Johnson went into lobbying;
  • Dan DeGrow became superintendent of his county's intermediate school district;
  • Chuck Perricone went into lobbying;
  • Dick Posthumus became lieutenant governor before going into business and later returning as a key aide in the Snyder administration;
  • Curtis Hertel Sr. was executive director of the Detroit-Wayne County Port Authority and later a deputy department director in the Granholm administration;
  • Paul Hillegonds became president of Detroit Renaissance, which is now Business Leaders for Michigan, later moving to DTE Energy and now heads the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

With the exception of Mr. Hillegonds, whose move to Detroit Renaissance after almost two decades representing Allegan County in the House most closely parallels Mr. Chatfield's move, everyone either stayed close to home base, be it Lansing or the area they represented.

Mr. Hillegonds had 18 years of experience in the House, four as speaker/co-speaker leading some of the most consequential legislation of his era, and at the time the seemingly incongruous geography of the hire made some sense given that the power base of state government had shifted to the west side of the state and he would provide a helpful voice when speaking on behalf of Detroit business leaders to that crowd.

Because of term limits, that's experience Mr. Chatfield could not match.

That meant his initial signature issue, opposing Mr. Foster's attempts to expand ELCRA, defined him when he accepted the job at Southwest Michigan First. Other notable legislative achievements – a strong voice for criminal justice reform, helping marshal huge changes to auto insurance – were of little consequence.

What will Mr. Chatfield do now?

Presumably let the firestorm die down for a bit and regroup. It's apparent he has bigger goals than his longtime hometown of Levering can offer. Business? Congress? Governor? Despite this debacle, he'll have options. He might find, however, that before he can reach for something big, he has to turn to something closer to home, be it in Levering, a run for the state Senate in 2022, the corporate world in a conservative region or government affairs work in Lansing, where a potential employer won't be taking the same risk Southwest Michigan First did.

It is apparent, however, that while his views on ELCRA propelled him to the Legislature in 2014, they will limit, at least somewhat, his post-legislative career options in 2021.

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Senate Republicans Have A Decision To Make On Shirkey

Posted: February 11, 2021 4:03 PM

A little more than 10 years ago, in the waning days of the 2009-10 term, Mike Shirkey was a brand new member of the Michigan House, elected in November to fill the final seven weeks of a term left vacant by the death of the previous incumbent.

At the time, I was Gongwer's beat reporter in the Michigan Senate. It was an evening session as often happens during the lame-duck period, and a bill came up before the House that Mr. Shirkey (R-Clarklake), in one of his first days on the job, opposed. He got up to give a floor speech and began ripping on his colleagues for supporting the bill, which if I recall passed easily despite his no vote. I don't recall the nature of the bill.

Several of those on the Senate Republican staff at the time had crowded around one of the televisions just off the Senate floor and were mocking Mr. Shirkey's diatribe against the bill, seeing it as astonishingly rude and impolitic for someone brand new to be tearing into their new colleagues so viscerally.

I mention this story because it has kept coming back to me each and every time – and there have been many times now – Mr. Shirkey has gotten caught telling people what he really thinks when he doesn't realize the whole world will later find out what he said. He was brash when at the microphone on the House floor in late 2010 as a freshman House member. So how much of a surprise are the things coming out of his mouth now when he is the most powerful elected Republican in the state when he thinks it's a private conversation?

Musing about challenging Governor Gretchen Whitmer to a fistfight on the Capitol lawn? Claiming the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was "staged" in some sort of deep state plot to make President Donald Trump look bad? Boasting that Republicans "spanked" Ms. Whitmer on a host of issues? Telling The New York Times he did not condone the attack on the Capitol but empathized with how the rioters felt?

It makes Mr. Shirkey's comments to the Hillsdale College Republicans in late 2019 about how Ms. Whitmer and legislative Democrats are on the "batshit crazy spectrum" seem mild by comparison.

Could anything have been more inevitable than Senate Republican staff releasing a prepared written statement from Mr. Shirkey with a quote attributed to him apologizing for his choice of words and not the sentiments? The answer is yes. The next day, the majority leader proved the statement clearly did not reflect his thinking when he told Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II over a hot mic he did not take back the claims he made in the secretly recorded video posted by some Hillsdale Republicans.

The other 19 Republicans in the Michigan Senate have to decide whether Sen. Mike Shirkey remains their best option to continue serving as their majority leader in the wake of his latest example of getting caught saying what he really thinks.

By all indications, they already have, or at least 11 of them – the number it would take to vote to oust Mr. Shirkey as leader – already have.

My sources indicate there is no movement in the Senate Republican Caucus to oust Mr. Shirkey.

This is not surprising at all.

For as long as I have covered the Capitol, there have long been rumors of disenchantment with various speakers, majority leaders and minority leaders in the House and Senate within their caucuses. But never in my time here has anyone ever tried to mount an organized effort to replace them in the middle of the term. Most members of a caucus are content to follow and owe the leader gratitude for something – campaign support, a committee chair position, letting them sponsor certain bills, assuring their bills move through the chamber, etc.

And the leader already has vanquished any opposition once, as Mr. Shirkey did in 2018 when he and Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland) were vying to lead the Senate Republican Caucus. Mr. Shirkey moved into the stronger position to win the job and the two cut a deal where Mr. Shirkey would be leader and Mr. Stamas the Appropriations chair.

No Senate Republican has criticized Mr. Shirkey publicly for his recent actions. If anything, it feels like the caucus is circling the wagons.

The only way something might happen is if Mr. Shirkey's continued status as majority leader becomes a clear and present danger to the hammerlock Republicans have held on the Senate majority since taking control in early 1984. It would take a donor strike with the caucus's largest and most reliable donors closing their wallets to get the caucus's attention. Or there would have to be internal polling that showed Mr. Shirkey becoming a problem with voters for Senate Republican candidates, maybe someone like Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake).

Otherwise, there's every reason to think Mr. Shirkey will remain majority leader through 2022. And it will be apparent that whatever he says between now and then – whether caught on tape or on a hot mic, appearing on Jackson radio programs or in a floor speech – that he speaks as much for the other 19 Republicans as himself.

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June Primary Could Be A Spot For Common Ground On Elections

Posted: February 2, 2021 3:40 PM

Don't look now but there just might be at least a couple areas of common ground on changes to election law in Michigan.

One had already emerged, to let clerks tabulate absentee ballots prior to Election Day to speed the count and announcement of results, as Florida and Ohio do.

Another emerged Monday when Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson proposed doing away with the May and August elections and instead moving to a combined election in June that in even-numbered years would become the new home for the statewide partisan primary. In the 2019-20 term, Sen. Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) sponsored legislation to move the August primary to June and the May election (which typically houses a smattering of school and local proposals) to March.

Getting the primary out of August, which typically is a time when many voters are vacationing, has been a topic of discussion for years. Michigan has held its primary in August since 1966. Before then, it bounced around a bit. It took place in September for much of the 1930s and 1940s, with a day in July and June occasionally becoming the date. In 1952, it moved to August and has remained there ever since, save for 1964 when it took place in September.

2020's record August turnout of 2.5 million was a product of at least a couple factors – the mailing of absentee ballot applications to all voters and more people home and engaged in the elections because of the pandemic among them. That it happened without a competitive statewide primary to drive turnout was extraordinary.

Whether turnout will continue at that pace in the future without the presence of President Donald Trump in office to drive voters to a 10 out of 10 on the interest in voting scale is unclear, especially once the pandemic recedes and people can vacation in large numbers again.

The benefits of a primary on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in June are obvious. School is still in session for most K-12 students, meaning their voting-age parents are still in town. It is not yet peak summer vacation season.

It also balances out the primary and general election season for statewide candidates. It would chop two months off what is a looooong primary election phase and add two months to the current three-month general election schedule. It also would give primary winners more time to rebuild depleted campaign funds for the general election.

There also would be more preparation time for clerks heading into the general election instead of the quick turnaround from certification of the August primary to setting the ballot for the November general election.

The downside would be elongating the general election phase by two months likely would require candidates in competitive general election districts to raise more money for a five-month general election campaign.

Each party is putting forth various ideas for election reform. Given the current divided government with a Democrat in the governor's office and Republicans in the majority in the Legislature, any idea or bill that does not have bipartisan support is dead on arrival, whether a worthy concept or a cynical partisan gambit.

Republicans can forget about anything that makes it harder to vote. Democrats can forget about making absentee ballots mailed and postmarked by Election Day legal votes even if they arrive after 8 p.m. on Election Day. Neither is going to happen in the current governing dynamic.

The June primary, along with vastly improving how absentee ballots are tabulated, are two opportunities for some cooperation at a time when the country could badly use some unity on elections.

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The Awkward Departure Of The DHHS Director

Posted: January 26, 2021 3:48 PM

Two of the top employees in state government during the COVID-19 pandemic have resigned in the last two months. And in neither case do we know the reason why because Governor Gretchen Whitmer has declined to say.

Thus, we are left to speculate. And in general, when someone in the government resigns abruptly, and the governor's office describes the resignation in terse terms with all the warmth of a Michigan January, one can only conclude that someone in the administration asked for their resignation, gave them a nudge or at a minimum was not sorry to see them leave.

Yes, there is churn in every administration, as Ms. Whitmer said Monday.

But there's a difference between people leaving to take new jobs that offer a substantial raise or an exciting new opportunity – like former Budget Director Chris Kolb heading to the University of Michigan to become its new vice president for government relations or former Labor and Economic Opportunity Director Jeff Donofrio leaving to become the new president of Business Leaders for Michigan – and what happened with Steve Gray, the former director of the Unemployment Insurance Agency, and Robert Gordon, the former director of the Department of Health and Human Services.

For starters, neither announced their departure for a new job.

Second, and most notably, they were both at the center of two critical aspects of response to the pandemic, Mr. Gray dealing with the massive crush of people filing for unemployment, and Mr. Gordon running the largest department in the government that is managing the health response and for the last three-plus months issuing orders to regulate gatherings and businesses during COVID-19.

Third, both came under intense criticism from the Republicans and had seen calls for their resignation.

On Mr. Gray, one could argue the intense criticism was in some ways unfair. The Republicans, and some Democrats, lambasted the UIA for not getting benefits out to the unemployed faster and then when the agency removed some guardrails against fraud to accomplish that task, fraud exploded and then prompted further intense GOP criticism. Still, when you're in the captain's chair, and a report comes out like the one that did in November showing agency decisions enabled massive fraud, that's going to put your job at risk. The report came out about three weeks after the resignation, but it's difficult to imagine no connection.

Mr. Gordon was not one of the people the administration put out front for much of the pandemic. Usually, it's been Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, at news briefings with Ms. Whitmer, not Mr. Gordon. That changed once a Supreme Court ruling prompted the governor to turn to the DHHS director's powers to issue public health orders during an epidemic, and since then Mr. Gordon was a more frequent presence. He's been something of a lightning rod for the administration with the Legislature, not just because it's his name on these orders but he had at least two memorable clashes at legislative committees.

Mr. Gray was popular in labor and Democratic circles, and there's been public angst in those quarters about his resignation with a letter from legal and labor types to Ms. Whitmer saying the administration had unfairly made him a scapegoat.

The departure of Mr. Gordon, who unlike Mr. Gray was new to the state government scene when Ms. Whitmer lured him from Washington, D.C., has not prompted a similar defense, at least not yet, though when he tweeted the news of his resignation, many replied with thanks and warm words.

Speaking of the tweet, the handling of Mr. Gordon's departure could not have been much more awkward. He tweeted his resignation without explanation, and about 20 minutes later, the governor's press office released a statement announcing Elizabeth Hertel as the new DHHS director that waited until the very end to mention Mr. Gordon had resigned without offering any other explanation. That's, uh, not what happens when there's an amicable parting of ways.

Did they disagree on the decision to reopen bars and restaurants starting February 1? Was it just a partnership that had run its course? Was speculation that Mr. Gordon might be heading to the administration of President Joe Biden part of the mix? I've seen some speculation it had to do with the rollout of vaccinations, but Mr. Gordon is not the point person on that topic, Chief Operating Officer Tricia Foster is, so I doubt that had anything to do with it.

Ms. Whitmer tried to clean up the mess on Monday when she said nice things about Mr. Gordon, but it was too little, too late and still juxtaposed against her refusal to explain why he resigned or answer questions from reporters about whether she asked for his resignation. It's been the same with Mr. Gray. In response to questions, all the governor's office has said is he resigned, and they have nothing else to say.

The administration now has a new team running the UIA (Acting Director Liza Estlund Olson) and DHHS (Ms. Hertel). It's not yet clear if Ms. Olson is the permanent choice for the UIA job, but Ms. Hertel is at DHHS and more than a few folks around town privately are doing a happy dance that the veteran health policy official who knows all the ins and outs of this town is in and Mr. Gordon is out.

Ms. Whitmer's taken great pride in her administration's response to the pandemic. She's also acknowledged if she could go back and do some things differently, she would, without getting specific about any mistakes. With these two resignations, we might have an inkling of a couple areas where she would like a mulligan, however.

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Do Prosecutors Have The Goods With New Flint Charges?

Posted: January 15, 2021 5:02 PM

Two and a half years ago, a prosecution team tasked by the attorney general brought charges against several state employees for their alleged actions in the Flint water crisis.

This week, a new prosecution team tasked by a new attorney general that dropped the previous charges filed new charges against several state employees for their alleged actions in the Flint water crisis.

There are some different names this time. Besides Attorney General Dana Nessel having replaced former Attorney General Bill Schuette, Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy are running the investigation instead of the special prosecutor Mr. Schuette hired, Todd Flood.

Some people charged in the new cases – Governor Rick Snyder and top Snyder aides Rich Baird and Jarrod Agen – were not charged by Mr. Flood. And some people charged by Mr. Flood – Patrick Cook, Robert Scott, Steve Busch, Corinne Miller, Liane Shekter-Smith, for example – were not charged this time.

But several of those charged last time are back for a second round.

And in neither case was anyone charged from the Genesee County Health Department, McLaren hospital or the Department of Treasury, nor was Dan Wyant, the director of what was the Department of Environmental Quality at the time.

The charging of Mr. Snyder and Mr. Baird is obviously a huge change from last time. If there is one big difference from the previous investigation and this one, the last one started out going after lower-level but more directly involved workers and this one is going for the top.

But overall, the charges announced Thursday and the explanation for them did not sound that different from the charges Mr. Flood announced years ago.

That was especially the case in the refusal then and now to disclose evidence to back up why the charges were issued and offer any information as to why others were not charged.

The message from Mr. Flood then and Ms. Hammoud and Ms. Worthy now was the same. Essentially, "Trust us."

The question now is after all the denigration of Mr. Flood's investigation by Ms. Nessel's team, after the declarations they had found new troves of evidence supposedly untapped by the Flood team, does the Hammoud-Worthy team have more than Mr. Flood had?

Mr. Flood's investigation looked to be teetering when Ms. Nessel's team dropped the bombshell 18 months ago it was dropping the charges and starting over, claiming the cases had not properly been investigated.

He had secured "convictions" – I'll explain the use of scare quotes in a moment – of some of the lower-rung employees to obtain their testimony against those farther up the food chain, people like former Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and Dr. Eden Wells, the former chief medical executive in DHHS.

Yes, after extremely drawn out preliminary exams, prosecutors did clear the low bar of probable cause to convince a district judge to bind them over to stand trial, but having sat through several of those hearings and edited many stories from colleagues who did the same, there was nothing that leapt out as particularly damning evidence that would secure a guilty conviction on involuntary manslaughter charges. Those were the charges facing Mr. Lyon and Ms. Wells then and now.

The testimony obtained from those who pleaded no contest in plea bargains hardly seemed damning, and the convictions were for minor, laughable offenses like disrupting a public meeting.

The defense had ample room to argue reasonable doubt if a trial occurred, and there was a real question about whether the Genesee Circuit judge who received those cases might order them dismissed. The Hammoud-Worthy team dropped the charges before he had to decide that question.

The Snyder administration badly botched the Flint response. Its own report acknowledges that reality.

The DEQ argued for months there was no lead-in-the-water problem in Flint, even mocking those who argued otherwise.

Top members of the administration knew there was a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak with some raising concerns it was related to the drinking water source change, though no one has ever conclusively proven switching from the Detroit water system to the Flint River without corrosion control caused the outbreak. DHHS argued the Legionnaires' problem largely was the fault of McLaren's water system. McLaren vehemently disagreed, but did recently agree to contribute about $20 million to the civil settlement in the Flint water lawsuits. This debate will once again loom heavily over the new cases, and the defense will push it strongly.

Virtually every top member of Mr. Snyder's staff knew Flint's water was a problem, not that there was lead in it, but that it was brown, smelly, containing bacteria, containing too much disinfectant and eventually that it might be causing the Legionnaires' outbreak. What has never really been known is to what extent Mr. Snyder knew of the information and concerns they had. Neither possibility is good. Either for whatever reason the information never got to the boss or the information got to him and Mr. Snyder was unmoved.

Mr. Snyder has been charged with willful neglect of duty. The prosecutors will have to show he deliberately refused to perform a duty of his office.

The prosecution team is going to need something big – a text message, an email we haven't seen, a newly revealed government document, testimony from someone directly implicating someone's actions that led to harm – to succeed where Mr. Flood did not.

Otherwise, the sequel in these cases will look a lot like the original.

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Clash Of Precedents Complicates 2022 MI Political Outlook

Posted: December 29, 2020 1:31 PM

Michigan governors don't lose bids for a second term. They are five for five since Michigan went to a four-year term for governor.

The gubernatorial candidate of the president's party does poorly in the governor's race in Michigan. Since 1966, those candidates have lost 11 out of 14 races including the last seven in a row.

Which brings us to the 2022 election cycle when Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer will be seeking a second term with Democratic President Joe Biden in the White House.

Ms. Whitmer will be the first incumbent governor running for reelection with their party also controlling the White House since Republican Governor William Milliken hung on in 1974 with Republican President Gerald Ford in the White House months after Mr. Ford succeeded the resigned President Richard Nixon. She will be the first Democrat to seek reelection with a Democratic president since the advent of the four-year gubernatorial term and the first in any situation since Governor John Swainson lost to George Romney in 1962 with President John F. Kennedy in the White House.

When Ms. Whitmer ran for governor in 2018, she had close to an ideal political environment with President Donald Trump in the White House prompting massive Democratic voter mobilization and a malaise among some of the newer Republican voters he brought to the polls in 2016 (and 2020) who weren't motivated to show up without him on the ballot.

2022 will be different. The president's party traditionally struggles in the midterm, losing seats in Congress and the Michigan Legislature. Yet the governor's party usually dominates midterms in Michigan when the governor is seeking reelection (as seen in 1986, 1994, 1998, 2006 and 2014).

But we have not had this combination of a Democratic governor seeking a second term with a Democratic president in the White House in modern Michigan political history. It is hard to know how this will pan out.

Much will depend on the caliber of the Republican gubernatorial candidate. It is quiet on that front right now though potential candidates will have to start making initial moves early in 2021.

Another big factor is the midterm motivation factor for each party's core voters. Do Democrats slack off like they did in 2010 and 2014 when President Barack Obama was in the White House? Or does Republican turnout ebb without Mr. Trump on the ballot like in 2018? Do the Democratic Party's inroads with college-educated suburban voters continue without Mr. Trump on the ballot and if so does that boost their midterm numbers since those are most reliable midterm voters? Or do they come home to the GOP?

Ms. Whitmer enters the 2022 cycle with many strengths. She has universal name recognition thanks to the pandemic. She starts out with a commanding edge in money. I think some caution should be exercised regarding polls that have shown a majority supporting her handling of the pandemic since those same polls also clearly wildly oversampled Democratic voters and undersampled Republican ones in the presidential race and, well, because polls. Unless Candice Miller fulfills the GOP dreams of the last 20 years and runs for governor, the Republicans lack an immediately obvious candidate who poses a major threat to her reelection.

But sometimes we have to say when we don't know about the upcoming political climate. This is one of those times.

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An Excruciating Year Gets Worse With Loss Of Bullard, Napoleon, Rocca

Posted: December 21, 2020 2:54 PM

Before last week began, it already was mind-boggling how many people connected to Michigan government and politics died this year, especially those who were still so young.

Then last week hit. In the span of four days, Bill Bullard, Benny Napoleon and Sal Rocca died, each with more than 30 years of playing a huge role in their communities as elected and/or government officials (Mr. Bullard and Mr. Rocca both former legislators and local officials, Mr. Napoleon a former police officer and the current Wayne County sheriff). They ranged in age from 65 to 77, still young. And all died of COVID-19.

But this isn't completely about the coronavirus. This year's losses owe to more than just one cause, though COVID-19 was a factor in many.

I came up with 21 deaths of notable people connected to Michigan government and politics. My apologies to anyone neglected in this list. If I missed anyone, let me know, and I will add them. This was what I came up with through some quick searches.

These were exceptional people, people who deeply connected with others, had lasting achievements, made decades-long runs in government service or had some combination of the three:

  • Jack Faxon, former legislator and delegate to the 1961-62 constitutional convention;
  • Owen Bieber, former UAW president;
  • Ray Murphy, former legislator and delegate to the 1961-62 constitutional convention;
  • Graham Davis, former communications staffer to Governor Jennifer Granholm and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan;
  • Isaac Robinson, former legislator and union organizer;
  • Frank Egeler, Republican activist;
  • Morris Hood III, former legislator;
  • William Bryant, former House minority leader;
  • Lawrence Lindemer, former Supreme Court justice, U-M regent, Michigan Republican Party chair and legislator;
  • Art Miller Jr., former Senate minority leader;
  • Manuel "Matty" Moroun, owner of the Ambassador Bridge;
  • Caleb Starr, State Police trooper;
  • Brett Henderson, consultant, lobbyist and former legislative aide;
  • Alma Stallworth, former legislator;
  • Wes Thorp, former legislative aide and reporter;
  • Peter Secchia, philanthropist, Republican financier and activist;
  • Charles Levin, former Supreme Court justice;
  • Tom Casperson, former legislator;
  • Sal Rocca, former legislator
  • Benny Napoleon, Wayne County sheriff and former Detroit police chief;
  • Bill Bullard, former legislator, Oakland County clerk and lobbyist.

Of these 21, I count just seven who were 80 or older. That's not to diminish the loss of anyone 80 or older. Every loss is painful. But there is a special sense of hurt when someone dies while they still seem to have many years ahead of them.

There will always be losses. It is a part of life. But this year has been awash in loss, more so than any I can remember. For me personally, retyping Graham's and Brett's names here was especially hard.

It's a reminder to heed the words of Mr. Hood, who spoke to the Senate in December 2013 before the holidays while reflecting on the death of his wife earlier in the year.

"Take advantage of every day that you have," he said. "Help someone else out. Love someone else. Love someone else you don't even know. We are all running in a dark room, full speed at a brick wall, and you don't know when you are going to hit it."

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A Footnote To The MI Supreme Court's Election Ruling

Posted: December 15, 2020 4:12 PM

There was a curious under-the-radar storyline in last week's 4-3 Michigan Supreme Court ruling denying supporters of President Donald Trump the chance to have their appeal heard of lower court decisions that ruled against their request for judicial intervention in the race for Michigan's 16 electoral votes won by President-elect Joe Biden.

The clear takeaway was that Justice Elizabeth Clement, a Republican Party nominee who is the most independent member of the court in how she rules, agreed with the court's three Democratic nominees that the Trump supporters had failed to present sufficient rationale for the court to hear their case.

That turned out to be the ballgame in Michigan as far as any judicial intervention. The court later ruled 7-0 against hearing the appeal brought by President Donald Trump's campaign in a separate case.

There was something surprising though in that 4-3 ruling that has gone as far as I can tell unnoticed.

Ms. Clement, in her concurring opinion, explained that one of the reasons the court should not hear the case is that the Michigan Election Law "appears to make the Legislature the

exclusive arbiter of who is the proper winner of a presidential election." Justice David Viviano, in a dissent signed by Justice Stephen Markman more noted for its disagreements with Ms. Clement, agreed with her on this point.

Wait, what?

Yes, it would seem that three of the seven justices of the Supreme Court laid out a path for the Trump campaign to go to the Legislature and claim Michigan law in fact makes the Legislature the venue to resolve a disputed election, not the courts. The fourth Republican nominee to the court, Justice Brian Zahra, did not delve into this matter in his dissent. And none of the three Democrats offered an opinion on the case other than to deny leave to appeal, so we do not know if a majority of the court shares the Clement-Markman-Viviano assessment.

With Michigan's election certified, electoral votes cast for Mr. Biden and Republican legislative leaders having made clear they would take no actions to contravene Mr. Biden's 154,188 popular vote victory in this state over Mr. Trump, this matter is relevant to future election disputes, not this one. But it could be very significant if a majority of the court ever is asked to rule on the meaning of MCL 168.846.

That portion of the Michigan Election Law says:

"Board of state canvassers; tie vote, certification to legislature, determination.

"Sec. 846.

"In case 2 or more persons have an equal and the highest number of votes for any office, as canvassed by the board of state canvassers, the board of state canvassers shall certify the result of the canvass as to such office to the legislature and the legislature in joint convention shall choose 1 of said persons to fill such office. When the determination of the board of state canvassers is contested, the legislature in joint convention shall decide which person is elected."

My read of this section says that if an election certified by the Board of State Canvassers (a statewide or any multicounty race) certifies the official result as a tie, the Legislature picks one of the candidates to fill the office, and if there is a contest to the board certifying a tie, then the Legislature also decides the winner.

However, Ms. Clement, Mr. Markman and Mr. Viviano are apparently seeing the last sentence – "When the determination of the board of state canvassers is contested, the legislature in joint convention shall decide which person is elected" – as entirely separate from the rest of the section. In their analysis, it means if someone contests a determination by the Board of State Canvassers, tie or no tie, the Legislature then resolves the dispute and determines the winner.

If a majority of the Supreme Court ever agreed with this finding, it would have massive ramifications. It would in effect allow anyone to contest the certification decision of the Board of State Canvassers in any statewide election (president, governor, U.S. Senate, attorney general, secretary of state, Supreme Court, education boards) or multicounty election (13 of the 14 U.S. House districts, 17 of the 38 Senate districts, 30 of 110 House Districts and all four Court of Appeals districts) with the Legislature serving as the arbiter of the dispute.

Ms. Clement, in a footnote, seems to acknowledge the fundamental risk of having the Legislature resolve contested elections.

"One could fairly question whether it is constitutional for MCL 168.846 to reserve to the Legislature the prerogative to settle disputes over elections to offices required by the Michigan Constitution — a Legislature inclined to abuse this power could conceivably nullify an election that the Michigan Constitution requires to be held," she wrote. "But the Michigan Constitution does not require that presidential electors be themselves popularly elected, and reserving final decision-making authority in the Legislature as to that specific office is consistent with federal constitutional and statutory law."

This, however, appears to conflict with the Bush v. Gore U.S. Supreme Court decision of 2000 that House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) cited Monday. That decision says once the Legislature decides to award electors via the popular vote, it cannot take that power away unless it does so through the repeal of the statute that put that mechanism in place.

There's no way to know how the court would have reacted had the Legislature invoked this same interpretation in the Biden-Trump race, a lawsuit been brought and the issue fully briefed and argued. And with Justice-elect Elizabeth Welch set to succeed Mr. Markman January 1, it will likely be relegated to nothing more than a footnote.

But Ms. Clement, Mr. Viviano and Mr. Markman cracked the door, and it would not be surprising to see someone try to barge through it at some point.

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Looking At The GOP Triumph In The MI House

Posted: December 4, 2020 9:57 AM

It's been one month since Election Day, and there's a lot of lessons to be learned from Republicans clinching their sixth consecutive majority in the Michigan House.

This was an impressive performance by the GOP. They knocked out two Democratic incumbents in seats that had not elected a Republican in modern Michigan political history and had two candidates overcome Democratic President-elect Joe Biden carrying their districts to defeat their Democratic opponents.

If those four seats go the other way, it's a 56-54 Democratic House. Instead, it will be a 58-52 Republican majority again.

There's – again – a lot of soul-searching among Democrats about what went wrong.

I think the answer is mostly simple. Realignment continued at a breakneck speed in white working class areas in favor of the GOP, thus taking down Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City) and Rep. Sheryl Kennedy (D-Davison) but moved less quickly in the suburban areas shifting toward the Democrats. The speed of the Democratic incursion into Oakland County slows greatly once it reaches roughly M-59 at the Macomb County border running west to where M-5 would be if it went that far north, south to 14 Mile at the Novi border and then west to Napier Road until that reaches Eight Mile Road.

Two seats the Democrats needed for majority, the 39th and 45th House Districts, which cover Rochester, Rochester Hills, part of Oakland Township, part of West Bloomfield, Wixom and Commerce Township lie mostly outside of this zone. Republican Rep.-elect Mark Tisdel of Rochester Hills and Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Township) won those seats.

I've seen the biennial lament from some Democrats blaming the 2011 reapportionment plan for their continued minority status, but that simply doesn't wash. Democrats were 8-0 combined in the Elder and Kennedy seats this decade until both lost this year.

No doubt, the 2021 reapportionment will be a better scenario for Democrats with the independent commission drawing the lines instead of the Republican Legislature, but based on the language of the constitutional amendment that created the commission, as well as population growth patterns, it will not be a panacea for Democrats in the House and in some cases Republicans stand to benefit, and I'll have more details on that below.

Before we get to that, I think it's worth noting what districts were among the 20 closest in 2018 but were not in 2020. Rep. Joe Bellino (R-Monroe), Rep. Steve Marino (R-Harrison Township), Rep. Graham Filler (R-DeWitt), Rep. Rodney Wakeman (R-Saginaw Township), Rep. Annette Glenn (R-Midland), Rep. Roger Hauck (R-Mount Pleasant) and Rep. Greg Markkanen (R-Hancock) all vastly increased their victory margins.

Meantime, let's take a look at the 20 closest races this year for the Michigan House and see what we can glean from what happened.

109TH: Welcome to the only Democratic-held House district north of Saginaw where Rep. Sara Cambensy (D-Marquette) won reelection by 14.5 percentage points. Even as the rest of the Upper Peninsula turns bright red, Marquette, with Northern Michigan University, remains a Democratic enclave. This district will likely have to keep getting bigger as Marquette County's population declines, and that means bringing in more conservative turf in the 2021 reapportionment. That makes 2022 potentially interesting when Ms. Cambensy cannot seek reelection because of term limits.

79TH: From 1994-2014, it was an axiom of Michigan politics that presidential years were good years for Democrats in Michigan because their voters came out in greater force while midterms favored Republicans because their voters were more reliable to show up. Is that all changing now that we've had two presidential cycles in a row where Republicans have fared well and a midterm that favored Democrats? I have no idea, but it sure looked that way in southwest Michigan where U.S. Rep. Fred Upton's close call in 2018 and a closer than expected margin for state Rep. Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet) got Democrats thinking about big gains. Those hopes were smashed because outside of Kalamazoo County, these southwest counties aren't changing politically. Instead, the Trump Republican voters came out in force in the presidential years and propelled Republicans to landslide wins over Democrats. Democrat Chokwe Pitchford of Benton Harbor got some attention for an impressive campaign video and spirited effort that included a big campaign cash haul, but it was no match against the political reality of this district with Ms. Wendzel cruising by 13.24 percentage points.

31ST: Is the next area of Macomb County to start shifting from blue to purple Clinton Township? Between reapportionment, which will really scramble the current Macomb lines, and Rep. Bill Sowerby (D-Clinton Township) unable to run again because of term limits, 2022 could be interesting here. The question will be if this district reaches farther north into the more GOP areas of the township. Do Fraser and Mount Clemens remain in the district or go elsewhere? Mr. Sowerby defeated a weak GOP candidate by 12.54 percentage points. The Republicans have a bench that could take advantage depending on how the lines look.

20TH: Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) won a statement-like 10.18 percentage point victory over a little known Republican, almost quadrupling his close 2018 win. Republicans seemed to realize early on this one had slipped away. Plymouth and Northville townships as well as the cities of the same name fit the demographic of the Detroit suburbs where Democrats are gaining – large percentages of people with bachelor's degrees and growing racial diversity, particularly those of south Asian descent. Mr. Biden won decisively here.

72ND: Kentwood didn't blow up for Democrats like they hoped and Republicans feared, and Republican strength in the rest of the district (Gaines Township and part of Allegan County) carried Rep. Steve Johnson (R-Wayland) to a 10.12 percentage point victory, not far off from his 10.3 point 2018 win. This will be a whole new ballgame in 2022 with the massive population growth in Kent County forcing a major redrawing of lines that should benefit the Democrats compared to how they look now and Mr. Johnson unable to run again because of term limits. The Democratic candidate just never got traction here, and the question is whether Democrats can build a bench in Kentwood to win the new iteration of this seat in 2022. It will be one of their best hopes for a flip – depending on what communities join Kentwood in the district.

41ST: We're into the top 15 now. Rep. Padma Kuppa (D-Troy) dusted a weak Republican opponent and like Mr. Koleszar nearly quadrupled her 2018 victory margin with a 10.08 percentage point win. Troy looks like a goner for the GOP for some time thanks to its large percentage of voters with bachelor's degree and rapid racial diversification. Mr. Biden won big here.

50TH: Warning sirens probably should be sounding for Democrats here come 2022. Yes, Rep. Tim Sneller (D-Burton) won reelection by a comfortable 9.48 percentage points, but the Democratic carnage in the neighboring 48th District signals real troubles in suburban Genesee County. And Mr. Sneller is barred from running in 2022 by term limits. The big question will be what the lines look like. What communities does Burton get combined with? The city of Flint will probably have a single district in the 2021 reapportionment instead of having part of the city in a second district as a result of population loss. That will create a domino effect elsewhere.

96TH: The political play of the year by House Republicans was going after Mr. Elder. To oust an incumbent by 9.2 percentage points, as Rep.-elect Timothy Beson (R-Bay City) did to Mr. Elder is extraordinary. A combination of Elder mistakes (an ill-advised, quixotic bid for House Democratic leader in the 2019-20 term that saw him repudiate Right to Life of Michigan in an area where opposition to abortion really matters as well as getting caught flat-footed despite warning signs about the Republican rise in Bay County) plus Mr. Beson's strengths produced this result. I think it's safe to say Mr. Elder will be the last Democrat to hold this district for a long time. Reapportionment will only force this district to stretch farther into more conservative outlying areas of Bay County because of population loss in Bay City.

61ST: Democrats finally scored in Portage thanks to a first-rate effort by Rep.-elect Christine Morse (D-Texas Township), who won by a commanding 9.14 percentage points. Again, an area with large numbers of people with bachelor's degrees combined with increasing racial diversity and a good candidate proved the right recipe for a Democratic flip. Reapportionment could be tricky for Ms. Morse. Kalamazoo County has grown quite a bit and probably will have three full seats in 2022 instead of its current two full seats with other smaller portions attached to two other districts centered in other counties. It wouldn't be surprising to see Ms. Morse's district either move north to subsume the portion of the county now in Rep. Beth Griffin's 66th District or east to take up some of Rep. Matt Hall's 63rd District. The key to whatever the district looks like will still be Portage though.

67TH: Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt) prevailed by 8.68 percentage points, down from 9.79 points in 2018. Republicans have not mounted a serious effort against her. It's one of those seats that seems to be drifting a bit toward the Republicans based on slightly falling Democratic victory margins but is still out of reach. Reapportionment could, perhaps, help Ms. Hope. Heavily Democratic Lansing's population has grown, which could mean she gets more of Lansing in her district and it will no longer be so weirdly gerrymandered to put as much of Lansing GOP turf into her seat as Republicans did in 2011. What if, however, the commission decides to carve up Lansing differently and attach the eastern part of the city to East Lansing and Meridian Township? That would be a horrible trade for Ms. Hope and really put this seat in play for 2022.

25TH: We're into the top 10, and this is where we now have some legitimately close races. How is it possible that the Republicans cannot find a non-extremist to run for this seat in Sterling Heights? Rep. Nate Shannon (D-Sterling Heights) has twice taken advantage of fringe GOP candidates who received no external support and yet because of Macomb's swing to Republicans won by just 5.72 percentage points this year over an unfunded, repudiated GOP candidate. The lines could look much different after the 2021 reapportionment. Sterling Heights has grown modestly in population. It seems apparent that if Republicans could find the equivalent of David Martin, Timmy Beson or Greg Markkanen in this district, they could really put the heat on Mr. Shannon.

39TH: Perhaps the most effective GOP gerrymander of 2011 was splitting West Bloomfield in half and pairing the more competitive part of it with the Republican juggernaut that is Commerce Township. Mr. Berman's 5.39 percentage point victory was just plain impressive given all the Democratic effort here. The lines don't get all the credit though. Mr. Biden narrowly carried the district, but there was a huge ticket-splitting component that saw many Biden voters switch to the GOP down the ballot, a credit to those candidates. The commission has some big decisions to make here. Is West Bloomfield split and if so how are two of the biggest.

23RD: The Republicans made a late play in the Downriver 23rd House District, but Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown) fended off an unknown Republican opponent by 5.39 percentage points. Mr. Trump ran strong here. From a redistricting standpoint, this district can't get much better for the GOP. If the commission carves it up and loops what's left into territory to the north, the Democrats will be in better shape than they are now. That said, Mr. Camilleri can't run in 2022 because of term limits so this seat will be closely watched and a prime GOP pickup opportunity.

45TH: Rochester and Rochester Hills have not seen the same racial diversification as other areas of Oakland County. That helped the GOP hold this seat by 4.7 percentage points. But it also seems clear voters preferred Mr. Tisdel candidate to candidate over Democrat Barb Anness. There was rampant ticket-splitting here with voters backing Mr. Biden, John James for U.S. Senate, Elissa Slotkin for U.S. House and then Mr. Tisdel. Very interesting decisions with reapportionment here. Rochester and Rochester Hills have grown, so that means less need for neighboring turf, which currently comes from a portion of strongly Republican Oakland Township. Democrats would love for a part of strongly Democratic Auburn Hills to replace Oakland in this seat. Still, Mr. Tisdel won Rochester and Rochester Hills in 2020. He could be tough to dislodge.

71ST: Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Township) more than doubled her 2018 victory margin to 3.91 percentage points, but given that Republicans gave up on her opponent, Gina Johnsen, the margin was less authoritative than expected. Still, given how Trump voters returned to the polls in 2020, this seat could have gone south for the Democrats but for Ms. Witwer's efforts. Reapportionment should help somewhat. Given Eaton County has grown a bit, that presumably mean a little less of the conservative outlying areas in this district when the lines are redrawn.

104TH: Now we're into the top five. Rep.-elect John Roth (R-Traverse City) overcame a major Democratic effort to win by 3.87 percentage points. This was not the more robust victory margin Republicans anticipated at the start of the race, underscoring it's not just the shift of Traverse City to the Democrats, but that the large suburb of Garfield Township is entirely purple and so is Peninsula Township (Old Mission Peninsula). The rest of the district is solidly Republican, but the GOP has a problem here. Grand Traverse County has added about 7,000 people, meaning the new version of the district likely sheds some heavily Republican territory in the county's outlying areas. Mr. Roth will have incumbency going for him in 2022 and Democrats will be hard-pressed to find as strong a candidate as they have had in Dan O'Neil the last two cycles, but this could be very interesting.

38TH: Demographic change hit critical mass in Novi, and Rep.-elect Kelly Breen (D-Novi) won this open seat by 3.24 percentage points. Regardless of how this seat is drawn, there's no reversing the political winds in Novi. Also, Novi's population has grown substantially since the last reapportionment, so the next remap is likely to have less from heavily Republican Lyon Township. The Republicans may need to find a candidate from Novi's burgeoning Indian American community to scramble the equation here.

62ND: The Democrats have a serious Calhoun County problem, and reapportionment is only going to make it worse, not better, sorry Democrats. Rep. Jim Haadsma (D-Battle Creek) did all the right things and had an opponent who basically sleep-walked through the race and yet still only won by 2.64 percentage points. In 2011, Republicans shook up the Calhoun districts, pulling away less staunchly Republican turf in Calhoun from the neighboring 63rd District (Bedford and Pennfield townships) and dropping it into what is now the Haadsma district that has Battle Creek. In exchange, solidly Republican turf moved from the 62nd to the 63rd. The 62nd was supposed to be a Democratic district. Instead, Calhoun has marched steadily to the right. What happens in 2022 when Mr. Haadsma's squiggly district likely becomes more logically compact and more Republican? The GOP likely won't write this seat off again as long as it can find a strong candidate. (editor's note: this blog changed to note that while the 2011 reapportionment plan did make the Calhoun component of the 63rd more Republican, that was counterbalanced by making the Kalamazoo portion of the district more Democratic. Also, the story has been corrected to make clear that Albion was part of the 62nd in both the 2001 and 2011 reapportionment plans).

48TH: Confession time: I really blew it on this seat. Even though it had the white working class background to suggest it was ripe to go Republican with Mr. Trump on the ballot, I didn't see it happening because both parties thought Ms. Kennedy had run a good incumbency program and the Republicans were not pouring money into this race like they were elsewhere. Ooops. These realignment forces really do reign supreme, and much like Democrats had their first A-level candidate in the 61st with Ms. Morse, Republicans had the same here with Rep.-elect David Martin mounting the first credible GOP effort in the northern Genesee district. Mr. Martin won by 1 percentage point. But he could be in a very different seat in 2022. This is a weirdly shaped district, and Mr. Martin is at the far end of it. What if his hometown of Davison gets roped in with other Genesee communities to the west and south? Or what if it loses some of its Republican territory at the northern edge of the county and picks up heavily Democratic Mount Morris? This one is ripe for a big fight in 2022 depending on the lines and maybe a rematch with Ms. Kennedy if she's up for it.

19TH: And for the second consecutive year, the closest race in the state was Livonia's 19th House District where "Landslide" Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) won another barn-burner, this time by 0.4 percentage point after a 0.48 percentage point win in 2018. Both sides were adamant their candidate would win, but the demographic change in Livonia favoring the Democrats, even if less than in other Detroit suburbs, combined with Ms. Pohutsky having two years to root herself in the community, proved just enough. This district won't change much in reapportionment. There's no reason to think this won't be another tight race in 2022 unless the strongest GOP candidates decide to hold off until 2024 when, if Ms. Pohutsky is in her third term, she will not be able to run again because of term limits.

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Redistricting Poised To Scramble MI's U.S. House Delegation

Posted: November 24, 2020 3:22 PM

Of the 14 members of Michigan's U.S. House delegation who now have been formally certified the winners of their 2020 races, only one – U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet) – can breathe easy going into 2022.

In 2021, Michigan's U.S. House boundaries will be redrawn in the decennial reapportionment and all expectations are that the state will lose another seat to faster-growing states, leaving 13 seats for 14 incumbents, assuming all run again.

Mr. Bergman can rest easy knowing that from his perch in Michigan's Upper Peninsula with a seat that covers the northern Lower Peninsula, it is impossible for him to get drawn out of a district. And unless the new Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission goes against the expectations of sticking with simple, sensible-looking districts, there is no way another member could be drawn into his seat.

For the other 13 members, however, a lot could go wrong.

Republicans controlled the redistricting pen during the last two reapportionments, meaning districts were drawn to help their candidates.

Why is there a district that covers northern Macomb County and the Thumb? Because in 2001 the GOP wanted to draw a district that was a layup for Candice Miller. She easily held the seat until 2016, was succeeded by U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Dryden), and U.S. Rep.-elect Lisa McClain (R-Bruce Township) will take the seat in January (editor's note, this story changed to correct Ms. McClain's last name).

Why is there a district that has northwest Wayne County and a tentacle-like array of communities in Oakland County? Because in 2001 the GOP drew a district for then-U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Livonia. U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) now has the district.

Why is there a district that combined Genesee, Saginaw and Bay counties? Because in 2011 the Republicans wanted to pack what were at the time three solidly Democratic areas together to prevent other districts from becoming more competitive. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) has that district.

And why is there a district that combines heavily Democratic southeast Oakland County with solidly Democratic southern Macomb County? Again, to pack Democrats into one district and prevent other districts from becoming more competitive. U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Township) holds that seat.

Demographic changes and political realignment helped Democrats turn what was a 9-5 GOP delegation in 2012 to 7-7. And looking at this map compared to what it might become for the next decade, I suspect Democrats actually wouldn't mind keeping these lines, surprising as that is now.

The commission cannot take incumbent member addresses into account when drawing the new lines.

Several members could be drawn into the same district, and some of them could be in real trouble.

The population growth in west Michigan, especially strong in Kent and Ottawa counties, likely means U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland) in the 2nd District and U.S. Rep.-elect Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids) will be kept in separate districts. I would guess, and it is just a guess, that Mr. Meijer will get the Kent County communities now in Mr. Huizenga's district, which will make his district less Republican. It probably also loses Calhoun County.

Again, because of population growth, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) should maintain his own district in the 6th District. He might swap some territory with other members, but there should still be a core southwest Michigan district with Kalamazoo as its biggest population base.

From there, it gets more complex.

It seems likely that U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) will get drawn into the same district. The Wayne County lines are likely to look much, much different, and Ms. Dingell may need to decide whether to run for a new district that covers places like Washtenaw County, much of which is in her current district), far western Wayne County as well as Monroe, Lenawee, Jackson and Hillsdale counties.

But that would place her in the same district as U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton). It also would be a very competitive seat unlike the solidly Democratic district Ms. Dingell has now (and solidly Republican one Mr. Walberg has).

This is just an educated guess, but I suspect the district of U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield), which currently is a ridiculous-looking "S" shape that wends from Detroit up to Pontiac, will become much more compact and probably grab territory from Mr. Levin's district in Warren, Roseville and Eastpointe as well as parts of southeast Oakland County to assure it remains a majority-minority district to comply with the U.S. Voting Rights Act.

That could then leave Ms. McClain with a much simpler district that just covers the rest of Macomb County.

Or, the commission could decide to have Ms. Lawrence's district move into more of Oakland County instead and avoid Macomb. That could create a very competitive open-seat district in Macomb starting below its northern-most communities going south to 8 Mile Road with Ms. McClain instead seeing her district move west into Genesee County.

That would create all kinds of problems for Mr. Kildee because a district that combined Genesee (Democratic) with Thumb counties and northern Macomb (very Republican) would be a GOP-leaning district.

Something will have to change in Oakland where four incumbent Democratic members of the delegation reside. One would guess that the commission will have the county carved into three seats with the southeastern most portions going into Ms. Lawrence's district to preserve it as a majority-minority seat.

How would the other districts be drawn in the county? Republicans would love to seat a seat start at the northern border and go south until there are 780,000 people (about the average size of a Michigan U.S. House seat in the upcoming reapportionment). This would be a seat that favors the GOP.

Or there could be a seat that starts south where Ms. Lawrence's district stops and works its way north. This would favor a Democrat. Then there's the question of what to do with the remainder in either scenario.

It's hard to imagine how Ms. Stevens and Mr. Levin don't get pitted against each other. Maybe that's in part why there are rumors of Mr. Levin joining the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Back to Mr. Kildee. He needs to hope that the commission keeps him with Genesee and Saginaw counties and doesn't send him eastward into a showdown with Ms. McClain. But it's also possible his new district could get him drawn into a seat with U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Midland). Both have safe seats now, but that would be a heck of a race if it developed.

Then there's the other big question: What happens to the district of U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly)? Her seat (Ingham, Livingston and northern Oakland counties) was drawn that way because it was the turf of then-U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers.

It is hard to envision the commission keeping northern Oakland and Ingham in the same district. A new district could involve the capital region (Ingham, Eaton, Livingston, Clinton, Shiawassee counties and some change). Ms. Slotkin would have to decide whether to move (she legally would not have to do so). This new district might on balance be about the same politically, but it would put Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte), who represents a huge swath of that territory, into the district and set him up as a natural challenger in 2022.

There are of course a zillion different ways this could go.

Even as everyone is exhaling about the end of the 2020 election cycle, there are 14 members and soon-to-be members of the U.S. House who have be uneasy about the uncertainty going into 2022.

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Slandering Chris Thomas Is New Low

Posted: November 9, 2020 4:14 PM

Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel baselessly accused Chris Thomas, the retired 36-year state elections director who has been assisting Detroit with running its 2020 election, on Friday of committing a felony and ordering elections workers in the city to backdate absentee ballots so that it was clear they were received prior to the 8 p.m. deadline.

In fact, what happened is that some clerk employees forgot to enter the date into the Qualified Voter File computer system that some absentee ballots were received prior to the end of Election Day at Detroit clerk satellite offices. Mr. Thomas said those ballots were in fact stamped with the date they were received when they were received and the lack of QVF entry was a clerical error, and voters are not disenfranchised for clerical errors.

There was no backdating.

Why should Mr. Thomas have the benefit of the doubt? Because in 36 years as the state's elections director under Democratic and Republican secretaries of state, Mr. Thomas was scrupulously nonpartisan, demonstrated time and again an encyclopedic understanding of the Michigan Election Law and rose to become a nationally recognized expert in his field. There were times his recommendations disappointed people in both parties. I can't begin to count the number of times he and former Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer, now an elections attorney, disagreed on an interpretation of the Michigan Elections Law.

Yes, we should note that after his 2017 retirement, Mr. Thomas did endorse Democrat Jocelyn Benson for secretary of state in 2018. And Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey named him to assist Detroit with its November elections operations as part of a partnership with Ms. Benson after some significant issues arose in the August primary election in the city (this story changed to correct who hired Mr. Thomas).

But for heaven's sakes, accusing Chris Thomas – Chris Thomas?! – of feloniously ordering the alteration of votes to rig an election is beyond the pale.

President-elect Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump in Michigan by an unofficial margin of 146,120 votes. U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township) defeated Republican John James by an unofficial margin of 84,316 votes.

Mr. Trump and Mr. James are within their rights to request a recount. The chance of such a recount changing the result is, however, very close to zero. Once the vote is certified following the canvass, the certified margin would need to be less than 1,000 to stand any chance of finding enough missing votes to change the result, and usually both candidates equally benefit from found votes. The universal optical scan system in place for the last 18 years in Michigan also assures far fewer missed votes than the old punch card method.

What a recount likely would find would be some errors and anomalies. This was the case in the recount of the presidential result in Michigan requested four years ago by Green Party candidate Jill Stein. This recount was stopped midway through because Ms. Stein was laughably so far behind Mr. Trump she had no case to justify a recount.

And it is possible many of those problems would be found in Detroit, the subject of all the sound and fury now. It is the state's largest city by far and has had a history of election snafus.

Here's a description of Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey's performance from the 2016 election, courtesy of The Detroit News.

"Right now what voters are getting from the city clerk's office is chaos. They are getting confusing information, confusing letters, inadequate training that's leading to poor results and low voter turnout."

That quote isn't from a Republican like Ms. McDaniel, it's from Democratic now-Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist in 2017 when he was running for city clerk. Mr. Brewer headed up the legal effort for Ms. Stein in that recount and pointed out many of the issues in Detroit as well (though last week he said the process put in place for this election by the city was the best he had seen).

Confusion and errors, however, are not the same thing, not even close, as fraud.

Yet that's what Ms. McDaniel accused Mr. Thomas of committing without evidence (and when Mr. Trump did better in Detroit in this election than he did four years ago, one would have to argue if the Democrats committed fraud, they did an extremely poor job of it).

If Mr. Trump and Mr. James want to seek a recount and/or go to court to contest the election, that is their right no matter how remote their chances of success may be. As we saw in 2016, a recount, even if fruitless toward changing the final outcome, could prove educational (a point Mr. Trump appeared uninterested in then even though he won the state by just 10,704 votes. Mr. Biden won the state by 13 times the victory margin).

If done right, a recount should allow the state to improve its electoral system. And on the remote chance fraud took place, if it's found (and at this moment, there is no evidence of it), that would be a good outcome with those responsible facing the criminal justice system.

But accusing Mr. Thomas of fraud is just plain low.

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A Final Discussion Before Election Day

Posted: November 2, 2020 3:29 PM

After seemingly endless interviews and thousands of words written, Election Day is finally at hand.

Gongwer Managing Editor Alethia Kasben and I discussed where things stand.

Zach: Alethia, the election is finally here. It is difficult to analyze it in many ways because of all the unusual dynamics in place with the pandemic, but we will do our level best.

Overall, Tuesday seems poised to be a good night for Democrats in Michigan. Maybe. I think everyone agrees Joe Biden has the advantage on Donald Trump in this state. There's a lot of "Remember 2016" from Republicans urging their voters not to lose faith and Democrats reminding their voters not to get complacent, but there's very little about this election that evokes 2016. The question seems to be, can Biden win big enough to pull in Democrats down the ticket, namely people like Gary Peters, Hillary Scholten and Democratic MI House candidates? And along with that, how much ticket-splitting takes place and to what extent does that blunt the damage for the Republicans. What are your initial thoughts?

Alethia: We all remember 2016, that is for sure. I do agree with you it doesn't seem likely the president wins Michigan again - and I have heard that from Democrats and Republicans alike. But still, we truly never know until the votes are counted.

So, yeah, one of the big questions is how close can the president keep it here? Does Joe Biden win by 5+ points? Then we could see some surprises on Election Day with more downticket races going to Dems.

Even without a huge victory, Dems look poised to gain several seats in the Michigan House in suburban areas that have gone away from the president. The 61st District in Kalamazoo County and the 38th in Oakland County look like great opportunities for the Dems right now. The 39th in Commerce/West Bloomfield and the 45th in Rochester/Rochester Hills also look good for Dems right now.

What do you think about the House Democrats' opportunities right now leading to a House majority?

Zach: I like their chances of flipping four Republican seats (the one in Portage and the three you mentioned in Oakland). These are areas where the environment is really good for Democrats and really bad for Republicans. The 45th probably is close, but based on the environment should be a Democratic win. Then the question is what happens elsewhere and namely can state Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City) hang on. This is an area where the environment should be good for the Republicans and is getting better for them every cycle. Elder got caught off-guard and the Democrats are clearly sweating it big-time. If the House ends up 55-55 because Timmy Beson beats Brian Elder, it will be a real disappointment for the Democrats that they were so close to an outright majority though obviously shared power beats being in the minority by a mile. The only way I see any of the other seats flipping is with a big Biden win statewide or if Trump rallies to essentially make the presidential race a tie and either wins the state or loses it by a point.

If there is a big Biden win, what kind of surprises could we see?

Alethia: I do think the Dems still have a chance in the 104th District in the Traverse City area given the amount of time and resources both sides are putting in there. I would give the GOP an edge there just given the nature of the district and its historic friendliness to the Republicans. It is not the same as the other suburban seats. I wouldn't characterize that as a potential surprise though.

Zach: Yes, thanks on 104. I concur. That one certainly could flip without a Biden landslide win.

Alethia: We could see potential surprises, if Biden wins by 5, 6 or more points in the state, in two Kent County seats, the 72nd and 73rd Districts. Voters in Kent County appear unhappy with the president, the question is how unhappy - do they keep voting for Dems downticket?

There's also several seats in northern Oakland County that are not strong spots for Dems on their own, but with the right environment could flip, like the 43rd District that includes Clarkston and Independence Township. Some Dems are also watching the 79th District in southwest Michigan as a potential surprise. The Dem candidate there, Chokwe Pitchford, is trying to unseat Rep. Pauline Wendzel and has really gotten some attention in that seat.

We have been talking about where Dems are holding the momentum and the potential for them to have a good night. But even if President Trump loses Michigan, there are plenty of observers who think Republican John James has a chance to unseat U.S. Sen. Gary Peters. What do you think of the dynamic there?

Zach: There's a bunch of Dems biting their nails. The other day, the number I was told has been spent on this race is $130 million. That's just astounding.

Personally, I don't see how John James wins if Joe Biden wins the state by 5 points or more. I do expect James to run ahead of Trump.

There's a number of factors to watch here. One, Debbie Stabenow made a decision not to attack James in 2018. That allowed her to run a positive campaign, but it also allowed James to build a base and define himself. Two, I don't think national Democrats realized the danger James posed early enough to Gary Peters and they missed an opportunity to define James earlier in the race. Three, Gary Peters is not the kind of candidate that energizes the Democratic base. The Republican base has long been gaga for John James. Four, Peters has run a more cautious campaign this time and hasn't taken the same chances that served him well in 2014 like the "Frugal" ad and doing every single interview and media avail possible to get news coverage. Five, Peters seems to be a little soft in Detroit. It's not entirely clear why. James is Black and his family has a business in Detroit, but that made no difference for him two years ago against Stabenow. This time, there's a chunk of Detroit voters who seem ambivalent about Peters for whatever reason which is why Peters has been running behind Biden in the polls.

This is one of those classic situations where if Peters ends up winning solidly his team will be able to say they'll be accepting apologies all month and clink champagne glasses but if James wins, there will be a torrent of second-guessing about every strategic decision Peters and his team made as well as national Democrats ignoring this race for too long.

Alethia: Yes it will be interesting to say the least. Certainly there are Democratic consultants and others working for Peters on social media that point to his consistent lead in the polls & say he'll win no problem. This doesn't seem like a race that's in the bag to me, though.

Back to Kent County, where we could see some longshot Michigan House surprises, there is also an interesting U.S. House race going on, right?

Zach: Yes, Hillary Scholten vs. Peter Meijer. Once Justin Amash bowed out, I figured this was Meijer's race to lose. Even though Kent County is shifting Democratic, this district doesn't have all of Kent County and two of the large communities leading that movement – Kentwood and Wyoming – are not in the 3rd District where Scholten and Meijer are facing off.

But this is clearly a tossup still. I would still classify it as an upset if Meijer loses, but I think there's been some surprises here. One, the spending. I don't know what the final number will be, but for much of this fall the spending for Scholten has far surpassed the spending for Meijer. How does that happen? I don't know the ins and outs of Peter Meijer's finances and how much of it is liquid, but there's no shortage of west Michigan Republican cash that could have been routed to either the NRCC or a Super PAC to help Meijer. Scholten has benefitted from the torrent of campaign cash going to Democrats nationally. Both candidates have run centrist-type campaigns that fit the district reasonably well. I still think this district is tough for a Democrat. Scholten has to run up enormous numbers out of Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, the cities of Battle Creek and Albion, Grand Rapids Township and try to make some inroads in places like Cascade, Lowell and Rockford. Everything else is uber-Republican. If Scholten does win, it shows that Trump has done serious, serious damage to the Republican brand in Kent County, considering Meijer has run a very un-Trumpian campaign that has been designed to appeal to middle of the road voters.

If you had one upset-special what would it be?

Alethia: If I had to pick one, I say the 72nd House District in Kent County. Kentwood is in that district and I wonder if it has morphed into enough of a voting bloc to help in this cycle unseat incumbent state Rep. Steve Johnson there. There isn't much buzz around Democrat Lily Cheng-Schulting there, but there are Dem ads running.

What about you?

Zach: I would probably also say House District 72. The Allegan County component of that district should -- should -- save Johnson because it is so Republican but if Kentwood completely blows up, and it could, he could get swept up in it.

I also keep wondering about House District 43 with state Rep. Andrea Schroeder, a Republican from Independence Township, simply because of the potential for a Biden tsunami in Oakland County. My guess is Biden has to win Oakland by more than 20 points to pull in Nicole Breadon. If Biden does win Oakland by more than 20, which would be just incredible, I don't think he can get to that number solely through running up the score south of M-59. He'd have to start eating away at the GOP advantage north of that demarcation line. I'd also expect a big Biden win to mean Waterford Township goes Democratic and that community, which is in this district, historically is a bellwether. I'd say 72 is more likely to flip than 43 though.

All this said, I think upsets are pretty unlikely and we're talking about one of the following scenarios: 56-54 Dem, 55-55, 57-53 Dem or 56-54 Republican. I put that in order of likelihood.

What else has stood out to you this cycle?

Alethia: A couple things. First, Democrats have appeared to use more contactless canvassing, especially in House races, and still hold advantages. Just showing how there are different ways to connect with potential voters outside of talking to someone at their front door (though it will remain the preferred method I am sure).

Also the Michigan Supreme Court's decision rendering unconstitutional the law allowing Governor Whitmer to issue emergency orders really brought that race into the mainstream. It will be interesting to see what the final numbers are there.

Zach: There appeared to be a late infusion of cash into aiding the Democratic Supreme Court candidates. Historically, that's a race where there's more money backing the Republicans. If Elizabeth Welch ends up winning the second seat (I am assuming like everyone else that Chief Justice Bridget McCormack is the top vote-getter and reelected), I think there will be a lot of questions on why Republicans seemed to lack the organization and firepower for the court races that they have had in the past. We'll see though, these races so often just come down to the name game and money is less important. How many voters think one of the Republican candidates, Mary Kelly, is former Justice Marilyn Kelly or former Justice Mary Beth Kelly? How many people vote for Brock Swartzle because he is one of only two men running?

Any final thoughts?

Alethia: I am just ready to see the results come in and discover how it all shakes out. It has been a unique campaign cycle to cover to say the least. How about you?

Zach: Like everyone else, I am ready for this cycle to end. Then we can turn our focus to the 2022 governor's race. On second thought, let's ban all election coverage for at least the remainder of 2020 once this one is in the books.

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Frantic Finish To Election 2020 Is Finally Here

Posted: October 30, 2020 3:10 PM

President Donald Trump by all indications is trailing Democrat Joe Biden for Michigan's 16 electoral votes, but Mr. Trump can ill-afford to lose this state and it shows in his virtually setting up camp here in the final week of the election.

In a 15-day span, Mr. Trump will have made six stops in Michigan – Muskegon, Lansing, Waterford, Washington Township in Macomb County, Traverse City and the Grand Rapids region, the last five of those coming in the final week of the campaign. It is an unheard of to see an incumbent president focus so much time on a single state. Mr. Biden has had multiple stops as well during the final weeks.

Winning Michigan will not singlehandedly deliver an Electoral College majority to Mr. Biden. He would still need 22 electoral votes, achievable by also returning Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to the Democratic fold, flipping Florida or flipping a combination of other states like Arizona and Georgia or North Carolina.

But it is very difficult to put together a path for Mr. Biden that does not include Michigan. If Mr. Biden cannot win Michigan, it also almost surely means he also loses Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and definitely forget about Ohio. That would force Mr. Biden to win multiple states in the sunbelt that historically have favored Republicans even if they have become much more competitive. One caveat: Texas alone would be enough to reach 270, but I can't imagine Texas flipping and other southern states not doing the same.

So how is Mr. Trump doing in Michigan?

Take it away, Pete Campbell:

Mr. Trump won Michigan by just 10,704 votes last time and it took everything going just right to win that race over Hillary Clinton by a whisker.

Based on the Democratic tsunami building in Oakland County, Mr. Biden looks poised to net gain a minimum of 55,000 more votes out of that county than Ms. Clinton did and it's entirely possible that number could reach or even surpass 100,000. In either case, it's more than enough to make up the nearly 11,000-vote deficit from 2016, especially when multiple sources in both political parties have told me they do not expect Mr. Trump to run up as big a win in Macomb County as he did in 2016. Mr. Trump cannot afford to lose votes out of Macomb, but by all indications he will, it's just a question of how much.

There's zero energy behind the minor party candidates, who siphoned away more than 200,000 votes in 2016. There's a lot of national polling data indicating that voters who say they backed a third party candidate in 2016 who are not going to do so this time heavily favor Mr. Biden. That's more help for him and trouble for Mr. Trump.

And Kent County, which narrowly went for Mr. Trump four years ago, almost surely is going to go for Mr. Biden this time.

Four years ago, Ms. Clinton netted 47,000 fewer votes out of Detroit than President Barack Obama did in 2012. For Democrats, there are some worrying numbers in the absentee ballots out of Detroit, which has one of the lowest return rates of any major city in the state. Based on his other gains, Mr. Biden probably does not have to get more votes out of Detroit than Ms. Clinton did, but U.S. Sen. Gary Peters probably does need more robust turnout to fend off John James.

Mr. Trump, along with Vice President Mike Pence on his behalf, have been making stops in areas that were essential to their 2016 victory – Muskegon, Saginaw and Grand Traverse counties. If one subtracts the larger metropolitan and university counties (Macomb, Oakland, Wayne, Kent, Kalamazoo, Ingham and Washtenaw), Mr. Trump won the remaining 76 counties 60 percent to 39.7 percent over Ms. Clinton.

The president simply must clean up in those 76 counties by an even bigger margin to counter Mr. Biden's gains elsewhere. There has been a huge effort by Republicans to register new voters in these areas, and they must deliver. Mr. Biden showed strong statewide appeal in the March Democratic primary unlike Ms. Clinton four years earlier. Just peeling off a couple of percentage from Mr. Trump would be a knockout blow.

Besides Detroit, the other wild card going into election week is absentee ballots. There's still about 724,000 absentee ballots issued to voters that have not been returned. The consensus is the bulk of absentee voters this year are Democrats. How many make the mistake of mailing their ballots too late to arrive before 8 p.m. Tuesday and see their votes not count? Assuming roughly 3 million absentee ballots are cast, how many voters using the absentee mechanism for the first time mess up their signature and run the risk of seeing their ballot disqualified?

For some time, I've felt Mr. Biden was the clear favorite in Michigan. What has been unclear to me is whether Mr. Trump can keep it close, to less than 4 percentage points, or if this turns into a rout of 8 points or more. Four years ago at this time, it was clear the door was wide open for Mr. Trump to win Michigan. I didn't think it would happen, but it was apparent it would be very close. This time around, the door is wide open for Mr. Biden. A lot would have to go wrong, and at this stage there are no warning signs of it, for him to lose this state.

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Peters Seems Content To Run The Clock On James; Could It Backfire?

Posted: October 20, 2020 12:03 PM

Gary Peters had the best ad in Michigan politics in 2014, the "Frugal" ad that amusingly played up his cheapskate persona, went a long way toward defining him toward a statewide audience and showed that he was ready to take the chances necessary to win a high-profile statewide race for an open U.S. Senate seat.

Six years later, Mr. Peters is running for reelection, and he's run a lot of ads that have left no impression. There's the Great Lakes, a time-honored Michigan issue on which almost no one disagrees. There's a whole lot about his office's efforts to assist small business. There's prescription drugs.

There was something about standing up to China.

2006 called, it wants its issue back.

It's just a mishmash.

Meanwhile, the ad right now that is the leader in the clubhouse for best ad in Michigan politics for 2020 belongs to Mr. Peters' rival, John James, the ad in which Mr. James' wife, Liz, slams Mr. Peters over an ad the Senate Majority PAC (an entity over which Mr. Peters has no control but is run by U.S. Senate Democrats) aired accusing Mr. James of wanting to let health insurers deny coverage to children with asthma because it's a preexisting condition.

One of the James' sons has asthma, and Liz James called on Mr. Peters to leave children like theirs out of his campaign.

No, it was not a Peters ad. And no, the Senate Majority PAC ad did not specifically reference the James' son. And yes, Mr. James has denounced the Patient Protection and Affordable Care that Mr. Peters supported as a member of the U.S. House and for the first time barred insurers from denying coverage for preexisting conditions.

Nonetheless, the ad was a dagger. The Senate Majority PAC ad's inclusion of asthma was a presumably unintentional gaffe that opened the door.

Meanwhile, these candidates appear unlikely to debate. Mr. Peters has offered a slightly more robust debate structure than the last three incumbent U.S. senators (Debbie Stabenow, Carl Levin and Spencer Abraham), all of whom insisted on one debate on public television and one untelevised debate before the Economic Club of Detroit. Mr. Peters has offered to do a debate broadcast on Detroit Public Television and one on Grand Rapids Public Television.

Mr. James initially called for four debates, one on Detroit commercial television, one on Grand Rapids commercial television and two on national cable news channels.

This shouldn't be hard. There could have been a debate on Detroit commercial television and another on statewide public television. Or Mr. Peters simply could have agreed to do the Detroit and Grand Rapids debates on commercial television Mr. James proposed and dismissed the national TV debates as silly (which they are).

Why Mr. Peters has resisted a debate on commercial television is perplexing. He wanted that format six years ago, virtually daring Terri Land to accept (she didn't). It supports the idea that he wants to run out the clock on Mr. James.

It's worth noting that Mr. Peters has a different campaign team than the one that guided him to a landslide victory six years ago. After Mr. Peters won, the campaign manager for that race, Paul Tencher, noted it took some persuading of Mr. Peters to air the "Frugal" ad, which Mr. Peters termed "goofy," but he agreed to it.

And let's talk about Mr. James.

His ads focus on disgust with the tone of politics in America and Washington. It's a nifty trick for someone who once said he supports President Donald Trump 2,000 percent, considering very few people would call Mr. Trump a model for not tearing down others, something Mr. James decries in the ad.

Nonetheless, those themes seem to capture the moment better than Mr. Peters' laundry list of issues that seem a little stale.

Add it up, and Mr. James has a chance. But he needs Mr. Trump to stay within four points of Joe Biden or the tide will be too much to overcome. And there's a lot of polling data out there that says Mr. Peters' problem is that Black voters who usually vote heavily Democratic have yet to commit to him. If those voters come home, then Mr. Peters should win comfortably.

As if on cue, today Mr. Peters unveiled an ad with President Barack Obama urging support for him. The James campaign appeared more than ready, immediately countering with an ad featuring Mr. James' grandmother.

It's anything but comfortable for Mr. Peters right now. For months, Mr. Peters has been filling people's inboxes with pleas beseeching them for campaign funds, warning of the threat Mr. James posed (the Peters team must be tearing its hair out at the unbelievable tens of millions going toward Democratic challengers, some of them long-shots, in other states even as Mr. James has more than kept pace with their candidate).

It increasingly looks like it wasn't just typical campaign finance email doomsday spin.

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Grappling With The Unthinkable

Posted: October 13, 2020 7:52 PM

The words in the criminal complaint were the definition of jarring.

Kidnap the governor. "Cap her." Conducting reconnaissance of her Elk Rapids vacation home. Blowing up the M-31 bridge to hinder law enforcement. Killing police officers. Two hundred men storming the Capitol and taking hostages.

Then layer on the revelation that several of the men charged by authorities for a plot to kidnap and possibly kill Governor Gretchen Whitmer were present in the gallery of the Michigan Senate on April 30, armed to the teeth, on a day when people swarmed the Capitol to protest Ms. Whitmer's policies to slow the spread of the coronavirus. At least one of these men, possibly as many as three, were memorably captured in a photo taken from the Senate floor by Sen. Dayna Polehanki, looking down from the Senate gallery, rifles slung over their shoulders.

Turns out they were allegedly casing the joint, not exercising First Amendment rights.

This was so stunning I was genuinely rattled all day, imagining the horror if their plot had succeeded, detonating explosives at and near the governor's vacation residence in Elk Rapids, kidnapping her. And then what? Sticking her in a trunk with a hood over her head for a terrifying drive purportedly to Wisconsin to be put on "trial" where a kangaroo court would presumably find her guilty of some imaginary offense conjured in these deranged men's minds and possibly then executed.

Or if they had attempted their original plan to storm the Capitol and take hostages. What of the safety of the legislators and staff who work daily in the building? What of the lobbyists and news reporters for whom at least prior to the pandemic they might spend more hours in the Capitol than their actual office?

It's all too terrifying to contemplate. Except now we have to think about the unthinkable. Of course, this was a lesson we painfully learned on September 11, 2001, but it's a lesson magnified exponentially when it hits at the nerve center of something so close to home – the Michigan Capitol, the Michigan governor, Michigan legislators. Staff. Lobbyists. Reporters. The people we (pre-pandemic) bumped into at Costco, the Roadhouse Pub, school events, parties, Kewpee, etc.

Everyone should be really, really pissed.

If polls are to be believed, a majority of the public generally is on Ms. Whitmer's side when it comes to her handling of the pandemic. Many are not. That's democracy.

But going back to the infamous April 30 protest that included a noose and a sign saying, "Death to Tyrants," the vitriol directed toward Ms. Whitmer has completely crossed the line. There's a lot of violent misogyny out there, just take one look at the Facebook comments (or maybe don't) anytime Ms. Whitmer speaks via Facebook Live, even well before the pandemic.

The word "dictator" has been thrown around constantly at Ms. Whitmer.

Former Governor Rick Snyder got some of this too. Protesters called him the "Ricktator." They descended on his neighborhood, first in Superior Township and then his Ann Arbor condominium. One of Mr. Snyder's children, Kelsey Snyder, offered support for the Whitmer family on Twitter after the charges were announced, recalling her trauma at the death threats directed at her father.

As far as we know regarding threats to Mr. Snyder, there was nothing of the scale announced last week. And while Democrats and liberals packed the Capitol lawn in fury at Mr. Snyder many times and had props like rats, I don't ever recall someone putting a Ken doll in a noose and saying it was Mr. Snyder the way someone took a Barbie doll earlier this year, naked and noosed, and declared it was Ms. Whitmer during a protest at the Capitol. This of course doesn't make the threats lodged against Mr. Snyder any less terrifying, but there is a scope involving Ms. Whitmer that was not the case with Mr. Snyder.

Ms. Whitmer is not immune from criticism and tough questions. It comes with the job. Critiquing and questioning our leaders is a vital part of democracy. Passionate activism also is an essential part of democracy.

Now would be a good time, however, for Republican legislative leaders to read the room, dial it back and recognize Ms. Whitmer has the right to be furious right now in the wake of this plot.

They are in a position of strength to do so anyway. They recoiled at Ms. Whitmer's use of the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act to keep Michigan under a state of emergency without the legislative approval required in the Emergency Management Act, sued and won. Democrats are casting this as a partisan decision, and while it was a 4-3 party-line ruling with the Republican-nominated justices in the majority, to dismiss it as a mere partisan ruling conveniently ignores the many times Justice Elizabeth Clement, to the fury of her Republican Party, has sided with the Democratic-nominated justices on a host of controversial cases.

This is the time for olive branches and personal outreach. Instead of throwing around terms like "dictator," maybe lighten up a little and say, "We disagree with the governor's use of the Public Health Code to continue her orders without legislative approval." No, that won't get you lots of retweets and likes.

I thought Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) set something of an example here in the statement he issued after the Supreme Court ruling. He praised the decision and said it showed it was time for the legislative branch to regain its seat at the table. A fair argument. He also added this: "I also appreciate the governor's concern and care for the health and well-being of residents in the U.P. and lower Michigan throughout this pandemic."

That's not something many, if any, Republicans have said, at least not since the first two weeks of the state of emergency in March when they supported Ms. Whitmer's initial actions. It is something that puts criticism of specific Whitmer actions in a completely different context.

Instead of an argument that sounds like "Governor Whitmer is a dictator looking to reserve all control for herself and wreck Michigan's economy," it's a reasoned argument that says, in effect, "I don't agree with all of what Governor Whitmer has done in the pandemic, some actions I completely disagree with, but I also know her goal with the actions she has taken is to protect people."

This won't be easy for the governor right now given all that has happened, but it wouldn't hurt if she and her team pulled back from the all-out blitz on Republican legislative leaders either. Maybe a private conversation with House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) in which the governor calls on this incident as an opportunity for them to start anew and put the litany of problems from the past year behind them and agree that the tenor between them must change even when they vehemently disagree.

That means all three of them need to make some changes. There's a lot of bad blood between Ms. Whitmer and Mr. Shirkey, and a lot of it is Mr. Shirkey's responsibility (recall his referring to the governor and legislative Democrats as on the "bat shit crazy spectrum" late last year), but it would probably be good if the two could avoid the public name calling. Their titles are governor and Senate majority leader, not "dictator" and "anti-masker."

Mr. Chatfield's "open letter" over the weekend blaming Ms. Whitmer for not alerting him to the initial contours of the anti-government terror plot to storm the Capitol and take 200 hostages was completely at odds with how law enforcement investigations work and the facts of the situation. It was refuted by none other than U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Matthew Schneider, a respected legal mind appointed to his position by President Donald Trump and previously a top lawyer in the Department of Attorney General under Bill Schuette, in an interview with WXYZ-TV.

Tensions are extremely high right now. There's a presidential election of incredible consequence a few weeks away. We remain in the midst of a pandemic. The economy is in bad shape. And now we find out that a group of men plotted a horrifying anti-government terrorist attack in our backyard.

The urge to denounce and belittle the political opposition is high because the stakes are so high.

It is because the stakes are so high that it has never been more important for the three leaders to regroup and start a new chapter.

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Dissecting A Year's Worth Of News That Happened In 4 Days

Posted: October 6, 2020 3:24 PM

Is it still 2020? The way the news cycle exploded last week, even by 2020 standards, was dizzying and incredible.

Every time Managing Editor Alethia Kasben and I started to think about writing a blog about a huge event, another new huge event erupted and made the previous one feel passé.

So instead, we had an electronic chat – is there any other kind of chat anyone – to reflect on a week for the ages.

Zach: In a year when the news cycle has run at an unthinkable pace, the last week really stands out. It's hard to know where to start, but how about with the Michigan Supreme Court decision. There are times where we have to acknowledge we were wrong and in this case I was very wrong. It seemed like the governor had the law on her side as far as the interplay between the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act and the Emergency Management Act, but the Republicans hit the lottery with the argument that the Legislature in 1945 unconstitutionally delegated its power away with the EPGA. I didn't see that coming, though I will say at best I thought the governor would prevail 4-3.

Alethia: I agree. I thought it would be a 4-3 decision. If someone had asked me before the ruling, I thought Justice Elizabeth Clement was going to side with the Democratic justices. It was a significant victory for the GOP-led Legislature definitely. But now they have to figure out what to do next with the election looming and House Republicans up for reelection.

We already know GOP numbers in Oakland County are not great. Polling has also showed Governor Whitmer's actions to deal with COVID-19 have been popular, I'd imagine mostly so in southeast Michigan. Do you think the Legislature's action or inaction could come into play on November 3?

Zach: I think overall, how voters feel about President Trump is driving everything in the November election and that crowds everything out.

That said, the Republicans in this case were kind of like the dog that chased the car and actually caught the car. No one, not even many of their allies, thought they had a snowball's chance when they first sued back in the spring. Up until now, Michigan's response was entirely on Governor Whitmer. Now it's a shared situation. For as much as the Republicans sought to zero in on some of the more confusing aspects of the governor's executive orders, a bunch of those orders are politically popular and can't live on without the Legislature passing a bill now and the governor signing it. I expect that unless the Republicans swiftly pass a bill boosting unemployment benefits from 20 to 26 weeks in statute to replace the now defunct executive order that did that, that Democrats will swiftly cut ads and mail pieces jamming it down GOP candidates' throats.

Alethia: Yep. House Dems already have a press release out today calling on the GOP to do just that with statements also coming in from like-minded unions and advocacy groups calling on Republicans to come to session and pass those things. Republican leaders have not been specific on what their COVID-19 response will look like.

Zach: I should add here how total this victory was at the court for the GOP. They got a unanimous ruling as well that the governor can't simply redeclare an emergency when the 28-day emergency period expires under the EMA as an end-run around the requirement for the Legislature to approve an extension. The courts really slam-dunked the governor on that one.

It's hard to put into words how completely chaotic the situation is now with state regulations and COVID at this point. The court obliterated the regulatory framework that was in place, love it or hate it. Now there's effectively nothing, and the state is starting from scratch. The early indicators don't bode well for cooperation. Senate Majority Leader Shirkey swiftly saying he opposes a mask mandate clearly upset the governor, who is slamming the Republicans now for suing and leading to the scrapping of the legal framework she created. She's already needling them about "leaving town" to campaign, etc.

Alethia: So far it is working out exactly as I would have imagined, but I suppose there is still time for the two sides to come together and figure something out. But the governor and the Republicans in the Legislature have very deep disagreements on how to handle COVID-19.

Zach: Shirkey can't even get behind any type of a mask mandate. That's a bad sign. Masks have broad political support except among hard-core Republicans, which is of course why he opposes them. More importantly, they have broad scientific support. I would have maybe expected him to say in response to questions about masks something more like, "There's a ton of ground we need to discuss with the governor, and that's one of the subjects." Maybe there are changes that could be made to the mask requirements, but it appears any mask requirement is a nonstarter for him.

I do think it should be noted, however, that it was not the Republican lawsuit that technically wrecked the governor's executive orders, but rather perhaps the executive order many of the governor's allies have said privately was the most poorly thought out, ill-advised one, the EO that restricted health care providers on medical procedures they could perform. This made some sense early in the pandemic when hospitals were getting overrun but it was kept in place for months even when hospital capacity returned to acceptable levels and hospitals were facing a major cash crisis as a result of not being able to perform procedures that are moneymakers for them. Some health care providers in west Michigan sued in federal court and that's the case that found its way to the Michigan Supreme Court and was the subject of Friday's ruling.

Alethia: Yes. There were a lot of questions on that order. Particularly when health systems were struggling and laying off staff during a pandemic.

So this monstrous court decision wasn't even the only huge piece of news we dealt with this week, was it?

Zach: Oh yes, the president was hospitalized with COVID-19, days after what appears to have been a disastrous debate performance for him. Small story there.

Alethia: Just a small story. And now it is bringing up questions about if he was taking basic precautions.

Zach: I actually forgot about Rep. LaFave testing positive for COVID-19 until I went back to look at last week's news, that's how much there was.

Alethia: Oh you know what, I also forgot about Rep. LaFave. Along with another House member quarantining after a staffer tested positive. Stark reminders are still very much dealing with COVID-19.

Zach: This also again calls into question why the House and Senate did not stand up a remote meeting process early in the pandemic. They have allowed people to testify before committees via remote meeting technology, but that's it. They could make it happen if they wanted to. They clearly don't want to meet unless they do so in person. This has caused problems for Congress as well. As far as LaFave, he's getting some heat in addition to get well wishes. He didn't wear a mask for most of the pandemic, and from what I understand Rep. Sarah Lightner (R-Springport) calling him irresponsible recently was indicative of what others in his caucus think. There's a good-sized contingent of Republican House members who have declined to wear a mask. That doesn't seem to be the case among the Senate Republicans who do wear masks. I'm not sure what is driving the different approach.

Alethia: I am not sure either but there is a noticeable difference when observing House Republicans. Rep. LaFave says he never discouraged mask use and seemed to think masks create a false sense of security.

Constitutional concerns are often brought up when we discuss the potential of the Legislature meeting remotely. But they are largely in charge of their own rules and could put whatever they wanted in place. Certainly if they still wanted to make sure they were voting in person, they could get in and out, with masks on while practicing all the protocols. What we have mostly seen though is more of the same. Long caucuses and long session days with members sitting on the floor for hours. They do appear to be caucusing in larger rooms, though.

Zach: Meanwhile, the election is churning toward a conclusion, and other than fundraising, there's not been much good news for the Republicans in a long time. They will probably need to flip a Democratic district in an area where Trump is likely to run well to save their House majority because right now the betting money is on Democrats winning every competitive House contest in Oakland and Wayne counties. And yet I think the consensus remains that the House ends up either 56-54 Dem or 55-55 with a smaller chance of 56-54 Republican. So anything could happen. "Anything could happen" appropriately enough has been the defining feature of 2020. After the last week though, it would be nice if "anything" could be spread out over a few more days.

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A Shattered Budget Process Could Use A Revamp

Posted: September 25, 2020 1:03 PM

Michigan's process of putting together the state budget for the upcoming fiscal year has been in decay for many years.

One could point to any number of problems prior to this year when the COVID-19 pandemic upended the tattered structure that has coughed and wheezed its way through the past decade. Even prior to this year, there already was a lack of transparency and engagement with the public on the final product, a concentration of power in relatively few hands and the inability of divided government to put together a product both parties could call a success.

Before this year, three of the last five budget cycles with Michigan in divided government led to a partisan showdown and either a partial government shutdown or bitter standoff that lingered well into the new fiscal year.

That's a good place to start with where the 2020-21 fiscal year budget succeeded. It was a resounding bipartisan success with both sides praising the end product, which passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate on votes of 36-1 and 37-0 in the Senate and 103-2 and 101-4 in the House. Democrats were thrilled with new investments in a variety of programs, Republicans were pleased with the restoration of funding to several of their priorities and no new taxes. Both sides lavished praise on each other.

What a difference a year makes from a year ago when Republicans tried to steamroll Governor Gretchen Whitmer on road funding, the subsequently furious governor broke off budget negotiations, Republicans then sent the governor a budget without her input and then Ms. Whitmer signed it but with an unprecedented barrage of line-item vetoes and the use of the State Administrative Board for the first time in 28 years to unilaterally move money.

It took the most secretive, strangest budget process in modern Michigan history to avoid the same strife.

To recap, here is what happened in the last two weeks:

  • On Monday, September 14, Budget Director Chris Kolb and the legislative Appropriations Committee chairs, Rep. Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron) and Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland), announced they had reached an agreement on the basic framework for the budget. Little other detail was released other than a pledge of no reductions to K-12 schools and statutory revenue sharing for local governments.
  • A full week passes with no information released, not even the amount of General Fund agreed to for each department and major budget areas, the staple of what is known as a budget target agreement and until recent years always publicly released along with any other high-level agreements. Even some of the most wired-in people I know around the Capitol could not pry any information loose.
  • On Tuesday, September 22, word begins to spread that the Legislature will vote Wednesday on the entire budget. High-level details are shared with the members of the Legislature by their leadership. No one will confirm any details on the record, and no official information about the budget is formally released. I was able to shake loose some details late in the evening on some high-level items, but only a fraction of what constitutes the $62.8 billion budget.
  • At 8 a.m. Wednesday, the House and Senate Fiscal agencies, after their staff presumably spent the previous 24 hours or more chugging coffee, Mountain Dew, Jolt or maybe just mainlining pure caffeine, release 219 pages worth of analyses with the major budget highlights. Bless them. Seriously, bless them. I don't know how they regularly are able to pull this off. This is the first official publicly released details of the budget.
  • At about 10:45 a.m., the Senate passes the education omnibus budget for K-12 schools, community colleges and higher education. At about 3:45 p.m., the House passes the education omnibus budget and the general omnibus budget for state departments and major budget areas. Just after 5:20 p.m., the Senate passes the general omnibus budget, sending both bills to Ms. Whitmer's desk.

Whew! In just eight hours, the Legislature passed the entire fiscal year budget basically before anyone who wasn't closely involved in developing it or analyzing it had a chance to review it.

One could argue the ends justify the means and that a budget that left everyone in both parties feeling like the budget was a success is all that matters.

I get it. No one wanted a repeat of 2019, and in the end if this all turns out to be good policy, this will largely be a footnote that almost no one in 20 years will remember.

But as Bill McKay said again and again in "The Candidate," there's got to be a better way.

The Legislature had a good system in the late 1990s and early 2000s that should be revived.

Back then, each chamber would start out with half the budget. The House would take bills for one set of departments and major budget areas and the Senate would take the other. Each would conduct its own hearings on those budgets and then usually in March or so would pass their versions of the budget to the other chamber. Then the House would go to work on the budgets initially passed by the Senate and the Senate the ones first passed by the House. Then those budgets would pass in late April or early May.

This had several advantages. It allowed Appropriations members and everyone with an interest in the budget to focus unlike what started in the past 15 years where each chamber works on all the budgets at the same time, doubling the number of subcommittees that meet in February and March.

The Consensus Revenue Estimating Conference would take place in May, as it does now, and then the high-level budget target negotiations would begin between the governor and the Legislature. Then, as now, these took place behind closed doors, but they also usually involved many more members of the Legislature with the subcommittee chairs largely in charge of their departmental budgets save for a couple high-level items. And when there was an agreement, it would publicly be released.

This allowed everyone to know how much General Fund would go to each department and major budget area and occasionally if the principals had agreed on any specific items.

Maybe a week later, once the chairs of each Appropriations subcommittee finalized details, conference committees would adopt the final versions of each budget and those bills would usually sit for a day or two before the full House and full Senate voted. This allowed for any problems or errors to get straightened out. To be clear, there was no general public input process for the conference committees, which are usually short.

The pandemic meant it was going to be an extremely compressed process this year that went right up to the October 1 deadline to have a budget in place at the start of the fiscal year. That was out of everyone's control. But maybe out of this weird process, those who will be back in the Legislature next year can look for ways to improve not only the committee process on the front end, but also the process at the back end.

Take a couple days between conference committee action and full House and Senate action for starters. The negotiations have to be confidential, we all get that, but once there's a deal and agreement on the details, make it public and let it marinade for a bit to see if problems are spotted.

Now, I know many wise observers and participants in the legislative process will say that's a terrible idea, that all that would do is give interest groups the chance to pick apart the agreement, mobilize opposition and gum up the works.

Would it though? Legislators saw enough details to see the budget as a smashing success with victories on both sides and voted for it overwhelmingly. No one has started screaming about anything in the budget so far.

Maybe the lesson here is the best of both worlds is possible. A collaborative approach conducted confidentially, yes, that avoids partisan warfare, but that concludes with a modicum of opportunity for the public to digest how $62.8 billion in their tax dollars will be spent, and who knows, offer a few ideas for improvement.

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Looking At The Math For Biden, Trump In Michigan

Posted: September 15, 2020 12:57 PM

Four years ago, Donald Trump needed everything to go just right for him and just wrong for Hillary Clinton to become the first Republican presidential candidate to carry Michigan since 1988.

He needed a steep falloff in turnout in heavily Democratic Detroit. He got it.

He needed to pile up a huge margin in Macomb County. He got it.

He needed to hold his own in Oakland County. He did, losing by the same percentage margin as Mitt Romney four years earlier.

He needed a good-sized chunk of disenchanted Democrats to cast protest votes for Libertarian Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein. They did. The 223,599 votes those candidates received was 21 times Mr. Trump's 10,704-vote margin of victory.

He needed to far outperform the usual Republican performance outside of the Detroit metropolitan area and counties with large universities. He did, racking up enormous margins in rural counties and flipping counties with a core urban area but with large numbers of white working class voters that former President Barack Obama carried. Counties like Bay, Calhoun, Monroe and Saginaw. Even as he lost Genesee County by 10 points and Muskegon County by 1.5 points, that was a huge improvement from Mitt Romney's 22-point and 18-point losses, respectively, in 2012.

It was an incredible confluence of factors that led to Mr. Trump's win, and it still produced a win only by the slimmest of margins.

Now it is 2020, and Mr. Trump is seeking a second term against former Vice President Joe Biden.

There is no indication that Mr. Trump has broadened his base of support. But there are indications that some of the factors that helped produce his 2016 win are unlikely to repeat themselves.

In Detroit, 107,007 people voted in the Democratic primary this past August. That is up from 60,612 four years ago. Turnout in the city in the 2018 race for governor also was way up over the previous midterm election in 2014. Taken together, there's every reason to think turnout in Detroit will be far stronger this year than in 2016. Can Mr. Biden pick up half of the 47,000-vote falloff Ms. Clinton suffered in 2016 compared to President Barack Obama in 2012? That's about 24,000 votes.

Oakland County looks like a big problem for Mr. Trump this time around given his struggles with college-educated, higher income voters. Governor Gretchen Whitmer won the county by 17 points in 2018. Several state House, state Senate and U.S. House seats within the county flipped from Republican to Democratic control in 2018. If Mr. Biden can win the county by 12 points instead of the 8-point margin Ms. Clinton had, that's 27,000 more net votes for him (assuming turnout is the same as it was in 2016, and it almost surely will be greater).

As of now, there is a lot less energy surrounding the third party candidates than there was four years ago. This can always change, but I thought polling expert Harry Enten's recent tracking of where the polls nationally stood as of Monday vs. the same time four years ago could be instructive. His national polling average was Mr. Biden at 50 percent, Mr. Trump at 43 percent and undecided/other at 7 percent. Four years ago, it was Ms. Clinton at 42 percent, Mr. Trump at 40 percent and undecided/other at 18 percent. If, say, half of those votes from Mr. Johnson and Ms. Stein return to the major parties and Mr. Biden wins those votes by a 2-to-1 margin, that's a net gain of 40,000 votes for Mr. Biden.

That's three paths that looked primed to pretty easily enable Mr. Biden to make up that 10,704-vote margin. This is why seemingly every national news story about Michigan usually includes comments from unnamed Republican sources that Michigan looks like the toughest of the Trump 2016 states for the president to retain.

So what must Mr. Trump do to overcome these factors?

It starts in Macomb County. He's going to have to boost his victory margin there. Could he raise his margin from 11.5 percentage points in 2016 to 15 this year? That would be another 10,000 votes for him.

Then Mr. Trump needs to turn up his outstate margins even more. There's a reason Vice President Mike Pence made a recent trip to the Traverse City area, and Mr. Trump went to suburban Saginaw County. These are regions where Mr. Trump's message has touched a nerve with voters, and he will need them to come out in even greater numbers than the already strong force with which they voted in 2016.

In 2016, if you subtract the three major Detroit area counties (Macomb, Oakland and Wayne), the three university counties (Ingham, Kalamazoo and Washtenaw) and Kent County, Mr. Trump took 1,242,969 votes (60 percent) to 816,584 for Ms. Clinton (39.7 percent) among the remaining 76 counties.

If Mr. Trump could boost his percentage in these counties to 64 percent, that's 75,000 more votes for him.

Whether those votes exist in Macomb and those 76 counties is an open question. There's a school of thought that Mr. Trump scrounged up all the lower-propensity voters in existence in 2016 and there are no more to be had. But if he can boost his numbers in his core areas, that could wipe out Mr. Biden's gains. This looks problematic. Some of the more populous counties in this coalition, longtime Republican bulwarks like Livingston and Ottawa counties, showed major signs of softening in 2018. Mr. Trump cannot afford any falloff.

There's one area I have only briefly mentioned, and that's Kent County. Mr. Trump won it – barely – in 2016 by just under 10,000 votes. Big parts of the county have recoiled from Mr. Trump, and it's not a stretch to think Mr. Biden will win the county, albeit narrowly, let's say by 5,000 votes. That's a net gain of 15,000 votes from four years ago.

In looking at all these factors, there's good evidence to suggest Mr. Biden's potential gains are likely. It's not that Mr. Trump can't find more votes in his core areas, it's just that at this moment, it's unclear whether those votes exist.

That's why, at this point, Michigan looks like the state most likely to flip from the Trump column to Mr. Biden.

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Supreme Stakes As Court Weighs Governor's Emergency Powers

Posted: September 10, 2020 4:47 PM

The upcoming decision by the Michigan Supreme Court on whether Michigan law gives the governor unilateral power to keep the state under a state of emergency indefinitely during a pandemic looms as a key turning point in the court's rulings and tenor.

The court in recent years has seen a bipartisan ruling majority on a host of issues. This can sometimes change depending on the case. Two justices nominated by the Republican Party, Justice Elizabeth Clement and Justice David Viviano, have not infrequently joined with the court's justices nominated by the Democratic Party on major rulings. On insurance cases, Chief Justice Bridget McCormack has often sided with the court's Republican-nominated justices.

And in general, unanimous opinions are far more common than they were 10 years ago when the court was riven by partisanship.

The most telling sign of the court's nonpartisan/bipartisan m.o. was the election of Ms. McCormack, a Democratic nominee, as the chief justice in 2019 even though the court has a 4-3 majority of justices nominated by the Republican Party, in a power-sharing arrangement with Mr. Viviano.

If there was any tension, it seemed to be between two of the Republican nominees, Mr. Viviano and Justice Stephen Markman, who have traded more than their share of biting footnotes in opinions, concurring opinions and dissents.

There have been some signs of cracks lately, however. The court's 4-3 decision not to bypass the Court of Appeals on the state of emergency case produced intense dissents from Mr. Markman, Mr. Viviano and Justice Brian Zahra, the fourth Republican nominee on the court.

Based on what happened in the bypass case, one might guess that Ms. Clement, who joined with the court's three Democrats in the majority, is the swing vote in this case. One could analyze every word the justices spoke during Wednesday's oral arguments looking for clues though that is a risky business. Each of the justices is well-trained in how to argue a case and could simply have been playing devil's advocate to press attorneys for both sides.

Whatever happens, it feels like this decision will mark a turning point in this era for the court. If there is a bipartisan majority opinion, whatever that opinion is, it will signal that the court is continuing on the path it has been on for the past several years, despite a few recent bumps. A 4-3 party-line decision would surely lead to a partisan fury.

More big moments are coming for the court following this decision.

Mr. Markman will be replaced in the November election by a new justice. A Democratic victory would put new pressure on the new Democratic majority on the court to hold together on a number of cases that undoubtedly would start making their way through the state courts. A Republican victory would test whether the four Republicans, freed of whatever issues there are between Mr. Markman and Mr. Viviano, decide to coalesce. That would no doubt show itself quickly in January when the court decides whom to name as the new chief justice.

For those of us who came of age during the Supreme Court blood feuds of 1999-2010, it still feels strange to use the words bipartisan and Supreme Court in the same sentence. The upcoming decision could tell us whether we are headed back to the future.

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Whitmer Appeared Very Reluctant To Restart Gyms, Youth Sports

Posted: September 4, 2020 3:29 PM

There's a scene in "The Naked Gun," the hilarious movie spoofing police shows, where Frank Drebin confronts bad guy Vincent Ludwig and somehow uses four contradictory sports metaphors in seven seconds to convey he has him cornered.

"The gloves are off, and I'm playing hardball Ludwig. It's 4th and 15 and you're looking at a full court press," he said.

That feels like the right analogy as to what happened in the past three weeks when it comes to the pressure youth sports and gyms put on Governor Gretchen Whitmer, herself fond of sports metaphors, and her decision Thursday to let youth sports proceed and gyms reopen despite an obvious reluctance throughout much of her administration to do so.

The governor, lest we forget, is in a terrible predicament, leading the state amid the worst pandemic in a century. More than 6,500 Michiganders have died from COVID-19. She's been the subject of vicious, even violent criticism, at least one known death threat, and has the enormous weight of life or death decisions, as well as decisions that could economically wreck the lives of her constituents, on her shoulders.

Youth sports, and to a lesser extent gyms, presented the governor with just the latest difficult decision.

Gyms had been closed in Michigan, other than the Upper Peninsula and 17 northern Lower Peninsula counties, since late March. They had been bringing increasing pressure for the governor to let them reopen.

The jam came with youth sports and a series of zig-zag moves this summer.

On June 30, Ms. Whitmer made clear it was the Michigan High School Athletic Association, not her, in charge of deciding what would happen with high school athletics as long as the region in which a school district is located was in at least Phase 4 of her COVID-19 economic reopening plan (all regions are in at least Phase 4).

The situation seemed to turn, however, when Ms. Whitmer issued Executive Order 2020-160, making some changes in what could open and what could not. The mandated closure of indoor sports facilities and gyms was especially significant.

What changed everything was the MHSAA's August 14 postponement of football to the spring. Parents and players went ballistic. Further, the organization after reviewing Executive Order 2020-160 raised concerns it would prevent some fall sports – boys' soccer, girls' swimming and volleyball – from playing. Less than two weeks later, the MHSAA went from saying it had to postpone football because "no one is willing to take the risk of COVID being passed on because of a high-risk sport" to pleading with the governor to clarify her executive order to allow high school sports to proceed.

That then raised a problem on gyms. If the governor were to allow children to resume high school athletics and let school athletic facilities operate but keep private gyms and fitness centers for adults closed, she would have been surely slammed for a double-standard.

Thus began a tortuous process.

On August 19, Ms. Whitmer told reporters her administration had begun work on what it would take to allow shuttered businesses (like gyms) to reopen. She indicated she would have more news on the topic the following week.

The following week, Ms. Whitmer seemed to backpedal, saying only she was giving those businesses "an earnest look" but also saying she would not "be bullied into making a decision."

That same day, MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl sprung a surprise when he went on a popular sports talk radio program and said the decision on whether youth sports could play was in the hands of the governor, not the MHSAA. This was the first public indication that despite Ms. Whitmer's June 30 statement the MHSAA was in charge that the MHSAA in fact saw the governor as having control.

Ms. Whitmer then met with reporters September 2 and again said she was not ready to make a decision but would have one soon. She made a comment when asked about the MHSAA that "crises reveal people's true character" and that did not feel like a compliment. Finally, on Thursday, September 3, Ms. Whitmer outlined the most conflicted reopening announcement she has made during the pandemic.

Gyms could reopen, but with all patrons and employees wearing masks.

Youth sports could resume, but with participants, other than swimmers, wearing face coverings, and the Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance against the playing of contact sports. Minutes later, the MHSAA approved football to resume in the fall anyway.

Sticking with the sports metaphor theme, that felt like a combination of spiking the football and a bat flip.

Now the kids get to play. There have been a lot of high-stakes decisions during the pandemic. This is one of the biggest.

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The Biggest Victory Whitmer Got In Court Ruling On Emergency Powers

Posted: August 25, 2020 4:20 PM

There was much for Governor Gretchen Whitmer to celebrate in last week's Michigan Court of Appeals ruling holding that the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act enables her to keep Michigan under a state of emergency to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

First, she got a 2-1 victory despite a less than favorable blind draw of the three judges for the case. All three had Republican lineage. Of the 25 judges on the court, eight were appointed to the bench by Democratic governors, 12 were appointed by Republican governors or have run for Republican office and five were directly elected to the bench without clear political history.

That said, if Republicans could have picked an ideal panel, it probably would not have included Judge Jane Markey and Judge Kirsten Frank Kelly, the judges who backed the governor, but Ms. Markey once ran for the party's nomination for Supreme Court, and Ms. Kelly was appointed to the Wayne Circuit Court in the 1990s by then-Governor John Engler as well as was considered for a Supreme Court appointment by Governor Rick Snyder. So this was a decision that had to sting Republican elected officials who insist the governor is violating the Constitution only to see two judges with a center-right point of view say in fact she is not.

Ms. Whitmer prevailed on all the arguments Republicans mustered against her use of the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act. They claimed the law violated the separation of powers. Ms. Markey in her opinion that Ms. Kelly signed all but laughed off the argument. They contended the 1976 Emergency Management Act – which requires governors to obtain approval from the Legislature to extend a state of emergency, which under that law lasts for 28 days – was the applicable act because it unlike the 1945 law mentions epidemics. The court disagreed. They argued the language of the 1945 law nonsensically renders the 1976 law meaningless. The court pointed to the 1976 law specifically referencing the powers of the 1945 one (though dissenting Judge Jonathan Tukel sided with the Legislature in each claim).

This was all bad for the Republican Legislature, even as it will appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court, which could come up with a completely different interpretation.

What should really concern Republicans, however, and cheer Ms. Whitmer is that the majority of the court declared moot the question of whether the governor can in effect extend the emergency through the Emergency Management Act, the one with the 28-day limit on declarations, without legislative approval through the issuance of successive declarations. Ms. Whitmer has done so. She has contended that changing circumstances can justify the issuing of a new declaration for the same emergency under the Emergency Management Act without legislative approval of an extension.

Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens, appointed to the bench by Governor Jennifer Granholm, scoffed at that argument when the case was before her and ruled Ms. Whitmer could not in effect do an end-run around the requirement for the Legislature to approve an extension. Republicans trumpeted that victory at the time.

But Ms. Markey and Ms. Kelly declared that component of the case moot because by deciding Ms. Whitmer's actions under the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act were lawful, a decision on the legality of her actions on the Emergency Management Act would have no practical legal effect.

This is important because Republicans have a big card they are preparing to play even if they lose at the Michigan Supreme Court on the governor's ability to maintain the state of emergency under the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act. They and their supporters are currently circulating petitions in hopes of gathering at least 347,047 valid signatures from registered voters to bring an initiative petition before the Legislature repealing that law. If the Legislature passed it, under the Michigan Constitution, Ms. Whitmer could not stop it with a veto.

A repeal of the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act would leave the 1976 Emergency Management Act the governing law. Ms. Whitmer would only be able to extend an emergency beyond 28 days with legislative approval – unless the courts found that the governor could issue new emergency declarations under that law for a long-running emergency as the circumstances of that emergency change.

What the Supreme Court will do, who knows. But based on earlier opinions and rulings involving the pandemic, it's a good bet that however Justice Elizabeth Clement decides to rule will prove decisive.

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Next Chapter Of Whitmer's Governorship Opens

Posted: August 18, 2020 12:35 PM

In Governor Gretchen Whitmer's nearly 20 months as governor, there have been four distinct chapters.

Chapter One, in 2019, was largely dominated by the governor's ill-fated 45-cent per gallon fuel tax increase and the ensuing inability to move much of her agenda through the Republican-led Legislature as well as the subsequent budget struggles. It was also a time of recognizing the cold realities of dealing with a deeply conservative Republican majority in the Legislature whose Senate majority leader was caught deriding her and other legislative Democrats as on the "batshit crazy spectrum."

Chapter Two, in January and February of this year, was about resetting her governorship, moving to achieve her policy goals through executive action, like selling $3 billion in bonds to move up road repairs she promised in her 2018 campaign. The governor proposed a relatively noncontroversial budget, a big contrast to 2019.

Chapter Three would focus on the COVID-19 outbreak, Ms. Whitmer's response to it and her rise as a national figure in the Democratic Party who became a finalist for the vice presidential nomination.

That brings us to Chapter Four. I don't know what it would be titled since it just began, but it might be The Regrouping.

The chances Joe Biden would name Ms. Whitmer as his running mate always seemed unlikely with U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who was the eventual pick, looming as the obvious frontrunner. Ms. Harris has a broader array of experience, has demonstrated she can handle herself on the national stage (even if her own presidential campaign did fall apart before voting began) and unlike Ms. Whitmer would bring racial diversity to the ticket as the first woman of color nominated by a major party for national office.

And yet, Ms. Whitmer was under serious consideration. She was fully vetted. She met with Mr. Biden. By all national accounts, she was one of three or four finalists. To get to that point, that means she had to have let herself envision the possibility of spending the rest of the year campaigning with Mr. Biden for the White House. She had to have had serious conversations with her family about the possibility and the potential of uprooting to Washington, D.C., next year.

There's no way anyone can go through a wringer like that and not need a moment, a day, or whatever to mentally regroup and instead gear up for working to flip Michigan House of Representatives seats in Portage, Novi, West Bloomfield and Rochester and deal with state budget and policy issues instead of finding herself positioned not only campaigning for the White House but becoming the de facto frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2024.

There's another potential regrouping moment coming for the governor in the coming months. She could lose her ability to unilaterally keep Michigan under a state of emergency as a result of either court ruling or initiative petition. This would mean the end of a host of executive orders the governor issued and the need to convince the Legislature to pass some of them to keep them in place, a prospect that doesn't seem likely in the current environment. There is some reason to think though that both sides are preparing for a post-emergency era based on the bipartisan agreements passed on the 2019-20 fiscal year budget and start of the 2020-21 school year.

Ms. Whitmer comes out of the last several months far stronger politically. Her national profile means she will have new cachet to raise money nationally toward her 2022 reelection bid. If Mr. Biden wins, Ms. Whitmer will become one of the nation's most important governors, enjoying far greater access to the White House than others.

If Mr. Biden wins.

That is one of the big catch-22s the governor and Michigan Democrats face.

Much like 2016, when the presidential race promised – and eventually did – cast an enormous shadow over the 2018 midterm elections in Michigan, 2020 offers the same prospect. Democrats dominated the 2018 in midterms in Michigan. There is no way that happens if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency in 2016 (the biggest driver of the electoral trend in Michigan for many years has been the party out of power in the White House generally rules the midterm elections).

If Mr. Biden wins, Ms. Whitmer will be the first governor to seek reelection with a president of the same party since 1974 when then-Governor William Milliken and then-President Gerald Ford held their offices (Mr. Ford having just succeeded the resigned Richard Nixon three months earlier). She would be the first Democratic governor running for reelection with a Democrat in the White House since 1962 when then-Governor John Swainson and then-President John F. Kennedy held their offices.

It would mean a completely different political dynamic than 2018.

Should President Donald Trump win a second term, however, it is easy to envision a repeat of the atmosphere of the 2018 midterms and a potential Democratic sweep though no one knows what maps for the Legislature will look like with the new Citizens' Redistricting Commission drawing them.

The presidential result also could influence what Republican(s) decide(s) to challenge Ms. Whitmer.

It's been a remarkable week in Michigan politics, one that closed a chapter and began another. Maybe that's in part what the governor had in mind when a mic caught her having a light moment prior to her Democratic National Convention speech Monday night.

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A 55-55 House Again? It Appears Very Possible

Posted: August 11, 2020 2:34 PM

Ever since the legendary 1993-94 term that saw the House evenly divided at 55 Democrats and Republicans each, with a power-sharing system featuring co-speakers and co-committee chairs, one of the biennial tropes in Michigan politics is that the upcoming election has a real chance of again producing such a split.

I am here to provide that biennial offering (you're welcome), but I swear this time it really is objectively plausible, or least more plausible than it has been.

Yes, the presumptive leaders of their caucuses for the 2021-22 term, Rep. Donna Lasinski (D-Scio Township) and Rep. Jason Wentworth (R-Clare), should brush up on the power sharing system installed for the 1993-94 term and maybe trade a phone call or two on the Bat phone just to say something like, "Hey, on the off-chance this happens, let's be prepared so we don't screw this up."

Why are the odds better this time than they have been?

There's the current partisan split of the House, 58-51 in favor of the Republicans with a vacancy in a solidly Democratic district, so think of it as 58-52. That means a Democratic flip of three seats creates a 55-55 House. More importantly, there is unusually very narrow field of truly competitive seats this year. There's five now Republican seats that could very well switch to Democratic control.

There's another several seats after those, a couple Democratic, but mostly Republican ones that could flip, but are much less likely to do so than the first five.

Of those first five, right now, Democrats are slight favorites to win three – the 38th District in Novi/South Lyon, the 39th District in West Bloomfield and Commerce townships and the 61st District in Portage and western Kalamazoo suburbs. The 38th and 61st look especially problematic for the Republicans because of the strong Democratic environments in those seats. The Republicans do have an incumbent in the 39th, but the trend in Oakland County does not bode well for them.

Math was never my forte, but I do believe 52 + 3 = 55.

The next two most flippable seats are much tougher for the Democrats. The 45th District in Rochester, Rochester Hills and part of Oakland Township is ripe to flip, but that Oakland Township component makes it tougher, and the Republicans have a longtime city council member running there at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic makes name recognition even more valuable than usual. The Democratic candidate showed some vulnerability in the primary.

Then there's the 104th District in Grand Traverse County. The fundamentals of this district favor the Republicans. President Donald Trump won this seat by 10 points in 2016 and while he likely will not run up that kind of a margin again, he's not going to get creamed here like what will happen in the 38th, 39th, 61st and maybe the 45th as well. That said, Democrats boast one of their best candidates in the state here, and the Republican candidate has not exactly wowed so far in terms of fundraising and his primary performance.

So finding that 56th seat right now looks tough for the Democrats. If they do win one or both of those two more challenging seats, Republicans have a pile of cash to spend to make Democratic incumbents' lives miserable, particularly Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia), who won the closest race in the state among the 110 House races last year. Democrats could perhaps flip four seats but lose one back and create that 55-55 split.

Of course, if President Donald Trump does not reverse his slide in Michigan, and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins a landslide in this state, it could shake things up and perhaps move all five of the key seats to the Democratic column, deny Republicans any gains and maybe even flip an unexpected Republican seat. The 55-55 buzz would go unfulfilled yet again.

If 55-55 happens, Ms. Lasinski and Mr. Wentworth will have an enormous task ahead of them – assuming of course no one defects from their caucus to back the other party's leader for speaker (cough cough, Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit), cough cough).

In 1992, that kind of a battle turned out to be the election after the election. Only after attempts to woo members of the other party to defect failed did the eventual co-speakers, Rep. Curtis Hertel Sr. and Rep. Paul Hillegonds, get serious about putting together a shared power agreement.

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Talkin' Tuesday's Statewide Primary

Posted: July 31, 2020 2:16 PM

Gongwer Managing Editor Alethia Kasben and I sat down to chat, well remotely via electronic instant messaging, to discuss Tuesday's primary election in Michigan.

Here at Gongwer we have spent the last month interviewing candidate after candidate across the state, mainly for the Michigan House, but also for U.S. House and some local races, to get a feel for how those races are going and the issues and controversies that are animating these contests.

Here's the transcript of that chat.

Zach: Alethia, we are four days away from one of the most unusual elections we have seen. As we wind down this portion of the cycle, what races stand out to you?

Alethia: There's certainly not a shortage of competitive primaries! On the Democratic side, a spirited primary in the 45th District covering Rochester Hills will decide who attempts to turn that long-red seat blue for the Dems. It's between a young progressive Brendan Johnson and a school board member Barb Anness. With COVID-19, they've both stayed virtual. It will be interesting to see how it turns out.

What races are you looking at on Tuesday?

Zach: I think the number one race on my list right now is the Dave Coulter vs. Andy Meisner primary for the Democratic nomination for Oakland County executive. Such high stakes. The chance to lead the state's second-largest county, and whoever wins, provided that they win the general election, immediately emerges as a major statewide political force. I wrote about 3,000 words on it, and I think I left another 10,000 on the cutting room floor, there's so much animosity, so many story lines there (See Gongwer Michigan Report, July 30, 2020).

You mentioned MI House District 45. We've got a few primaries that are going to play a big role headed into the general election for the House. What other ones look key to you and where do they stand?

Alethia: Another big race - and in Oakland County too - is the 38th District seat in Novi. That one has primaries on both sides, though Republicans looked primed to pick Chase Turner, a young conservative who ran a primary challenge against Rep. Kathy Crawford in 2018. The Dems will choose between Novi City Councilmember Kelly Breen, who was the party's nominee in 2018, and Megan McAllister, who is harnessing some of the more progressive vote. That side looks more like a tossup to me.

The Republicans also have a primary in the 71st District west of Lansing where two candidates are hoping to take on Rep. Angela Witwer, the Democratic incumbent. Christine Barnes was the GOP candidate last year and would make it a true rematch, but she has to beat Gina Johnsen first. Johnsen has outspent and outraised Barnes so it will be an interesting one to watch.

Certainly there are more. Do you have a House primary at the top of your list? Republicans have a few competitive contests in their safe seats, don't they?

Zach: At this point, there's two primaries that are wide open and to me put the full spread of each party on display. There's the 95th District centered in Saginaw where five Democrats are competing. You've got a progressive woman there in Carly Hammond, who is white, up against four men, three of whom are Black, and all of whom are less to the left than she is. That's shown up in two flashpoint issues for the party -- how they would handle Enbridge Line 5 and whether radical reform is needed in policing. Very different views among the candidates there.

On the Republican side, the 83rd District in the Thumb is fascinating to me. I've written a story we will publish prior to the primary about it, and you really have four totally different approaches to how a Republican elected official would operate. You have traditional Republican-friendly groups like Right to Life and the Farm Bureau backing a longtime countywide elected official, but then the DeVos-funded Michigan Freedom Fund and Great Lakes Education Project are putting beaucoup bucks behind a young Navy veteran who's also getting big informational support from a nonprofit tied to the parent company of Consumers Energy.

The Democratic primary for the seat in Kalamazoo is pretty clearly the nastiest race in the state among the House races.

What would you say, if anything, has surprised you about this primary season?

Alethia: The 60th is definitely nasty with two Kalamazoo officials going all out. On the Dem side, at least, there haven't been a ton of negative primaries (this portion of the discussion corrected after word with the right district number).

I don't know if it's been surprising as much as it is interesting to hear about the differences in canvassing across the state. In general, outstate regions west and north of metro Detroit have gotten back to door knocking for some time since the peak of COVID. In Oakland County most candidates on both sides aren't knocking as much or doing so more conservatively in hopes not to make people uncomfortable.

But then in Detroit, which was of course hard hit by the coronavirus, candidates seem to be door knocking while keeping their distance, and getting positive receptions.

Zach: Speaking of Detroit, the showcase state House race statewide is probably the challenge to Rep. Karen Whitsett from Roslyn Ogburn in the Democratic primary. What's your sense of where that stands?

Whitsett's relationship with President Trump and denunciations of Governor Whitmer and House Minority Leader Greig have put her in a precarious position, it seems.

Alethia: Just talked to her this afternoon. She is feeling confident and has done quite a bit to get resources to her constituents during COVID-19, which I think will be beneficial to her. Ogburn has gotten a lot of big name endorsements, but I wonder if some of Rep. Whitsett's perceived troubles are more inside baseball and may not sway voters much. It's also not a head-to-head match up with two more Dems on the ballot. We have talked to observers who think she's in trouble but others who aren't so sure. It will be one to watch and I really feel it's tough to predict.

Zach: So let's turn to Congress. The three big primaries are in the Grand Rapids area, Macomb County/the Thumb and the Detroit district between the incumbent, Rashida Tlaib, and Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones.

I am struck by what a bust the Tlaib-Jones race turned out to be. Tlaib seems to be running away with it. Jones' political base with the unions evaporated. Her getting COVID-19 obviously hurt, but she also waited so long to get into the race. Then the idea this would turn into a national proxy fight over the Democratic Party's view on Israel never materialized. I suspect Brenda Jones probably wasn't the best vessel for Democrats upset with Tlaib's opposition to a two-state solution. Jones has been somewhat close with noted anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan.

Over in GR, the betting money remains on Peter Meijer, but Lynn Afendoulis has mounted a strong campaign that has kept Meijer on his toes. It is interesting that after she was the mainstream conservative candidate two years ago in her state House race, fending off arch-conservative opponents, she's now trying to run to Meijer's right. The big question is whether the Democrats, with Hillary Scholten can give the Republican primary winner a real run for their money in the general election. I still think that district is tough even with all the changes in Kent County. That district doesn't include Kentwood and Wyoming. If it did, I think this would be a coin flip.

You've covered Shane Hernandez a long time and he's running for that seat in the Thumb and Macomb County but Lisa McClain really has upended that race with all her spending. What do you see there?

Alethia: Hernandez is of course well known in his core area, he represents Port Huron, and has the backing of the incumbent, which is an interesting factor. But he also is Appropriations chair in the House and has been working on the state budget fallout after COVID-19. I don't think he planned on a multi-billion budget deficit to deal with the summer before his primary when he got into the race. Certainly this one is getting nasty and I wonder how receptive voters will be to the attacks from McClain, particularly given she doesn't have a huge background in politics to point to.

Zach: She has tried to run the Paul Mitchell playbook -- outspend your opposition with personal wealth. But the Club for Growth has come to Hernandez's rescue in a way Mitchell didn't have to deal with when he won in 2016. This seems like a jump ball.

Any final thoughts?

I'll say I'll be watching for what the total primary vote is statewide in each party's primary. It can be compared to the 2016 primary because there were no statewide primaries that year either, and as we saw in 2018, if there's a big uptick in enthusiasm for one party in the primary that can definitely carry over to the general.

Alethia: I am also interested in total votes for each party, especially with absentee voting. Does one party seem to be using it more than other? Also interested to see how long it will take to get full results and how many people who requested a ballot end up not turning one in.

And I am looking to see what happens to candidates who show more savvy on social media and were maybe first considered underdogs in their primaries, like Johnson in the 45th and Republican Meghan Reckling in the 47th covering the Howell area. This cycle saw way fewer in person events, parades and other things candidates normally count on.

Okay, time for another candidate interview! Ready for Tuesday.

Zach: Indeed, usually we would turn, bleary-eyed, to the general election first thing Wednesday, but with the finalization of the unofficial vote count in question, I wonder if it will be later. It will make for a most unusual election night.

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As Primary Nears, Turn To The 2020 Michigan Elections App

Posted: July 27, 2020 9:57 PM

Gongwer News Service's one-of-a-kind 2020 Michigan Elections app is your source for unique analysis and reliable information as Michigan's August 4 primary election approaches.

The app, which is available for download on devices using iOS and Android, offers exclusive analysis of races for the Michigan House of Representatives, the state's 14 U.S. House seats, the presidential race, U.S. Senate race and all other statewide contests.

The app gives users on-the-go access to detailed candidate biographical information, with options to review primary races and, eventually, general election campaigns once those races take shape.

Users can also see which U.S. House and Michigan House races are expected to be the most competitive and the seats where one party has a slight or strong edge via the Analysis feature.

For most candidates, users will see links to the candidate's social media accounts, district maps, campaign websites and ways to contact the candidate, as well as biographical information. If that candidate has run for state or federal office from 2002 onward, the app also displays his or her performance in those elections.

Users also can use the Key Races function to identify only the primaries and general election matchups that are considered competitive.

Through the push notification feature, Gongwer will periodically alert users when new information has been uploaded to the app. The app also includes an archive of all push notifications sent to assure users don't miss anything and can review the information after dismissing the initial alert.

On election night, users will receive alerts as we call races.

As the campaign season progresses, and as race dynamics change, analyses will be updated. Every competitive primary race was updated as of July 27 with our latest assessment.

Users of the iPhone and iPad can download the iOS version from the App Store at

Users of Android devices can download the app from Google Play at

The app is available for download for $4.99.

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Trying To Make Sense Of The Fundraising In James-Peters Race

Posted: July 22, 2020 4:44 PM

Democrats have the momentum nationally and in Michigan. Democratic challengers, some of whom don't have a snowball's chance of unseating Republican U.S. Senate incumbents in deeply red states, are raising unbelievable sums of money, powered by Democratic donors' desire to dislodge the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate that has been a big backer of President Donald Trump's agenda, especially in confirming conservative judges.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, first-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters is raising nowhere near what Democratic challengers are raising in other states. And his Republican challenger, John James, is actually outraising him. We catalogued this pattern following the submission of second quarter campaign finance reports by federal candidates (See Gongwer Michigan Report, July 16, 2020).

The good news for Mr. Peters is that a battery of polls shows he is ahead of Mr. James. Further, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is by all indications leading Mr. Trump in Michigan. The last time a U.S. Senate challenger unseated an incumbent when the challenger's party lost the presidential race in Michigan was, well, never. It's never happened.

It's very hard to envision Mr. James winning if Mr. Trump loses Michigan unless it's a very close loss. Mr. James did run ahead of the top of the Republican ticket in 2018, but still the point remains that if Mr. Biden wins Michigan, and right now he is the clear favorite here, Mr. Peters is in good shape to win a second term, especially if Mr. Biden wins by more than four percentage points.

And yet Mr. James is a fundraising juggernaut. He has now outraised Mr. Peters for in multiple consecutive quarters, $6.4 million to $5.25 million in the second quarter of this year, and $19.5 million since he entered the race in June 2019 to $18.7 million for Mr. Peters since January 2019.

Meanwhile, check out the numbers for Democratic U.S. Senate challengers in other states:

  • Maine, where state House Speaker Sara Gideon has raised $23 million in her bid to defeat Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who has raised $16.3 million;
  • Arizona, where former astronaut Mark Kelly has raised $44 million to take on U.S. Sen. Martha McSally has raised about $22.4 million;
  • North Carolina, where former state senator Cal Cunningham has raised more than $15.1 million, more than the $14.4 million raised by U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis;
  • Kentucky, where former U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot Amy McGrath has raised more than $47.3 million (!) against U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has raised $32.6 million, and
  • South Carolina, where former state Democratic Party chair Jaime Harrison has raised $29 million versus U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has raised $26.2 million.

Now, money isn't everything, not at all, and Mr. James is spending money at a much faster rate than Mr. Peters, which meant Mr. Peters actually grew his cash on hand lead over Mr. James in the second quarter to $12 million to $9.3 million.

It's hard to take email campaign fundraising pitches too seriously. Every one of them warns of the recipient's certain death if they fail to donate to the candidate. Well, not exactly, but it's not that far off either. Nonetheless, Mr. Peters on Tuesday did strike an interesting note when he said "there's no way of sugarcoating" the second quarter numbers. "I was the only Democratic senator to be outraised last quarter," he said in a pitch for donations.

There are many ways of looking at this situation.

One, this is much ado about nothing, that Mr. Peters and Democrats aren't worried, that with the prevailing political winds he's not in trouble against Mr. James, but if things did get dicey, national Democratic funds would pour into this race on his behalf to help him.

Two, Democratic donors are distracted by shiny objects, i.e. Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, and illogically have poured a stunning $76 million into the campaign accounts of two Democratic candidates who have little chance of unseating two key Trump lieutenants in states that are solidly Republican when it comes to national politics. Imagine if those funds were split up among Michigan and other races that are legitimately in play to help Democrats in those states.

Three, Mr. James is not going away. Yes, he is burning cash fast, but he's also shown he can raise it. After a year of conducting almost no interviews, a time when it seemed Mr. Peters might somehow have two elections (the first against Terri Land) against opponents who seemed amazingly resolute on trying to avoid any questions, now Mr. James is making more of a public push, conducting several interviews and starting an early push for debates.

No doubt, when Mr. James decided to run again in 2020 after a solid showing in 2018 against U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), he and his team probably figured worse-case scenario, Mr. Trump would keep it close enough in Michigan to give him a fighting chance against Mr. Peters. Now Mr. James is staring at the possibility of another big Democratic year in Michigan. There's still more than three months to go, and as we have seen this year, the dynamics can change rapidly, but at the moment, this is an environment that favors Mr. Peters, not Mr. James.

That said, one has to wonder if Mr. Peters hasn't taken a look at the fundraising hauls of his fellow Democratic U.S. Senate candidates and contemplated the immortal lyrics of Moving Pictures: "What about me? It isn't fair. I've had enough, now I want my share."

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Feeling Like Tevye While Awaiting The Plan For Schools

Posted: July 17, 2020 3:36 PM

I want my children back in school.

I do not want them to get COVID-19.

In-person learning is completely superior to remote learning for the vast majority of children, from an educational, socialization and emotional well-being standpoint.

I do not want my children to spread the virus to others.

I still choke up when I recall my now-12-year-old leaning into me early in outbreak, when in-person learning had been canceled, sadly saying, "Everything's so different."

My daughters, who were in fifth and eighth grades last year, lost out on the end of the year activities they had anticipated all year – Cedar Point, a day at the East Lansing aquatic center, a band trip to Chicago, the big school carnival. Losing another year of those moments would be devastating.

I am so thankful, knock on wood, that my family has remained healthy, unlike so many others struck by illness and tragedy.

What happened last spring when students were basically given a pack of assignments for the week, a couple recorded videos and the occasional "let's chat" Zoom session with parents juggling work from home and attempting to teach cannot be allowed to happen again. I understand everyone was scrambling and caught off-guard and did their best, but that is not acceptable going into the 2020-21 school year with months to prepare for the possibility of another round of remote learning if it becomes necessary.

I am not a teacher and have no clue the challenges and fears they must face at the idea of crowding into classrooms with 25 or more children in the middle of a pandemic. At least I'm lucky enough to have a job where I can work remotely.

The data so far appears to suggest children generally are much less vulnerable to COVID-19 and spreading it. They can safely go back.

It may be a small percentage, but some kids have gotten sick. I don't even want to imagine the terror, guilt and other emotions I would feel if my children went back and they got infected. It's not worth the risk.

I could go on, but never have I felt more like Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" – ("one the one hand, on the other hand").

And in this case, I don't envision a clarifying moment when I finally conclude "there is no other hand" and the answer magically becomes clear.

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If Biden Blows Out Trump, What Is Impact On MI House?

Posted: July 10, 2020 1:43 PM

President Donald Trump was an underdog to repeat his 2016 win in Michigan from the moment his 10,704-vote win over Hillary Clinton was certified, but now that's putting it mildly with presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden moving into a strong position nationally and the president's support having tanked amid his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If the election were held today, Mr. Biden would win Michigan, and it will take an incredible turnaround for that to change. The question at this point is the margin. Could it be a close race, or does Mr. Biden pull away and thump Mr. Trump here by more than six percentage points?

Either way, Mr. Biden would get Michigan's 16 electoral votes, a critical cog toward winning the presidency. The margin is important for what it means down the ticket, specifically the Michigan House, where Republicans are nursing a 10-year run as the majority party and a 58-51 advantage (with a vacancy in one solidly Democratic seat, so Democrats need to flip four seats for outright majority or three for shared power).

I can hear Trump supporters hollering, "Remember 2016!" It's true, there is a feeling of déjà vu. In the spring and summer of 2016, there was a sense that Mr. Trump's capturing of the Republican nomination would lead the GOP ticket into a wipeout and put Democrats in a good position, though even as that loomed, there was always the sense that Democrats were unlikely to win the seats they needed to win the Michigan House, though they would gain seats.

In the end, Mr. Trump's narrow win, confounding nearly all expectations, propelled Republicans to an unexpected retention of their 63-seat majority because of the 10-point margin he put up outside of Oakland and Wayne counties.

There are some huge differences between now and 2016, however. The number one factor is Democratic voters appear willing to walk across hot coals to unseat Mr. Trump. In 2016, there was a significant slice of the party's voters that had grown complacent after eight years of President Barack Obama in the White House and sat out the race or voted for a third party candidate because they were unexcited about Ms. Clinton. Michigan now has universal absentee voting, and there's Mr. Trump's handling of the pandemic, which a battery of public opinion polls shows strong disapproval.

The universe of competitive Michigan House seats is relatively small this cycle. There are five prime pick-up opportunities for the Democrats: three seats in Oakland County, a seat in the western Kalamazoo suburbs and a seat in Grand Traverse County. Republicans have some pick-up opportunities as well, with four seats Democrats won narrowly in 2018 (in northwest Wayne County, Battle Creek and Eaton County) as well as a seat in Genesee County that is trending toward the GOP.

There's been a major realignment in Michigan politics that started in the 2010 election cycle. Republicans have consolidated their hold on outstate white working-class areas where Democrats once competed and won. Democrats have made major incursions into the suburban areas the GOP dominated for decades.

That realignment, in part, is what will blunt the ability of Democrats to make a huge gain in seats even if Mr. Biden wins by a big margin, say eight to 10 points. Republicans also can thank the 2011 map they drew because, even though suburban Kent County at that time was not politically competitive, that has dramatically changed and the upcoming 2021 reapportionment could easily produce two 50-50 or even slightly Democrat-leaning seats in Grand Rapids' southern and eastern suburbs. There is a smattering of seats elsewhere that could go from Republican-leaning to 50-50 depending on what the new independent redistricting commission does.

A Biden win of eight to 10 points would likely look a lot like the map Governor Gretchen Whitmer produced with her 9.5 percentage point win in the 2018 governor's race. Mr. Biden would run up big margins through the I-94 and I-96 corridors as well as I-75 through Saginaw County. Mr. Trump would run well almost everywhere else.

The immediate impact of the current environment, if it holds, is to substantially weaken the ability of Republicans to flip Democratic seats. House Republicans have a massive campaign war chest, so they can still pump money into those seats, but winning some of them is going to be much tougher if Mr. Trump is losing key parts of the state decisively because loads of Democrats who stayed home in 2016 show up this time. Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) and Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) in particular will benefit from a Biden blowout, which also would help the causes of Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Township) and Rep. Jim Haadsma (D-Battle Creek).

A Biden landslide only further cements the favorite status of Democrats in three Republican districts: the seat based in Portage, the seat in Novi and other southwest Oakland County communities, and the seat in Commerce and West Bloomfield townships.

That landslide also has to help Democrats in what is probably the tipping point seat for House control: the 45th District that covers Rochester, Rochester Hills and a portion of Oakland Township. That's a coin flip right now. How it plays in the other contender for tipping point seat – the 104th District that covers Grand Traverse County – is uncertain. Mr. Trump carried this seat by 10 points in 2016 and it is prone to see a surge of the lower-propensity Trump voters return to the polls in 2020 and scuttle Democratic hopes for a flip. That said, Democrats have a strong candidate here and the county is changing politically.

What's interesting is that even if Mr. Biden wins by a Whitmer-type margin, the field of competitive seats might not expand by much because realignment already moved most of the seats that are movable within the confines of the current map.

There are a few to watch though:

  • The 72nd District in southern Kent and northeast Allegan counties. Rep. Steve Johnson (R-Wayland) is up for reelection and the archconservative is well to the right of the Kent County portion of this seat. Kentwood, the district's population center, has swung Democratic very quickly. The conservative Allegan portion of the district is Mr. Johnson's firewall that makes him the favorite here over whomever emerges from the Democratic primary, but a Trump implosion would move this district toward tossup status.
  • The 79th District in northern Berrien County. Assuming Rep. Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet) wins renomination over a primary challenger, she could face a tougher than expected challenge from the Democratic newcomer, college student Chokwe Pitchford. There's been a big political shift in St. Joseph and St. Joseph Township toward the Democrats and, combined with overwhelmingly Democratic Benton Harbor and Democratic-leaning Benton Township, the district no longer is solidly red like it once was. One big help Ms. Wendzel will have is this seat is in the backyard of U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), who will have massive money spent on his behalf to win his reelection contest.
  • The 98th District in Midland County: Rep. Annette Glenn (R-Midland) should be in better shape this time, assuming Consumers Energy doesn't spend a fortune to help the Democratic candidate, Sarah Schulz, like it did in 2018. Mr. Trump did win this district handily in 2016, though there was a large third-party vote. Midland saw a dramatic shift toward the Democrats in 2018 (though Republicans still carried the county). If 2018 was the low point for Republicans in the county, then the top of the ticket shouldn't cause any problems for Ms. Glenn. But if Mr. Trump falls into the low 50s here, the door could open for Ms. Schulz.

So, in the end, not a ton has changed in the race for House control even as Mr. Biden has moved into a commanding position. The House in the 2021-22 term is likely to be split 56-54, 55-55 or maybe 57-53, same as it was before the pandemic, with the party in majority in doubt. That said, Mr. Trump's problems do mean a relief for some Democratic incumbents and perhaps a few more Republican incumbents reaching for the ibuprofen.

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Is The Cass Statue In Washington Next?

Posted: June 30, 2020 12:59 PM

One of my U.S. history books, I think in high school, when discussing the 1848 presidential election referred to the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass, as "a man of considerable unattractiveness."

Jeez, I thought at that time, what a low blow by the author, and what a nasty thing to say about a Michigander, one of only two residents of our state to receive a major party nomination for president and the territorial governor of Michigan for 18 years.

The author was deriding Mr. Cass' physical appearance, but now in the year 2020, amid a new civil rights movement, Mr. Cass' record is getting another look, and some aspects of it are considerably unattractive.

A slaveholder. A supporter of the popular sovereignty movement to let each state decide whether to allow or abolish slavery. President Andrew Jackson's secretary of war who carried out violent and calamitous policies against American Indians.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer today renamed the state office building named in 1952 for Mr. Cass after the sponsors of the state's civil rights act, former state Reps. Daisy Elliott and Mel Larsen.

Mr. Cass' name is all over the state, from Cass County to Cass Tech High School in Detroit to street names and more. But the most visible and highest honor to Mr. Cass is that he is one of Michigan's two statues in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol (not all the statues are in the hall, others are in other locations at the Capitol). He is the statue representing the Democratic Party. President Gerald Ford is the statue for the Republican Party.

Typically, a state legislature initiates the change through the adoption of a resolution.

If Mr. Cass were to be replaced, and there is clearly momentum for the change, there are a bevy of possibilities. It would be someone from the Democratic firmament, or at least someone revered by the Democratic firmament.

But who?

Names that immediately come to mind, in alphabetical order:

  • Former U.S. Rep. John Dingell Jr., the longest-serving member of Congress is U.S. history and a legislative powerhouse involved with most of the most significant legislation of the second half of the 20th century.
  • This is out of the box, but fun to think about: Former First Lady Betty Ford, a champion of women's rights who broke ground by publicly discussing her battle with breast cancer and addiction. It would be something to have her statue near Mr. Ford's. Again, this seems unlikely, but for the purposes of this discussion is fun to consider.
  • Former U.S. Rep. Martha Griffiths, the first Michigan woman elected to Congress, in 1954, and a champion of women's rights who would later become the first woman elected Michigan lieutenant governor.
  • Former federal Judge Damon Keith, the longest-serving Black judge in the nation, the grandson of slaves who authored several landmark rulings and earlier in his career was one of the two first co-chairs of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.
  • Former Governor, Detroit Mayor, U.S. Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy, a champion of the poor and organized labor movements.
  • Civil rights hero Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat to a white person and move to the back of the bus took place in Alabama but spent the final half of her life in Michigan and as a person of great influence and respect (Update: Astute readers note Ms. Parks already is enshrined with a statue at the U.S. Capitol, not that it would remove her from consideration for this honor, but that would surely be part of the discussion).
  • Walter Reuther, the legendary UAW president who virtually built the union.
  • Sojourner Truth, the abolitionist and women's rights activist who is on Smithsonian magazine's "100 Most Significant Americans of All Time" and spent the final 26 years of her life living in Battle Creek (there is a bust honoring her in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center).
  • Former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young. The first Black mayor of Detroit, a champion of the civil rights and labor movements.

I'm sure I left out some good choices, but these were the ones that first sprang to mind and after a minimal amount of research.

When Mr. Ford replaced Zachariah Chandler, there was some angst because Mr. Chandler was a leading abolitionist, and he was getting the hook instead of Mr. Cass. But Mr. Cass' time might be nearing an end.

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Benson, Sen. Johnson Feud Intensifying

Posted: June 23, 2020 4:55 PM

In late 2018, as Republican outgoing Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and Democratic incoming Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson worked through the transition of the office, there were the usual niceties and photos of the two onetime political foes.

Ah, the majesty of democracy, the peaceful transfer of power from Ms. Johnson, who defeated Ms. Benson in a 2010 contest, but then had to give way to Ms. Benson in 2018 after Ms. Benson won election in a year when Ms. Johnson was barred by term limits from running again.

In the year and half since then, Ms. Benson and now-Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly) have developed one of the more acrimonious relationships at the Capitol, which is saying something considering the animosity between Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake); Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit) and most of the House Democratic Caucus and Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain) and anyone with a "D" after their name.

Ms. Johnson was named chair of the Senate Elections Committee, putting her in position to oversee her successor.

One of the leading voices at the Capitol blaming Ms. Benson for the long lines in 2019 at secretary of state branch offices was Ms. Johnson.

And then as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Ms. Johnson began hammering Ms. Benson for her handling of elections. She disagreed with Ms. Benson's decision to proceed with the May 5 elections, saying all millage proposals and other items on those ballots should have been moved to August to protect voters and poll workers.

Ms. Benson, with the support of a number of county clerks, including some Republicans, said it was important to show elections could be held and that May 5 provided an ideal test run with a relatively small number of voters, especially considering the avalanche of voters expected for the November presidential election. Ms. Johnson really got under Ms. Benson's skin by claiming Ms. Benson's move to send applications for absentee ballots to all voters would open the door to voter fraud with Ms. Benson responding that all the same safeguards for absentee ballots remain in place and that someone has to apply for the absentee ballot before they can get it.

All this led up to Ms. Johnson and Ms. Benson working out a hearing on June 9 where Ms. Benson would appear before the Senate Elections Committee.

It did not go well.

The meeting was supposed to start at 12:30 p.m.

It did not start until 12:39 p.m. because Senate session ran until just after 12:30.

Then as Ms. Johnson opened the meeting, she fumed that Ms. Benson's team had informed her she could only be available until 1 p.m. and claimed it was the Benson staff that selected June 9 from a variety of days.

Ms. Benson, appearing via Zoom, said she had a meeting with local clerks.

Ms. Johnson then let Ms. Benson proceed with a presentation that – surprise! – went right up to 1 p.m. where she could talk unabated about the department's efforts and requests of the Legislature.

Ms. Johnson again chided Ms. Benson about not making time for questions.

Ms. Benson responded, "I'm happy to take one." Talk about twisting the knife.

Ms. Johnson then recognized Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) for a question, but he instead moved to adjourn and requested that Ms. Benson return to the committee within the next two weeks so she could answer questions from the members (that has yet to happen).

Ms. Johnson then adjourned the meeting.

Ms. Johnson made a big tactical error in letting Ms. Benson burn through all the time with the presentation. She could have announced that given the limited time, the committee would proceed right to questions.

Ms. Benson clearly isn't interested in letting her predecessor and number one critic have the opportunity to interrogate her for hours. That said, she'll have to reappear before a House or Senate committee again at some point, and if they recall what happened on June 9, 2020, they will be sure not to allow a "I'm happy to take one" repeat.

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Time Has Come For Governor To Return To Standard News Conferences

Posted: June 5, 2020 1:09 PM

For three months, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has been simultaneously available and unavailable to the news media to answer questions about the cascade of crises roiling Michigan – COVID-19, the Midland County floods and the uprisings taking place in response to police brutality.

For those three months, the governor has held anywhere from two to four news briefings a week where she answers from six to 10 questions at each briefing. In my nearly 18 years of covering the Capitol and four different governors, there's been nothing like it. Typically, a reporter goes to an event where a governor is speaking, waits 30 to 60 minutes for it to end and then we jam our recorders in their face at close proximity for five minutes until a press aide cuts off questioning after three or four questions and the governor moves on with their day.

Such a situation would happen maybe once or twice a week at most. What has transpired is on the one hand a remarkable amount of availibility.

But -- and you knew there was a but coming -- starting with the nighttime March 10 news briefing Ms. Whitmer held to announce the state had its first two confirmed COVID-19 cases, Ms. Whitmer understandably and rightfully changed how news conferences worked in a way to protect the health of herself, staff at the event and the reporters – and by extension everyone with whom we come in contact. Having all of us clustered around the governor in close proximity? I don't want any part of that at this point. It was awkward and uncomfortable pre-pandemic.

So what has taken place since then is the governor's press staff invites three different reporters, one from print, one from radio and one from television to serve as "pool reporters." It's not a traditional pool in the sense that usually entails one or two reporters attending an event unavailable to others and then producing all the quotes and newsworthy items said at the event for everyone to use. The governor's news briefings are livestreamed for all to see.

The pool aspect is that the Capitol press corps and reporters from around the state have agreed to an unprecedented collaboration to submit questions to the designated reporters, who will then potentially ask those questions of the governor. Only a small fraction of the questions submitted get asked.

In the early days of the outbreak, the governor supplemented these events with teleconferences where members of the Capitol press corps would have the chance to ask questions over the phone of the governor. These were a nice venue because it was all question-and-answer unlike the news briefings that tend to have a roughly 3-to-1 ratio in the minutes spent on the governor and others making presentations and general comments vs. questions and answers from reporters and officials.

It's been many, many weeks since the governor held a teleconference with reporters.

It is time to end the pooled news conference set-up. It was absolutely the right thing to do, but with the state reopening most facets of its economy, a news conference with a large number of news outlets present could be safely conducted to minimize risk. It would need to be held at a nontraditional venue. The press auditorium in the Romney Building is too small to allow for social distancing.

But there's the auditorium at the State Library that Ms. Whitmer used for her news conference last year following her budget vetoes and transfers. It's huge and could easily accommodate a large number of reporters and still keep everyone six feet apart. I've suggested that venue to the governor's press staff. Several other reporters have requested a return to more traditional news conferences.

Why does this matter?

The pooled set-up has many flaws. Reporters have greater expertise in different topics. One can't expect the nuance of a question to be properly conveyed, nor more critically whether an appropriate follow-up question will be asked. If there's one question a reporter needs answered for their story, but it doesn't get asked, their story may have to continue waiting indefinitely for publication.

Last week, I suggested to the governor's press staff it was soon time to transition back to a more traditional set-up for asking questions of the governor. Offices, restaurants, hair salons and more have reopened or will soon reopen. All of the COVID-19 data has been trending in the right direction for many weeks. It will be different – masks would be worn, everyone would need to be six feet apart and a protocol for ingress and egress from the room would be needed – but there's no reason that a more traditional news conference can't be held where reporters from across the state with their differing areas of expertise and different interests of their readers, listeners and viewers could ask questions that in many instances have been on hold for weeks.

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Whitmer Suffers A Big Court Defeat

Posted: May 26, 2020 11:53 AM

It got lost in the bonkers news cycle last week, but the Michigan Court of Appeals handed Governor Gretchen Whitmer a major setback in how she uses executive powers.

Remember the Whitmer administration's issuance of emergency rules in 2019 banning the sale of nearly all flavors of e-cigarettes?

Last week, the Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the issuance of a preliminary injunction by the Michigan Court of Claims blocking the Department of Health and Human Services from implementing the emergency rules. At issue is not whether the ban is good or bad policy, but whether the department had legal justification to invoke the emergency rules process, which allows a department to promulgate rules much more quickly than through the traditional administrative rules process.

The Court of Claims ruled that the department failed to justify using the emergency rules process, and the Court of Appeals, with two judges of a more conservative bent and one judge of a more liberal bent, agreed. Ms. Whitmer, who had directed DHHS to act and made a major publicity push around the emergency rules, issued a sharply critical statement after the Court of Claims ruled against her, claiming it: "misreads the law and sets a dangerous precedent of a court second-guessing the expert judgment of public health officials dealing with a crisis."

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the Midland County floods, the Court of Appeals ruling should not get lost. Vaping businesses sued the state claiming the emergency rules should be blocked because they faced imminent financial ruin and the state had failed to follow the Administrative Procedures Act in using the emergency rules process.

"We hold that the DHHS and the governor are entitled to due deference with regard to the finding of an emergency under MCL 24.248(1), but not complete capitulation," the appellate court ruled.

There's no indication yet on whether Ms. Whitmer and DHHS will appeal, but it's worth noting now that of the four judges that have weighed in so far, two were named to the bench by Democratic governors, one was named to the bench by Governor Rick Snyder and the other was directly elected to the bench but has sought the Republican nomination to the Supreme Court. The Court of Claims judge on the case, Judge Cynthia Stephens, is the same one who just ruled in the governor's favor on her use of the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act in the pandemic.

If the case does go to the Michigan Supreme Court, it's hard to say what the justices might do, but the first two rulings do not bode well for the governor.

Ms. Whitmer has made it clear that she will use the powers of the Executive Office to their full potential, especially with a Republican-controlled Legislature that opposes much of her agenda.

To the extent the governor intended to use the emergency rules process to achieve some of her policy goals, the courts so far are saying that's not a viable option.

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Whitmer Takes A Different Approach In Economic Reopening

Posted: May 21, 2020 3:58 PM

The governors of most of the Great Lakes states and Kentucky declared they would move in tandem on reopening their states' economies about five weeks ago, but in that time Governor Gretchen Whitmer has departed from the more rapid reopenings taking place in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Minnesota.

Wisconsin we won't include after the state's conservative Supreme Court ruled the state's governor lacked the authority to issued stay-at-home orders and flipped the switch on a reopening in one fell swoop.

The states have taken very different approaches. Indiana and Ohio set a phased reopening based on the calendar with various activities authorized to resume on specific dates scheduled weeks in advance. Ohio at this point is no longer under a stay-at-home order but instead under a health advisory that still imposes some restrictions.

Illinois has a plan that comes closest to what Ms. Whitmer has set up for Michigan, reopening more of the state depending on the status of the virus and other factors. Unlike Michigan, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, whom Ms. Whitmer has often referenced in interviews, set forth some highly specific numbers the state had to meet like the percent testing positive for COVID-19, the trajectory of hospital admissions over a certain number of days and having a specific surge capacity present in hospital ICU, medical and surgical beds.

Ms. Whitmer has a six-phase plan, but it's much vaguer than the Illinois one.

What appears to be governing her decisions is observing over a period of a week or so whether Michigan continues to be trending in the right direction on new cases, the percent of those tested coming up positive, continuing to build up personal protective equipment, hospital capacity, what fields are bringing the most pressure to reopen and best assuring they can do so safely and a recognition that more people are starting to look for ways to reengage their lives in the safest manner possible.

Republicans have pounded Ms. Whitmer for not moving in mid-April to reopen most of the state.

There have been a few orders that some of those traditionally allied with Ms. Whitmer have privately questioned, like the one prohibiting "nonessential" medical procedures (which the governor announced today would be lifted on May 29).

The governor's six-phase plan seems something of a moving target. Prior to last week, with the state in Phase 3 and dine-in service at restaurants and bars slated to resume in Phase 5, there was panic in the restaurant industry about how far off that designation loomed.

But then Ms. Whitmer moved the Upper Peninsula and most of the northern Lower Peninsula to Phase 4 and in doing so allowed dine-in service to resume at bars and restaurants in those regions with reduced capacity. The governor, explaining why she took that action with dine-in service scheduled for Phase 5, explained that Phase 5 means unrestricted dine-in service. This of course prompted some questions because there was nothing in Phase 4 about allowing a partial reopening of restaurants.

All this said, a battery of polls shows the public decisively backing Ms. Whitmer's handling of the crisis. For as much as Republicans, who clearly are acutely aware of the governor's soaring popularity, have slammed Ms. Whitmer's handling of the crisis, the vast majority of the state is not on the immediate reopening train. And an overwhelming majority disagrees with the protesters showing up at the Capitol armed and screaming at police officers.

And yet there was an interesting finding in the survey the Detroit Regional Chamber commissioned by Glengariff that came out this week. A clear majority of the public, 58 percent, believes it is time to start trying to find a way to reengage something resembling normal life – a new normal, to be sure – and gradually reopen the economy with all the new precautions and safeguards. Those who advocate for keeping strict limitations on public movement until there is a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 are vastly outnumbered.

Ms. Whitmer has repeatedly said polls have no role in the reopening decisions she is making.

But it has to please the governor and her team to see the public solidly backing the approach she has taken, even if it's been more difficult to decipher and anticipate than the state's neighbors.

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Morris Hood III, A Terribly Sad Loss

Posted: May 12, 2020 11:15 AM

Not Mo Hood. This sucks and hurts.

COVID-19 claimed one of the best-liked, most popular figures at the Capitol today in former Sen. Morris Hood III, a Detroit Democrat who started out as the son of one of the most legendary members of the Legislature in the second half of the 20th century, the late Rep. Morris Hood Jr., and by the end of his own 14-year run in the House and Senate had carved out his own reputation as wise, kind and bright.

He had been hospitalized on a ventilator for more than two weeks.

When word of his hospitalization was posted in April to Facebook, there was one comment that really struck me, and I am thinking about now. It was from Irma Clark-Coleman.

In 1998, Mr. Hood's father could not seek reelection because of the onset of term limits, bringing his 28-year run as a force in the House to an end.

The younger Mr. Hood ran for his father's House seat that year. So did Ms. Clark-Coleman, then a member of the Detroit school board. They faced off in a five-way Democratic primary in August.

Ms. Clark-Coleman was the victor, something of a surprise given the success relatives of outgoing legislators tend to have in Michigan, especially in Detroit.

Then, about two months later, the elder Mr. Hood died suddenly. One of the first memories I have of covering the Capitol starting in the fall of 1998 was when the House – still full of veteran lawmakers who served with the elder Mr. Hood in the pre-term limits era – adopted a memorial resolution. The younger Mr. Hood was there, and I can still hear then-House Majority Floor Leader Pat Gagliardi turning to him during his remarks on the floor and saying, "We deeply, deeply admired your father."

I thought to myself at the time how Mr. Hood probably felt bitter, that he should be the one succeeding his dad. Four years later, when Ms. Clark-Coleman ran for and won a Senate seat, Mr. Hood would try again for the House seat and won it, starting his own legislative path. He would then succeed Ms. Clark-Coleman in her Senate seat with a 2010 victory.

It was Ms. Clark-Coleman's comment on the news of Mr. Hood's hospitalization that really hit me and is hitting me again as I type her words.

"One of the good guys," she wrote. "Morris followed me serving in the same state House and state Senate seat, I mentored him, and he called me mom, and I referred to him as son. Hang in there son. Sending love and prayers your way."

Mr. Hood bitter? Hardly. From covering him through the years, I should have realized this, from his stirring, heartfelt speech on the Senate floor just before Christmas in 2013 urging his colleagues to keep perspective and hold their family tight, words borne of his wife's death that year, to his humor, to his just being a good guy.

Of course he and Ms. Clark-Coleman formed a bond.

Mr. Hood, you were deeply, deeply admired.

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1945 Vs. 1976 Emergency Laws, Let's Get Into The Weeds

Posted: May 1, 2020 4:44 PM

Thursday was an extremely disturbing day at the Capitol.

Some noose-toting lowlife had a sign outside the Capitol that said, "Tyrants get the rope" in a call for the slaying of Governor Gretchen Whitmer via hanging. There was at least one person from the fringe conspiracy group QAnon on the Capitol lawn. Confederate flags were back on the grounds for the second time in a few weeks. If a statue could have thoughts, one can only imagine what the statue of Governor Austin Blair, governor during the Civil War and enshrined in a statue at the entrance to the Capitol grounds as "Michigan's war governor" working tirelessly for the Union, must have been thinking.

There were more comparisons of Ms. Whitmer to Adolf Hitler. This is horrendous though sadly not that unusual to see elected leaders compared to one of the worst people in the history of the human race.

Protesters with no regard for the safety of anyone during the COVID-19 pandemic packed the House lobby shoulder-to-shoulder – social distancing, schmocial distancing – and screamed bloody murder within spitting distance of the faces of Department of State Police troopers guarding the entrance to the House floor. These protesters said they weren't yelling at the State Police, just the House sergeants behind them after three protesters were forcefully removed from the House gallery Wednesday after refusing orders to leave. House sergeants are the "chief police officer of the House."

It would have been fitting when it was all over if the Capitol's janitorial staff came up to the lobby, left the protesters with a bunch of mops and buckets full of bleach and told them to clean the damn place themselves.

The protest outdoors was one thing, what happened inside the building was something else entirely.

Yes, there were plenty of people on the grounds simply voicing their opposition to the stay-at-home order and calling for the governor to reopen the economy. Nothing wrong with that. But those safely exercising their First Amendment rights were drowned out by those that did not.

Now that we've dispensed with what was a truly shameful episode, let's move on to the underlying issue.

There's a big legal fight brewing on the governor's powers to declare an emergency.

Well, maybe, assuming Republican legislators follow through on their threats.

Michigan has two separate statutes that set forth how emergency powers work.

There's the Emergency Management Act of 1976 and the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act of 1945.

The 1976 law sets a 28-day limit on a state of emergency declared by the governor. Extending the emergency requires legislative approval.

The 1945 law puts no clock on an emergency declaration and leaves no role for the Legislature.

The 1976 law, and this is the kicker, also has language in it that says nothing in it should be seen as limiting the powers of the governor to declare an emergency under the 1945 law.

It's a baffling situation, really. Why would a new emergency law be written and enacted 31 years after the first one that puts some clear checks on the governor's powers and yet leave a gaping opening for the governor to preserve those powers? I've asked a few people who worked in state government at the time, and they don't have any recollection of it.

There's another possible loophole in the 1976 law that some legal eagles have identified, and Ms. Whitmer is trying to use. It appears to allow a governor, once the 28 days have expired, to simply declare a new state of emergency regarding the crisis.

Fast forward 44 years, and Ms. Whitmer has made it clear she will use those apparent openings. She reissued an emergency under the 1976 law and reiterated the emergency she already had declared under the 1945 law remains in place after the Legislature declined to grant her a 28-day extension.

An emergency enables Ms. Whitmer to issue executive orders suspending laws and issuing other rules to deal with the crisis like the stay-at-home order.

Republicans are in revolt. They have said it would make no sense for the Legislature of the time to agree to a new act that would only superficially give it a role yet preserve the 1945 law's near unfettered powers for the governor nor for the new law to let the governor declare new emergencies in perpetuity as an end-run around the Legislature.

And yet the 1976 law very clearly states nothing in it should be read as infringing upon the governor's power to proclaim an emergency via the 1945 law. As to the question of why the Legislature in 1976 would have agreed to such deliberate loopholes, well turn it around the other way.

While the 1976 law was being negotiated, then-Governor William Milliken had complete control as governor in an emergency via the 1945 law. Why would he have agreed to dramatically limit the powers of the governor without perhaps keeping the safety valve of the 1945 law?

If Vegas were laying odds on who would prevail in a lawsuit, it would probably be -500 that the Republicans would win (meaning that a $100 bet on the Republicans would yield a $500 win while it would take a $500 bet on Ms. Whitmer just to score a $100 payoff). The Republicans would be the underdog, big-time.

Former Court of Appeals Chief Judge Bill Whitbeck, who worked in the Romney, Milliken and Engler administrations and more recently assisted former Attorney General Bill Schuette, has said if he were still a judge, he would rule for the governor on this question. Court of Claims Chief Judge Christopher Murray, named to the bench by then-Governor John Engler, for whom he was deputy legal counsel, just threw out a lawsuit challenging the governor's authority to issue a stay-at-home order. That's not the same legal question, but it's in the same ballpark and does not bode well for the Republicans.

I would dearly love to hop in a DeLorean, crank it up to 88.8 mph and go back to 1976 and speak with the drafters of the Emergency Management Act and Mr. Milliken's team to better understand why they wrote the law the way they did.

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Gongwer Adds New Administrative Rule Tracking, Alert Service

Posted: April 28, 2020 10:26 AM

Gongwer News Service, Michigan's premier source of news and information on state government and politics, today announced a significant overhaul of its Administrative Rules Report, adding several new features, including an advanced rule tracking and alert system.

The enhanced Administrative Rules tracking and report are available to all Gongwer subscribers at no additional cost.

The new service allows subscribers to track rule packages, and to receive email- and text-based alerts whenever there is activity on a tracked rule.

Want to try out the new service and all Gongwer has to offer? You can activate a Gongwer subscription or start a free, no-obligation, two-week trial subscription at our Subscribe Page.

In the past 16 months, Michigan departments and agencies have proposed rules affecting everything from professional codes to vaping to environmental and business regulations. Now Gongwer offers its subscribers an exclusive new service to help them stay on top of some of the most important activities taking place in state government.

Like Gongwer's real-time bill tracking system, users can add rules to tracking groups and share tracked rules with others in their organization who also have Gongwer accounts. Tracked rules can also be shared with members and clients as part of Gongwer's shared status report system.

All tracked rules display on the Bill Tracking page under Tracked Administrative Rules.

Rules referenced in Gongwer's Michigan Report will link to individual rule pages on the Gongwer platform and can be tracked from the article. Rule pages show a complete history of each rule and its movements through the process.

Going forward, the site will also include links to draft rules and other relevant documents as those documents are made available by the Office of Administrative Hearings and Rules.

The new service also allows subscribers to sort rules by agency and by most recent activity.

Additionally, information about administrative rule hearings is available through a dedicated Gongwer calendar and through the Gongwer Day Planner.

Gongwer's rule report system includes a searchable archive of administrative rules dating to 1995.

Have questions about the new rule tracking service or interested in a demonstration of it or other Gongwer services? Contact

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Legislature Sitting On Sidelines With No Remote Meeting Process

Posted: April 24, 2020 3:17 PM

There's a lot the Legislature could be doing right now during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Holding hearings about the budget implications.

Consideration of legislation to address the repercussions of the outbreak.

Exercising oversight of the actions Governor Gretchen Whitmer and her administration have taken in response to the new coronavirus.

Holding hearings to bring in experts to answer questions about the outbreak and proper public policy responses.

There's also the usual legislative business like working on the budget, providing oversight for state department and agency operations and considering new laws.

Most of those things aren't happening because House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) have determined that if the Legislature will convene, it will do so in-person at the Capitol. They have not definitively ruled out the idea of meeting remotely, but it's also apparent that five weeks into Ms. Whitmer putting the state under a stay-at-home order they are in no rush to initiate remote meetings nor do they see it as a pressing priority.

Oversight hearings seem poised to start soon with the creation of the new committee today, but will not be meeting remotely, though that was apparently discussed.

There are a number of avenues that would allow the Legislature to meet remotely that comply with the Michigan Constitution and legislative rules.

Let's start with committees because that's the major short-term problem. Committees have been unable to meet since mid-March because opening up the House and Senate office buildings so dozens of people sit in close proximity to each other in committee rooms would defy all medical advice right now about the need to keep people apart to prevent transmission of the virus.

Committees could meet remotely on a technology platform in compliance with the Constitution and statute, but it would take a change to House and Senate rules.

Committees have long met outside the "seat of government" – the legal term of art used in the Constitution on where the Legislature must convene at noon on the second Wednesday of January, that being Lansing. Committees have met in other cities around the state for years. There's nothing to stop committees from meeting now on a remote basis, other than the need for a rules change, though clearly one factor that needs to be addressed are the fools who have used the public comment functions of such meetings local governments have convened to spew racist invective or share pornographic images.

Bringing the full House or full Senate into session remotely presents greater complications, both logistical and legal, but both can be overcome. The Constitution, to my eyes, only dictates where the Legislature must initially convene on the second Wednesday in January.

House rules would have to be amended, so the House would need to convene in-person first to allow for remote meetings in an emergency, which it would need to do anyway for committees. Unless I'm missing something, Senate rules contain no requirement for convening at the seat of government, but it probably would make sense for it to adopt an emergency remote meetings provision as well since it would have to deal with committee changes too.

For those who insist the Constitution makes no allowance for the Legislature to meet outside of Lansing – and good luck getting a court to tell the legislative branch of government how to conduct its business, something the courts historically have been loath to do – there's always the provision in the Constitution that allows the governor to convene the Legislature outside of Lansing if the seat of government becomes dangerous.

The bottom line: The Legislature can meet remotely. For now, Mr. Chatfield and Mr. Shirkey have chosen not to do so. And unless and until they stand up a remote meeting process, the Legislature's input into the crisis and ability to maintain policy operations is largely going to be limited to press releases, tweets and Facebook posts.

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Trump's Base Loathes Stay-At-Home Order

Posted: April 16, 2020 8:51 PM

Wednesday's remarkable vehicular protest of Governor Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order that clogged the streets of downtown proved a few points.

One: It is a wide swath of President Donald Trump's base in the Republican Party that is revolting against the order and its shuttering of most aspects of the state's economy and social life, not just a few GOP operatives looking to get some shots in at Ms. Whitmer.

Two: The message those operatives and Republican elected officials had emphasized – that the problem was Ms. Whitmer didn't stick with federal guidance on essential professions and kept lawn and landscape services shuttered, that she had confused retailers and others on garden supplies and needlessly maintained the closure of golf courses – is not what drove Wednesday's protest. If Ms. Whitmer had just followed the direction of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and other states on those matters, that would solve the bulk of the problems, they said.

That's all swell, but conservative protesters have been swarming the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus denouncing Mr. DeWine too. Conservatives are pounding governors in other states with less restrictive orders than Michigan. If it wasn't golf, garden centers or lawn services, conservatives would have targeted something else in Ms. Whitmer's order. Protesters are planning to demonstrate Saturday outside the home of Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb, and the Indiana order is much more flexible for business than Michigan's, allowing those deemed nonessential to sell goods via online and call-in ordering and then curbside pick-up.

That leads us to three: Mr. Trump's base wants the economy reopened. Now. Is this because that base felt that way all along or because for many weeks Mr. Trump downplayed the virus's threat? That's a chicken or the egg argument. But the lack of any real fear of the disease was palpable at Wednesday's protest, as seen by the hundreds who got out of their vehicles against instructions from organizers and congregated in close quarters on the Capitol lawn in direct conflict with warnings from public health experts who have urged people to prevent transmission of the disease by staying 6 feet apart. Masks were few and far between.

It would be interesting to see what would happen if Ms. Whitmer asked the state's Republican leadership if she allowed golf and boating and let garden centers and lawn services operate would they would be willing to stand side-by-side with her at a news conference and throw their support behind an amended order.

For now, Ms. Whitmer has the upper hand in arguing for a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the virus. Virtually the entire medical and public health establishment in the state supports it as the best answer. Republicans have argued for a regional approach that loosens the order in areas with lower infection rates, and Ms. Whitmer has resisted. It's notable that a couple of conservative, outstate counties have among the highest per capita rates of infection (Hillsdale and Otsego).

That said, Ms. Whitmer in recent days has said she is consulting with the experts about a regional scenario. There are at least a dozen rural counties that have essentially held flat at under 10 cases for two weeks where such a scenario might be considered. That said, how much of those low case rates has to do with inadequate testing, which has been a serious problem? A couple rural counties like Barry and Cass had low case totals early last week but are now climbing to near 20 relatively quickly.

The weather also has been on Ms. Whitmer's side. This week's 30-degree temperatures and snow didn't exactly lend a jolt of urgency to those clamoring for golf, lawn service and gardening goods. My mother, an avid gardener, lives by the maxim not to plant anything in Michigan until Memorial Day unless you want to see your plantings killed off by a late frost though I know some are upset about wanting to get seeds planted now.

That said, once the temperatures climb into the 60s and 70s – and it's Michigan, who knows, that could happen any time now – it's going to get harder to make a strict stay-at-home order work. Parts of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore already were so crowded that the National Parks Service had to shutter them. And that's when it's freezing.

Further, as more and more sectors of the economy lay off employees or cut their pay, the panic about the need to return to work is going to intensify. Understandably. What should not be forgotten in this discussion though is the fear among health care workers risking their health and lives while treating those with the disease and the people who couldn't even be present at the death beds of loved ones when they died.

Ms. Whitmer has been resolute in defending having what appears the strictest order in the nation and has noted that Michigan has seen the third-most cases and the third-most deaths even though Michigan is 10th in population. Michigan's situation is more dire, so the response must be more severe is the argument, and that logic makes sense.

The new regional partnership announced Thursday among Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky (Kentucky?!), Ohio and Wisconsin puts some pressure on Ms. Whitmer to relax the order somewhat in May. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said Thursday he is preparing to reopen at least part of his state's economy on May 1, and other governors in the consortium have taken a less strict approach. The Democratic governors of Kentucky, Minnesota and Wisconsin are allowing far more commerce to take place though, again, those states have seen far fewer cases and deaths.

If Ms. Whitmer opts to essentially keep her order in place for another two weeks and the other six states loosen up, it will be tough to explain, given she has signed onto this regional collaboration.

That said, if Ms. Whitmer does loosen up the order and cases start surging again and threaten to jam the health care system, that will be tough to explain too.

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National Attention On Whitmer Escalating Into High Gear

Posted: April 10, 2020 12:29 PM

The Gretchen Whitmer for vice president speculation reached a new level in the past week.

That's what an 8,000-word Tim Alberta-written profile piece for Politico, appearances on "The View" and "The Daily Show," an interview by text with the Washington bureau chief of BuzzFeed, showing up in the top three running mate possibilities of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's in The Washington Post and appearing with Mr. Biden on his podcast will do.

I'll also throw in a story we at Gongwer News Service had where former Governor James Blanchard, who has reach into both the Whitmer and Biden camps and generally a good sense of the political pulse, said he thinks the chance Mr. Biden picks Ms. Whitmer is 50/50 (See Gongwer Michigan Report, April 8, 2020).

I'll just state from the top I don't think Mr. Biden will pick Ms. Whitmer for a couple reasons. One, the Democratic Party is a racially diverse party, and having two whites heading the ticket seems unlikely when there are strong options like U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Stacey Abrams of Georgia, U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Florida, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. Ms. Whitmer herself some months ago plugged Ms. Abrams as someone Mr. Biden should seriously consider.

There's another major reason I don't think it will happen. The COVID-19 pandemic. You might have heard about it.

Unlike any of the other options above, Ms. Whitmer is the governor of a state, in charge of heading response, and in a state with the third-most cases and third-most deaths in the country.

Some of this depends on Mr. Biden's timing, but if he hews to a traditional schedule of announcing a vice presidential pick relatively close to the national convention, it's possible (let's hope) that the crisis has ebbed and life has in many ways regained a semblance of normalcy, if not entirely what it was prior to March. But it's also possible (gulp) that the situation is still bad and that the state remains in something of a crisis management mode.

If the latter is the case or if Mr. Biden moves up his selection timetable to announce his choice earlier, picking Ms. Whitmer becomes much more problematic. How would it look if Ms. Whitmer, while managing a crisis, in effect abdicated that role to start campaigning across the country for vice president? Remember, under the Michigan Constitution, once the governor leaves the state, the lieutenant governor becomes the acting governor, so it's not like Ms. Whitmer could do both jobs.

Surely part of the reason Mr. Biden is considering Ms. Whitmer is because her crisis management has impressed him. It would undercut the argument for Ms. Whitmer to pull her away from the job to which voters elected her if Michigan is still in the throes of a crisis.

If it's August, and Michigan has mostly returned to normal with school buildings set to open, workers back on the job, including at restaurants and bars, and unemployment numbers on a steep decline after peaking in the second quarter (when U-M economists project a frightening peak of 23 percent), that's different.

In the meantime, Ms. Whitmer and her team are trying to walk the line between using the national publicity to get the attention of President Donald Trump about Michigan's needs during the COVID-19 crisis and stoke the vice presidential speculation. Ms. Whitmer continues to say she has to focus on her job.

My read of the governor's approach to the national publicity is this: It (A) allows her to deliver her social distancing message to people who may not watch news programs or read the newspaper and (B) It can be used to galvanize the federal government's attention on Michigan's needs during the pandemic.

At the same time, my sense of her approach is if it elevates her in the vice presidential sweepstakes, that's fine, especially since it seems more likely she will not be the pick than she will.

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Might An Obscure Provision Of The Constitution Become Necessary?

Posted: April 1, 2020 2:31 PM

"The governor may convene the Legislature at some other place when the seat of government becomes dangerous from any cause" – Article V, Section 16 of the Michigan Constitution.

The 1961-62 Constitutional Convention slightly refined this portion of the Constitution from its original text in the 1908 Constitution. In 1908, the idea was clearly disease (the 1908 text included that word) or some other danger, probably invasion (the Civil War had ended only 43 years earlier). By the time voters approved the 1963 Constitution, the section had wartime echoes with the Cuban Missile Crisis having just happened.

Here we are in 2020, mired in the worst pandemic since 1918. One legislator, Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit) has tragically died, likely of COVID-19, and another, Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit) is battling the infection (by his account last week, he is feeling better).

While Governor Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order runs through April 13, based on the skyrocketing trajectory of cases in Michigan, it's difficult to imagine the end of that order any earlier than May 1, and that feels wildly optimistic. No one wants to see the order lifted only for the disease to start spreading again and more people become sick and die. It could be June 1 or later, who knows?

What we do know is that the Legislature, or at least parts of it, will need to meet at some point this spring and take some actions to deal with the crisis and its ramifications.

There is a lot the governor can do unilaterally under a state of emergency, but there are some actions where she will need legislative approval. The most obvious of these is the budget.

Tax revenues are plummeting, and there's no way they can support the appropriations Ms. Whitmer and the Legislature agreed to for the 2019-20 fiscal year. Under the Constitution, when that happens, Ms. Whitmer must reduce spending to match revenues. That's done through an executive order, and under the Constitution, the House and Senate Appropriations committees have to concur in those reductions for them to take effect.

One has to think such an order is coming sometime in the next four to six weeks.

The Legislature may need to meet to approve other measures, like changes to address the closure of schools through April 13 and whatever Ms. Whitmer decides to do about the rest of the school year.

So how best to do that and protect legislators and staff?

Bringing in both houses of the Legislature with no changes other than extra cleaning of surfaces seems a bad idea, completely at odds with the social distancing recommendations of six feet and staying at home if at all possible.

One possibility could be to do what the Ohio Legislature did last week when it held session to vote on funding to fight the coronavirus.

In the Senate, rules were waived on attire and having to vote from the floor so that members could practice social distancing. Provisions were also made so they could vote from a separate room if requested. In the House, members were placed in small groups and brought onto the floor to cast their votes one group at a time to keep members apart. There's inherent risk though in bringing together a large number of people in the Capitol, no matter all the precautions taken.

Or perhaps this could all be done electronically. That's where the provision in the Constitution allowing the governor to convene the Legislature elsewhere could come into play. It would take a major effort, but the technology is there to meet remotely, whether that is just the Appropriations committees or the entire Legislature. There would have to be provisions with the committees to enable public comment and such meetings would have to be webcast for the public.

To be clear, I haven't heard anyone in a decision-making position raise either of these as a possibility. Spokespersons for the House and Senate at this point are saying only that many scenarios and precautions are being explored.

Extraordinary times, however, call for extraordinary measures, and a few smart legal types in Lansing have noted to me the existence of this section enabling the Legislature to meet somewhere else and the plausible reasons for invoking it.

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Wondering About That $312M Supplemental Bill

Posted: March 25, 2020 2:24 PM

On March 12, shortly after Michigan had its first confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, the Legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support passed a supplemental appropriations bill with the backing of Governor Gretchen Whitmer containing $312.3 million.

The bill restored at least partial funding to some of the major programs Ms. Whitmer line-item vetoed in last year's budget standoff like Pure Michigan and Going Pro. It also has new funding for Ms. Whitmer's Michigan Reconnect program to provide tuition-free community college or certificate training. There are payments to handle lawsuit settlements and immediate state information technology needs.

There's $25 million to fund the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic (in addition to a separate bill the Legislature approved with another $125 million).

It also had $37 million in funding for items known as Michigan Enhancement Grants, projects legislator select as priorities in their districts. To some, these are needed projects that will benefit the public. To others, some of these projects are "pork" – items placed into the bill for no other reason than to secure "yes" votes with a dubious benefit to the public at large.

Of the $312.3 million, $180.7 million comes from the state's General Fund. The rest is federal and restricted funds.

At the time this bill passed, the stock market had begun its plunge as the economy began to falter as COVID-19 cases spread. But none of the drastic measures many governors, including Ms. Whitmer, have taken had yet to be announced or implemented, like stay-at-home orders and the shuttering of whole industries.

Now it's clear state revenues are headed into freefall with layoffs soaring, the stock market tanking and consumer spending shutting down. These developments will surely have dire impacts on state income and sales tax revenues, which lest we forget are the two main sources of funding for state government services and K-12 schools.

The bill has been on Ms. Whitmer's desk since March 16. It was a negotiated agreement.

But the governor has not yet signed the bill. And the Whitmer administration is not exactly vocally backing the bill (SB 151*) it negotiated with the Legislature.

Whitmer Press Secretary Tiffany Brown said today, when asked if the governor is having any second thoughts about the bill given the developments of the past two weeks, only that "review continues, but no update to share at the moment."

Spokespersons for House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said last Friday they still expected Ms. Whitmer to sign the bill (See Gongwer Michigan Report, March 20, 2020).

But the vague response from the governor's press office seems ominous.

Ms. Whitmer seems to have three options: She could sign the bill and sort it out later once the state has a clear picture of the impact on revenues of COVID-19, she could line-item veto everything in the bill other than the $25 million to aid response to the new coronavirus and any mandatory spending (like funding to pay for Medicaid caseloads, lawsuit settlement payments and a few other items) or she could pick and choose what to line-item veto and try to save some of the spending on priority programs.

The first option could box the governor in somewhat if and when she needs to issue an executive order cutting the budget, but it would buy some time. The second option would be painful because she would have to sacrifice one of her top priorities, the Michigan Reconnect program, but would be the most magnanimous and fiscally cautious. The third option would probably infuriate the members of the Legislature whose programs they thought had buy-in from the governor's office and reignite trust issues, but preserve the items the governor sees as most vital.

All this at a time when Ms. Whitmer is confronting one of the most dire crises in state history.

Ms. Whitmer has until 11 a.m. Monday to decide.

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Everything Has Changed

Posted: March 20, 2020 3:00 PM

I've been struggling with what to say about how the new coronavirus has convulsed our daily way of life in just the past 10 days.

It is just so enormous, so stunning, so awful. It goes far beyond the usual matters on the Gongwer blog, delving into political analysis, cutting room floor material from our reporting or amusing moments in Michigan governance and political life.

On Thursday, March 12, after we pulled our staff out of the Capitol and other meeting coverage in the afternoon as the urging to socially distance took on great emphasis, we gathered in our office and made plans to work from home indefinitely. And that's what we have done for a week now.

Is it really only a week? It feels like months.

My younger daughter has watched "Frozen 2" enough times that I now have the soundtrack memorized.

Into the unknown, indeed.

We're adjusting to covering news remotely.

And we have it easy. We can work from home unlike so many other workers who must show up in person, who can't realistically socially distance. Nurses, physicians, grocery store stock workers, employees of restaurants trying to keep the lights on and their jobs through carryout, delivery and drive-through. You can't remote janitorial work.

We don't know where all this is headed.

What will this mean for the state budget, this year's elections, Governor Gretchen Whitmer's agenda, the priorities of the House and Senate Republican majorities, local government, the courts, etc?

Only time will tell.

Already there is a push to delay the deadline to file for office for candidates looking to get on the August primary ballot. The May millage elections could be in effect postponed to August. The big three ballot proposals could be squelched by the crisis, unable to collect petition signatures. Already one has scrapped plans for 2020.

It's hard to imagine anything at this point controlling the November election other than the public's mood about the government's handling of COVID-19. It's so hard to know for sure though.

Anyone with an interest in a new or enhanced priority for state appropriations has possibly seen that goal vanish with the massive resources that will be mobilized to respond to COVID-19.

Increasing funding for road repair seems completely far-fetched right now. From the top priority to, "Uh, about that…"

In the span of 10 days, the state went from a pretty healthy economy and a stable budget to full-on crisis mode. Programs that rely on General Fund will be in the crosshairs at some point.

Yes, there's about $1.2 billion in the state's rainy day fund that can help ease revenue shortfalls. For a while.

I remember in the early 2000s when the state had that much money in the rainy day fund, and a relatively mild recession in 2001 depleted it very quickly.

Hopefully, there's a shared spirit that shines through here. We all need it, whether it's a game of Ticket to Ride with the family (yes, I won, ha), something amusing posted on social media to get a laugh (check out Heard in the HOB's Twitter March Madness bracket), a phone call checking in on our parents (sorry Mom and Dad for being AWOL in recent days), a wave to the neighbors, providing comfort to friends whose jobs might be in jeopardy and reminding friends and loved ones to stay safe.

In the meantime, there's going to be a ton of news. We're going to keep reporting it.

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Will Michigan's Contrarian Streak Resurface?

Posted: March 10, 2020 12:54 PM

George Wallace. Ted Kennedy, George H.W. Bush. Jesse Jackson. John McCain. Mitt Romney. Bernie Sanders.

What do these presidential candidates have in common? They won their party's presidential primary or caucuses in Michigan and then went on to lose the overall race for their party's nomination in 1972, 1980 (for both parties), 1988 (again for both parties), 2000, 2008 and 2016, respectively.

Even sometimes when frontrunners still won their party's nomination, they came close to losing Michigan like in 1976 when Jimmy Carter narrowly edged Mo Udall, 1988 when George H.W. Bush "won" the tumultuous Republican presidential caucuses in Michigan that saw walkouts and a rump convention and 2012 when Rick Santorum nearly beat Mitt Romney and then there was a fury about the state party's allocation of delegates.

That said, there have certainly been many times when frontrunners won Michigan and won it big on their road to winning their party's nomination, like 1976 with Gerald Ford, 1984 with Walter Mondale, 1992 with Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, 1996 with Bob Dole, 2000 with Al Gore, 2004 with John Kerry and 2016 with Donald Trump.

Which brings us to today's Michigan Democratic presidential primary between former Vice President Joe Biden and Mr. Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont.

The prevailing wisdom is that Mr. Biden is the favorite. And for good reason. His performance in the last 15 states that have voted showed him cutting into Mr. Sanders' support among the types of voters that boosted Mr. Sanders to his 2016 shocker in Michigan over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and enjoying more enthusiasm than Ms. Clinton had among the types of voters who supported her.

However, some of the pronouncements that Mr. Sanders has no chance overlook Michigan's history.

Former Governor John Engler was right about one thing in the lead up to Michigan's 2000 Republican presidential primary when Mr. McCain shocked him and the entire state GOP establishment by soundly defeating George W. Bush. South Carolina had just handed Mr. Bush a huge win days earlier and Mr. Engler was asked then whether that had in effect sewn up Michigan for Mr. Bush. Mr. Engler warned that Michigan would make up its own mind. It did.

Mr. Biden's day and a half of campaigning in Michigan has echoes of Ms. Clinton's effort in the state four years ago when Mr. Sanders outhustled her. To say his organization is skeletal in Michigan would probably overstate its strength.

Yet this sense of Democrats falling in line behind the frontrunner nationally also has the feel of 1992, 2000 and 2004 when Mr. Clinton, Mr. Gore and Mr. Kerry won landslide victories here.

If you had to place a bet on someone right now, the betting would be on Mr. Biden. If he makes the kinds of inroads in outstate Michigan that he has in other states among similar voters, Mr. Biden is going to rout Mr. Sanders, who not only needs to win those areas but win them big to replicate his 2016 win here.

But there are a couple of wild cards: same-day registration and crossover voting/raiding/meddling by Republicans.

This is Michigan's first major election since the adoption of Proposal 3 in 2018 that allows voters to register to vote today and cast a ballot in today's election. No one knows exactly how that will play out, especially in signing up the younger voters who are Mr. Sanders' bread-and-butter.

In 1972, some number of Republicans voted in the Democratic primary because President Richard Nixon was unopposed for the Republican nomination. Mr. Wallace, a segregationist, won the Michigan Democratic primary in a humiliating result for Michigan Democrats that prompted them to move to a caucus system for many years, blaming Republicans for trying to embarrass them.

In 2000, with Michigan Democrats using a caucus system, a large number of Democratic and independent voters participated in the open Republican primary and propelled Mr. McCain to victory on an unseasonably warm, sunny February day that brought out far more voters than usual.

And in 2012, there were overt efforts by Democrats to support Mr. Santorum to embarrass Mr. Romney in his native state. President Barack Obama was unopposed for the Democratic nomination.

How much credit raiding gets for 1972 and 2000 has always been a matter of some debate. There was plenty of discussion at the time that maybe Mr. Wallace and Mr. McCain legitimately appealed to some voters from the other party and earned those votes as opposed to benefitting from an effort to embarrass the other side.

There has been talk this time around that with Mr. Trump having nominal opposition, Republicans might vote in the Democratic primary, perhaps for Mr. Sanders with the idea that a self-proclaimed socialist would be easy pickings for Mr. Trump in November.

A Biden win seems likely. He crushed it on Super Tuesday even in states where he didn't campaign at all. Many Democrats have concluded they simply cannot risk nominating Mr. Sanders against Mr. Trump.

But there is a path for another Sanders upset. It's an uphill path, an unlikely path, one I would not bet on, but it is there.

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Kent County Looms As Key In Biden-Sanders Showdown

Posted: March 5, 2020 5:29 PM

There were many amazing factors surrounding U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' upset 2016 victory in the Michigan Democratic presidential primary, and one of them was he did it while losing Genesee, Macomb, Oakland, Saginaw and Wayne counties to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

If you were to ask any Michigan Democrat can you win a statewide Democratic primary without victory in those counties, they would have laughed you right out of the state.

So as Mr. Sanders and Vice President Joe Biden face their first major head-to-head contest in Michigan next week, it's worth remembering that Mr. Sanders has a path to victory in this state that doesn't include the Detroit area even if it comes out strongly for Mr. Biden as it likely will.

But it's also worth noting that in the 18 states that have voted so far, Mr. Sanders' percentages are down, in some cases considerably, from what he pulled in 2016. Clearly much of that is because of the more crowded field.

Still, he went from more than 60 percent of the vote in New Hampshire in 2016 to 25.6 percent in 2020. In Oklahoma, Mr. Sanders took 52 percent of the vote in 2016 and won. This week, he got just 25 percent and lost. He won 41 percent in North Carolina in 2016. This week, he took 24 percent.

Remember, Mr. Sanders narrowly won Michigan in 2016, 49.8 percent to 48.3 percent. If he sees the kind of falloff in Michigan that he is seeing in other states, that portends trouble.

The county I would watch as far as Mr. Sanders' statewide fortunes is Kent County.

Mr. Sanders routed Ms. Clinton there in 2016, 62.5 percent to 37.3 percent. His annihilation of Ms. Clinton in Grand Rapids proper was especially jarring. That commanding performance in Kent County powered Mr. Sanders to landslide wins in the 2nd and 3rd U.S. House Districts, which was a big boost to his delegate haul. Ms. Clinton crushed Mr. Sanders in the U.S. House districts based in Detroit that are delegate-rich, so the margins for Mr. Sanders outstate helped assure he took more delegates out of Michigan than Ms. Clinton.

Will Kent go for Mr. Sanders again?

What is interesting is that Mr. Biden in the past week has run well in suburban areas with higher-income voters and voters with bachelor's degrees. There's a lot of voters who fit that profile in Kent County, a onetime Republican bastion that is quickly pivoting Democratic.

It's no accident that Mr. Sanders has scheduled a Grand Rapids stop before Tuesday's primary. He campaigned there four years ago while Ms. Clinton focused on Detroit, and the area rewarded him with a big win.

Mr. Biden is expected to make a Detroit stop. It's unclear if he has any other campaign destinations in mind.

There's a lot of talk that Mr. Biden could inflict major damage on Mr. Sanders if he beats him in Michigan, a state that was critical to Mr. Sanders staying in the race against Ms. Clinton four years ago.

One clear way to score that win is to beat Mr. Sanders in Kent County. Not only would it cost Mr. Sanders vital delegates, the symbolic blow would be significant.

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Gongwer Unveils 2020 Michigan Elections App

Posted: March 3, 2020 10:16 AM

Gongwer News Service's one-of-a-kind elections app is back for one of the most anticipated elections in years with the 2020 Michigan Elections app now available with the unique analysis and reliable information our elections app has long been known for.

The app, which is available for download on devices using iOS and Android, offers exclusive analysis of races for the Michigan House of Representatives, the state's 14 U.S. House seats, the presidential race, U.S. Senate race and all other statewide contests.

The app gives users on-the-go access to detailed candidate biographical information, with options to review primary races and, eventually, general election campaigns once those races take shape.

Users can also see which U.S. House and Michigan House races are expected to be the most competitive and the seats where one party has a slight or strong edge via the Analysis feature.

For most candidates, users will see links to the candidate's social media accounts, district maps, campaign websites and ways to contact the candidate, as well as biographical information. If that candidate has run for state or federal office from 2002 onward, the app also displays his or her performance in those elections.

Users also can use the Key Races function to identify only the primaries and general election matchups that are considered competitive.

Through the push notification feature, Gongwer will periodically alert users when new information has been uploaded to the app. The app also includes an archive of all push notifications sent to assure users don't miss anything and can review the information after dismissing the initial alert.

As the campaign season progresses, and as race dynamics change, analyses will be updated. Gongwer will continue adding candidates to the app on a regular basis leading up the April 21 filing deadline.

Users of the iPhone and iPad can download the iOS version from the App Store at

Users of Android devices can download the app from Google Play at

The app is available for download for $4.99.

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Newsmaker 2019: Criminal Justice Reform Advocates

Posted: March 2, 2020 5:07 PM

If you're new to town, the blizzard of landmark criminal justice reform bills moving through the Legislature in the past year probably seemed easy. Noncontroversial even.

It was anything but.

"Some things that look like they were happening over months were six-year battles," said Laura Sager, a longtime leader in what was called the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending and is now known as Safe and Just Michigan. "There's a little bit of not understanding sort of how the groundwork was laid."

Starting with the repeal of Michigan's notorious mandatory-minimum drug sentencing laws almost 20 years ago and moving forward to Governor Jennifer Granholm's move embrace the idea of preparing soon-to-be-released prisoners with the employment and life skills needed to succeed on the outside, a few cracks in the "tough on crime" wall built during the 1980s and 1990s in Michigan had emerged.

Still, a series of other ideas in the first half of the 2010s stalled, went nowhere or were never taken seriously like ending the automatic charging of 17-year-olds as adults, putting limits on law enforcement's use of the civil asset forfeiture process, providing a parole mechanism for medically frail prisoners and making it easier to have long-ago convictions expunged from a person's record.

In the past year, the first three all became law and the expungement legislation is already through one house of the Legislature. Getting teed up for action following a bipartisan task force involving the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government as well as local government, are major changes to the county jail system. Also becoming law was legislation designed to mean prisoners would not needlessly be kept beyond their minimum sentence date. And Department of Corrections Director Heidi Washington spearheaded a series of major changes in the state's prisons designed to prepare inmates for jobs after their release.

It is a 180-degree turn from the 1990s when then-Governor John Engler called for the establishment of a "punk prison" to house juvenile prisoners convicted of adult crimes.

It is for this reason that criminal justice advocates are Gongwer News Service's choice as Newsmaker 2019, the year's top newsmaker in Michigan government and politics. In interviewing several of those involved in the effort to change Michigan's criminal justice laws, so many names were mentioned as essential to the fight that picking just one or two was not possible.

THE BEGINNING OF THE BEGINNING: If there was a beginning to the movement, it probably happened in the 1990s when Ms. Sager began an effort on behalf of Families Against Mandatory Minimums to end the state's mandatory-minimum drug laws that included a mandatory life sentence for anyone in possession of 650 or more grams of cocaine.

Ms. Sager recalled that long-time lobbyists and elected officials thought it was a hoot when she came onto the scene in 1996 seeking to end mandatory-minimums for drug offenses. They viewed her naïve.

"'Tough on crime' and the explosion of the prison population was particularly acute in Michigan," she said. "We were a leader in locking up folks for extraordinary lengths of time."

Ms. Sager recalled one of her first days on the job in the 1990s when she went to the office of David Jaye, then a member of the Legislature, and strident foe of criminals who called for sex offenders to be chemically castrated.

"I remember going up to David Jaye's office and he had a bumper sticker on his window that said, 'Fight crime, shoot a criminal,'" she said. "I'll never forget that moment as a fledgling organizer."

FAMM made an effort to bring people of differing views into the fold. They organized people in the judicial system, people who worked in treatment facilities, Republicans and Democrats and outside experts who could testify to the impact of long sentences. Former Governor William Milliken, who had signed the 650-lifer law, publicly renounced it and urged its repeal.

And, critically, they got Mr. Engler on board. Bipartisan support would assure the change would be durable, Ms. Sager said.

Gongwer Newsmakers of the Year

2019: Criminal Justice Reform Advocates

2018: Gretchen Whitmer

2017: Joe Graves

2016: Marc Edwards, Todd Flood, Chris Kelenske and Karen Weaver

2015: April DeBoer, Jayne Rowse and Dana Nessel

2014: Rick Snyder

2013: Mike Shirkey

2012: Diane Hathaway, Thaddeus McCotter and Roy Schmidt

2011: Brian Calley

2010: Rick Snyder

2009: Andy Dillon

"We took a new approach," she said. "It set a groundwork for long-term approaches to problems that was very productive."

Despite that breakthrough, other ideas stalled.

The CAPPS group, founded in 2000 by Barbara Levine and Ms. Sager, seemed like a lone voice in the wilderness.

Ms. Levine would testify in opposition to various bills during the 2000s and be summarily ignored.

She declined to be interviewed for this story. Friends and colleagues say she loathes the idea of attention that would in any way seem to give her credit.

Nonetheless, there is no question that Ms. Levine and Ms. Sager, who succeeded Ms. Levine as CAPPS executive director in 2013 until retiring in 2018, kept the idea of the need for reform alive at a time when success meant stopping legislation they opposed.

What CAPPS did during this period, Ms. Sager said, is build the case for the need for reform through data. Ms. Levine led the push for obtaining data about who was in Michigan's prisons, what they had been convicted of, how long they had been sentenced, whether they were past their minimum release date and more.

"It was a tough go," Ms. Sager said.

A 2015 report on what the state could save through bed space reductions was key, Ms. Sager said.

AN ALLIANCE BUILDS: As the 2010s began, momentum started to grow. Various groups began to come together in an alliance, but also wisely moved to divide and conquer. CAPPS would take the lead on reforms to adult criminal justice laws. The Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency now known as the Michigan Center for Youth Justice would take the lead on reforms to child criminal justice laws.

The Center for Youth Justice obtained a cache of data about children in the adult system and keyed in on one aspect in particular – the automatic placement of 17-year-olds into the adult system.

They published a report on their data and held events across the state to present their findings in roughly 2014. One of those attending the event in Detroit was then-Rep. Harvey Santana. Jason Smith, the center's director of youth justice policy, said Mr. Santana told the group their ideas could have traction in Lansing and to send him their "Christmas list" of proposals.

In the 2015-16 legislative term, the bills – which would become known as the "Raise the Age" package to set 18 as the minimum age where a person goes into the adult criminal justice system automatically – passed the House. They got a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where former Eaton County Sheriff Rick Jones was the law-and-order oriented committee chair, but no action.

The Michigan League for Public Policy and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, as well as grassroots activists, were on board, but backers realized they needed more, Mr. Smith said.

"That was a lesson that was learned, and I would say toward the end of the second legislative session when the bills were moving we really expanded our legislative coalition and that was key," he said.

What virtually everyone interviewed said was vital was the change in views among Republicans and organizations that generally have conservative views on criminal justice issues as well as free-market organizations that tend to align with the GOP.

Strong, meaningful support for criminal justice reforms came from organizations like Americans for Prosperity and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. A wide array of business organizations also threw their support behind reform.

"They realized we needed to reduce barriers in order to fill jobs," said Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy.

Faith-based groups like the Michigan Catholic Conference also came aboard. So did the conservative Christian Coalition. Former House Speaker Craig DeRoche was a visible advocate for reform.

Josh Pugh, who was then a staffer with Grassroots Midwest, which had CAPPS as a client, said the move to work in a bipartisan manner was key. CAPPS engaged with conservatives like Jared Rodriguez and former House Speaker Jase Bolger.

John Cooper, executive director for Safe and Just Michigan, said conservative groups' efforts made it not only politically safe for Republican lawmakers to support change, they made it a priority.

Ms. Sager said criminal justice reform could serve both liberal goals of providing those released from prison a second chance and funding government services and conservative goals of cutting taxes and helping employers find workers.

"Huge corrections budgets were undermining those goals," she said.

PROGRESS, BUT SETBACKS: Virtually every one of the now successful new criminal justice laws suffered defeat at least once, sometimes multiple defeats, in previous legislative terms.

"There were a lot of low points. Every time you lose a two-year battle that you put your whole heart into," Ms. Sager said. "The political work can be very debilitating."

One of the most high-profile defeats came on the "presumptive parole" legislation in the 2015-16 legislative term. On October 1, 2015, the presumptive parole legislation passed the House. It said inmates could not be kept past their minimum release date as long as the Department of Corrections determined they had a high probability of succeeding upon release from prison.

Championing the legislation were Mr. Santana and then-Rep. Joe Haveman, a Holland Republican.

Then-Attorney General Bill Schuette attacked the legislation as "risky," and Senate Republicans swiftly killed it.

"It was a difficult point because it was so close," Ms. Sager said.

But lessons were learned.

"We learned in that what triggered people and we learned in conversations with law enforcement what they needed," she said.

The 2017-18 term saw a breakthrough. A similar bill to the presumptive parole legislation, now renamed "objective parole," passed, this time without anywhere near the opposition.

A ton of work went into easing legislators' concerns.

"By the time the parole bill rolled around that opposition had been dissipated by strenuous outreach efforts," Ms. Sager said.

Mr. Cooper, who had returned to Lansing in 2016 as an intern to Rep. David LaGrand of Grand Rapids, one of the top Democratic champions of criminal justice reform, took a job with CAPPS in April 2017 and got to work on the objective parole bill.

"The bill had had momentum and sort of buy-in from leadership at that point. I think they just wanted to get it done," he said. "It takes more than two years sometimes to do all the stakeholder work that's necessary to make a bill legislatively viable and address concerns and opposition."

In the 2017-18 legislative term, the Raise the Age bills ran out of time and died.

Mr. Smith said it was disappointing, but not devastating.

"When the bills died in lame duck in the second legislative session, I honestly felt it was really just a matter of running out of time," he said, recalling he received calls after the 2018 election from newly elected legislators who said they looked forward to passing Raise the Age. "We knew we were going to return right back and push for the change."

In 2019, they had bicameral sponsorship. Mr. Jones was gone from the Senate thanks to term limits, replaced as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee by a supporter of criminal justice reform, Sen. Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Township).

"I would say the real groundwork to push us over the hump really happened in that 2017-18 session," Mr. Smith said.

One of the decisions CAPPS made that Ms. Sager said was key was to hire a professional lobbyist.

Mr. Pugh said Noah Smith of Capitol Service, Incorporated, was a dogged advocate.

"The first person that I've got to give the lion's share of the credit to is Noah Smith," he said. "Noah just did incredible work over years with CAPPS as we were working on a set of policy goals that seemed absolutely insane at the time."

Mr. Pugh added, "I imagine to be a lobbyist pushing for that had to feel awfully lonely at times."

THE 2019 BREAKTHROUGH: There were two heavily significant changes in 2019 that altered the balance of power. Mr. Lucido, a strong advocate of civil asset forfeiture reform, had replaced Mr. Jones as Senate Judiciary chair, and Dana Nessel, a former criminal defense and civil rights attorney who also had served as an assistant county prosecuting attorney, had replaced Mr. Schuette as attorney general.

Rep. Graham Filler (R-DeWitt) was the new House Judiciary Committee chair and while he did not represent a philosophical change in that post on the issue, he proved an early and strong advocate.

Mr. Filler said House leadership has seen the issue as a matter of fairness. With support at the top, including House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), it was more seamless to get the issues through the Legislature.

"If you have the support of the leaders and you bring it up to the caucus members and everyone goes 'yeah, that makes sense to me,'" Mr. Filler said.

At 36 years old, Mr. Filler said he missed a lot of the "lock them up and throw away the key" mentality that occurred in the 1990s and has come into the issue with Republican principles: seeking small and proportionate government.

"All I know is that I was an (assistant attorney general) and my number one focus was being fair for the people of the state and bringing justice to victims and being proportional to the way I treated people in sanctioning," he said. "I think a lot of other Republicans came from that too."

Mr. Smith said Mr. Lucido was critical.

"He was a bulldog and a fighter on this," he said. "Once we had a bill sponsor from the House who moved over to the Senate and became chair of Judiciary, we had movement."

Stakeholder groups that had opposed Raise the Age became more open to working on the issue once it was apparent the issue was moving.

"I'm not surprised at all. It should have happened four years ago," Mr. Lucido said when asked about the level of progress on criminal justice legislation this term.

Mr. Lucido has been pushing criminal justice reform legislation since his time in the House. He said much has been done but more reforms are needed such as with county jails and mental health.

He said with the legalization of marijuana in the state there is still more work to do on that as well with repealing laws related to marijuana use.

"Diversity of members, willingness to see through certain things that they've learned for the last four years," Mr. Lucido said of reasons that momentum has built for criminal justice reform. "In my case, it was things that I saw over 30 years in the courtroom, so I think it just took some time to educate members and to get the appetite up to where they said 'yeah, we can do this.'"

Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) who is minority vice-chair of the Senate committee, said the movement is reflective of a bipartisan acknowledgment of the need for change.

"We're at a time right now where both Republicans and Democrats and people across our state really understand, and across our country really, are looking for more reform because they realize that we need to spend our appropriations, you know, wisely and also that some of this, some of the policies that we've had in the past just really weren't working," Ms. Chang said.

The biggest challenge on Raise the Age, Ms. Jacobs said, was getting the counties on board. County officials were fine with the idea in concept, but it also meant that 17-year-olds who now go into the Department of Corrections prison system funded by the state would instead by housed in county juvenile justice facilities funded by the counties.

Eventually, Ms. Jacobs said, "We said to them, 'Okay counties write this bill however you want.'"

Several said what was critical was bringing people of different political and ideological views behind the issue.

"I think the unique piece was really figuring out that there was a way you could bring people to the table and hammer out reforms – maybe they didn't go as far as you wanted – if you were basing your work on data, on very clear data, very clear appeals to the common interests of faith groups, business groups, survivors, the whole shebang and that all of those voices, including the families of prisoners, had a voice in the development of policy and outreach. The landscape really transformed," Ms. Sager said. "What usually looks like some breakthrough and is reported in the media as a breakthrough is really the fruit of steady patience, smart organizing, coalition building, public education, legislative education and most of all the education of people who are directly affected, both people who have offended and are survivors."

There's still a long ways to go, several said. Expungement reform is pending in the Senate. There's the county jail task force report, which Ms. Nessel has not embraced.

Ms. Washington just called for the Legislature to require youth sentenced as adults to serve their sentence in a juvenile facility until they turn 18 and noted that idea did not have support when Raise the Age passed.

Ms. Sager said it would be very easy for political discourse to return to "tough on crime" approaches.

"It's still difficult," she said of criminal justice reform. "Let's not kid ourselves."

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So Many Questions As Sanders Builds Momentum

Posted: February 25, 2020 4:00 PM

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is building some momentum in the Democratic presidential race, and the commentary is starting to sound awfully familiar to four years ago when Donald Trump was doing the same in the race for the Republican nomination.

What a disaster for his party! He'll take down the entire ticket!

From the establishment of his party: This is terrible!

From the other party: This is awesome!

As someone who wrote one of those columns (almost exactly four years ago to this day) about how Mr. Trump could wreck the entire Republican ticket in 2016 (cough, cough, loosens tie), I am more circumspect now.

One could look at Mr. Sanders as a self-proclaimed socialist who just reiterated his praise for Fidel Castro and has a thick array of opposition research material his intraparty foes appear too afraid to use and understandably conclude he would get obliterated and in the process take down Democrats like U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin as well as ensure Republicans maintain their majority in the Michigan House. Would higher-income voters in Oakland and Kent counties who have left the Republican Party in revulsion at Mr. Trump really embrace a socialist who will almost certainly raise their taxes? These are all thoughts that have crossed my mind.

Yet one could also look at the current president, someone whose schoolyard behavior would have ended the political careers of seemingly any national candidate who came before him, who has cozied up to dictators too, who embraced nationalist policies, who has had dozens of women accuse him of sexual misconduct, who was caught on tape bragging about being able to grab women by the "p-ssy," and who himself had a massive opposition research book and still won the White House. Mr. Trump, far from taking the Republican ticket down, led it to a massively successful 2016 in Michigan.

Remember how many Democrats were openly giddy about Mr. Trump winning the Republican nomination in 2016? There are echoes of that coming from Republicans about Mr. Sanders.

Mr. Sanders still has many miles to go to win the nomination. A decisive victory in South Carolina by former Vice President Joe Biden could scramble the dynamic heading into March 3's Super Tuesday when 14 states vote. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg continues to spend gazillions and will be a factor. Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren likely need some type of a decisive, momentum-shifting win between now and Super Tuesday to remain viable by the time Michigan votes March 10. That goes for Mr. Biden too.

Nonetheless, Mr. Sanders is in an enviable position and the one to watch.

If he does win the nomination, there are a number of questions as we analyze his prospects in Michigan, one of the three most important states to the presidential contest:

  • Does his socialist philosophy blunt a political realignment that started in 2010 and has continued apace where Republicans now dominate white working class areas in which Democrats once competed well and Democrats have made major inroads into higher-income areas once owned by Republicans?
  • Does his newfound ability, seen in Nevada, to mobilize minorities translate to mobilizing African American voters in Michigan who came out strong in 2018 after a softer turnout in 2016?
  • Does Mr. Sanders bring out all kinds of new voters, lower-propensity voters, to back him in much the same way Mr. Trump did in 2016? The early data on this from the first three states is not encouraging for him, but maybe that would change if he is the nominee.
  • For as much as the Democratic establishment is starting to freak out now, does it fall in line behind Mr. Sanders much as 98 percent of the Republican establishment did in 2016 for Mr. Trump?
  • How do women, whose enthusiasm and organization powered Democratic victories in 2018, react to Mr. Sanders heading the ticket?
  • Does Mr. Sanders enjoy the same Teflon with the Democratic base that Mr. Trump has had with Republicans?

The truth is no one knows the answers to these questions right now.

Sure, conventional wisdom suggests: 78-year-old who had recent heart attack + socialist + Fidel Castro fan = landslide defeat.

Just remember what conventional wisdom was saying four years ago.

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Playing The What-If Game On The Presidential Race

Posted: February 11, 2020 8:45 PM

It appears Iowa and New Hampshire have unofficially reached the point where Democrats have realized en masse, "Hey, why are we giving these two small, mostly white states that are wholly out of step with the modern coalition of our party outsized influence in choosing our nominee for president?"

One can almost hear longtime former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin ranting "I told you so" in the wake of Iowa's third quadrennial meltdown in eight years. He waged a failed battle for years to break the Iowa/New Hampshire stranglehold on the nominating process. Except I don't think Mr. Levin rants and I'm not sure "I told you so" is in his vocabulary. Maybe he would just look down sternly over his spectacles.

As has been discussed ad nauseum, Iowa and New Hampshire are both mostly white, rural states. The modern Democratic Party depends on the support of African-American, Latino and other non-white voters as well as voters who live in big cities, large suburbs and increasingly have bachelor's degrees.

The Democratic presidential candidates spent a fortune in time and resources building organization and support in Iowa in hopes of winning the state's cockamamie caucuses, and to what end? No clear winner and controversy over the Iowa Democratic Party's Keystone Kops process, which is a shame given how many activists and candidates poured their hearts and souls – and wallets – into the mess. There's some thought that perhaps the eventual Democratic nominee could flip the state from President Donald Trump, but it seems like a long shot.

What if the two parties collectively agreed it is time for change, time to pick states more representative of the nation at large? What if the two parties, recognizing that the Great Lakes region is the fulcrum on which the Electoral College and the presidency turns, picked new states to lead off the sweepstakes? What if they realized that having one state go first makes absolutely no sense, that to do so leaves out huge swaths of their party's voters?

What if both parties agree to a Great Lakes primary with Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois leading off the voting with the 2024 cycle?

These states cover it all. There's big cities – Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis and Milwaukee. There's agriculture. There's suburbs and exurbs. There's industry. There's retail. There's Catholics, Baptists, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Christian Reformed, Mormons, Hindus and virtually every religion. There's whites, African-Americans, Latinos and a rainbow of people. There's big universities. There's international trade. There's forestland. There's bustling areas. There are areas left behind. There's small towns. There's even, kind of, mountains with the Porcupine Mountains. Okay, that's a bit of a reach (sorry Mount Arvon).

Two of these states are purple – Michigan and Wisconsin. One is purplish leaning red – Ohio. One is bright blue – Illinois. One is bright red – Indiana.

A regional primary to open up the voting would be epic. Candidates would spend a full year crisscrossing the five states and building infrastructure that would carry over into the general election for Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. The close proximity of the states would ease costs.

Yes, Iowa and New Hampshire conjure stark memories. Jimmy Carter using Iowa to come from nowhere in 1976. Ronald Reagan giving his "I paid for this microphone" speech to wrest momentum in 1980 from George H.W. Bush and win New Hampshire. Bill Clinton's "last dog dies" speech to "win" second place in 1992 and start his comeback. John McCain's rout of George W. Bush in New Hampshire in 2000 that extended the Republican nomination fight. Barack Obama's history-making win in Iowa in 2008. Donald Trump's 2016 New Hampshire win that showed, after his Iowa loss, he was for real.

But in the year 2020, are we really going to continue relying on people congregating in gymnasiums for hours if they happen to be physically strong enough and not in need of child care to choose the major party presidential nominees? Are we really going to continue to wait with bated breath for the 10 voters of Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, to set early opinions about how the New Hampshire primary is going?

The parties will have big questions to answer once this election cycle ends.

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With 3 Big Moments, Whitmer Resets Her Governorship

Posted: February 7, 2020 3:51 PM

Over the course of nine days, Governor Gretchen Whitmer used three high-profile moments to recast her governorship and enhance her stature as a national political player.

The State of the State address and the budget recommendation are on the calendar every year. This year, unlike last year, Ms. Whitmer would deliver them in close proximity, the first on January 29, the second February 6. What was new to the mix this year and required a rapid stand-up to pull off, was Ms. Whitmer delivering the Democratic response on national television to President Donald Trump's State of the Union address on February 4.

Eleven months ago, Ms. Whitmer was going for the moon, and, some might argue, the sun and the stars too with a proposed 45-cent per gallon fuel tax increase to raise $2.5 billion more per year for roads and free up hundreds of millions in the regular budget diverted for roads back to their usual purposes like education and state services. As everyone knows, it didn't work out. The public revolted, the Legislature declared the proposal dead on arrival, and Ms. Whitmer's signature issue – fix the damn roads – saw no progress in 2019.

To make matters worse, the fuel tax was so embedded in Ms. Whitmer's proposed budget that the budget dragged on through all of 2019 and didn't end in a way that left Ms. Whitmer or majority Republicans in the Legislature feeling especially happy.

Ms. Whitmer's State of the State address a week ago took a far different tone from the one in 2019. She made it clear she would not wait on the Legislature anymore. She's using the bonding power her administration has to more than double spending on state-owned roads in the next five years from what it would have been with an extra $3.5 billion. Republicans in the Legislature are grumbling, but there's nothing they can do to stop it. A usual Republican ally, Rich Studley of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, is praising the bonding move and scoffing at the GOP criticism and Ms. Whitmer when she runs for reelection in 2022 will be able to point to a whole lot of road work happening without a tax increase.

The bonding mechanism completely redefines 2020. If 2019 was all about a torturous and ultimately failed effort at compromise with the Legislature that produced no new money for roads and sucked almost all the oxygen out of the Capitol, now road funding revenue is not an immediate, pressing concern. It is long-term because road funding will fall off a cliff in five years once the bond proceeds are exhausted and local roads need a lot of new money too, but now it means time is on Ms. Whitmer's side on roads.

Ms. Whitmer has many times expressed bemused amazement that the 2018 campaign saw her become the "fix the damn roads lady." That threatened to become an anvil around her, both in preventing her from working on other priorities and in failing to deliver on a promise, if she didn't get significant roadwork done in her first term. It's important to note the bond money will do nothing for local roads, which are in worse shape than state roads, but there's no question between now and 2022, motorists are going to see a ton of orange cones and roadwork in their travels.

That brings us to the budget recommendation, which Ms. Whitmer unveiled Thursday.

What a difference a year makes.

There were no new taxes, far fewer swipes at Republican priorities (and the ones that remain feel like negotiating points that the governor will likely cede as part of a final deal) and some catchy new programs that are hard for Republicans to reject, like a big effort to prevent infant mortality and emergency environmental cleanups. There are new programs on core Democratic issues like public education, climate change and student loan debt.

Some Republican operatives chided some aspects of the budget like the $100,000 for a state poet laureate, but the response from Republican legislators Thursday was pretty warm all things considered. Eleven months ago, there was little doubt the budget would be a bitter fight to the end of the fiscal year and maybe beyond (and it was). This year, the quick consensus is there's no reason the Legislature and the governor can't wrap up the budget in June and meet the new statutory deadline of July 1.

Ms. Whitmer made it clear in remarks to reporters Thursday she will emphasize her priorities but also notably said she would "not tilt at windmills" and make proposals destined to fail. That's why she is taking executive action where she can (like the road bonds, forthcoming rules expanding overtime to more salaried professional workers and new parent leave time for state employees) and steering clear of tax increases.

Smack-dab in the middle of these two events Ms. Whitmer gave the Democratic response on national television to Mr. Trump. This is a high-risk, high-reward event. A gaffe, a bad speech or some other snafu is always a worry. But a successful speech pays off.

I spoke with four veteran political operatives the day after the speech, two loyal Republicans and two loyal Democrats (See Gongwer Michigan Report, February 5, 2020). They all agreed Ms. Whitmer succeeded. Naturally the Republicans are not with Ms. Whitmer on policy, but as far as "meeting the moment" as one of them put it, she did. It was a smooth, polished speech, one that introduced her to a national audience and featured a Democrat talking about issues voters see in their everyday lives. There was no Marco Rubio moment of awkwardly guzzling water.

This will only put the governor in greater demand nationally and add more juice to the talk of her showing up on lists of possible Democratic vice presidential candidates. Michigan is one of the three most important states to this year's presidential election. Ms. Whitmer is going to become a familiar figure nationally. Even if she doesn't end up on the ticket, a prime speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention and regular appearances on national television programs are surely in the offing.

Five weeks ago, it was clear Ms. Whitmer would need to take a different approach in 2020 than 2019. She said as much as 2019 closed. That's what's happening.

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Lucido Firestorm: How Much Has Changed In Two Years?

Posted: January 22, 2020 3:57 PM

How much has changed in the Capitol community in the past two years when it comes to how legislators, officials, lobbyists and the news media handle allegations by women involving male legislators who made sexually inappropriate remarks toward them?

In the past week, a reporter for the Michigan Advance, Allison Donahue, and Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) have accused Sen. Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Township) of making remarks of a sexual nature toward them. Ms. McMorrow said Mr. Lucido also put his hand on her back and hip during a conversation when the two were in new senator orientation after the 2018 election.

It's getting heavy news coverage and dominating the conversation around the Capitol. As it should.

Some of the coverage makes it sound like it's the first time a member of the Michigan Legislature was accused of sexual misconduct since the #metoo movement exploded in late 2017 with many powerful men in most major sectors of public life toppled as women came forward with stories of sexual assault, sexual harassment and other misconduct.

In fact, it's not.

Two years ago, Gongwer News Service published a report looking at the culture of sexually charged comments in and around the Capitol by men.

The report included allegations by a former House member, Sarah Roberts, that a then-senator, David Knezek, had made sexually inappropriate comments to her. Now-U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) said Mr. Knezek also had made an inappropriate remark to her when the two were in the House, and she named former Rep. Paul Clemente as having made a sexually inappropriate remark to her as well. The report also revealed for the first time that Ms. Roberts had accused a then-House member, now-Sen. Jon Bumstead (R-Newaygo), of making inappropriate remarks to her.

Mr. Bumstead and Mr. Knezek strongly denied the allegations.

And then the story just kind of died. There was no similar media frenzy like the reaction to the Lucido allegations.

Indeed, Mr. Bumstead managed to run for and win a competitive Republican primary and very competitive general election for his Senate seat without having anyone raise the issue against him.

Mr. Knezek lost his race for reelection in a stunning primary upset though the result by all indications had nothing to do with the allegations Ms. Roberts and Ms. Tlaib lodged against him, which never surfaced in the race. He currently heads up legislative relations for Attorney General Dana Nessel.

I've pondered why that story didn't prompt the type of response that seems to be building now to the Lucido situation.

Was it because Ms. Roberts was no longer in the Legislature and couldn't command the same attention Ms. McMorrow can as a sitting senator?

Was it because the story included a Democrat and a Republican and thus it was to the advantage of both sides to stay quiet and wait for it to fade?

Was it because our story was behind a paywall and didn't see the kind of circulation on social media that has occurred with the Lucido stories?

Was it because Mr. Knezek was a popular figure and a rising star with whom Democrats clearly sided over Ms. Roberts? When Mr. Knezek lost, many Democrats – men and women – mourned. Plenty of people clearly sided with Mr. Knezek and thought Ms. Roberts' and Ms. Tlaib's claims were a crock, that the claims were totally at odds with their interactions with Mr. Knezek.

Was it because Mr. Bumstead was not in the Legislature at the time and was a little-known figure from Newaygo? Mr. Lucido is front-and-center on key committees, represents a key swath of the Detroit media market and has cultivated media coverage. He's teased the idea of running for Congress and governor. He's about as visible as it gets among the 148 members of the Legislature outside of the speaker and Senate majority leader.

Given the events of the past week, we're republishing the story from two years ago. It's below. With no paywall.

It was originally published exactly two years ago today – Monday, January 22, 2018. It was written by Alethia Kasben.

Women Face Sexually Charged Comments At Capitol

Women working in and around the Capitol say men often make sexually inappropriate statements to them as part of a culture in the Legislature that has long allowed for such misconduct to fester.

That culture revolves around working long hours, having mostly men as elected officials, and parties and dinners with plenty of drinking, several women told Gongwer News Service both on and off the record. While women detailed inappropriate comments, there were no allegations of sexual assault.

In recent months, sexual misconduct accusations have rocked several industries, including Hollywood, the national media and state and federal governments. In other state legislatures and Congress, officials have resigned over the accusations, including U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Detroit), though Michigan's Capitol has gone unscathed.

Nonetheless, the Michigan Legislature still has a history of men making sexual or sexist comments toward women working and serving in state government roles. In 1994, then-Rep. Maxine Berman wrote her book, "The Only Boobs in the House Are Men," which detailed her experiences in the male-dominated Legislature. This is the Capitol where, in the 1990s, while a female college newspaper reporter interviewed two state senators about a bill to ban topless dancing, one referred to it as a "titty bill" and the other held out the lapels of his sports coat to impersonate a woman's breasts.

In the course of reporting this story, two female former House members named one current and two former male legislators as having made sexually inappropriate comments toward them. Two of the men denied the allegations and the third did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Former Rep. Sarah Roberts, a Democrat, who served in the House from 2009-10 and 2013-16, posted on Facebook in October as the "me too" campaign took hold among women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted that she complained to the House Business Office about one Republican legislator and wished she had done the same against a Democratic legislator.

In an interview with Gongwer, Ms. Roberts did not name the Republican representative about which she complained in 2016 to the House Business Office or detail the comments he made, as she said it was unclear if she could do so after complaining to the office. She said the representative is no longer in office. Ms. Roberts said the former legislator made several inappropriate comments over a period of several months, culminating with his putting an arm around her. She felt it was inappropriate, so she complained, Ms. Roberts said.

"I did file a complaint against a representative where I just felt the things he was saying to me, although not overtly sexual, were implying certain things," she said. "It was really inappropriate."

Gongwer subsequently confirmed that the lawmaker was former Rep. Jon Bumstead, a Republican of Newaygo, who is now running for Senate and is facing Rep. Holly Hughes (R-White River Township) in the August primary in the 34th Senate District.

Mr. Bumstead, reached Monday by Gongwer, denied the accusations. He said he and Ms. Roberts worked together on an Appropriations Subcommittee and "she was a very good vice chair."

"I don't know what she would be talking about," Mr. Bumstead said. "It is a serious claim, but it is almost laughable because it didn't happen."

House and Senate employees, including lawmakers, can file formal and informal complaints to their respective business offices and direct supervisors. Ms. Roberts' complaint appeared to fall in the informal category. The House Business Office has said the only recent formal complaint involved former Rep. Brian Banks.

At the time in question, Ms. Roberts said someone in whom she confided about the incident asked her if she wanted to be taken off the committee on which she served with that representative after she made the complaint.

"Why should I have to give up my responsibility and my position because of someone else's behavior?" she said. "I think that is something that happens with staff. They just get moved somewhere else."

Ms. Roberts told Gongwer that during a late House session debating Detroit Public Schools legislation in 2016, she was sitting on the back benches in the chamber talking to Sen. David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights) about how she was tired and didn't know what to say during her speech.

She said Mr. Knezek told her, "just give them the Sarah Roberts fight," and then looked down between his legs and said, "I am not going to be able to get up for a while," implying he had an erection. Ms. Roberts said she looked at him and said, "Stop." She said he responded, "No, I really mean it." She said she then got up and walked away from the senator.

Ms. Roberts said the comment didn't affect her speech that night, and since Mr. Knezek was in the Senate, she didn't have to work with him often at the time.

"It's just so disappointing," she said. "On top of everything else, being in the minority, all the tough things we have to deal with. It's just so common for mostly men to say really inappropriate things. And a lot of those inappropriate things have innuendo or are overtly sexual."

Gongwer spoke with one source who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation who confirmed that Ms. Roberts told them a legislator made those comments to her in June 2016 after a late session night. This person said at the time Ms. Roberts did not name the individual, but did reveal the individual's identity in December 2017.

Former Rep. Rashida Tlaib, also a Democrat who served in the House from 2009-14, said Ms. Roberts told her the story of what Mr. Knezek said after it happened and the two had a conversation about the comment. Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Roberts were seatmates on the House floor and they remain friends.

Ms. Tlaib said during a meeting at the AFT Michigan offices in Detroit in late August or early September of 2012, Mr. Knezek said to her: "You know they call you MILF?"

That's an acronym for "Mother I'd Like to" have sex with, using an explicit four-letter word. Ms. Tlaib said at the time she didn't know what that meant, and Ms. Roberts, whom Ms. Tlaib said was there, had to tell her. Ms. Tlaib also remembers googling the acronym, which she said is one of the reasons why the comment stood out to her.

Ms. Roberts said she did not remember Mr. Knezek making the comment. Another source, speaking on condition of anonymity, attended the meeting and confirmed Mr. Knezek, Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Roberts were there.

"This is a professional relationship," Ms. Tlaib said of what she thought after Mr. Knezek made the comment. "This person is already sexualizing this relationship."

When Ms. Tlaib first recalled the story to Gongwer, she said that 2012 meeting was the first time she had met Mr. Knezek. Later, Ms. Tlaib said she had actually met Mr. Knezek previously.

"I continued to work with him and be friends, and it seemed fine after that," Ms. Tlaib said. "He ended up dating a friend of mine."

Mr. Knezek and Ms. Tlaib are both considering running for Mr. Conyers' former seat. Gongwer contacted Ms. Tlaib about her experiences with sexual harassment at the Capitol prior to the Conyers story breaking, and she mentioned what she said happened with Mr. Knezek. Gongwer contacted Ms. Roberts before the Conyers story erupted, and she spoke to Gongwer on December 1. Both Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Roberts participated in several follow-up interviews.

Josh Pugh, Mr. Knezek's spokesperson, said Mr. Knezek had no comment "on these ridiculous and baseless allegations."

Angela Vasquez-Giroux, a Democratic consultant and former spokesperson for the Senate Democrats, said she worked closely with Mr. Knezek during her time in the Senate, and he was professional, appropriate and supportive.

"He was a powerful professional ally and sought out ways to be supportive of women, both legislatively and as a colleague," she said.

For Ms. Tlaib, the incident she remembers as being the most egregious for her came in 2011 when she was breastfeeding her son on the House floor. Ms. Tlaib said then-Rep. Paul Clemente, a Democrat who served in the House from 2011-16, came to talk to her about a line item in the budget. Ms. Tlaib was on the House Appropriations Committee.

Ms. Tlaib recalled that Mr. Clemente was talking and then noticed she was breastfeeding her son. "When he is done, can I have a turn?" Ms. Tlaib said Mr. Clemente said to her.

Mr. Clemente did not return several requests for comment from Gongwer.

Ms. Tlaib said when she was finished feeding her son she went to Mr. Clemente and told him the comment was extremely inappropriate. She said he apologized sincerely and then kept his distance afterward.

"It wasn't a consistent thing," she said of both men.

Ms. Tlaib said early on in her career - she worked on the staff of former House Majority Floor Leader Steve Tobocman - she stopped going to events with drinking after an intoxicated member of the House, who has since died, came up behind her and touched her rear-end. Gongwer is not naming the then member of the House because he is deceased.

"I drew a line. I stopped going out," she said. "If anyone knows me in Lansing, they will tell you, I didn't go to the events where there was heavy drinking. … Those events are where I started hearing about things happening to my colleagues."

Sen. Margaret O'Brien (R-Portage) said there is an over-familiarity among colleagues in the Legislature that can lead to members and staff being thoughtless with what they say.

"We are in a very unique work environment, but we have to remember, we are in a work environment," she said.

Ms. O'Brien said she has dealt with comments she felt were inappropriate, but declined to detail them to Gongwer. She said she handled those situations individually with the people who said them.

Ms. O'Brien said while she thinks the workplace environment for her as a woman in the Legislature has improved, it is difficult to know what it is like for staff.

"Staff is very hesitant to discuss the issue because they feel vulnerable," she said. "They don't wish to become quote unquote part of the problem. Staff are definitely at a disadvantage."

Ms. O'Brien did not detail what she had heard regarding sexual misconduct toward staff, but said through informal conversations, she has discovered staff do not report sexual misconduct and they usually keep it to themselves.

"From a staff perspective there is probably more that can be done," she said. "It is the employees that don't all feel they truly have a path to deal with this."

One former legislative staffer speaking anonymously said inappropriate comments are commonly made toward female staffers from lawmakers. This person said often a staffer would be moved from an office if there's an incident, and many believe a lawmaker will not face any consequences for the behavior, so they don't report it.

Additionally, this person said staff members do not feel comfortable going to supervisors or even the business offices because they all work at the pleasure of legislative leadership, and staff feel they can't really do anything.

Ms. Roberts said sexual misconduct is a very real and very prevalent problem in Lansing.

"I show up to work. I don't want to have to deal with these types of comments," she said.

Ms. Roberts, to illustrate how routine sexualized comments were, recalled walking into a conversation between a group of lawmakers (editor's note: this story has been changed to clarify the context of the remarks).

A female lawmaker said, "Well, I'm easy." A male colleague responded, "Oh, we've heard."

"Sexual harassment in some ways is not complicated," she said. "It can be innuendo. It can be how they are saying it. …. But it doesn't have to be obviously sexual."

Ms. Roberts said often in the Legislature men say it was just a joke, or that the person who feels offended didn't take it the comment the right way.

"It is like enough. We don't want to deal with this. We want to show up for work. Do our jobs and be professional," she said.

Ms. Roberts said she wishes she had gone public while serving in the Legislature about her experiences. At one time, she said, she tried to get other representatives and staffers to go public with her, but they were afraid.

"But what is really positive is women who were perhaps more afraid now feel supported and empowered to talk about it. And we need more of this to happen," she said.

Not all women have had the same experience in the Capitol, though. Former Rep. Nancy Jenkins, a Republican, said she felt former House Speaker Jase Bolger and Republican leadership after the 2010 election did a good job of including women in leadership positions.

She said she looked at her male colleagues as family, and they looked out for her and other members.

"Every now and then, something would pop up," she said. "An off-color joke or something. I remember one that was told, a person apologized immediately after." She did not detail the joke.

Ms. Jenkins said she had a good experience in the House, and while she heard rumors and other stories of inappropriate behavior, she did not experience it.

Ms. Jenkins said as more stories of sexual misconduct are becoming public, it should be better defined.

"Some people would call it harassment, and other people wouldn't see it that way," she said of comments one might feel is a joke while someone else is made to feel uncomfortable. "How do you bring somebody to justice, or hold someone accountable, for what someone else feels?"

Deb Shaughnessy, a Republican who has been a legislative staffer, served in the House during the 2011-12 term and later worked as a lobbyist, said she has experienced inappropriate comments, one from former Sen. David Jaye who was expelled in 2001 for incidents involving his then fiancee and law enforcement, and knows other women who have as well.

"It occurs more than what anybody knows," she said. "And it goes back to the culture; if you say something, you could be labeled a troublemaker. And people don't like that."

Mr. Jaye could not be located for comment.

Ms. Shaughnessy said the culture in Lansing coddles and caters to elected members. She said there has to be a balance.

"You need to respect the legislator for the position they are in, but there is a line," she said. "I believe a legislator should have higher standards to live by. Especially for the young men and women who are working there. They deserve to have bosses who are I believe are above reproach."

She said currently there is a great opportunity for victims of sexual harassment to tell their stories and change the culture.

"Men and women need to be brave and know it is not right and they need to speak up," she said. "They shouldn't be afraid of the repercussions. They do need to be courageous and think about the next victim."

Ms. Roberts agreed.

"I just want to be really clear … on how important it is for any woman, regardless of where they are at professionally, if they have experienced a similar type of situation, whether it was from a senator, representative, staffer, their boss, they really need to come forward," she said. "This culture is not going to change unless we start talking about it very honestly and very openly. There just needs to be zero tolerance for it."

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Seven Big Questions On Roads Confronting The Governor

Posted: January 14, 2020 7:57 PM

It's January, which means it is State of the State season, the time for thinking about big picture policy, and for the 183rd consecutive year, that means asking what state government might do about Michigan's battered roads.

I assume Stevens T. Mason in 1837 was vexed with the problem of how to improve the movement of people and commerce across the swampland that dominated the state and address the state's decrepit trail system.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer ran on fixing the state's roads. Her first attempt in 2019 to raise the fuel tax by 45 cents per gallon went nowhere in the Legislature. Republicans pilloried it and publicly offered no alternative. Democrats, when asked about the proposal, generally would change the subject to something less toxic like Detroit's outstanding professional sports teams that just combined for the most losses in the history of North American professional sports, according to one recent study.

It's now take two for Ms. Whitmer, and while the governor isn't revealing much, she has dropped a couple hints. Here are the six big questions looming over Road Funding Discussion 183.0.

HOW MUCH NEW REVENUE?: In 2019, Ms. Whitmer proposed raising $2.5 billion. Starting in the 2020-21 fiscal year, that would actually mean a net increase for roads of $1.9 billion because it would mean $600 million that by law must go from revenues that would otherwise accrue to the General Fund to roads would instead go back to the General Fund. Ms. Whitmer also said then she would not support a solution that did not fix the entire problem, mindful of the public backlash to the 7.3-cent per gallon gasoline tax increase and vehicle registration fee hike of 2015 that didn't fix the state's roads overnight.

A billion in new revenue a year would be a significant advancement, but it's still well short of what everyone agrees is needed to reverse the long-term decline in road conditions, especially at the local level.

Yet getting the $2 billion to $2.5 billion in annual new revenue seems almost unattainable.

HOW MANY MECHANISMS TO RAISE THAT REVENUE?: Ms. Whitmer tried a version of Governor Rick Snyder's "simple, fair and efficient" mantra when he was pitching his corporate income tax to replace the Michigan Business Tax with her 45-cent per gallon fuel tax. It was simple because it only required the Legislature to take one vote instead of passing an amalgam of bills like in 2015. It was fair because the more you drive, the more tax you pay. And it was efficient because under the Michigan Constitution nearly all fuel tax revenue goes to the roads.

It didn't work.

Monday, Ms. Whitmer dropped a hint as to a possible new strategy, saying it would take several mechanisms to raise the revenue needed.

What mechanisms is Ms. Whitmer planning? On to some more questions.

WHAT ABOUT BONDING?: The hot topic du jour, mainly because Ms. Whitmer vowed as a candidate in 2018 to ask voters to approve bonds if the Legislature refused to support more funding for roads to truly address the problem. Ms. Whitmer could either seek general obligation bonds, which require voter approval, or transportation bonds, which only require the approval of the State Transportation Commission.

Either case presents problems because bonding simply frontloads the construction schedule by using future revenues to pay for present-day construction. It would mean a quick rush of construction now and less in the future.

That said, if the Legislature offers Ms. Whitmer little to no support on meaningful new revenue, the governor may have no other choice.

ARE TOLLS AN OPTION?: In the long-term, yes. Ms. Whitmer last year obliquely hinted she might be interested in tolling bridges for heavy trucks only, something akin to a recently implemented tolling system in Rhode Island. There's also the possibility of applying to the federal government to convert some or all of an interstate – I-94 being the most obvious choice – into a toll road.

Either scenario, especially the latter, would mean new revenues probably several years into the future, definitely not in the present and likely not before Ms. Whitmer will stand for reelection in 2022.

IS A BALLOT PROPOSAL THE ANSWER?: An up-or-down proposal like the disastrous Proposal 1 of 2015? No. Advocates for new funding will not pursue that scenario again. What has generated some chatter is a Proposal A of 1994-style plan where the Legislature passes a statutory plan to raise revenues for roads and then also puts a separate plan on the ballot. If the voters pass the ballot proposal, then the statutory plan becomes null and void. But if voters reject the ballot proposal, then the statutory plan takes effect.

In 1994, voters in effect chose between a sales tax increase (the ballot proposal) or an income tax increase (the statutory plan) to fund schools and pay for a property tax cut.

It sounds great in concept – force the voters to pick one or the other. But it would mean convincing the Legislature to pass a viable statutory plan, and after the Republican-led Legislature's outright hostility to a tax increase last year, that seems pretty questionable.

WHAT ABOUT REMOVING THE SALES TAX FROM FUEL?: This is House Speaker Lee Chatfield's (R-Levering) top priority. Remove the sales tax from fuel and pass a revenue-neutral fuel tax increase of about 15 to 17 cents per gallon. Voila, that's about $850 million more for roads without raising taxes! Except it would drain $850 million away from K-12 schools and local governments that get the sales tax revenue.

The Republican idea to replace that revenue is to alter the repayment schedule on the state's teacher pension debt, which would then fill the lost sales tax revenues by meaning smaller state payments each year. But Ms. Whitmer's staunch allies in the public education community loathe this idea.

The makings of a deal would seem to be Ms. Whitmer agreeing to this plan in exchange for Republicans agreeing to support a substantial tax increase for roads. But it's asking both sides to stick a finger in the eyes of their political base.

SO WHAT WILL HAPPEN?: After all these questions, I can best sum that up with this clip from "The Naked Gun":

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The Election Year Arrives With Narrow Group Of House Seats In Play

Posted: January 7, 2020 5:19 PM

For most of the term limits era, there's a pretty reliable pattern during the election cycle when it comes to the Michigan House.

It starts out with a relatively large number of the 110 seats looming as competitive, perhaps 25-30. The parties early in the cycle when it comes to candidate recruitment seek to make sure they have at least credible candidates on the ballot in those seats in the event a real race develops. Of those 25-30, probably 10-15 are seen as seriously up for grabs.

Then as the cycle gets about a year out from Election Day, there's usually a narrowing. Several seats fall off the radar because the parties are struggling to find someone to run. Electoral trends cause party strategists to conclude they ought not waste time and resources in some seats. Then once the primary is over, it starts to become clear whether candidates who had gained little notice have built momentum through fundraising, hard work and the partisan lean for the cycle and the field expands some. Finally, in the final two to three weeks, the parties have to make final decisions on where to spend their money and the field shrinks again to about 10 seats.

For the 2020 cycle, however, it all looks different.

There are precious few competitive seats and there's no sign that will change in a meaningful way.

Republicans hold a 58-51 advantage in the House with the one vacancy in a solidly Democratic seat, so it's functionally 58-52 with Democrats needing to flip four seats for control.

There's a core number of five to seven seats in play. That may increase a bit depending on how the parties do with candidate recruitment, but House control will hinge on those seats and few others.

The seats:

  • 38th District in southwest Oakland County: Rep. Kathy Crawford (R-Novi) had a major scare and barely survived reelection in 2018, and now the woman who almost beat her, Democratic Novi City Councilmember Kelly Breen, is back for another go with Ms. Crawford barred from running again because of term limits. UPDATED 12:38 P.M. JANUARY 8: Ms. Breen won't have a free pass for the Democratic nomination. Former Novi Democratic Club Chair Megan McAllister also is running. Republicans have a couple candidates, including one who gave Ms. Crawford a tough run in the 2020 GOP primary. This is a prime pickup opportunity for the Democrats in an area trending their way.
  • 39th District in west central Oakland County: Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Township) ended up getting a free pass in 2018 after the Democratic candidate imploded under a criminal embezzlement scandal. Now he faces Democrat Julia Pulver of West Bloomfield, who nearly pulled off a shocking upset in the 15th Senate District. Yes, Oakland County has become very blue, but the bulk of this district is Commerce Township, and that's still a Republican-leaning community. This one could go either way.
  • 45th District in northeast Oakland County: Rep. Michael Webber (R-Rochester Hills) is term limited, and this is an area that has rapidly shifted to the point where it's now 50/50 or even slightly leaning Democratic after years of being solidly Republican. Both parties have highly touted candidates they have recruited. This will be a good test to see how deep the Democratic trend in Oakland County is cutting.
  • 61st District in southwest Kalamazoo County: Rep. Brandt Iden (R-Oshtemo Township) cannot run because of term limits, and both parties are high on their candidates in an area that has swung quickly and decisively toward the Democrats in a short amount of time.
  • 104th District in Grand Traverse County: Rep. Larry Inman (R-Williamsburg) will not be on the ballot in November because of term limits. It's looking less and less likely that there will be a special election here despite Mr. Inman's legal woes after he was acquitted of one charge and got a mistrial on two others. A recall campaign against him still faces major hurdles to reaching the ballot. It's not clear yet who will represent each party in the race to succeed Mr. Inman. If lower-propensity Republican voters turn out in 2020 like they did in 2016 for now-President Donald Trump, then this seat likely stays GOP. However, if the electorate looks more like 2018 when Democrats stormed to the polls in Traverse City, suburban Garfield Township and Old Mission Peninsula and those lower-propensity GOP voters stayed home, then this seat is up for grabs.

There's a few others, maybe. Republicans will surely give Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) a fight given she won by the smallest margin in 2018 of any current member of the House, though western Wayne County has shifted quickly to Democrats. Democrats may ponder putting some effort into unseating Rep. Greg Markkanen (R-Hancock) because it's cheap to go on television in the Upper Peninsula and Mr. Markkanen won a close upset in 2018, but the trends in the U.P. favor the GOP outside of Marquette.

Perhaps Republicans will go after Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) after his close win in 2018. Democrats have the fundraising wonder Sarah Schulz of Midland waging a rematch against Rep. Annette Glenn (R-Williams Township) following a much closer than expected race in 2018 between the two. And there's always the possibility for a surprise.

But right now, there's five seats that look likely to decide whether Republicans extend their majority in the House to 12 years or Democrats take control and provide some needed protection to Governor Gretchen Whitmer against initiative petitions circulated by conservative groups and attempts to overturn her executive orders.

And for heaven's sake, let's not talk about the 99th District in Isabella County emerging as in play. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me eight times, shame on me.

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Kasben Named Gongwer Managing Editor

Posted: January 3, 2020 9:34 AM

Gongwer News Service announced Friday the promotion of Alethia Kasben to managing editor.

Ms. Kasben has been deputy editor since August and a staff writer since 2013. Ms. Kasben's new position means she will take the lead on assigning news stories to staff, editing stories and determining story placement. She also will have a role in planning news strategy for the company.

Ms. Kasben will continue to cover the Michigan House of Representatives, which has been her reporting beat since she joined Gongwer in 2013. She also will continue to cover the medical and recreational marijuana industries in the state.

A native of Detroit and Hazel Park, Ms. Kasben is a Michigan State University alumna. She interned with Gongwer in 2011.

In her time at Gongwer, Ms. Kasben has broken several major stories: investigating sexual harassment at the Capitol, revealing that relatively few eligible to regain their driver's licenses after the end of driver's responsibility fees had applied and breaking several stories out of the House on road funding, teacher pensions and leadership races.

Ms. Kasben lives in Lansing with her husband, Braden DuBose, and their beloved dog, Hendrix.

She can be reached at or 248-808-7151.

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Trump's Suggestion Dingell In Hell Is Mind-Blowing, Even For Trump

Posted: December 19, 2019 5:35 PM

It's impossible to catalogue exhaustively the number of vicious ad hominem attacks President Donald Trump has lobbed in the four-plus year he has been a candidate for president and then president. Someone somewhere probably has a count, but suffice it to say there are many.

So it shouldn't be shocking when Mr. Trump taunts his political foes. That's what he does.

Yet Mr. Trump's suggestion during his Battle Creek speech Wednesday evening that the late U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn), who died earlier this year and is one of Michigan's all-time political icons, might be in hell felt staggering.

Mr. Trump was busily mocking Mr. Dingell's widow and successor in the 12th U.S. House District, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), for purportedly profusely thanking Mr. Trump at giving Mr. Dingell various honors upon his death and yet voting for impeachment.

"She calls me up. 'It's the nicest thing that's ever happened. Thank you so much. John would be so thrilled. He's looking down. He'd be so thrilled. Thank you so much sir,'" Mr. Trump said in Battle Creek in recounting what he said Ms. Dingell said. "I said, 'That's okay, don't worry about it.' Maybe he's looking up. I don't know."

That's right, the president of the United States suggested that possibly the longest-serving member of the U.S. House in American history, one involved with some of the most seminal issues of his 59 years in office, one who incidentally was overwhelmingly revered by many of the same Downriver voters who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, might be looking up from hell.

Yes, Mr. Dingell was a frequent, biting critic of Mr. Trump's in his later years. He even, as Crain's Chad Livengood reported, once told Mr. Trump to "go to hell" after Mr. Trump as a candidate in 2016 said he "wouldn't want to be in a foxhole" with former prisoner of war U.S. Sen. John McCain.

But Mr. Dingell is dead. His widow, Ms. Dingell, is grieving. Not that it would be okay any time of year, but the holidays are a difficult time for people who recently lost loved ones, so suggesting her dead husband might be in hell is just more salt in Ms. Dingell's wounds.

Take away the names. Take away the political affiliations. Take away the policy differences.

Imagine yourself at a neighborhood event. Your spouse has died relatively recently. Someone there who had a bad relationship with your spouse mocks how you were emotional about your spouse's death and then suggests maybe your dead spouse is looking up from hell.

It's mind-blowing, right?

Many Republicans who usually defend the president are criticizing Mr. Trump's comments today. Democrats are furious and the fury is genuine.

Yet if most agree that what Mr. Trump said was wrong, it's also apparent it's just the latest continuation in the new normal of American politics, that the usual laws of gravity no longer apply.

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After 'Batshit Crazy Spectrum' Fiasco, What Will Shirkey Do?

Posted: November 27, 2019 4:00 PM

Senate Republicans clearly had a game plan after the Legislature adjourned for a two-week break to accommodate the start of firearm deer hunting season and Thanksgiving.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) had led his Senate Republican Caucus into a standoff with Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer over her use of the State Administrative Board, which she controls, to exercise an extremely rare use of its unilateral power to transfer funds between programs within a department, $625 million worth. Ms. Whitmer had taken that action, along with issuing an unprecedented $947 million in line-item vetoes from the 2019-20 fiscal year budget, because Republican lawmakers sent her a budget without her input.

Prior to adjournment, Mr. Shirkey appeared to be on an island, refusing to accept an agreement House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Ms. Whitmer negotiated to restore much of the funding with an understanding in writing (what form is not clear) that Ms. Whitmer would not use the State Administrative Board powers to alter the supplemental appropriations bill. Mr. Shirkey said the only possible answer was for the Legislature to pass a bill weakening the board's powers and for Ms. Whitmer to sign it.

Ms. Whitmer refused to entertain an answer that involved weakening executive powers.

And so the budget standoff continues even as a variety of state programs – those affecting county jails, sheriff road patrols, need-based tuition grants for students at private colleges, an increase in funding for charter schools to match the ones traditional public schools received, among many others – are suffering real problems now. Layoffs have occurred as a result of some of Ms. Whitmer's transfers and vetoes and the lack of a follow-up supplemental appropriations bill to restore what was cut.

The Senate Republican communications strategy clearly involved giving Mr. Shirkey some air support in the form of nearly 10 Senate Republicans so far writing columns for their local newspapers making the case for the need to curb the State Administrative Board's powers. Seemingly daily, Senate Republican communications staff have rolled out the latest column from one of their members in a local newspaper.

All this would have been fine and dandy up until last Thursday when The Hillsdale Collegian broke a bombshell story that Mr. Shirkey, while speaking to the Hilldale College Republicans, told them that legislative Democrats and Ms. Whitmer are "on the batshit crazy spectrum." He further said the House and Senate Democrats are little more than an appendage of the Whitmer administration, saying they "sit around and wait for her to call them and tell them to do this or do that."

So much for that communications strategy.

There are times where a member of the opposite party mocks the other side, in a floor speech or news release or other event, where it's just politics, both sides know it, "this is the price for being in the arena, that's okay, let's shake hands afterward and move on to the next issue because otherwise what's the point."

This was not one of those times.

This was a deeply insulting attack, one where Mr. Shirkey got caught presumably not realizing a reporter was in the audience. This was not a situation, as happens from time to time, where a member of one party tells someone on the other side prior to ripping them publicly, "I have to go say bad things about your views, but understand that's something I have to do, and then let's get to work to solve the problem."

After all the anger Mr. Shirkey and Republicans have expressed about Ms. Whitmer's veto of funding for the autism navigator program, to use a term like "batshit crazy spectrum" – autism's formal name is autism spectrum disorder – was remarkable and hurtful. Ms. Whitmer's communications director said it also was "clear that women in power make the Senate majority leader very uncomfortable," and labeled his remarks sexist.

There is real anger among Democrats, the idea they are just automatons waiting around for the governor to tell them what to do and that they are "batshit crazy." We don't yet know Ms. Whitmer's thoughts because the story broke while she was on a trade mission to Israel and she has yet to do any interviews with Michigan news organizations about the incident.

Mr. Shirkey's press secretary released a statement from him after the Collegian's story broke saying he reached out to directly apologize to Ms. Whitmer for his comments and said he had no excuse for his "offensive statement" that he admitted was "disrespectful and unnecessary."

So the question is what now? Mr. Shirkey's credibility has taken a major hit and no amount of public apologizing is going to fully repair the damage he did to key relationships with Ms. Whitmer and other lawmakers. Perhaps everyone will agree to move on at some point, but that damage will always lurk near the surface and color future discussions.

There's one school of thought that the best way for Mr. Shirkey to restore his credibility is to concede the fight on the State Administrative Board's powers and sign onto the Chatfield-Whitmer plan. However, if that was going to happen, Senate Republicans would not have continued to write more columns and make more public speeches, as they have done in the past six days since the Collegian story, calling for the State Administrative Board's powers to be curbed.

Mr. Shirkey has been a legislative powerhouse in his nine years in the Legislature. Michigan would not have expanded Medicaid to cover another 600,000 people without him. He's single-handedly carried other important pieces of legislation into law over powerful opposition through a bright policy mind and shrewd understanding of how to both win over and bowl over legislators whose votes he needs.

How he figures out a way to extricate himself from this fiasco, and what it means for a series of major issues like the budget, will be closely watched when the Legislature returns next week.

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Will Inman Really Take Case To Trial?

Posted: November 20, 2019 11:53 AM

Rep. Larry Inman is scheduled to stand trial starting December 3 at the U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids on charges of soliciting a bribe, attempted extortion and lying to federal law enforcement related to his actions leading up to a vote in the previous term to repeal Michigan's prevailing wage law.

In the past several weeks, he has lost two critical pre-trial arguments.

The judge hearing the case, Judge Robert Jonker, ruled he could not claim First Amendment protections on the bribery solicitation and extortion charges. Mr. Inman argued that his text messages requesting campaign contributions in exchange for his voting against repeal should have First Amendment free speech protections. Then last week, the judge ruled he could not present an expert witness who would have testified Mr. Inman's opioid use led him to do things he otherwise would not have done.

These rulings leave Mr. Inman with what defense before a jury, exactly? Are those crickets I hear?

The prosecutors will present the damning text messages and a secretly recorded phone call Mr. Inman had with lobbyists. They could call some of those lobbyists as witnesses who will testify to Mr. Inman's conduct.

Mr. Inman's best hope seemed to be the diminished capacity defense, that his opioid addiction caused his behavior. Mr. Jonker, however, clearly wasn't buying it and has blocked it.

One has to wonder whether Mr. Inman has instructed or is considering instructing his attorney to contact federal prosecutors about cutting a plea deal. The extortion charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, and while there's no way Mr. Inman would get a sentence anywhere near that long if convicted, there's little doubt he will do serious time if convicted by a jury. A felony conviction in federal court almost always means the defendant goes to jail: Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

A plea deal surely would require time in a federal prison, maybe the infamous Camp Cupcake, aka the Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia where former elected officials convicted of crimes like ex-Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway often are housed. But one has to think a deal would be better than the sentence following a jury conviction.

This all assumes federal prosecutors are willing to deal. But if Mr. Inman decides to go to trial, he is taking an enormous risk (ask former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick about the 28 years he's serving after a jury convicted him of corruption).

And if it does go to trial and Mr. Inman does get convicted, at that point it will be too late for him to go to federal prosecutors about a plea deal and lament why they never had this conversation.

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A Sea Change In Criminal Justice Law

Posted: November 6, 2019 5:26 PM

One of the biggest gripes from elected officials – from Congress to state legislatures – about the news media is that we tend to devote most of our coverage to legislation where there is disagreement.

The more intense the disagreement, the more widespread the coverage.

The general complaint goes something like this: "Ninety percent of what passes is unanimous or nearly unanimous, but newspapers, television news stations and online news focus all their coverage on the bills that pass on party-line votes and make us look like we're always at odds and fighting."

There is truth to this, but the main reason is that the kinds of bills that usually pass overwhelmingly are generally narrowly tailored or not major policy changes – technical changes to statutes, highway renamings, housekeeping kinds of things. The bills that spur controversy and coverage usually do so because they are major policy changes and affect many more people.

That said, there have been times where big, meaningful policy changes end up happening almost by consensus and maybe deserve more coverage than they are getting. I recall a few years ago when we were putting out Gongwer News Service's annual top 10 most impactful laws enacted during the year getting a complaint from someone in the telecom world that we had omitted a very significant package of legislation on that topic simply because it passed overwhelmingly and didn't feature a bunch of passionate floor speeches.


So, this one goes out to those who want proper attention paid to something very significant that becomes law almost without controversy.

Psst, have you heard that Michigan criminal justice laws are undergoing a sea change?

We've been covering it, yes, but it is such a staggering turn in policy from laws in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that it's impossible to overstate what a big deal the change is.

Up until relatively recently, Michigan criminal justice laws generally have had a "lock 'em up and throw away the key" tenor. Yes, there were some moves to relax this approach like repealing the "650-lifer" law of the 1970s in the early 2000s and a much more progressive approach to parole that has freed thousands of inmates after their minimum sentence expires without holding them until the end of their maximum sentence.

But the bills signed into law in the first 10 months and five days of 2019 represent a historic shift:

  • Major limits on law enforcement's use of the civil asset forfeiture process;
  • Allowing the parole of medically frail prisoners; and
  • Ending the practice of automatically placing 17-year-olds accused of crimes into the adult criminal justice system and putting them in the juvenile justice system.

These were all ideas pursued for years and blocked by law-and-order type elected officials.

Now they are not just passing but passing overwhelmingly.

Next up appears making it much easier for those convicted of most long-ago crimes to petition for expungement of up to two felonies or four misdemeanors, seen as a way to remove obstacles to people obtaining jobs when they have been law-abiding citizens for many years. Expungement reform, come on down.

Those bills sailed through the House this week with no real resistance. And on the horizon could be fundamental changes to the bail/county jail system, the subject of a massive bipartisan task force stocked with heavy hitters.

Once upon a time, elected officials would have considered supporting these types of bills a surefire path to ruining their political career and been accused of coddling criminals or being "soft on crime."

Now, a bipartisan consensus has emerged that such sayings were pablum and led to ineffective policy.

It's a huge moment.

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For Whitmer, An Increasing Turn To Executive Powers

Posted: October 29, 2019 2:42 PM

On September 9, Governor Gretchen Whitmer was giving a speech to the Economic Club of Grand Rapids and recounting the successes of her first eight months in office.

An executive directive to protect LGBT persons from discrimination. An executive directive designed to enable small businesses to compete for state government contracts. An executive order creating the new Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity out of various economic and workforce development functions previously housed in other departments. Economic incentives her team helped negotiate with Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles to woo their investment in new and rehabilitated plants.

At that moment, hours after Ms. Whitmer surprised the state by agreeing to negotiate a 2019-20 fiscal year budget that did not include a big increase in road funding in a major 180-degree turn for the governor, it hit me that Ms. Whitmer's most significant actions during her first term could wind up much more heavily relying on those she can take alone via executive action, not through major changes to law that require approval of the Legislature.

The Republican-controlled Legislature.

As of now, the only real area of consensus on major legislation is on criminal justice reform, with the 100th Legislature setting up to be one of historic changes in those laws. The most significant new law of the year so far is the auto no-fault changes, but those came about largely because if Ms. Whitmer did not negotiate some type of deal with legislative Republicans, Dan Gilbert was prepared to bring a voter-initiated law to the Legislature via petition signature where she would have no role.

Otherwise, the 95 public acts Ms. Whitmer has signed so far this year are mostly what are called "cats and dogs" in the Legislature, bills of a housekeeping or highly specific nature that don't affect the public en masse.

Ms. Whitmer has since turned to her power to have the departments she runs issue administrative rules or use other powers they have under statute to effect policy changes.

In just the past month, Ms. Whitmer used departmental powers to:

  • Ban flavored e-cigarettes;
  • Greatly expand eligibility for the state's food and cash assistance programs by saying those with assets up to $15,000 are now eligible (and declare the value of second vehicles no longer count toward that limit); and
  • Make more salaried, professional workers eligible for overtime.

Ms. Whitmer faces a court fight on the e-cigarette flavors ban and lost the first round. And it wouldn't be surprising to see business organizations sue over the overtime rules once they are promulgated.

But with much of Ms. Whitmer's agenda going nowhere in the Legislature and her having been the first governor in 10 years to have the Legislature send her a budget without her input, it's apparent Ms. Whitmer and her team are scouring the Michigan Compiled Laws for any room to maneuver on policy without needing legislative action. Of the budget, no governor has ever used the powers of the line-item veto and the State Administrative Board as extensively as Ms. Whitmer.

These tactics are not an end-all, be-all. Former Governor Jennifer Granholm tried to ban the use of credit scores in auto insurance rate-setting through administrative rules and lost in court. Former Governor Rick Snyder, unable to persuade the Legislature to pass a 10 parts per billion action level for lead in drinking water, used the rules process instead, but had to soften his plan to 12 parts per billion when the Legislature balked at appropriating the funding required for 10.

But with the Legislature and governor at odds on most substantive matters not involving criminal justice reform, it's increasingly looking like Ms. Whitmer plans to flex the muscles of the Administrative Procedures Act as much as she can.

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Here We Go Again, Another Budget Showdown

Posted: October 22, 2019 3:52 PM

The chattering sound you've heard in recent weeks is not from teeth reacting to the chill of fall, but from organizations that unexpectedly found their funding torpedoed by Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer as part of a budget standoff with the Republicans who have majorities in the Legislature.

In the immediate days after Ms. Whitmer used her executive powers to veto or transfer an unheard of amount of money from a budget -- $947 million in line-item vetoes and $625 million in unilateral transfers via the State Administrative Board – this was the initial reaction from lobbyists and associations trying to reassure their clients and members who saw their funding wiped out:

But now, three weeks into the 2019-20 fiscal year, the lack of a rapprochement between Ms. Whitmer and the Republican legislative leadership – House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake – has meant the first real-world infliction of pain. The state transmitted payments Monday to K-12 schools, and that meant charter schools did not receive the $240 per pupil increase traditional public schools received and small school districts in isolated areas went without the set-aside in the budget to assist them.

The transfers already are having an impact too. A program that assists Kent County with foster care is starting to shut down. Organizations that benefit from the multicultural funding line item are starting to rein in their spending and warning they will have to make severe moves if nothing happens by the end of the month.

A deal reached in the coming weeks or months would almost surely restore those funds, but for now, these schools and programs are not receiving funds on which they counted.

The next pressure points come in November when the state usually would disburse funds for the County Jail Reimbursement Program and the Tuition Grant that benefits students on a need basis at private colleges. Then there's more trouble for counties in December when the state usually would disburse payments in lieu of taxes and funds for the Secondary Road Patrol program. Rural hospitals usually would get their funds from the state in December as well.

If this drags all the way until January, then the Pure Michigan tourism promotion campaign will go dark and payments to businesses participating in the Going Pro training program for their employees will cease.

These are just highlights. There's a slew of other programs and organizations wondering what will happen.

Much as was the case leading up to October 1, Ms. Whitmer and the legislative Republicans are waiting to see who blinks. Initially in September, it was Ms. Whitmer who did so, dropping her vow not to sign a budget that lacked a major increase in road funding. But then the Republicans insisted on including short-term General Fund monies for roads in the budget, something Ms. Whitmer has long opposed, leading to negotiations ending/never starting, Republicans sending the budgets to Ms. Whitmer without her input and the governor responding with the avalanche of vetoes and transfers on September 30 and October 1.

Now the sense is Republicans – who do not have the votes to override Ms. Whitmer's vetoes -- will not agree to a supplemental unless Ms. Whitmer agrees to curb, in some way, the powers of the State Administrative Board to unilaterally move money within a department. As an aside, one senses that term limits saved that power during the lame-duck session last year when Republicans went on a spree of bills designed to rein in the powers of incoming Democratic elected officials because no one knew of or recalled the only other time a governor invoked those powers, in 1991.

All this haggling over the State Administrative Board feels more like the Republicans signaling they will not hand Ms. Whitmer a clean victory and let her think she can veto and transfer her way to having the upper hand. Much as Ms. Whitmer's transfers and vetoes were a message to Republicans that if they think can bulldoze the governor into signing budget bills she had no role in negotiating, they've got another thing coming.

Ms. Whitmer, of course, says she will not agree to remove the State Administrative Board's transfer powers. She's promised not to use them in any negotiated budget, but Republicans feel burned and say that's not good enough. What would it take then? A signed, written agreement perhaps? It would be legally nonbinding, but such that if the governor went back on her word her credibility would take a devastating hit.

In the meantime, organizations and programs that rely on the vetoed and transferred funds are watching the days pass on the calendar and getting antsy.

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The State Police Helps Salve Our Collective Rage Over The Lions' Loss

Posted: October 15, 2019 4:20 PM

At approximately 11:30 p.m. Monday, the state of Michigan – well save for much of the Green Bay Packers-loving Upper Peninsula – erupted in complete and total sportsball rage as National Football League referees rigged the Packers-Detroit Lions game in favor of the Packers the Packers pulled off a shocking comeback win over the Detroit Lions.

There is a tendency among fans, myself included, to blame the refs when one of their teams loses. It's usually unfair. The referees are just trying to do their job and doing the best they can, except when it involves the Lions in which case LITERALLY EVERY MEANINGFUL CALL is botched and goes against the Lions, $%#!@$%$#%.

So last night, after four horribly botched and decisive calls handed the game on a silver platter to the Packers, robbing the Lions of what would have been a huge victory on the road, Lions fandom went ablaze.

Thankfully, there is Twitter at a time like this to serve as a chance to vent our collective rage.

And the Michigan Department of State Police's Metro Detroit post came through:

Now we can return to seething and retweeting angry memes and GIFs to make ourselves feel better we can all return to our daily routines.

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Whitmer Strikes Back; Will It Work?

Posted: October 2, 2019 1:53 PM

In September, a source of mine who has been around the Capitol for a long time, observing the interplay between Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican leaders of the GOP-run Legislature, told me that the Republicans had masterfully played the two major issues of the issues of the year so far, auto no-fault and the budget/roads.

But this source also raised a note of warning: The Republicans had to be careful not to overplay their hand.

This was just after Ms. Whitmer agreed to sign a 2019-20 fiscal year budget without a major increase in road funding, going back on something she had long vowed she would not do. But it was just before Republicans did indeed take the action that appears at this point to have overplayed their hand and pushed the governor to the point where she had to respond with a Full Engler – a shock-and-awe display of executive power targeted at her political opponents' jugular.

After Ms. Whitmer conceded in September she would accept a budget without a road funding plan, Republicans had two choices: Keep the pressure on the new governor and see how far she will bend or recognize Ms. Whitmer was reeling a bit, they already had a number of wins under their belt and negotiate a budget that would allow her to claim a few salves.

They chose to go for it all. A day after a joint statement between House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and Ms. Whitmer declared road funding discussions would be paused until after completing the budget, the Republicans proposed putting $500 million more in General Fund to roads. Ms. Whitmer was furious. She has long disdained the use of the General Fund in roads because it siphons money away from programs traditionally supported by the General Fund (and until this decade, roads got nothing from the General Fund). And it went against the agreement she thought she had to pause road funding talks.

Mr. Chatfield and Mr. Shirkey have said the agreement did not cover short-term funding measures like the $400 million General Fund the Legislature ultimately added to the budget. Only the three of them know what they agreed to, but that joint statement, for what it's worth, did not say short- or long-term on what road funding talks would be paused, it just said road funding.

Any chance for negotiations ended, and the Republicans sent budgets to the governor written by them without the governor's input. That hasn't happened in 10 years, and that event in 2009 is the only other such example I know of.

Republicans clearly hoped Ms. Whitmer would respond as then-Governor Jennifer Granholm did, by signing the budgets and issuing a relatively unsubstantial smattering of line-item vetoes, further giving the legislative branch the upper hand. In other words, concession.


Instead, Ms. Whitmer dialed up every option available to make Republicans feel pain.

The $947 million in 147 line-item vetoes – and no one seems to recall anything of that magnitude ever – is a who's who of Republican priorities and sacred cows in the budget: charter schools, the Pure Michigan tourism campaign, the Tuition Grant program for private college students as well as funding for rural hospitals, schools, local governments and economic development.

She became the first governor in 28 years and only the second ever to use the State Administrative Board to unilaterally transfer funds within departments. Usually, transfers occur based on a request from the governor and approval from the House and Senate Appropriations committees.

Predictably, the day after Ms. Whitmer's actions, Mr. Chatfield and Mr. Shirkey are digging in, not suddenly pulling an about-face after the governor's show of force. What happens next is unclear. This is uncharted territory.

There will be discussions on a supplemental appropriations bill for this fiscal year at some point. Ms. Whitmer has made it clear she's ready to restore some of the cuts she made via veto in a supplemental once Republicans decide to listen to her priorities. So perhaps some horse-trading will occur and a supplemental will become law in relatively short order, preventing any actual fiscal pain.

The other possibility is Mr. Chatfield and Mr. Shirkey decide they and their fellow legislative Republicans will ride out the pressure from all the groups and stakeholders that want their funding restored, tell them and their constituents they can blame the governor for the action and let Ms. Whitmer twist.

Ms. Whitmer said Tuesday she understands Republicans could opt for the latter tack.

What she also made clear was that regardless of the heat coming her way, she will not let the Republicans roll her.

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Moment Of Truth At Hand For Whitmer

Posted: September 24, 2019 3:51 PM

The last month has been rough for Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Sure, there have been successes for the governor like using the emergency rules process to ban flavored e-cigarettes, which is tantamount to banning e-cigarettes altogether, a move that garnered her national publicity and then amazingly President Donald Trump moving the same direction, putting those Republicans that ripped Ms. Whitmer for the move in a box.

But the past month has seen a complete breakdown between Ms. Whitmer and someone who should be a vital Democratic ally, House Minority Leader Christine Greig of Farmington Hills, after Ms. Greig first declared the governor's 45-cent per gallon fuel tax increase was "the extreme that probably won't happen" and last week cut a surprise K-12 school budget deal with the House Republicans to which Ms. Whitmer was not a party.

It's also seen Ms. Whitmer abandon an often-stated vow not to sign a 2019-20 fiscal year budget that does not make fundamental increases in road funding so that she could get a budget done on time to avoid a shutdown only to then have Republicans insist on putting more General Fund into roads as a short-term move. That led to negotiations breaking down and Republicans assembling the final budget bills without her input.

That leads us to today when the Legislature gave final passage to all budget bills. Now, presumably, they will formally present those budgets to the governor before the end of the week and not wait until the last day of the 2018-19 fiscal year, Monday, which also happens to be the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

This is the most important week of the governor's term so far and will in many ways define what happens for the remainder of the 2019-20 legislative term.

After twice acceding to the Legislature (first on auto no-fault and then on not making a road funding plan part of the 2019-20 budget), the expectation among those watching the process is that Ms. Whitmer will not do so a third time. She has at least three powerful tools to use and is expected to use them.

Ms. Whitmer will likely sign the budget bills, yes, preventing a partial government shutdown. But then she can put those tools to work.

The first is the line-item veto. The Constitution allows Ms. Whitmer to veto any funding line in the budget, and there's a whole lot of items Republicans prioritize in the budget that look ripe for that tactic. How the governor handles the $400 million in General Fund for roads added by Republicans to the Department of Transportation budget will be closely watched.

Republicans have handled the budget with a sense of realpolitik, but one surprise has been that they did not consolidate the various spending lines in each budget bill into fewer line items, making it harder for Ms. Whitmer to use the line-item veto without eliminating funding from more than just the program to which she objects.

The next is the governor's ability to declare boilerplate language in the budget bills unenforceable. These are the policy items the Legislature adds, usually to the annoyance of the executive branch, requiring departments to do certain things. But if the governor can find statutory or constitutional language conflicting with the boilerplate, the governor can and will declare the language unenforceable and ignore it.

The last option is the nuclear option, and as I wrote here earlier this month, it involves reviving a tactic used just once, a quarter century ago, by then-Governor John Engler, transferring funds within a department using the State Administrative Board, an entity populated by gubernatorial appointees and allies and in effect controlled by Ms. Whitmer.

How would it work? Well, let's say Ms. Whitmer doesn't like how the Legislature appropriated $10 million to the Department of Health and Human Services for Program X and would prefer it went to Program Y. The Administrative Board could vote to unilaterally transfer those funds. This tactic, which sent Democrats in the early 1990s into a fury and prompted a lawsuit, was upheld by the Michigan Supreme Court.

Usually, transfers require the approval of the House and Senate Appropriations committees and those occur without controversy. But this could be an appealing option for the governor to reprioritize spending instead of eliminating it. The only catch is the money must stay within a particular department. The governor could not transfer money from, say, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

The next week will be telling.

Either Ms. Whitmer will decide to mostly agree to the GOP budgets, cut her losses, move onto other priorities and hope for the tide to turn on roads even after backing down a third time this year, or she will go to battle stations and send a message to House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) that she must be part of the process of getting a bill signed into law, that it is 56, 20 and 1 after all, but also knowing that this tack could infuriate the Legislature and hinder future negotiations.

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A Hilarious Twitter Account For House Staffers

Posted: September 18, 2019 2:43 PM

Everyone needs some humor in their lives, especially on Twitter, where it pays to have a tweet here and a tweet there to lighten up one's feed amid the avalanche of serious news, invective and subtweets.

Oh, was that a subtweet itself? Oops.

Those in and around the Capitol have a newish diversion to enjoy on Twitter – Overheard in the HOB, or @HeardInTheHOB.

The HOB, for the 20 years it has existed, is the House Office Building, aka the Anderson House Office Building, the facility on North Capitol Avenue housing nearly all 110 members of the Michigan House of Representatives, much of the clerk staff, the staff of the House Business Office and most of the committee rooms where House committees meet. And like any office building, there are lots of inside jokes.

Sometime in June, someone – it's unclear who – created the Overheard in the HOB Twitter account. It does seem clear whoever is running the account is a Democrat, but for the most part, the tweets are nonpartisan.

We don't know for certain that the anecdotes tweeted from this account are real. Names of those quoted or involved in the stories are not included. But they certainly ring true. And they are funny.

Like this one:

Or this:

This one in particular cracked me up (and who can't relate to this, plus bonus points for DeLuca's reference):

The next couple weeks are going to be tough with the budget showdown. The possibility of a government shutdown is hovering over the legislative staff, most of whom are underpaid (and there's an amusing poll on that subject the account tweeted). The partisan back-and-forth will be endless.

Whoever created Overheard in the HOB, thank you for supplying a little levity.

Otherwise, where would we get content like this?

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Republicans Continue To Squeeze Whitmer

Posted: September 12, 2019 2:52 PM

House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) have Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer cornered. Again. At least for now.

They, with a big helping hand from Dan Gilbert, drove the agenda on the major auto no-fault legislation. They were prepared to force Ms. Whitmer to cast a difficult veto on a bill that she knew might be fruitless if Mr. Gilbert brought the legislation back in a form less palatable to her via initiative petition that the Legislature could enact with no opportunity for her to veto it. She concluded she had to make the best deal she could and signed a bill that infuriated some traditional major Democratic allies.

Ms. Whitmer said over and over again through the year she would not sign a budget that did not include fundamental changes and increases in road funding. The Republicans decided to see if she was bluffing and began moving to send budgets developed without Ms. Whitmer's input and no major changes to road funding to her desk. It turned out it was a bluff. Ms. Whitmer did a 180 and went to Republicans about pausing road funding discussions and making sure the budget got done first in time for the October 1 start of the 2019-20 fiscal year.

That was a move that left many Democrats in town privately baffled and upset because (1) the governor was shown to have made an empty threat, (2) there was still time to let the clock tick down and put some shutdown pressure on the Republicans and see what that yielded and (3) it took away the leverage of a possible shutdown to secure something on roads.

Even after Ms. Whitmer conceded defeat on tying road funding to the budget, Republicans did not let up. They could have canceled the conference committees for budget bills they scheduled as a pressure tactic the previous week but did not. And then after the agreement to pause road funding discussions – worded in a joint statement between she, Mr. Chatfield and Mr. Shirkey as pledging to "continue conversations about road funding in a meaningful way and table all associated issues for the time being" – Mr. Shirkey at a Wednesday budget negotiation called for adding $500 million in General Fund in the 2019-20 fiscal year budget for roads.

By statute, already $468 million must be rerouted from the General Fund to roads. That $500 million would come on top of that and have to be pulled from other General Fund programs.

Mr. Shirkey insisted today that the agreement to pause road funding talks in no way involved halting any one-time money for the 2019-20 budget. Ms. Whitmer saw the move as a bait-and-switch and blasted the Republicans today.

The Republicans appear set on seeing just how far they can push the new governor.

Earlier this year, Ms. Whitmer pushed back. When Republicans overturned her reorganization of environmental functions, she quickly went to Attorney General Dana Nessel seeking a legal opinion that she was in the right.

But then Ms. Whitmer quietly withdrew that request a couple months later.

Ms. Whitmer has some options if she decides the Republicans have gone too far. She could line-item veto Republican priorities in the budget. She could dust off a tactic former Governor John Engler innovated to the fury of Democrats in the 1990s and was upheld by the Michigan Supreme Court. She could sign the Republican-passed budgets and then use the State Administrative Board, which she effectively controls, to transfer funds from one program to another within a department. The benefit of that move is that it repurposes the money to a program she prioritizes instead of vetoing it out of the budget entirely.

Mr. Engler used the tactic once and it so stunned the Democrats, they agreed to a deal where Mr. Engler walked the move back, in exchange for their making concessions.

All governors eventually have to decide if they want to push back on the Legislature, and if the answer is yes, when and how. Ms. Whitmer hasn't reached that point. Democrats, Republicans and observers are watching closely to see if she does.

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Is Greig-Whitmer Dillon-Granholm, Part Deux?

Posted: September 3, 2019 3:11 PM

The quote from House Minority Leader Chris Greig (D-Farmington Hills) last week about the 45-cent fuel tax increase proposal from Governor Gretchen Whitmer – Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer – was almost too startling to believe.

Our reporter who was at the press event on a separate topic featuring Ms. Greig and several House Democrats immediately came into my office upon returning and told me Ms. Greig had called the governor's proposal "probably the extreme that won't happen." We listened to the audio. Yes, Ms. Greig – ostensibly one of Ms. Whitmer's most important allies in the Legislature – had referred to the linchpin in the governor's plan to raise $2.1 billion more for roads as "extreme." She had said the plan was likely dead.

Reporters around the Capitol wondered if perhaps she meant something else. She was discussing the subject in response to a question of what would happen if Republicans, who control the House, were to put the 45-cent per gallon tax increase on the voting board in a stunt to put Democrats in the position of voting for a tax increase that will not happen or voting against it and snubbing their governor. Maybe she meant the tactic would be "extreme"?

Ms. Greig then spoke to reporters at the Capitol as the House convened for session and reaffirmed her comments. She had said what we thought she had said.

This was shocking in one sense because Ms. Greig had publicly put the proverbial final nail in the coffin of the 45-cent per gallon tax increase.

In another way, it was not surprising. When Ms. Whitmer announced her budget proposal, including that eye-popping near tripling of the fuel tax, House Democrats were eager to discuss funding for schools and clean water, but it was crickets on the fuel tax. When House Democrats announced their own ideas on how to fix the roads, they emphasized how their proposals would not cost "everyday Michiganders more." That set of proposals did not include the 45-cent per gallon fuel tax hike.

House Democrats have been signaling for months they would not sign onto a 45-cent per gallon fuel tax increase. Ms. Greig just decided to make it clear.

The problem for Ms. Whitmer, however, is two-fold. One, the leader of her party in the House, referred to her proposal as "extreme." Now whenever Ms. Whitmer wants to pound on the House and Senate Republican majorities on the issue, House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) can just quote Ms. Greig. Two, it raises the question of what the parameters are now for this negotiation.

Ms. Whitmer had the advantage of being the only one with a public proposal on the table. But now that Ms. Greig has said it is likely dead, where do the negotiations go now? Ms. Whitmer told reporters today she has no plans to start over on a proposal and tried to wave off Ms. Greig's comments as the product of her getting caught off-guard. Except, Ms. Greig was given the chance to clarify what she meant and doubled down.

With the September 30 end of the fiscal year looming, I've begun torturing myself reading Gongwer's coverage of the 2007 and 2009 budget showdowns that led to brief partial shutdowns because no budget was in place for the start of the 2007-08 and 2009-10 fiscal years, respectively.

As much as people tend to remember how much Democratic then-Governor Jennifer Granholm and then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) clashed and despised each other, and they should, what stood out to me then and now was how dysfunctional the relationship was between Ms. Granholm and then-House Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford) at a time when Democrats had the majority in the House and should have formed a strong alliance against the relatively fragile Republican majority in the Senate.

There was a fiasco almost exactly 10 years ago when Ms. Granholm belatedly put forth proposals to raise taxes to finalize the budget (a 1-cent per bottle tax on bottled water, a cigarette tax hike and extending the sales tax to tickets for live entertainment). In announcing the proposal, Ms. Granholm also said she hoped the House would begin passing budget bills the following day.

Mr. Dillon responded with an uncharacteristically scorching statement.

"The governor should know that showboating a proposal that has no chance of passing is not a way to solve the state's fiscal crisis," he said then. "All parties need to put theatrics and demands aside and get back to the hard work of negotiating a budget solution." The next day, then-Lt. Governor John Cherry Jr. fired back and called on Mr. Dillon and House Democrats to put forward their own budget proposal.

Mr. Dillon later said he issued the "showboating" statement in a pique at Ms. Granholm telling reporters she thought House budgets would move the next day, which was news to him. Ms. Granholm sent Mr. Dillon a note apologizing for making that comment to reporters, but the note arrived after the speaker's communications staff distributed the "showboating" statement to reporters. If downtown Lansing had the speakers that play music today for pedestrians back then, circus themes would have been appropriate.

It was one of many clashes in the Granholm-Dillon relationship.

One of the great what-ifs in Michigan government and politics is, "What if Jennifer Granholm and House Democrats had moved in lockstep during her second term?" Ms. Whitmer is very different from Ms. Granholm, and Ms. Greig has little in common with Mr. Dillon.

At the opening of this year, with Ms. Whitmer having 14 years of experience in the Legislature, and Ms. Greig far more ideologically in sync with the new governor than Mr. Dillon (who would later join the administration of Republican Governor Rick Snyder) was with Ms. Granholm, the idea of history repeating itself would have seemed, well, extreme.

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Who Will Blink In Budget Showdown?

Posted: August 27, 2019 3:26 PM

The Legislature is back after a two-month recess.

Well, sort of. The Senate decided to scrub holding a voting session today. And there are almost no committees meeting this week. This is hardly a typical session week with the beehive of committee activity, rampant morning fundraisers, news conferences and other goings-on.

Of course, there are those in the Legislature who will insist the last two months have been an "in-district work period," not a recess. And no doubt, lawmakers have been holding coffee hours, hitting local council and board meetings, going door to door and having staff monitor and handle constituent phone calls. And that's all well and good.

But the Legislature cannot complete a budget and road funding package when it is not gathered within the Capitol.

Yes, House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and Governor Gretchen Whitmer spoke some this summer. There were the usual bromides about "progress," etc. All sorts of tentative legislative session days were scheduled.

Which yielded what, exactly?

Contrary to Mr. Shirkey's prediction two weeks ago on the friendly confines of the "Frank Beckmann Show," in his only lengthy interview of the summer, that he, Mr. Chatfield and Ms. Whitmer would have a joint agreement on roads and the budget this week, the trio have made no apparent progress since the Legislature left Lansing near the end of June. Ms. Whitmer is intensifying her criticism of the Legislature taking vacay with the 2019-20 fiscal year budget unresolved with the October 1 start of the fiscal year looming closer.

Spokespersons for Mr. Chatfield and Mr. Shirkey are criticizing Ms. Whitmer for sending ultimatums in the news media.

Now, as expected, the Legislature and the governor are coming up on one month left in the fiscal year and tensions are starting to rise. Talk of a possible partial government shutdown is growing.

This is a slog because everything is on the line.

Ms. Whitmer ran on fixing the roads. Ms. Whitmer has said she's tired of half-measures that don't solve the problem. Ms. Whitmer has said the state needs to raise $2.5 billion more for roads and in doing so that will free up General Fund and School Aid Fund money to go back to their true purposes instead of getting used as a stopgap on road funding. Ms. Whitmer has proposed an eye-popping 45-cent per gallon fuel tax increase. These are big-ticket items, and if Ms. Whitmer capitulates on her signal priorities, she will likely end up playing defense for the rest of this legislative term.

Republicans generally oppose raising taxes, especially if it's a Democratic governor making the ask. A mostly different group of Republican legislators did approve a 7.3 cent gasoline tax hike and a vehicle registration fee increase as part of the 2015 road funding plan at the behest of then-Governor Rick Snyder. That raised a mere quarter of the revenue, however, that Ms. Whitmer's fuel tax hike would generate. Many of the Republican lawmakers have signed the Americans for Tax Reform's no tax hike pledge.

Ms. Whitmer's solution is anathema to the Republican base. A piece of the solution Mr. Shirkey supports – selling bonds off the teacher pension system to free up money in the School Aid Fund so that the 6 percent sales tax can be lifted off of fuel and replaced with a tax earmarked to the roads without hurting the schools – is anathema to some of Ms. Whitmer's core supporters (teachers).

Everyone says they do not want a government shutdown. An answer can be found, all sides have said. A compromise should be found, all sides have said.

That is also what was said in 2007 and 2009.

A key difference between 2019 and 2007 and 2009 (shutdown years), however, is that there is nowhere near the hostility (at least not yet) between Ms. Whitmer, Mr. Chatfield and Mr. Shirkey as there was in those years between Governor Jennifer Granholm, Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop and House Speaker Andy Dillon.

It's still very possible, even likely, that the three reach an agreement well before midnight September 30 and last Friday's request of Budget Director Chris Kolb to departments to start drawing up lists of essential and nonessential functions to prepare for a possible shutdown becomes a footnote.

But it's also possible that the final week of September hits and nothing has fundamentally changed from where things stand now. If everyone is sitting around the Capitol the weekend of September 28-29, twiddling their thumbs and watching the no-doubt scintillating MSU-Indiana and Michigan-Rutgers football games, each of the three will have to decide whether whatever compromise is on the table is satisfactory or if matters have stalled to the point that it will take a partial government shutdown to move the needle in their direction.

I've long said and continue to believe that everyone should clear their calendars for the last days of September in anticipation of a budget cliffhanger, but I've also felt they would get it resolved before the state's spending authority expires October 1, even if it's a really close call. At least I think I continue to believe that. Keep those calendars clear and probably avoid scheduling anything early in the morning on October 1.

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Brooks Patterson And An 'OTR' For The Ages

Posted: August 6, 2019 6:41 PM

The late Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson always said what was on his mind – the good, the bad, the ugly.

Some people loved this. Some people hated it. And some people were deeply hurt by it. Clearly, a majority of Oakland County voters, albeit a far smaller one by 2016 than the ones that overwhelmingly elected him in his first wins, respected Mr. Patterson, pluses and minuses.

Mr. Patterson's financial management of the county and leading the county during an incredible period of economic growth and expansion are unquestioned. His knack for hiring extremely capable and smart staff also cannot be questioned. What also cannot be questioned is that he said some horribly bigoted things over the years, like how solutions for Detroit included walling it off like an Indian reservation and throwing in blankets and corn or having one half of the city's residents kill the other half with the surviving half imprisoned.

With Mr. Patterson's turbulent history with African Americans and Detroit, a great surprise was that when it came to state policy, he emerged as something of an ally on a major issue in the latter third of his career: auto insurance. Mr. Patterson denounced what he called the redlining of Detroit as the cause of sky-high auto insurance rates in the city. He was for much of this decade probably the MVP of those defending the no-fault system with its requirement for motorists to purchase unlimited medical benefits.

So in 2013, as his fellow Republicans in the House began pursuing legislation to cap medical benefits under no-fault, Mr. Patterson sent several members of his staff to the House Insurance Committee to testify. After a lengthy hearing, Mr. Patterson's team was never called to the witness table to testify, and he was livid. And he was set to be the guest that week on Michigan Public Television's "Off the Record."

Mr. Patterson's use of a wheelchair following his catastrophic 2012 car crash meant the program would be recorded the opposite of its regular structure. Usually, the reporter panel comes first and then the guest walks onto the set for the Q & A portion of the segment. Instead, Mr. Patterson would start out in the guest's chair to record that segment, then we would break, he would leave the set and then we would record the reporter panel.

And for the first 10 minutes Mr. Patterson took questions, it was pretty routine. But then "Off the Record" host Tim Skubick asked Mr. Patterson if he was concerned about the direction of his Republican Party. He said he was and took a shot at the House speaker at the time, Jase Bolger.

"I've been watching what goes on up here in Lansing," he said. "I'm beginning to wonder if Jase is in control or not as a speaker, some of the stupid things which he has done."

He referenced some of the partisan machinations between Mr. Bolger and the House Democrats and then said he was embarrassed that Republicans were leading the fight on auto insurance "to injure the most vulnerable in society."

Then the questions veered back to no-fault for a bit. But in my mind, Mr. Patterson had lobbed a big piece of chum into the water with his dig at Mr. Bolger. He was obviously fuming about more than some silliness about the committee assignment shenanigans he referenced.

So I asked a question: "What would be your advice to the speaker of the House, Jase Bolger? You said earlier you weren't sure he was running the House very well. What would you suggest he do differently?"

Let's go to the tape.

Even by Mr. Patterson's standards, this was pretty staggering. Comparing the speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives to one of the worst people in the history of the human race, Adolf Hitler, by calling him "Adolf Bolger" and then throwing in a wry, "I think sometimes Adolf steps a little bit to the fringe" to boot.

The whole thing is incredible, amusing and horrible at the same time.

If you watch the full HD clip you can see my eyebrows shoot up. You can see Chris Christoff, then with Bloomberg News, buckle with laughter. You can hear Chad Livengood, then with The Detroit News, start laughing. Skubick, true to form, is totally unfazed and dutifully begins writing notes on his legal pad.

We pressed Mr. Patterson to justify how he could make such a comparison and he went off about how his people didn't get to testify at the Insurance Committee (the chair of the committee, then-Rep. Pete Lund, would later insist he wasn't sticking it to Mr. Patterson).

Then Skubick tells Mr. Patterson he's likely to get a phone call from Mr. Bolger or Mr. Bolger's staff about the "Adolf Bolger" comment and asks him what he would say to them. That's when everything started to go into slow motion. Mr. Patterson reached into his left jacket pocket, pulled out a black comb and held it over his upper lip to impersonate a Hitler moustache and said, "Mr. Bolger..."

This was a huge news story. Mr. Patterson, a legend in Michigan Republican politics and powerhouse in southeast Michigan, had slurred Mr. Bolger, a rising star in Michigan Republican politics, in the worst way possible. And yet, we all had to regroup because now it was time to do the reporter panel. And Chad, Chris and I all wanted to get the heck out of there because we needed to write up stories to post for our readers now, immediately, if not sooner.

What was funny about this in retrospect was Kathy Gray of the Detroit Free Press was backstage to hear what Mr. Patterson said on the show. The show records at 8 a.m. on Fridays, so Kathy could hear what Mr. Patterson said without having to wait for it to be posted to the WKAR website sometime in the afternoon.

Now while the four of us had to pontificate on Mr. Patterson's explosive comments, Kathy could get her story written and posted before the rest of us. This was not lost on Chad from the rival News, who said as we were resetting to record the reporter panel segment something to Kathy along the lines of have fun breaking this one.

When we were done recording, I think I sprinted back to my car in the parking garage next to the Communications, Arts and Sciences building on the Michigan State University campus where the "Off the Record" studio is located.

It's a pretty short drive from there to downtown Lansing, but I frantically called the Gongwer offices in hopes of dictating a story. Then I realized I was going to have to listen to my recording of exactly what Mr. Patterson said. Then I realized I needed to call Mr. Bolger's press office for reaction. Whoever took the call was likely totally bewildered and thought I probably needed to lay off the Mountain Dew.

Ari Adler was Mr. Bolger's communications director at the time. I asked him today what he remembered of that day.

"I was on vacation with my family when my phone started blowing up," he said. "If I recall correctly, Kathy was the first one to call me and left me a message. I ended up on the phone for a while with our team talking about the best way to handle a response or whether there should be one at all."

The thing was even though Mr. Patterson's antics seemed funny, comparisons of almost anyone to Hitler are completely out of bounds and insulting not only to the target but also to the millions Hitler had murdered. Hitler's entire agenda was geared toward the eradication of Jews, and he murdered 6 million of them along with others he deemed a threat to his master race.

Mr. Adler's family lost many relatives to the Holocaust.

"I remember people taking the comment very personally on my behalf, particularly given my family's history (on my father's side) of losing so many members during the Holocaust in World War II," he said today.

Kathy and Chad were kind enough to share some recollections with me today. Kathy recalled (I had forgotten this) that a number of students also were in the studio watching the recording of the show. And they proved critical to her not missing a key moment.

"So while I was busily typing away and not watching the screen, the students gasped when Brooks pulled out his comb," she said. "They couldn't believe what happened, let me know and I was able to get a story out pretty quickly."

Chad remembered today how Kathy had a 20-minute head start on him.

"In the race to file a story for the web, I pulled over in a parking lot on Trowbridge to call Ari Adler for comment. But by the time I got off the phone with him, the Free Press had blasted its story," he said.

So memorable was the event that Chad said he "had the 'Adolf' front page headline pinned to a bulletin board over my desk until the day I left The News in December 2016."

Transcribing the audio from my primitive digital recorder took an eternity, it felt like. I tweeted something at 9:42 a.m. Then I got my story posted a few minutes later for Gongwer subscribers. Then a three-hour wait ensued for WKAR to post the video, and I'm confident there has never been a more anticipated "Off the Record" episode in my time covering the Capitol.

And it was quite the story for the next week until Mr. Patterson finally apologized to Mr. Bolger, saying he didn't want the controversy to distract from the merits of the auto insurance debate.

It was a moment no one who was there will forget.

And no one will forget Brooks Patterson, not the good, the bad, nor the ugly.

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Kasben Promoted To Gongwer Deputy Editor

Posted: August 5, 2019 11:45 AM

Gongwer News Service announced Monday the promotion of longtime staff writer Alethia Kasben to deputy editor.

Ms. Kasben's new position means taking on a leadership role at Gongwer, contributing to assigning coverage to staff, editing stories and determining story placement as well as generally planning strategy for the company.

Ms. Kasben will continue to cover the Michigan House of Representatives, which has been her reporting beat since she joined Gongwer in 2013. She also will continue to cover the medical and recreational marijuana industries in the state.

A native of Detroit and Hazel Park, Ms. Kasben is a Michigan State University alumna. She interned with Gongwer in 2011.

In her time at Gongwer, Ms. Kasben has broken several major stories: investigating sexual harassment at the Capitol, revealing that relatively few eligible to regain their driver's licenses after the end of driver's responsibility fees had applied and breaking several stories out of the House on road funding, teacher pensions, leadership races and the shelving of controversial campaign finance bills in the lame-duck session last year.

Ms. Kasben also has unmatched expertise in the covering of House elections and has traveled to Monroe, Portage, Mount Pleasant, Plainwell, Lapeer and too many Oakland and Macomb County suburbs to count to interview candidates and follow them as they go door to door.

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The Nine Regions That Will Decide Michigan In 2020

Posted: July 30, 2019 3:43 PM

Welcome, political world to Michigan, hours before 234 20 Democratic presidential candidates debate on national television over the next two nights.

By now, the overarching national narrative about Michigan's critical role in deciding the 2020 presidential election between President Donald Trump and the eventual Democratic nominee goes something like this:

"Macomb County voters will gather in their gritty diners after a day working in the auto factories a couple weeks before the election, ponder the meaning of life and then send out either red or blue puffs of smoke upon determining the direction of the country for the next four years. Also, Shinola. Also, the Packard Plant. Also, the Lions."

The reality is that the outcome in Michigan will be far more complex than what happens in Macomb County.

Yes, the swing of 64,000 votes in Macomb between the victory margin in 2012 of President Barack Obama and the victory margin in 2016 of Mr. Trump was decisive in Michigan, which Mr. Trump won by 10,704 votes. I'm not disputing the importance of Macomb. It is, of course, huge.

But when you have an election that close, many factors are decisive, not just the fabled Reagan Democrats in Macomb. And in 2020, many areas will again be decisive. And given that Michigan, along with Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and possibly Arizona and Iowa, are the states most likely to decide the next president, oversimplifying the outcome does everyone a disservice.

So here we go, the nine areas that will decide Michigan.

1. AFRICAN-AMERICAN VOTERS IN DETROIT: What's an easier hill to climb? Changing the minds of 12,000 Macomb County residents who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 or convincing 12,000 more African-American voters in a city that generally casts 95 percent of its votes for Democrats to cast ballots this time around? Changing minds is very difficult in today's politics. Motivating base voters, less so.

In 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received about 47,000 fewer votes than Mr. Obama in 2012.

But if 2018 is any indication, Detroit voters are far more motivated now. Governor Gretchen Whitmer pulled almost 30,000 more votes out of the city than the 2014 Democratic candidate for governor, Mark Schauer. The 2020 Democratic candidate doesn't need to get all 47,000 2012 voters back, she or he just needs a big chunk of them. It doesn't seem like a big lift.

2. RETAIL CORRIDOR OF OAKLAND AND WESTERN WAYNE: Oakland and Wayne County communities that once voted reliably Republican like Bloomfield Township, Novi, Troy, Livonia, Northville, Northville Township, Plymouth and Plymouth Township are shifting or have shifted quickly to the Democrats. Ms. Clinton carried Oakland by 8 percentage points in 2016. The Democratic nominee will wipe out Mr. Trump's advantage if she or he can come closer to the 16-point margin Ms. Whitmer put up in the county in 2018. The wind should be at the Democrats' backs here.

3. MACOMB: When people talk about the swingyness of Macomb, what they really mean is a handful of communities like Clinton Township, Fraser, Sterling Heights and Saint Clair Shores. Macomb County north of M-59 is solid Republican territory. Places like Warren, Eastpointe, Roseville and Mount Clemens are solid Democratic territory. That Clinton-Fraser-Sterling Heights-Saint Clair Shores quad tends to be the fulcrum on which the county swings. The Democrat doesn't need to win Macomb but cutting the margin of defeat would go a long way toward peeling Michigan away from Mr. Trump.

4. UNIVERSITY TOWNS: Ingham, Kalamazoo and Washtenaw counties – home to Michigan State University, Western Michigan University and the University of Michigan, respectively – turned out massively in 2018 and voted overwhelmingly Democratic. A Democratic candidate needs to stoke those voters – and take advantage of the new same-day voter registration law.

5. TRUMPLAND: The core of Mr. Trump's support in Michigan is along the southern border, in the Thumb, the U.S. 131 corridor in west Michigan north of Grand Rapids, the northeast Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula other than Marquette. These are the areas full of white working-class voters who voted by eye-popping margins for Mr. Trump in 2016. To make up for a more enthused Democratic base, Mr. Trump must get these voters to come out in even greater numbers in 2020 than they did in 2016.

6. THE U.S. 31 CORRIDOR: One of the more surprising developments of 2018 was the vastly improved Democratic performance in the northwest Lower Peninsula, specifically the U.S. 31 corridor. Ms. Whitmer substantially improved over Mr. Schauer's performance in these counties: Benzie (+4.7 percentage points), Leelanau (+18.7 percentage points), Grand Traverse (+17.8 percentage points), Antrim (+7 percentage points), Charlevoix (+8 percentage points) and Emmet (+16.8 percentage points). But these counties, other than Leelanau, went overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump. The Democrat doesn't need to win these counties, but any kind of a significant improvement in margin would be very ominous for Mr. Trump.

7. THIRD PARTY CANDIDATES: The combined vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein was about 20 times the margin separating Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton. The Democrat needs liberal voters who may not be wild about the Democratic nominee to hold their nose and vote Democratic. Mr. Trump and the Republicans will surely make efforts, both overt and shrouded, to discourage Democratic voters who are less likely to turn out about the Democratic candidate.

8. OBAMA/TRUMP COUNTIES: Another key factor in Mr. Trump's win was he won or performed well above expectations in counties that generally vote Democratic for presidents and are dominated by white working-class voters, counties like Bay, Calhoun, Genesee, Monroe, Muskegon and Saginaw. Flipping these voters back will be difficult.

9. COLLEGE-EDUCATED REPUBLICAN BASTIONS: Mr. Trump narrowly won Kent County in 2016, running well below the base, and the bottom has since fallen out of the county for the GOP in the onetime Republican bastion. Ms. Whitmer improved the Democratic performance in the county by 30 points from 2014. Democrats now hold the Grand Rapids state Senate seat for the first time since the 1970s. Suburbs like Kentwood, East Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Township are moving to the Democrats.

Then there's Ottawa and Livingston counties, which not long ago would have vied for most Republican county in the state. Mr. Trump will still comfortably win both counties, but the Democratic performance improved considerably in both in 2018. Mr. Trump can ill-afford too much fall-off in counties he won by more than 30 points, but where Ms. Whitmer vastly improved over Mr. Schauer's performance.

Okay, everyone enjoy the debate. Don't forget to keep time with your Shinola watch, enjoy a couple Coney dogs from Lafayette, listen to Eminem and of course lament the Lions (and the Tigers and the Red Wings and the Pistons).

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Intrigue On Inman Rises With Recall Attempt

Posted: July 23, 2019 1:32 PM

Embattled Rep. Larry Inman refuses to resign in the face of a federal indictment and repeated calls from House leaders that he quit. And now he faces a recall campaign, which if organizers display minimal competence, would seem to have a strong chance of qualifying for the ballot.

At this point, it does not appear the House will seek to expel Mr. Inman (R-Williamsburg), though with the trial now delayed indefinitely, any hopes House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) might have had for a quick and tidy trial that ended with conviction and clear grounds for Mr. Inman's ouster are dashed.

It is of course possible that Mr. Inman could win acquittal and serve out his term, rendering all this moot.

But right now, he is facing trouble on three fronts – in court, the Legislature and now the ballot – that would seem to make his departure/ouster a real possibility.

What is intriguing about all this is that if Mr. Inman faces a recall election or departs office for whatever reason anytime in roughly the next six months, election laws could heavily favor the Democrats flipping this seat in an ensuing special election.

Recall that Mr. Inman barely won re-election in 2018, by just 349 votes, or 0.74 percentage point. Traverse City has become heavily Democratic with nearby suburbs shifting as well. That's made the district a 50/50 type seat because the rest of Grand Traverse County remains solidly Republican. Both parties have been looking at this seat, the 104th House District, which exactly mirrors the county borders, as prime competition in 2020.

Now, with Mr. Inman's troubles, the possibility of a special election is on the brain.

Let's start with the resignation/expulsion scenario.

Either would trigger a special election. Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer gets to decide when to schedule it. The governor has almost total discretion in the scheduling of special elections.

Should Mr. Inman leave office by the end of the year, there's an obvious date Democrats would want the special general election to be held: March 10, 2020.

That's the date of Michigan's presidential primary. Democrats, you may have heard, have a competitive primary with a zillion candidates. Their voters will flood the polls. There is no serious organized opposition to Republican President Donald Trump for the GOP nomination. The electorate on March 10, 2020, will skew heavily Democratic. It should be a layup for the Democratic nominee for the 104th if there's a special general election on that date.

Republicans would surely squawk, but Ms. Whitmer could counter an expeditious election would assure the 104th goes a bare minimum of time without representation (unlike former Governor Rick Snyder's tendency to let seats remain vacant for almost a year) and holding the election on March 10 would mean the state picks up the cost. Holding it on another date would mean the local governments would have to pay.

If Mr. Inman remains in office well into 2020, however, that would take March 10 off the table as an election date, meaning a special election might occur in May or August, a more politically neutral playing field.

Then there's the recall scenario.

The good news for the GOP is that by law, the recall election, if it occurs, can only occur in May or August. March 10 is out.

The bad news for the GOP is their candidate in a recall election could be Mr. Inman with no way to block him.

In 2012, as majority legislative Republicans passed the right-to-work laws and other extremely controversial legislation, they also made sweeping changes to the recall process in a move to protect their members against possible recall retribution. Republican former Rep. Paul Scott had been recalled in 2011 and that was fresh on the party's mind.

The major change was to turn the recall from a "yes" or "no" on recalling the elected official, as it had long been, into an election among candidates. And as part of the effort to shield incumbents, one of the new provisions was to make the incumbent targeted by the recall the automatic nominee of their party in the recall election unless they decided to opt out and not run.

In other words, Mr. Inman could decide he will contest the recall and thus he is automatic nominee for the Republican Party in the 104th and by law there is no Republican primary. Mr. Inman would be the GOP nominee.

It's hard to imagine how Mr. Inman could survive a recall election embroiled in scandal, assuming the Democrats put forward a credible candidate and back that candidate with the necessary resources.

This is no idle matter. A Democratic win would shrink the House GOP's majority to 57-53 and mean the party needs just three seats for majority in the 2020 elections. Just getting two would probably be good enough because a 55-55 tie would mean shared power and kill the ability for legislative Republicans to overturn Ms. Whitmer's executive orders and for conservative groups to use the initiative petition as a means to end-run Ms. Whitmer on their priorities.

The universe of competitive seats in 2020 is relatively small, so the opportunity to lock in the 104th for either party (the winner of a special election would be the prohibitive favorite to win a full term in November 2020) in a special election would be huge.

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Trying To Make Sense Of What Happens Now In MI3

Posted: July 10, 2019 5:30 PM

In the span of six weeks, Michigan's 3rd U.S. House District has gone from ho-hum to holy cow.

For all the irritation among the west Michigan Republican establishment types and activists about U.S. Rep. Justin Amash's feuding with President Donald Trump and occasional bucking of the House Republican Conference, he still retained a well of strong support and a strong brand of a libertarian conservative with convictions who would not go along to get along, ask tough questions, always be present to vote and religiously communicate his reasons for those votes to his constituents.

Then on May 18, Mr. Amash declared Mr. Trump's actions as presented met the threshold for impeachment.

A drumbeat of candidate announcements began on the Republican side to challenge Mr. Amash for the GOP nomination.

That culminated in a declaration from Mr. Amash that raises doubts as to whether he will run at all – his leaving the Republican Party to become an independent. Mr. Amash (I-Cascade Township) told Michigan Radio he plans to run for re-election as an independent, and that's all well and good, but I have my doubts on his plans.

Mr. Amash has long conveyed a seriousness and above-the-political-games style, but he announced his decision to leave the Republican Party in a Washington Post column published on Independence Day.

That seems like the kind of tactic one employs to gain national attention, the kind of national attention one might be seeking to stir up interest in a presidential bid, perhaps on the Libertarian ticket. Running for the U.S. House in Michigan with the presence of straight-ticket voting is an extremely difficult proposition, even for a well-known incumbent. In fact, Mr. Amash discussed how difficult it is to run in Michigan as an independent at a Grand Rapids town hall following his first impeachment comments.

One might have expected Mr. Amash to make such a momentous announcement with grave repercussions for a re-election campaign in The Grand Rapids Press or one of the west Michigan network news programs.

I had long doubted that Mr. Amash would give up his U.S. House seat for a guaranteed loss as the Libertarian presidential candidate (he declined a bid for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2014 that suggested he was taking a cautious approach to his political future), but that appears totally wrong. If Mr. Amash is totally sick of partisan politics and Washington as he says he is, then perhaps he wants to go out in a blaze of glory, taking his issues national as the Libertarian presidential nominee. If you're going to lose, why not go that route instead of risking a humiliating third-place finish in your backyard to the candidates of the two major political parties.

That leaves us to ponder the race for the 3rd District with or without Mr. Amash.

If Mr. Amash does stay in the race, it will be hard to predict. For as much as Mr. Trump has damaged the Republican brand in Grand Rapids and some of its suburbs, this is still a Republican-leaning district, one Democrats have not won since 1974. Republican voters are loyal to the GOP cause and most would likely back their party's nominee. The Democratic candidate would have to hope some Republicans split with the party and stick with Mr. Amash because unless there is a total Republican implosion, there's still not enough Democrats alone to win this seat.

If Mr. Amash is out, Democrats will have to hope that the same forces that propelled now-Sen. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), now-Rep. Rachel Hood (D-Grand Rapids) and Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids) to once-unthinkable victory margins in their districts have spread outward beyond Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Kentwood. The rest of Kent County, most of which is in the 3rd, remains strongly Republican, as does most of the rest of the district -- Barry, Ionia and part of Montcalm counties and all of Calhoun (which is 50-50 and trending GOP).

Libertarians will sort out their presidential candidate next spring. Now that Mr. Amash has left the GOP, the focus will shift to the two parties sorting out crowded primary fields – at least until Mr. Amash rules out running for president as a Libertarian. If he rules it out, that is.

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Teetering Toward A Shutdown?

Posted: July 2, 2019 2:40 PM

Around the Capitol, the uttering of the word "shutdown" conjures reactions akin to saying the name "Voldemort" in "Harry Potter" – fear and shivers.

Those who were here in 2007 and 2009, when state government went into brief hours-long shutdowns because a governor and Legislature were at odds on whether to raise taxes to balance the budget, recall the agony. It was not those brief shutdowns that were so terrible, though they were a major embarrassment to the state, it was the weeks, even months, of posturing, gridlock and general foolishness that preceded them.

Well here we are for the first time since 2010 with the completion of the upcoming fiscal year budget nowhere in sight and the September 30 deadline starting to loom before the opening of the 2019-20 fiscal year on October 1.

The Legislature has gone home for the summer, lawmakers readying to march in parades, hold coffee hours with constituents and (for those who really understand the job) working in some door-to-door work to make sure those constituents, aka voters, remember their name and that they cared enough pound the pavement in the heat of the summer to visit their home.

Oh sure, the House and Senate have scheduled tentative session days throughout the summer, but the odds of legislators returning to session to pass a budget before Labor Day are about as bad as any of Detroit's pro sports teams competing for a championship anytime soon. Reporters are awaiting the daily emails from House and Senate staff on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays advising that the following days sessions will see no attendance and no voting.

Perhaps the Legislature will return for a day here or a day there, but grinding it out daily while Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer hammer out a budget deal? No.

And assuming that transpires, the pressure will really be on once the Legislature returns after Labor Day, with less than a month for Ms. Whitmer and legislative leaders to reach a deal on a budget and road funding plan and for the Legislature to pass them.

And that's what the Legislature heading home after June 20 did – relieve the pressure. House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) have said just because the Legislature is not in session does not mean work on the budget has stopped. And that is presumably true. Staff and key legislators continue to work ideas and Ms. Whitmer, Mr. Chatfield and Mr. Shirkey speak regularly.

But there is a huge difference when those talks take place without 148 legislators in town, awaiting a deal for them to vote on. There's no real pressure to come to an agreement. And now that Republican lawmakers no longer have a fellow Republican in the Executive Office pestering them to get the budget done before the end of June, as former Governor Rick Snyder did, it's clear they felt no pressure to hew to that schedule.

It's abundantly clear House Republicans want no part of a net tax increase for roads. Senate Republicans seem open to at least some type of tax increase, but how much is unclear. No legislators, Democrats included, seem interested in Ms. Whitmer's proposed 45-cent per gallon tax increase.

Ms. Whitmer has staked her ground, however, and made clear she will not accept a budget that does not solve the $2 billion-plus shortfall in annual road funding need in whole. She and Budget Director Chris Kolb also have made clear half a loaf will not suffice.

For a while, I've been warning people to keep their calendars clear for September 30, that this thing could very well go to the wire, though I did not see a repeat of 2007 and 2009 when midnight passed and the state went into brief shutdowns. At this point, the relationship between the governor, speaker and Senate majority leader appears healthier than it was in 2007 and 2009 when then-Governor Jennifer Granholm, then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop and then-House Speaker Andy Dillon battled constantly.

There's a long way to go, almost three full months. But assuming the Legislature has deprived us of its company for the remainder of the summer, that time is going to go quickly. And like 2007, passing a budget appears dependent on a tax increase.

On auto no-fault, the three sides showed they could yield on some key matters to reach a compromise. Ms. Whitmer had to give the most because she had the least leverage as a result of the Dan Gilbert-threatened ballot proposal.

That example offers reason for hope that a compromise can be reached. That's the rosy view.

The pessimistic view is that Republicans, fresh off the no-fault legislation that was far more to their liking than Democrats, will feel no need to bend and see how far they can press Ms. Whitmer, who herself cannot afford to have her signature issues – roads and schools – resolved in anything other than a win for her.

Ms. Whitmer and Republican legislative leaders have been saying Lansing need not resemble the partisan morass that is Washington, D.C. Resolving the budget and road funding will put that prediction to the test like no other.

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Choosing A Side On The Conflict Wall In Flint

Posted: June 18, 2019 4:09 PM

Attorney General Dana Nessel is walking a very fine line in how her office is handling the legal cases emanating from the Flint water crisis.

Ms. Nessel's predecessor, former Attorney General Bill Schuette, opted to put himself on the criminal prosecution side while tasking top attorneys in the Department of Attorney General to head up the defense of the state in the many civil lawsuits from Flint residents (more than 20,000 are involved) seeking damages from the state.

This was awkward because there was never really anyone to publicly answer for the state's defense strategy in the civil cases. Mr. Schuette and his spokesperson were on the criminal side of the conflict wall. That left Governor Rick Snyder, named in the civil cases along with some of his department directors and other state employees, to discuss the civil side, and his team would just offer the usual rote "can't comment on pending litigation" non-response response.

But with the civil cases slowly churning, and the state mounting a vigorous defense that wasn't exactly politically appealing, Mr. Schuette's work on the criminal side allowed him to be on the side that was seeking justice.

The eventual problem was the cases seemed thin. The convictions obtained by the prosecution team Mr. Schuette hired led by Todd Flood were almost laughable when juxtaposed against the charges initially issued. The former drinking water chief, Liane Shekter-Smith, was charged with felony involuntary manslaughter and felony misconduct in office but struck a plea deal where she pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of disrupting a public meeting. No one has spent any time in jail.

It would be one thing if those plea deals had produced smoking gun-type testimony against the higher-ups like former Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, but there was no evidence that occurred.

All that said, the charges had been cheered by Flint residents and activists, especially the charging of Mr. Lyon given his high stature in the Snyder administration compared to relatively unknown state employees.

What would have happened had the cases made it to a jury at the Genesee Circuit Court in a Flint courtroom was the subject of great speculation. And one will always wonder in the wake of the decision by the two attorneys to whom Ms. Nessel reassigned the Flint water criminal cases, Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, to drop all the remaining criminal cases and start the Flint water investigation anew.

When Ms. Nessel first announced she was putting herself on the civil side of the conflict wall and others in charge of the criminal side, there was speculation she did so to get the lawsuits settled and deliver a win to Flint residents in the form of a substantial monetary settlement while those she tasked with the criminal side would wind down the prosecutions and deal with any blowback from residents.

But that's not how it's playing out. While settlement negotiations are taking place, there's no deal yet. And with three years of criminal investigation now essentially flushed, there was considerable blowback from Flint activists toward Ms. Nessel when Ms. Hammoud and Ms. Worthy dropped the Schuette/Flood criminal cases.

That underlines the reality for Ms. Nessel. Conflict wall or no conflict wall, she's the one on the line when it comes to all things Flint in her office, not Ms. Hammoud or Ms. Worthy. It appeared she and her staff sensed this dynamic when less than 24 hours after Ms. Hammoud and Ms. Worthy announced the dropping of the cases and astonishingly said they would answer no questions about their decision for 15 days until holding a "community conversation" in Flint, Ms. Nessel did several high-profile media interviews, answering questions about the Hammoud/Worthy decision on Flint.

This seemed awfully close to poking a hole in the conflict wall, some might even argue eviscerating the wall altogether, even if as Ms. Nessel tried to assure Flint residents that justice delayed is not necessarily justice denied, she also said she knew as much about the rationale behind the decision to drop the cases as anyone else in the state. She was not part of the decision, she said, though she backed up Ms. Hammoud and Ms. Worthy and said if they deemed it the right move, she supported them.

Only time will tell if Ms. Nessel made the right call on putting herself on the civil side of the conflict wall. The decision of Ms. Hammoud and Ms. Worthy to drop the Schuette/Flood criminal cases and start anew, however, signals that there will be no "wins" on the criminal side coming for some time, if ever. That just puts more pressure on getting those civil cases settled.

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On No-Fault Bill And The 'New Normal'

Posted: June 11, 2019 2:46 PM

When Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed the legislation on Mackinac Island overhauling how auto insurance covers health care for injuries sustained in a traffic crash, the Democratic leaders declared the bipartisan agreement formed a new mode of operation on how to get things done in Lansing.

That was understandable. For eight years, Democratic lawmakers mostly had little say in what bills became law while Republican Rick Snyder was governor and Republicans held legislative majorities. That the Democratic governor and majority Republican legislative leaders worked together instead of attacking each other is a contrast to today's politics.

And there's no question Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) and House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) were trying to frame key future legislative debates like the budget and roads, as ones where bipartisan compromise would be needed. Think of it as a signal to Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) not to return to their partisan corners and dump a conservative budget on the governor's desk that Ms. Whitmer will veto.

But the idea that the process that led to the no-fault breakthrough should be replicated to solve other seemingly intractable debates is precarious.

For one, there's no Dan Gilbert-type figure looming to push a ballot proposal on roads to force the issue the way he did on auto insurance. There's no way to know for sure what would have happened had Mr. Gilbert not vowed to put an initiative petition before the Legislature to overhaul auto insurance in a way that Republicans likely would have supported and Democrats likely would have opposed, but it would have removed a significant source of pressure on Ms. Whitmer and given her veto pen leverage. The potential for the Legislature to approve the petition with no way for the governor to stop it meant Ms. Whitmer's veto threats rang hollow.

Two, while the rushed process of passing the bill prevented the erosion of legislative support that could have occurred had the final bill been given a public airing over several days or weeks and greatly contributed to passage, it also was not actually filed with the Office of the Great Seal until today, nearly two weeks after Ms. Whitmer signed it. That means it only just now became law.

Why? Well, an error in the bill – that's what happens on a rush-job – would have meant an immediate INCREASE in insurance rates despite backers of the bill touting its mandatory rate reductions for personal injury protection. Oops. So the bill was filed once the trailer bill to fix the error was signed too (this section updated after the bills were filed this afternoon).

Insurers already are saying the bill as structured will not lead to the rate-relief Ms. Whitmer and legislators have said it will provide. Opponents of the law – trial lawyers, health care providers and others – say the bill is full of loopholes.

Defenders of the bill will question how anyone can say it was a rush-job given the anguish and debate over the issue for decades. But the reality is the actual content of the bill was only made public less than six hours before it had received final passage from the House and Senate.

And if such a substantial error was found so quickly and needing correction, imagine what is going to happen when some of the best attorneys in the state – in insurance, torts and health care – start combing the language.

If there's a new normal-type model, the best one I've seen was the one used by then-Rep. Joe Graves to reform the state's unemployment insurance laws at a time when the Unemployment Insurance Agency was imploding. It was bipartisan with representatives of organized labor and major business organizations that traditionally oppose each other on legislation. There were subject-matter experts on both the labor and employer side. No one involved in those arduous, marathon, behind-closed-doors negotiations and workgroups would say it was easy. But in the end, everyone agreed to support every line of every bill in the package, which was public for weeks as it went through the traditional legislative process. There were no amendments, and it received overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and Senate.

Some 18 months later, the legislation – combined with administrative-led changes in processes – has greatly improved operations at the Unemployment Insurance Agency.

And there was no need to "fix" the new law to boot.

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Whitmer Feeling The Heat From Friends

Posted: June 4, 2019 2:34 PM

Five months and four days into her governorship, there's some angst in various quarters of the Democratic base about decisions made by Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Suffice it to say that at this early point in Ms. Whitmer's governorship, one would not have expected slings and arrows to be coming from the state's trial lawyers, environmental groups and health care providers.

The trial lawyers are furious with Ms. Whitmer for signing SB 1* to end the mandatory unlimited medical coverage in auto insurance. A number of environmental groups are flabbergasted that Ms. Whitmer is in talks with Enbridge for a revised deal that would let them relocate the Line 5 oil and gas pipeline along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac to a tunnel buried beneath the straits, much as former Governor Rick Snyder negotiated. Health care providers are unhappy to angry about the auto insurance bill, and now health and wellness groups are disappointed that Ms. Whitmer went against her Department of Health and Human Services and signed bills banning the sale of e-cigarettes to minors instead of insisting on a bill regulating vapes as tobacco.

No, there's not a rebellion in the Democratic Party or anything like that. By and large, so far, Ms. Whitmer has governed like a Democrat, and she has enthusiastic support across the party. But the trial lawyers and the environmental activist wings of the party are potent and important.

And it was jarring to see the Oil and Water Don't Mix coalition, an umbrella group of many environmental organizations devoted to shuttering Line 5, issue a searing statement last week warning Ms. Whitmer that a deal with Enbridge for a tunnel under the straits would make her the "Line 5 oil tunnel governor."

Less surprising in a short-term context was the fury directed at Ms. Whitmer by the trial lawyers and coalition of health care providers for signing the no-fault bill. Of course, they were furious. Yet to think Ms. Whitmer, an attorney, and the association of trial lawyers have suffered such a severe rupture is very surprising when viewed from 50,000 feet.

Last Thursday, after Ms. Whitmer signed the bill, Debra Freid, president of the Michigan Association for Justice, wrote Ms. Whitmer to "express our members' deep disappointment and their palpable outrage" at her decision. Ms. Freid said said even with an initiative petition threatened by Dan Gilbert, Ms. Whitmer could have achieved real rate reduction "without sacrificing the entire system, had you forged that path carefully and thoughtfully, instead of rushing to sign 'something.'"

Who would have expected this scenario a year ago?

Such are the realities of serving as a chief executive. Former Lt. Governor Brian Calley opined on Twitter a couple months ago when word first broke that Ms. Whitmer was open to a tunnel for Line 5 and environmentalists expressed shock and dismay that "it's the part about the job that is hard to explain. Most issues have two or more very different sides. There are always people mad at you."

If there's a common thread to these three issues, it's that Ms. Whitmer's realist approach is showing itself.

As I wrote last week, Ms. Whitmer took the most pragmatic path she could find on the auto insurance legislation. While the governor eventually put a promise on her campaign website to "immediately file to enjoin the easement and begin the legal process for shutting down Line 5," her first comments on that topic as a candidate were to warn about taking action that would lead to protracted litigation. Ms. Whitmer has clearly reverted to that original position and all her comments about considering the tunnel options are couched in worries about an extended legal conflict that takes longer to resolve than construction of the tunnel.

The e-cigarette bills passed easily, by well more than enough votes to override a veto. It's hard to imagine the Republican majorities would have skipped the opportunity to jam the Democrats on a veto override vote, choosing between voting no on banning e-cigarettes to minors (a difficult vote to explain) and embarrassing the governor by voting to override. So, the governor reluctantly signed the bill.

Governors inevitably do something to disappoint their supporters. John Engler's decision to abandon his opposition to tax incentives to lure businesses and instead create a massive tax incentive regime dismayed conservatives. Jennifer Granholm's actions on state employee contracts led to huge protests from those unionized and largely Democratic employees on the Capitol lawn, including a sign deriding her as "Governor Jengler." Rick Snyder upset the Republican base on many things, but maybe none more so than firearms and abortion.

Ms. Whitmer now finds herself experiencing the same phenomenon. It's not surprising that it happened, but wow, that didn't take long.

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Whitmer Claims A Win On No-Fault But Was It A Win For Her?

Posted: May 29, 2019 10:51 AM

Governor Gretchen Whitmer and her staff celebrated the Legislature's passage Friday of historic auto insurance legislation that ends the requirement for motorists to hold unlimited lifetime medical insurance in favor of coverage choices, installs limits on what health care providers and attendant care workers can charge for care, promises rate reductions and bars the use of many non-driving factors in setting insurance rates.

"Today's vote is truly historic. We've accomplished more in the last five months than in the last five years. This vote demonstrates that when both parties work together and build bridges, we can solve problems and make life better for the people of Michigan," Ms. Whitmer said in a statement after the vote. "This plan will help drivers from Detroit all the way to the U.P. It guarantees lower auto insurance rates for eight years, protects people's choice to pick their own insurance and coverage options while preserving the safety net, and bans insurance companies from using discriminatory non-driving factors when setting rates."

If the legislation in fact leads to the type of rate reductions promised without unraveling health care for the catastrophically injured, Ms. Whitmer has every reason to claim credit and shout it from the top of the Capitol. Michigan's auto insurance rates are the highest in the nation and a major frustration for motorists, and the governor pledged to cut rates during the campaign. Promises made, promises kept.


Despite Ms. Whitmer's vow just two days before the final legislative votes she was "not going to be bullied into doing something," it sure looked like the governor was, if not bullied, cornered.

Ms. Whitmer said that same day she was not pushing for a quick resolution. Two days later, that's what she agreed to do.

Eight days before the final votes in the Legislature, Ms. Whitmer said any final bill needed to require all motorists to buy into the system, saying a "a complete zero coverage option just shifts the burden onto the taxpayers" via Medicaid, a move that would undermine the state's trauma centers and brain injury clinics. What Ms. Whitmer will sign has a robust zero coverage option, for seniors on Medicare and for anyone else whose health insurer covers traffic crash injuries and has a deductible of less than $6,000 per person.

Ms. Whitmer was asked eight days before the vote about concerns from supporters of the system that once mandatory unlimited medical becomes optional that the entire system would unravel. She replied that's why there needed to be a base-level option and floated $250,000. The bill she will sign lacks the base-level option she said had to be there.

Ms. Whitmer had spoken openly of linking auto insurance legislation to road funding, that the case for a tax increase would become easier to make with a wide-ranging package that cuts auto insurance rates. Forced to choose whether to demand road funding be placed on her desk at the same time as the no-fault legislation, Ms. Whitmer opted not to do so.

What the governor did obtain in negotiations was a much more generous fee schedule for health care providers, especially hospitals, than the worker's compensation fee schedule the bills that initially passed the House and Senate contained. Instead, the fee schedule will be roughly double the Medicare rate and more for providers with larger percentages of indigent patients and trauma centers.

The governor also has claimed victory on the bill outlawing non-driving factors in setting insurance rates like use of ZIP codes and credit scores though the bill still allows insurers to use "territory" and "credit information." How that shakes out and whether the victory Ms. Whitmer is claiming is real remains to be seen.

So why did Ms. Whitmer go so quickly from issuing veto threats, seeking leverage on the gasoline tax and urging the Legislature to slow down to declaring victory on a bill that had only become public a handful of hours before the Legislature voted, the kind of tactic that Democrats have decried for years?

She made a pragmatic decision. The governor had two options. She could issue a politically unpopular veto and lose all say in the process with Dan Gilbert planning an initiative petition that, if it gathered enough signatures, allowed the Legislature to enact a plan Ms. Whitmer surely would have found less desirable with no opportunity for her to stop it or she could get involved, secure the best deal she could and prevent a Gilbert petition.

Politically, Ms. Whitmer will – assuming this bill takes effect as planned, that it is not waylaid by a lawsuit or referendum – get to claim credit for what could be substantial rate reductions.

To get there, the governor had to bitterly disappoint some longtime allies. To say the least, the trial lawyers are shocked that one of their own, Ms. Whitmer, is the one who killed the mandatory unlimited medical benefit. Health care providers got a more generous fee schedule but, as several observers put it last week, they accepted amputation when faced with death. There are those who contend the governor should have told those cornering her to pound sand and encouraged a rival initiative petition to counter the one from Mr. Gilbert.

In 2018, a big part of Ms. Whitmer's campaign message was she was a can-do person with the knowledge and understanding of state government to make the decisions she deemed necessary to improve the state. She vowed to "take on anyone" in her way. The governor may not have been leading the charge on this issue – it was the House and Senate that forced it to the front-burner with their rapid-fire passage of bills earlier in May – but she followed through on that promise.

It's safe to say, however, that attorneys, hospitals and other health care providers did not foresee themselves as the ones Ms. Whitmer would take on.

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On Inman, Expulsion And Due Process

Posted: May 21, 2019 2:18 PM

A lawmaker in trouble with the law. Again. And the situation is vexing a house of the Legislature. Again.

Rep. Larry Inman (R-Williamsburg) was charged last week with three felonies – extortion, solicitation of bribery and lying to the FBI – in an indictment that alleged he tried to sell his vote on a proposal to repeal the prevailing wage law to trade unions trying to convince him to vote no. The U.S. attorney in Grand Rapids, as part of the indictment, included text messages Mr. Inman sent requesting $30,000 in campaign cash for himself and 11 unnamed others to secure their no votes. There is no indication, so far, that the case involves anyone else other than Mr. Inman.

Now House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) confronts what all too many legislative leaders have faced – how to deal with a legislator charged with a crime. And in this case, it's of the most serious nature because it involves conduct in office, not something outside of a legislator's official duties.

Mr. Chatfield has called for Mr. Inman to resign. Mr. Inman has refused. He's also denied the charges, calling them "crazy bullshit" for good measure. He has asserted there is an explanation for the texts. Mr. Chatfield trotted out several other high-ranking House Republicans in the days after the indictment to call for Mr. Inman to resign too. But he hasn't quit yet, and why would he when he's got legal bills aplenty.

The speaker has steadfastly refused to answer questions from reporters on whether he would initiate expulsion proceedings against Mr. Inman if he refuses to quit. If Mr. Inman pleads not guilty and takes his case to trial, it will likely take many months for a verdict to arrive.

Traditionally, legislative leaders have chosen to let the legal process play out before initiating expulsion proceedings.

That's what happened with former Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park) in 2017. He resigned shortly after his conviction, but not until almost a year elapsed from the time he was charged. The Senate never started the expulsion process. In 1978, the House expelled then-Rep. Monte Geralds after he was convicted of a felony but maintained his innocence and refused to resign, also waiting for the courts.

Sometimes, legislators have exploited this protocol. Former Rep. Keith Stallworth was charged with a pile of felonies in the early 2000s, but maintained his innocence and the House leaders at the time (one of whom was Kwame Kilpatrick, cough, cough) said he had the right to his day in court and did not start a House investigation. Then shortly after leaving the House because of term limits, Mr. Stallworth struck a plea deal, pleaded guilty and avoided prison. Mr. Johnson maintained his innocence too even after damning secret recordings were released by the feds. Former Sen. Virgil Smith hung onto his seat for almost a year before he agreed to a plea deal and resigned.

The other two modern-day expulsions, Sen. David Jaye in 2001 and Rep. Cindy Gamrat in 2015, had little to nothing to do with criminal charges and more to do with their overall conduct as legislators and the general revulsion other members had in having to deal with how they went about their jobs. Ms. Gamrat was charged with a crime after she was expelled, but a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence for her to stand trial. Mr. Jaye was convicted months after his expulsion of a probation violation but acquitted of the assault charge that helped galvanize the move to expel him.

Then there are the situations where a legislator has been charged, maintained their innocence and been exonerated by the courts.

Former Sen. Jim Barcia was charged in 2004 by federal authorities in a campaign finance case and maintained his innocence. Prosecutors dropped the charges 14 months later. A few years later, then-Rep. George Cushingberry Jr. was charged with perjury for making false statements on campaign finance and elections paperwork, but a judge threw out the case following a trial. In both the Barcia and Cushingberry cases, the Senate and House, respectively, waited for the legal process to conclude before considering expulsion. They were exonerated, so they never faced sanctions. Both won re-election.

These two latter examples loom large in any consideration of whether to expel a member before she or he has been convicted of a crime. What if they are never convicted? How would that look?

And yet, to be clear, innocent until proven guilty is the standard when it comes to convicting someone of a crime and taking away their freedom, not service in the Legislature. A two-thirds majority of the House or Senate can expel a member for any reason, as Mr. Jaye and Ms. Gamrat discovered. The House, if it wanted, could simply have the contents of the indictment placed into an expulsion resolution and decide on that basis alone Mr. Inman must go.

Of course, if there is a revelation down the road about the texts that backs up Mr. Inman's claim they've been misunderstood and he's exonerated, the voters of the Grand Traverse County would rightfully wonder what right the House had to unseat its elected representative.

This is the conundrum a legislative leader faces when a fellow legislator finds themselves taking a seat at the defendant's table in court. And it's a big part of the reason why those leaders usually defer acting until the courts do so first.

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Let The Game Of Legislative 'Chicken' Begin

Posted: May 7, 2019 5:13 PM

Governor Gretchen Whitmer wants a lot more money to fix the roads, this you might have heard. Legislative Republicans want wholesale changes in how auto insurance covers health care for people injured traffic crashes, this you might have heard as well.

Ms. Whitmer proposed a 45-cent per gallon gasoline tax increase. It was essentially dead on arrival in the Legislature.

Today, Senate Republicans unveiled and quickly passed an auto insurance bill that will surely end unlimited medical benefits for those injured in traffic crashes, providing motorists with a choice of lower coverage options. It leaves uncertain rate reductions for motorists other than cutting the fee for the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association to $40 from $220. Unless the bill changes to mandate more rate relief than the $15 per month from dumping the MCCA fee, deals with non-driving rate mechanisms and provides more coverage, it will surely be dead on arrival with Ms. Whitmer. She already said she would veto the bill as passed by the Senate.

Ms. Whitmer has made clear that without her gasoline tax proposal or some other mechanism to raise more than $2 billion for roads, she will not sign a budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year. She hasn't said it outright publicly, but she seems to be holding the same position on auto insurance: No road funding, no insurance bill.

Publicly, Republicans are Sphinx-like about their long game, but those in and around the process say it is clear that after four months of taking their time and passing on opportunities to jam the governor, they are now embarking on that, path.

Put an auto insurance bill on Ms. Whitmer's desk and dare her to veto it.(assuming the votes can be found to pass a bill in the House, far from a foregone conclusion, and it will take a number of significant changes to the Senate version of the bill for that to be remotely possible).

Put a budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year on Ms. Whitmer's desk that lacks the more than $2 billion in additional road funding she wants and dare her to veto it.

This is a game of chicken. And much like the game of chicken with tractors in "Footloose," someone is going to be the Ren McCormack celebrating afterward and someone is going to be Chuck Cranston, freaking out at the last second and leaping away in panic into a nearby river, vanquished. The rest of us are Ariel Moore, marveling at the showdown yet with an inner fear at the end this will all go terribly wrong.

Vetoing a budget that lacks big new funding for roads would start the clock ticking to the September 30 deadline to have a new budget in place in time for the start of the fiscal year.

Vetoing an auto insurance bill would give Republicans an opportunity to pound on the governor on an issue that has gotten traction with the public. How Ms. Whitmer responds will depend on what kind of changes the House makes to pass a bill, assuming it can pass a bill. Her position gets more politically perilous if the House includes substantial, long-term, mandatory cuts in insurance rates and maintaining some type of option for unlimited coverage.

If the Republican tack leads to vetoes, perhaps the back-and-forth sets all issues on a path toward compromise – an eventual budget deal, better roads plus reduced auto insurance rates coupled with coverage that still assures quality of care in the event of a catastrophic injury in a traffic crash.

Alternatively, Ms. Whitmer and legislative Republicans dig in, leading to a 2007- or 2009-style budget confrontation and no real long-term answers on roads or auto insurance, leading to the roads getting worse and insurance rates continuing to rise.

The state already is plenty familiar with the latter scenario.

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Michigan's (Maybe) Upcoming Redistricting Bonanza

Posted: May 2, 2019 4:56 PM

If last week's ruling from a federal three-judge panel stands requiring the redrawing of political maps for most of the state's 14 U.S. House districts as well as much of the Michigan Senate and Michigan House – and that's the biggest "if" in Michigan politics right now – get ready for one of the wildest periods at the Capitol in some time.

The Capitol's collective jaw hit the floor last week when that panel not only ordered the redrawing of at least nine U.S. House and 15 Michigan House districts to repair what it termed an illegal partisan gerrymander drawn by majority Republicans in 2011 but also called for redrawing at least 10 Michigan Senate districts and ordered the upper chamber to stand for election in 2020, two years earlier than scheduled.

Let's assume for now that this ruling stands, that there are new maps in place and the Senate joins the Michigan House and U.S. House on the ballot in a presidential year for the first time since 1964. There's a lot of doubt that will happen, with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, long seen as the needed fifth vote for a precedent-setting ruling that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional, having retired and been replaced by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who is not expected to deviate much from conservative orthodoxy on the court, though one never knows.

The intrigue right now, however, is on new maps, not the status quo. So let's indulge.

There are two potential impacts: One is on partisan composition of each delegation and the other is on incumbents. I'll rate the potential impact on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being very little impact and 10 being a wholesale change.


Partisan impact: 2

Incumbent impact: 8

What's that you say, that you thought Republicans rigged the U.S. House districts against Democrats and shouldn't a redraw mean big Democratic gains? Well, Republicans did gerrymander these districts in 2011 to maximize the Republican delegation (remember the former staffer to ex-U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter who boasted how the maps "crammed all the Dem garbage" into a handful of districts?) but as we saw in the previous decade with the 2001 Republican-drawn maps, other factors (namely the shift of suburban college-educated voters away from the GOP because of President Donald Trump) eventually overwhelmed the U.S. House map, which produced a 9-5 Republican-Democrat delegation in the 2012, 2014 and 2016 elections before Democrats flipped two seats in 2018 to make it 7-7.

There is a pretty easy way to redraw the lines and add a very winnable Democratic district: put together Kalamazoo and Barry counties and roughly the portion of Kent County in the 29th Michigan Senate District (Grand Rapids and its southeastern suburbs). Whether that can be done without having any of the west Michigan U.S. House districts among the challenged districts remains to be seen.

Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report took a shot at a new map today and it should give Democrats the willies, producing six solidly Republican seats, three solidly Democratic seats and five competitive seats. It would be especially problematic for some Democratic incumbents, which leads to why the incumbent impact would be so severe. There are four Democratic members living in Oakland County right now: Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Southfield, Rep. Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township, Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Holly and Rep. Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills. That is not going to be sustainable in a new map where incumbent considerations are irrelevant.

By law, no one has to move if their residence gets drawn out of their new district but running in a district where you don't live can present complications. Ms. Slotkin lives in Holly and might need to start scouting real estate in Ingham County, her political base. Under the Cook map, Ms. Stevens would likely have to run against Mr. Levin in a Democratic primary. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint Township) would wind up in a much more competitive district.




The plan Republicans drew for the Senate has held up even though the GOP saw Democrats gain five seats in the last election to narrow the gap to 22-16. Democrats maximized gains in the areas where demographics have shifted but in the white working-class areas where Republicans are strong, the maps make Democratic chances that much more difficult. If drawn just right, a Democratic gain of three seats in 2020 is entirely possible, something that would give Democrats control of the chamber for the first time since 1984. Changes to districts challenged by the plaintiffs in Macomb and Oakland counties as well as the district based in Saginaw County would put three seats in much greater reach of Democrats than they are now. That said, those moves would also risk softening up currently solid Democratic seats that could be at risk in a Republican wave if that occurred in a given area. Remember the Trump sweep of Macomb in 2016? Had the Senate been up then with the districts drawn to show two 50-50 seats and one solidly GOP seat instead of the current one solid Democratic seat, one leaning GOP seat and one solidly GOP seat, it could be 3-0 Republicans there now, not 2-1.

The impact on the incumbents is massive. Number one, none of them thought they would have to run again until 2022. Number two, Michigan's term limits law, depending on how the courts interpret it, could bar senators who already have been elected twice from running in 2020, cutting their service short by two years.




If the plaintiffs could have a mulligan, they would surely alter what districts they challenged, a list they developed prior to the 2018 elections that recast the landscape of what House seats could be made more competitive with a nonpartisan reapportionment plan but, with the list as it stands, there are probably four districts most susceptible to alteration that could help them flip: seats in suburban Muskegon and suburban Saginaw, a seat in southern Macomb County and a seat in Genesee County. While that's not many, Democrats only need to flip four seats for control and none of these seats is currently on the radar screen as competitive for 2020.

For the incumbents, the impact is small and confined. Perhaps a couple reps could find themselves drawn into the same district like Rep. Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron) and Rep. Gary Eisen (R-Saint Clair Township). Rep. Greg VanWoerkom (R-Norton Shores) and Rep. Rodney Wakeman (R-Saginaw Township) could find themselves facing much tougher re-election fights than they would under the current maps but the House membership is constantly churning anyway with term limits, and this wouldn't change much.

The stakes couldn't be higher. If the Supreme Court declines to stop partisan gerrymandering, the 2020 elections will focus on the House but with the recognition that, no matter what happens, the GOP has the Senate as its backstop through 2022. If the court orders the redrawing of maps to proceed, 2020 shapes up to be an election with enormous stakes, the chance for Democrats to give Governor Gretchen Whitmer the legislative majority she's clearly going to need to enact the bulk of her agenda.

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My 'Forrest Gump'-esque Ride Aboard The Kwame Kilpatrick Story

Posted: April 22, 2019 4:17 PM

In January 2008, while I was the Detroit city government beat reporter for the Detroit Free Press, two of the newspaper's top reporters, Jim Schaefer and M.L. Elrick, asked to speak with me in one of the offices in the Metro department where no sound can be heard from outside.

I knew they had been working on a big story. They had spent considerable time at the newspaper's then-Oakland County bureau in Southfield, which with staff cutbacks had become a good place to escape the pull of daily news story demands and drill into a long-term piece of enterprise reporting.

I suspected it had to do with then-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Elrick and Schaefer or Schaefer and Elrick, depending on the given story's byline, had been doing some incredible watchdog reporting on Mr. Kilpatrick back when that wasn't the most popular thing in the world. They had broken an especially big story in 2005 about how the mayor had used his city-issued credit card to live high on the hog but Mr. Kilpatrick won re-election that year anyway.

Elrick and I had begun work on a story about the large number of Kilpatrick appointees living outside the city of Detroit. We wanted to juxtapose that against Mr. Kilpatrick's call for the return of residency requirements that would allow cities to require their employees live within city limits (Michigan abolished them about 20 years ago) to show hypocrisy by the mayor. Sometime in December, he began urging me to try to finish the story soon, vaguely saying the story he and Schaefer were working on would likely redirect news coverage of city hall in a way that would shunt aside the residency story.

When they sat me down in that room in January, I found out why they had been so secretive about what I had started calling "Project X." They had obtained text messages from Ms. Beatty's Blackberry showing he had lied under oath while testifying in court in the whistleblower lawsuit brought by two former police investigators (editor's note: this story changed to correct the owner of the phone). Mr. Kilpatrick had denied under oath that he and his chief of staff, Christine Beatty, had been having an extramarital affair. The text messages left no doubt that was a lie.

This was no idle matter of lying about sex as Mr. Kilpatrick and his defenders would later claim. He and Ms. Beatty ruined the careers of these two officers who were investigating alleged wrongdoing by the mayor. They did not want their affair exposed.

My jaw hit the floor. I had been on the beat for about three months, the most challenging beat I had ever covered, trying keep my head above water and avoid getting completely schooled by the competition at The Detroit News who had years-long head starts on me in sources and knowledge about city government. Everything was about to change in a big way. There was going to be one story about Detroit city government for the foreseeable future. They let me know they were going to need me to be their eyes and ears at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center and deal with reaction from the city council, which meets every day.

They gave me a stern warning: Tell no one. If they found out I spilled the beans, they would remove certain sensitive body parts. This was said with a bit of a smirk – we were all friends – but I also knew they were not messing around.

They also said they would not say how they obtained the messages and asked me not to speculate with others on the subject.

The next several days lasted an eternity, wondering exactly when the story would be published. Finally, on January 23, the decision had been made: It was go-time with publication online that evening and in the newspaper the next day.

I was tasked with an assignment: find out if Mr. Kilpatrick was at CAYMC, aka city hall. Schaefer and Elrick were trying to reach Mr. Kilpatrick about the findings of the story and the newspaper's editors wanted to know if he was in the office. The newspaper has a bureau in CAYMC and that's where I worked most days, so I went down to the ground floor to take up a position where I could see the entrance where the mayor enters and exits but far enough away from security to avoid attracting its attention.

This somewhat backfired when one of the News' city hall reporters at the time, David Josar, came strolling along and saw me hanging out. He knew I wasn't there to admire the building's architecture and made some crack about what the hell I was doing. I came up with a b.s. response about how I was just chilling. I hung out for a while, never saw the mayor and relayed that word back to the office, which said I could end the stakeout after a couple hours.

Sometime during the afternoon, I got an email from my friend and former boss Larry Lee at Gongwer, where I had worked from 1998-2005, that said something to the effect of, "Chasing Kwame legal issues today?"

Ruh-roh, the word was getting out. I emailed Schaefer and Elrick to alert them. I wrote back Mr. Lee (he would bristle at my dropping Gongwer style to refer to him here as "Larry") with a response that was technically true if a parsing of the question that would make