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by Zachary Gorchow, Editor

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 any politician proud: No. I was not chasing said issues, others were, but of course I didn't tell him that until the next day.

Turns out someone from the newspaper leaked. The newspaper's then-publisher, David Hunke, unbelievably called then-Governor Jennifer Granholm to give her a courtesy head's up of the story the newspaper was about to report (which would explain why word would begin spreading in Lansing and Mr. Lee would have heard something). Ms. Granholm recalled this phone call in her memoir, "A Governor's Story." Someone should have given Mr. Hunke the body parts removal speech! But I guess that's hard to do to the boss (hear Schaefer and Elrick discuss the leak and more on the story 10 years later on Elrick's podcast, "ML's Soul of Detroit."

The story was a bombshell, of course. Getting to cover the aftermath at city hall was an incredible experience. Many clichés apply. I was in the right place at the right time (thus the Forrest Gump reference) and sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

Schaefer and Elrick would win the Pulitzer Prize the next year (10 years ago this past Saturday, which is why I felt like the trip down memory lane). Technically, the award was to the "Detroit Free Press staff, and notably Jim Schaefer and M.L. Elrick," which was nice for all of us at the newspaper who worked our brains out on the story but I've always emphasized to people that it's Schaefer's and Elrick's Pulitzer. Schaefer's the one who got the texts. If that doesn't happen, I probably spend the next year just trying not to get regularly scooped by the News.

That day in the newsroom when the Pulitzer announcement came down was amazing. Champagne! Schaefer hoisted one of the top editors, Jeff Taylor, in one of the most hilariously awkward and delightful moments. Watching one previous Pulitzer winner, David Ashenfelter, understatedly reach his hand over his cubicle wall to shake the hands of Schaefer and Elrick. The party afterward at The Anchor, the legendary bar for Detroit journalists.

It's hard to believe it's been 10 years.

I am indulging in some nostalgia, in part because I admit I like nostalgia but also because it's a vital reminder of how important journalism remains.

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Does Law On LBGT Adoptions Do Opposite Of Intentions?

Posted: April 16, 2019 3:37 PM

One of the old axioms around the Capitol when it comes to legislation is "there will be unintended consequences."

There are too many examples to recite, but I recall one from when I worked for the Redford Observer under the tutelage of then-Editor Jeff Counts (who died suddenly this week and would recall this example well) when the Legislature put a prohibition in the Department of Transportation budget on mowing grass within state trunklines in townships as a money-saving move. The change overall was a success – it saved gasoline money on needlessly mowing grass on rural highways and was great for wildlife. Except in an urban township like Redford, where the change caused small patches of grass along I-96 to become eyesores growing six feet high.

But I don't think I've ever seen an unintended consequence quite like what might have occurred in the statute, PA 53 of 2015, ostensibly designed to codify a long-time state practice involving the children under its supervision that allowed the adoption agencies with which it contracts to refuse to work with a prospective parent if doing so would violate a sincerely held religious belief. The policy, and law that followed it, was designed to allow the agencies affiliated with the Catholic Church or another denomination opposed to same-sex marriage to refuse services to potential parents who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

At the time, supporters championed it as assuring religious freedom. Opponents denounced it as shameful discrimination against LGBT persons. News organizations, including this one, all reported that it would achieve its designed objective – statutorily allow adoption agencies to deny services for children under state supervision because of a sincerely held religious belief.

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan noticed something when it filed its lawsuit against the state challenging the policy – indeed, it challenged the policy the Department of Health and Human Services had at the time, not the new law. The new law defined "services" as "any service that a child placing agency provides, except foster care case management and adoption services provided under a contract with the department."

Wait, what?

Read literally, the definition appears to excise adoptions provided by the agencies with which the state contracts from the definition of services. That, in effect, renders the whole purpose of the law null, the ACLU contends, because it means the very agencies seeking protection for their sincerely held religious beliefs are not providing services as defined in the law.

Then there's the paragraph that follows the definition of services: "If the department makes a referral to a child placing agency for foster care case management or adoption services under a contract with the child placing agency, the child placing agency may decide not to accept the referral if the services would conflict with the child placing agency's sincerely held religious beliefs contained in a written policy, statement of faith, or other document adhered to by the child placing agency."

If "services" doesn't include those with contracts for foster care and adoption services, does the law still achieve its goal? This seems like one of those paradoxes Doc Brown warned about in "Back to the Future" that could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space-time continuum.

But, but, but…

The bill in question added two sections, and the bill clearly states the "services" definition only applies to the section providing protections for sincerely held religious beliefs for adoption agencies who do not have state contracts. It is the other section, the one which the "services" definition does not appear to apply, that contains the portion quoted above about how child placing agencies with a state contract can refuse services based on a sincerely held religious belief.

The ACLU, in its initial complaint, noted that some were interpreting PA 53 as allowing adoption agencies to refuse referrals from the state because of a sincerely held religious belief, and kept the focus of the lawsuit on DHHS policy that did the same thing. Those involved in the drafting of PA 53 have been incredulous at the ACLU's interpretation and confident the law does in fact do what it set out to do.

However, because the lawsuit filed Monday challenging the state's new policy on this front did not claim a violation of PA 53, there may not be a definitive resolution – unless the state or any other intervening parties cite PA 53 in defense of its position.

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Those Wronged By Unemployment System Get Their Chance

Posted: April 9, 2019 5:13 PM

It took three and a half years, but the 37,000 people wrongly found by the state of committing fraud to obtain unemployment benefits during a two-year period when the state used a computer system to handle fraud determinations will now get to argue the merits of their case in court.

The Michigan Supreme Court emphatically rejected the arguments lodged by the administration of Governor Rick Snyder via attorneys in the Department of Attorney General that the case should be thrown out on a technicality, that the plaintiffs in the case filed their case too late under state law requiring lawsuits against the state be filed within six months of the event giving rise to the case. The case was argued before Governor Gretchen Whitmer took office.

Let's not waste any more time on the legalese involving the technicality. Suffice it to say when a conservative textualist like Justice Stephen Markman writes the opinion for a unanimous court that the plaintiffs complied with the statute, it's pretty clear the Unemployment Insurance Agency fruitlessly delayed this case for years, even if it did persuade a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals it was right (that panel ordered the case dismissed, saying it had been filed too late). One of the interesting subplots is that two former Snyder legal counsels ruled differently (Appeals Judge Michael Gadola held the case was filed too late while Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Clement held it was filed on time).

This ruling brings to reality the potential for two significant developments: answers and money.

Answers to exactly what in the world led to such a terrible injustice could come in the form of discovery, not only in the case the Supreme Court revived last week known as the Bauserman case but also in a federal lawsuit where discovery is just getting underway (the Cahoo case).

The state has never really said what went wrong. Was it a technology problem, that the Michigan Integrated Data Automated System malfunctioned? Was it that the system worked as designed, but humans set the wrong parameters to flag fraud? Something else?

Before Mr. Snyder replaced leadership at and over the UIA, the agency refused to comment on those questions because of the litigation. Then after Michelle Beebe was named the new UIA director, she put her focus on fixing the agency's many problems and said she could not afford to spend time on figuring out what had gone wrong under previous leadership. Ms. Beebe is departing her post this month, and by all accounts, she has played an instrumental role in repairing what had been a deeply troubled agency.

Separate Freedom of Information Act requests filed by Gongwer and the Detroit Free Press unearthed some answers, one of the biggies being that the new MIDAS system lacked access to older case files, triggering all kinds of problems not only in the unemployment benefits system but also the State Unemployment Tax system for employers.

Broader FOIA requests Gongwer filed for communications involving key agency staff people during the time periods in question (MIDAS went online for jobless benefits October 1, 2013, before getting shelved in August 2015 amid mounting concerns) were met with fee estimates in the many thousands of dollars.

So, there's never really been a public airing of who knew what and when and how this happened.

And what happened exactly?

Under laws in place at the time, those found to have committed fraud were ordered to pay back their benefits, plus interest, PLUS penalties equal to four times the benefits they had received. This was frequently in the many tens of thousands of dollars.

During the period in question, the UIA wrongly accused people of fraud 70 percent of the time. Seventy. Percent. The state has said it has repaid all 37,000 for what they were wrongly forced to pay, but there is still the matter of damages.

What kind of damages? Well, of the 37,000 wrongly found to have committed fraud, 1,100 filed for bankruptcy. It's not clear how many of them filed bankruptcy because having to pay back all that money shattered their finances and how many of them weren't paying and filed because of other forces, but it is still a stunning number. Attorneys have said their clients lost houses, saw marriages collapse, among other indignities.

Of the 848 U.S. mail communities in Michigan, 95 percent had at least one person wrongly found by the UIA to have committed fraud, Gongwer has previously reported through a FOIA request.

The state could avoid a messy discovery process if it decides to settle the case. Will that now get serious consideration? One would think so. Up until last week's Bauserman ruling, the plaintiffs' attorneys in both the state and federal cases said no settlement overture from the state had occurred. This makes some sense because up until Friday, the Bauserman case was dead. Now the state knows where it stands, that it has a pair of cases filed by separate plaintiffs to decide if it wants to settle.

At least as of the past month, the UIA continued to fight the federal lawsuit vigorously even with Ms. Whitmer replacing Mr. Snyder and Attorney General Dana Nessel succeeding former Attorney General Bill Schuette. The assistant attorney general representing the UIA in the federal case submitted an interesting filing suggesting that because neither the UIA nor the state of Michigan was named as a defendant in the Cahoo case, that the state had no role in the case. The case does name several state employees, however, and while the state insists they are named as individuals, the plaintiffs' attorneys say between the employees and the state-hired vendors, the state is absolutely on the hook in the federal suit for liability.

Ultimately, this is Ms. Whitmer's call, and for now her office isn't saying anything about what she will do. She's said multiple times the state is facing hundreds of millions in liability from lawsuits filed during the Snyder era. The unemployment case is definitely part of the mix.

The price tag could be enormous. For argument's sake, what if the 1,100 who filed for bankruptcy got $50,000 each and everyone else got $10,000 each? That's $424 million. And Ms. Whitmer still must consider how the state is going to compensate the Flint water plaintiffs, which by the way, number 25,000 people. Settlement discussions already are underway there.

Answers and money. Could those finally be coming some six years after the MIDAS fiasco began?

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Another Tech Project Ends In Disaster For State

Posted: March 19, 2019 2:46 PM

Five years into a vital new information technology program for the child welfare system, here's what an independent analyst had to say about the quality of the Michigan Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System since it went online five years ago:

"Persistent and significant defects stemming from a flawed MiSACWIS design and initial roll-out in 2014 continue to generate an unmanageable backlog of defects, incidents, and data fixes that are likely to persist indefinitely, inhibit effective casework, contribute to data entry errors, negatively affect outcomes for children and families and impact (the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services') ability to collect and report accurate and timely … data for both the monitors and field staff."

Is that bad?

Did I mention the state has spent $231 million so far on this lemon?

Two. Hundred. Thirty-one. Million. Dollars.

There are so many outrages here, it's hard to know where to begin.

There's the sum of money frittered away, which so startled me that when I was speaking to DHHS spokesperson Bob Wheaton on the phone about the report and asked him what the state had spent so far on MiSACWIS and he told me, I hollered into the phone, "$231 million?!" Sorry about that, Bob.

There's the real-world consequences for children and families already facing significant challenges and problems. The technology was ordered up by the federal court overseeing the state's child welfare programs for the last decade because the system's problems were so severe they prompted a lawsuit in 2006 and a settlement in 2009 whose consent decree remains in effect.

There's the apparently false information state officials provided about MiSACWIS after its disastrous rollout in 2014. Yes, that's right, this thing was on the fritz from the moment it came online, and that was extensively reported. Many foster care agencies went extended periods without getting paid. But then in the succeeding years, officials kept telling legislators the system was improving. In fact, the report released last week showed the number of complaints from the system's users only kept increasing every year.

And then there's the triumvirate of state technology debacles in the past decade.

Besides MiSACWIS, there's the infamous fiasco in the unemployment fraud system, where 37,000 people were wrongly found to have committed fraud to get unemployment benefits by the Michigan Integrated Data Automated System, or MIDAS. There was definitely a human component to what happened because it was humans who decided to turn over the fraud adjudication process to a computer for two years between 2013-15 and some would contend the computer system functioned as it was designed, but still.

And let's not forget the Department of State's failed Business Application Modernization (BAM) project to update its systems for how motorists and others purchase and renew licenses, among many other functions. Started in 2008, it foundered so badly that years later the state fired the developer, sued it and started over with a new contractor that just completed much of the work and so far (knock on wood) it seems to be working.

Besides all three projects involving lame acronyms, all three had some common elements. All involved private contractors hired to develop the software and all three could end up costing the state a fortune, either in what it has paid out in development costs or in the case of the unemployment debacle, what it might take to settle lawsuits. The critics of the Department of Technology, Management and Budget also are out in force after the MiSACWIS revelations. The department is involved in working on all these projects, even when private contractors are heavily involved too. And then there's all three of these happening at a time when a former computer company CEO, Rick Snyder, was governor. Mr. Snyder elevated IT in his budgets in a huge way to update ancient systems that had been ignored for decades, but the results in some cases were awful, though it's not like the governor was personally involved in coding and data entry.

It's going to take some time to figure out exactly what went wrong with MiSACWIS. Was it the technology? Was it a case of bad data, not the technology itself? Both?

Will there be an investigation into what went wrong with MiSACWIS? There's never really been an explanation from the Unemployment Insurance Agency about what precisely led to the MIDAS disaster because of the ongoing lawsuits.

The state deserves some answers. Let's even make an acronym out of it.


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Dissecting Claims Of Stealing From One Part Of Budget To Fund Another

Posted: March 15, 2019 5:20 PM

As Governor Gretchen Whitmer makes the case for her 45-cent per gallon gasoline tax increase and Republicans who control the Legislature label the proposal a nonstarter, there's a subplot playing out.

It involves how the $2.5 billion the tax increase would raise would be used and the history of how Michigan funds roads. And it is a debate where both the governor and the Republicans are employing the same word: steal.

Be forewarned, there will be math.

By increasing the gasoline tax and the diesel fuel tax 45 cents per gallon, as well as hiking the tax on alternative fuel vehicles, that raises $2.5 billion. So that's $2.5 billion for roads, right?


It actually would be $942.5 million more for the upcoming 2019-20 fiscal year that starts October 1 and then $2.162 billion more in the 2020-21 fiscal year once the 45-cent tax increase is fully phased in.

This gets confusing because everyone is throwing around different numbers.

The Republicans are saying that once fully phased in, the gasoline tax would only bring in $1.9 billion more because, by the 2020-21 fiscal year, the 2015 road funding plan calls for the General Fund to contribute $600 million toward roads. Ms. Whitmer's plan would cancel that allocation given the influx of $2.5 billion in new revenue from her fuel tax increases, so Republicans subtract that $600 million and come up with $1.9 billion.

The State Budget Office has slightly different numbers than the ones I used because they are assuming the cancellation of the $325 million from the General Fund the 2015 plan requires be put toward roads in the 2019-20 fiscal year.

Still with me?

Here's the thing: In the current fiscal year, the state allocated $300 million from the General Fund toward roads. Not $325 million and not $600 million. So, on a year-over-year basis, which I think makes the most sense when figuring out how road funding would increase, it would be $942.5 million for the upcoming fiscal year and $2.162 billion for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

Now that we've covered that matter, back to the word I mentioned earlier: steal.

Republicans have said Ms. Whitmer is using the tax increase to steal money to pay for her priorities, that instead of proposing a tax increase to raise the money needed for the roads, she is proposing more than she needs so she can shore up other areas of the budget. They question how Ms. Whitmer can go around saying the state needs $2.5 billion more for roads and insist on that number when in fact her proposal means several hundreds of millions of dollars less than that.

Ms. Whitmer has said it is time to end the use of General Fund money for roads, that in effect, the Legislature and former Governor Rick Snyder stole money from the rest of the budget to pay for roads. Pulling the money out of the General Fund led to moving money from the School Aid Fund to pay for programs traditionally paid out of the General Fund: community colleges and higher education. That meant middling funding increases for K-12 school operations.

Indeed, it is only in the past several years, as the roads have dramatically worsened, that the General Fund has become a funding source for roads. I can still remember an attempt about 18 years ago on the House floor to add General Fund money via amendment to the Department of Transportation budget and the Transportation subcommittee chair (Judie Scranton) indignantly rebuffing the proposal by noting "not a dime" of General Fund money was in the budget.

There will be a couple countervailing messages in the weeks to come: Republican will push the line that whatever revenue they raise will go to roads and roads only. Ms. Whitmer will counter the state needs to tackle multiple crises – roads, K-12 schools and clean water – and cleaning up what funds go to what areas of the budget is instrumental.

Just one more subplot to watch in the weeks and months ahead.

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On Roads, The 45-Cent Gas Tax Hike And When 'Half A Loaf' Won't Do

Posted: March 6, 2019 1:04 PM

Amid the largely dour reaction among majority legislative Republicans on Governor Gretchen Whitmer's 45-cent gasoline tax hike to drag the state's roads out of a Michigan-sized pothole, there was this revelation that got overlooked: Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) supports finding $1 billion in new revenue for roads.

Mr. Shirkey, speaking to WJR-AM Tuesday, clearly panned Ms. Whitmer's proposal to increase the gasoline tax from 26.3 cents per gallon to 71.3 cents. He gave it a "D-" for creativity, said he in no way thought Michigan motorists would be willing to pay that much more and forecast strong opposition in the Legislature. Ms. Whitmer's proposal would raise $2.5 billion, though it would actually mean a $2.137 billion increase in road funding because some $325 million from the General Fund used for roads would return to General Fund programming. Also, the Constitution requires 2 percent of gasoline tax revenues to go to recreation (snowmobiles and ATVs use gasoline, too).

A number somewhere between $2 billion and $2.7 billion is considered what is needed in additional revenue every year to bring the state's deplorably bad roads back to 90 percent in good or fair condition by 2030. It's down to 78 percent (a number that almost seems laughably high) and forecast to decline rapidly in the coming years.

Now, to one way of thinking, the traditional Lansing way of thinking, Mr. Shirkey's remarks suggest there's a deal to be made. Meet somewhere in the middle, maybe $1.5 billion. That's a 27-cent increase per gallon.

If Ms. Whitmer and the Legislature could agree to that, it would be an extraordinary feat given the tortured history of road funding in Michigan, which to recap included a wrenching effort to pass a middling four-cent increase in the gasoline tax in 1997 and an even more painful task to get a 7.3-cent gasoline tax increase and a vehicle registration fee hike in 2015.

Dial up the cliché machine, that half a loaf is better than no loaf, that Ms. Whitmer and the Legislature would have moved the ball downfield, maybe not into the end zone for a touchdown but, when combined with the 2015 plan, getting close.

The problem is even with the full $2.5 billion more per year, it will only keep the overall road system from getting really terrible in the next three years. The percentage in good or fair condition will simply hold at about 78 percent instead of falling rapidly. By 2023 and beyond, that's when, with $2.5 billion more per year, the system will start to improve overall.

So, with "only" $1.5 billion more per year, the roads overall will continue to get worse even if this freeway here and that heavily used local road there get fixed. Former Governor Rick Snyder and the Legislature got a lot of heat in 2017 and 2018 about roads from motorists wondering why they continued to fall apart even though they were paying more in gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees from the 2015 plan. That's because the 2015 plan really didn't increase the amount of funding for roads much in the near-term and was designed to phase in over a six-year period.

Imagine the outcry with a 27-cent gasoline tax increase and the roads overall keep getting worse.

Ms. Whitmer and Budget Director Chris Kolb kept emphasizing that $2.5 billion number Tuesday. If there's another way legislators want to get there, they said, they are listening but that has to be the number, they insisted.

This is the unknown at this point. Will the new governor with her 14 years in the Legislature be willing to accept something less than $2.5 billion and declare victory, that she achieved the biggest revenue increase for roads in state history? Or is Ms. Whitmer concerned that she could simply end up with a repeat of 2015, when Mr. Snyder grudgingly accepted the plan with $600 million in new revenue and a gradual phase-in of $600 million from the General Fund but still trumpeted it as a win only to see the roads keep getting worse and motorists wondering where all that extra money they sent to Lansing went?

For a governor who ran on fixing the damn roads, the stakes couldn't be higher.

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Two Months Into New Era, Nessel's Role Immense

Posted: February 26, 2019 3:14 PM

Attorney General Dana Nessel is the most powerful person in state government. At least for now.

The reasons:

  • The breadth and importance of the issues currently before her office is almost staggering;
  • Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican-led Legislature will likely serve as more of a check on the other than generators of sweeping new laws until they prove otherwise; and
  • Ms. Whitmer and Ms. Nessel so far are the first governor and attorney general looking to work in tandem in 30 years, and Ms. Whitmer clearly sees the opportunity to leverage that to her advantage when she lacks a Democratic majority in the Legislature to pass her agenda.

Not since Jim Blanchard was governor and Frank Kelley was attorney general from 1983-91 has the state had a governor and attorney general so clearly working as a team. From 1991-2011, the offices were held by people of the opposite political party (John Engler as governor and Mr. Kelley as attorney general from 1991-98, Mr. Engler as governor and Jennifer Granholm as attorney general from 1999-2003 and Ms. Granholm as governor and Mike Cox as attorney general from 2003-11).

From 2011 until January 1 of this year, two Republicans – Rick Snyder as governor and Bill Schuette as attorney general – held the two offices. But they had a toxic relationship, disagreeing early and often and got along so poorly that by 2018 Mr. Snyder wouldn't even say if he liked Mr. Schuette.

Ms. Whitmer would surely like to repeal some of the laws Mr. Snyder signed from the GOP Legislature. But she can't. So, she's looking to Ms. Nessel to see if there are legal flaws in those statutes enabling their unraveling in court. This would not have been as realistic an option if Republican Tom Leonard had won the attorney general race over Ms. Nessel. Ms. Whitmer could have obtained her own counsel and mounted a case on behalf of state government, but Mr. Leonard could have argued against the governor's positions on behalf of the people of the state of Michigan.

Three key early examples are Enbridge Line 5, the new law governing how petition-gathering for ballot proposals works and the controversial Environmental Rules Review and Environmental Permit Review commissions. Ms. Whitmer has asked for Ms. Nessel's opinion on whether the law creating a new authority to oversee the construction of putting Line 5 into a tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac violates the state Constitution and the law creating the commissions conflicts with federal law. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has asked Ms. Nessel's opinion on whether the petition law, which creates new hoops to putting proposals on the ballot, is unconstitutional.

The Civil Rights Commission has asked Ms. Nessel for an opinion on whether the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act's prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex applies to sexual orientation and gender identity. Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) has asked Ms. Nessel for an opinion about whether the Legislature can adopt an initiative petition and amend it in the same legislative session (as Republicans did last year on the minimum wage and paid sick time ballot proposals).

Ms. Whitmer and others have asked for Ms. Nessel's opinion so many times that the attorney general tweeted, "Never thought the day would come where I would wish that fewer people were interested in my opinion."

Then there's the large number of major lawsuits against the state where Ms. Nessel could decide to seek settlements. I detailed those in an earlier blog. Already Ms. Nessel is moving to settle the Flint water civil cases and the lawsuit filed against the law allowing adoption agencies with which the state works to refuse to adopt to LGBTQ persons.

There's the hundreds – yes, hundreds – of lawsuits Mr. Schuette signed the state onto, many of which Ms. Nessel is pulling the state's name from or switching the state's position. And finally, there are the three major criminal investigations led by the department into Flint water, Michigan State University and the Catholic Church that Ms. Nessel inherited from Mr. Schuette and she is continuing.

Ms. Nessel held a remarkable news conference last week on all three that produced probably 10 different major headlines, including that she is opening an investigation into the resignation of MSU Trustee George Perles, a move that almost certainly will involve a look into former MSU Interim President John Engler's actions leading up to Mr. Perles' resignation. Understatement alert: That could be big.

Many of Ms. Nessel's most watched actions, maybe most, will be challenged in court with final verdicts rendered there. But until then, while Ms. Whitmer gets her administration up and running and she and the Republican-led Legislature figure out whether they will mostly work together or mostly serve as a check on the other, the most significant developments in state government will be coming from Ms. Nessel at the G. Mennen Williams State Office Building.

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What Does Whitmer, Republican Standoff On Environment Portend?

Posted: February 20, 2019 9:07 AM

For all the talk from both parties about bipartisanship, building bridges and a focus on governing over partisanship, the first major policy move by Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican-led Legislature's response to it sure looked and felt like a classic partisan showdown.

The question now is whether the fight over Ms. Whitmer's executive order reorganizing the Department of Environmental Quality into the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, and the Legislature's rejection of it, was merely an example of the new governor and new Republican legislative leadership testing each other out and showing the other they have backbone or a sign that the Capitol is headed for two years of gridlock.

To recap, when Ms. Whitmer reorganized the environmental department, she included elimination of three commissions business interests urged, the Republican Legislature passed and Republican former Governor Rick Snyder signed into law in 2018. One panel could delay new environmental regulations for up to two years. Another could prevent the department from having the final say on permits. The other is advisory only and less controversial.

Ms. Whitmer has defended her action as fully within the rights of the governor, and it is, but she's also facing a Republican Legislature loyal to its business allies and it was clear the moment she released the executive order they would protest the elimination of the commissions. It's also fully within the rights of the Legislature to reject an executive order.

Republicans had 60 days to consider the executive order and work out a compromise of some sort – maybe new bills reworking the industry-heavy membership of the commissions and speeding up the timelines so the rules review committee couldn't hold up the process for two years.

Instead, two days later, the House rejected the executive order on a party-line vote, prompting Ms. Whitmer to counter with a request for Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel to determine whether the commissions run afoul of federal environmental law. Ms. Whitmer also called a news conference within minutes of the House vote where she made clear she would not withdraw the executive order and would get rid of the panels one way or the other.

Eight days later, the Senate rejected the executive order, making it the first one overturned since 1977.

Democrats and Republicans went to their respective corners, Democrats hammering at the GOP for undermining environmental protections and Republicans saying they were standing up for the state's businesses against the DEQ.

What this looked like was a new governor deciding she would not negotiate against herself and would pursue the policies she wants. What this also looked like was the new Republican legislative leadership, House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake, showing they would not let the new governor steamroll them nor their traditional allies in the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Michigan Farm Bureau. When threatened with an early defeat, Ms. Whitmer decided not to retreat and when the governor and an emboldened Democratic legislative minority turned up the heat, Mr. Chatfield and Mr. Shirkey showed they were not bluffing.

Now Ms. Whitmer and the Republican leadership have taken the measure of each other.

The question is, now that everyone knows where the other stands and what they will do to win, does that open the door to genuine compromise? Or does it mean both sides dig in and this will be fought out in court if Ms. Nessel rules the panels are illegal?

Longer term, what does this portend for negotiations between Ms. Whitmer and the Republican legislative leadership on key issues like road funding, clean water and auto insurance? Does this early skirmish provide a foundation so each side knows to take the other seriously or does it signal compromise is easier said than done?

There were conflicting signals last week.

Mr. Shirkey opened the door to new revenue on roads, a significant development that signals negotiations could be fruitful on that topic. When Ms. Whitmer delivered her State of the State speech, though, Democrats roared approval throughout and Republicans remained silently glued to their seats most of the time.

It's too soon to say, but when faced with an early choice between compromise and confrontation, each side chose the latter.

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Details, Schmetails: The Annual Refrain From The Opposition Party

Posted: February 13, 2019 2:27 PM

There are a few certainties we can count on in life. Death. Taxes. The sun rising in the east and setting in the west. The Detroit Lions never playing in the Super Bowl. And the opposition party bemoaning a lack of details in a governor's State of the State speech.

The names and party affiliations change, but the reactions are the same.

The governor gives a speech emphasizing themes, concepts for new programs, but does not get into the nitty-gritty of how to pay for them. Such details are generally reserved for the governor's budget presentation.

Then the opposition party in interviews, among its reactions, usually focuses on the lack of details in the speech. That happened last night when Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer made it clear she would propose large increases in spending on roads, K-12 schools and water infrastructure, but offered no specifics as to how she would pay for them.

In a fairly typical response among Republican legislators interviewed, Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville), said, "I don't think Michigan needs a reminder that our roads need to get better, but she did not provide any meaningful solutions or any solutions at all."

Let's take a quick trip through the Gongwer News Service archives for some snippets of reaction to State of the State speeches of yore. I'm not going to include everything I found, but in our digitized archives that run from late 1993 to the present, I found examples of similar complaints from Democrats of a Republican governor in 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2013, from Republicans of a Democratic governor in 2010, 2008, 2007, 2006 and 2003 and from Democrats of a Republican governor in 2002, 2000 and 1999.

2017 from then-House Minority Leader Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) of then-Governor Rick Snyder: "Until you have those details and things that actually show an investment into people that are feeling that economic anxiety and to deal with the tough issues facing our infrastructure and the state, we will have to continue to question the sincerity of those levels of investments from this governor."

In 2013, Ms. Whitmer, then the Senate minority leader, said after Mr. Snyder emphasized road funding in his speech that Democrats awaited a specific proposal from him.

In 2010, then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) said then-Governor Jennifer Granholm lacked details on how to pay for Pure Michigan, restoring the Michigan Promise Scholarship and avoiding cuts to education.

A 2006 story on Ms. Granholm's State of the State that year had the headline "Republicans say specifics needed on proposals."

In 1999, when then-Governor John Engler discussed his intent to pursue a takeover of the Detroit Public Schools, then-Rep. Buzz Thomas (D-Detroit) said, "This is a shell of a plan – zero details."

I dusted off the hard-copy archives and perused Gongwer's coverage of a few pre-Engler State of the State speeches. Guess what?

In 1989, Mr. Engler, then the Senate majority leader, said of then-Governor Jim Blanchard's speech as Republicans questioned how the governor would pay for his proposals, "We'll see what the details look like in the light of day."

And in 1981, then-Senate Majority Leader David Plawecki (D-Dearborn Heights) – yes, the Democrats actually ran the Senate back then – said then-Governor William Milliken's speech offered no specific solutions to the state's problems.

Governors, then and now, seem to regard the State of the State as their one annual opportunity to speak in an unfiltered, extended way to the public and want to use it as a way to state their general values. They don't want to go all wonky and tick off a list of proposals about what they intend to do with a whole bunch of alphabet soup departments and agencies that could cause viewers' eyes to glaze over.

And if Ms. Whitmer had proposed some type of tax increase to pay for new road funding, all the coverage would have focused heavily on it instead of her overall emphasis on the crises she said the state faces in education and infrastructure. The speech appeared part of an effort to build the case for what she will propose March 5 in her budget.

That said, I've always been of the mind that if you have the podium before the 148 members of the Legislature, a statewide television audience and almost every news media outlet in the state hanging on your every word, why not put your plan out there and make the case for it? The budget presentation, while heavily covered, does not generate nearly the attention of State of the State.

Former House Speaker William Ryan, considered one of the greatest speakers of all time, offered this observation in 1981 after Mr. Milliken's speech that might have answered my question about why a governor might not want to get too detailed at State of the State. By this time, he was no longer the speaker, but he was still a committee chair. He's the lone voice I found among opposition party legislators against a governor being more specific.

Of Mr. Milliken's generalities in that speech, Mr. Ryan said: "We're going to have to sit down anyway and work something out. I don't know if proposing a specific plan would have helped advance the process that much."

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A Case Study In A P.R. Fiasco From Dearborn

Posted: February 4, 2019 2:07 PM

Maybe Bill McGraw should thank Dearborn Mayor Jack O'Reilly for firing him as the editor of the tiny Dearborn Historian in response to the article Mr. McGraw wrote for the publication exploring the virulent anti-Semitism of the city's most famous resident, Henry Ford.

In firing Mr. McGraw from the city-controlled publication, Mr. O'Reilly has instead caused the article to spread so far beyond the Historian's miniscule 200-person circulation that its readership is now exponentially greater than it would have been had he let the story be published.

It's the second case in the past year of censorship gone awry in this state. Last year, then-Interim Michigan State University Interim President John Engler forced the rewriting of a series of articles to appear in the MSU alumni magazine about the school's failures on Larry Nassar. Predictably, the articles found their way to other publications and were published anyway, with far greater readership and at the cost of another example of MSU looking to protect its image instead of taking actions to heal the community.

Mr. O'Reilly apparently wasn't paying attention.

First, a few disclaimers. Mr. McGraw and I worked together at the Detroit Free Press and shared a cubicle. I consider him a mentor. I used to live in Dearborn, so I have some sense of the community and its history. I'm Jewish. My family has had in the past and currently has a membership to The Henry Ford, which encompasses the museum and Greenfield Village. And my wife and I have leased a pair of Ford vehicles for years.

Deadline Detroit has published Mr. McGraw's story, which Deadline reported was to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Mr. Ford buying the Dearborn Independent weekly newspaper, which became the launching pad for Mr. Ford's diatribes against Jews.

Mr. O'Reilly apparently didn't understand, a Dearborn spokesperson told the Free Press, why a city-run publication would run a story looking at "negative messages from 75 or 100 years ago."

This is just baffling. The same logic could be used to close every historical museum in the world, lest people be exposed to "negative messages."

Growing up in the 1980s, I had heard about Mr. Ford's anti-Semitism. I knew it was bad, but I did not know or did not remember the details conveyed in Mr. McGraw's story. I learned a lot. And the article goes to great lengths to point out what also is known – that Mr. Ford's descendants and the Ford Motor Company have gone to great lengths with the Jewish community to repair the damage he did.

In censoring the story and refusing its publication to the 200 readers of the Historian, which has no online presence, Mr. O'Reilly has triggered massive coverage of it – The New York Times and various other national media outlets have picked it up.

So now an untold number of people will get the chance to learn, as Mr. McGraw's story recounts, about how Mr. Ford was probably the leading anti-Semite in America and whom Adolf Hitler, many years prior to taking over Germany and starting the Holocaust, once called his inspiration. This comes at a time when an alarming number of Americans do not know basic facts about the Holocaust.

So, in a weird, twisted way, maybe we all owe Mr. O'Reilly a debt of gratitude for bringing more attention to Mr. McGraw's story than it ever would have gotten.

Let's not make this a habit, though, okay? Two examples of censorship in a year in this state is two too many.

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The Biggest Cases Facing Nessel (And Whitmer)

Posted: January 30, 2019 1:35 PM

There are more significant decisions facing the attorney general than at any time I can recall in my time covering state government and politics.

The list of major, significant cases facing Attorney General Dana Nessel, who took office January, 1 is long.

Unfortunately, Ms. Nessel has declined a standing request we at Gongwer News Service have made, and made, and made and made again (you get the idea) since winning election November 6 for an interview. Initially, the word from her office was no interviews until after she was inaugurated January 1. Now it turns out no interviews indefinitely. That is regrettable and completely at odds with how the last four attorneys general have interacted with the news media.

Since it's not possible to ask Ms. Nessel her thoughts on the many big cases facing her, I thought it at least instructive to review the big cases we know of that are pending. It's important to remember too that in many instances, the Department of Attorney General is largely representing the wishes of department directors appointed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

FLINT WATER CIVIL CASES: Hundreds and hundreds of lawsuits against the state are pending in state and federal courts from Flint residents as a result of the decisions that led to the city's water crisis with elevated lead levels in the water supply as well as possibly leading to the Legionnaires' disease outbreak. The administration of Governor Rick Snyder fought these cases every step of the way despite losing several key early court rulings.

UNEMPLOYMENT FALSE FRAUD SCANDAL: Multiple class-action lawsuits have been brought in response to the Unemployment Insurance Agency wrongly determining between 2013-15 that 37,000 people committed fraud to get benefits. A state class action case is awaiting a major decision from the Michigan Supreme Court on whether the case will be dismissed for being filed too late. A federal case is moving into discovery. The attorney for the plaintiffs in both the Flint and unemployment cases has said Ms. Whitmer and Ms. Nessel have signaled an interest in a settlement. Nothing has happened yet, however.

LINE 5: One lawsuit already has been filed in the Court of Claims contesting the law creating an authority to oversee the construction of a tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac to house Enbridge Line 5, and Ms. Whitmer has asked Ms. Nessel for a formal opinion on whether the law violates the Constitution.

LEAD AND COPPER RULE: Local governments have sued the state in the Court of Claims over the new Lead and Copper Rule promulgated by the Snyder administration setting an action level of 12 parts per billion. How Ms. Whitmer and Ms. Nessel handle this suit will be a big early test between their allies in local government and the environment.

STATE POLICE CHASE POLICY: A lawsuit was filed in the Genesee Circuit Court arguing the State Police was violating the state civil rights act in how it conducts high-speed pursuits in predominately African-American areas. The state lost on its motion to dismiss the case but appealed and that is now pending before the Court of Appeals. This will be a test of how Ms. Whitmer and Ms. Nessel balance concerns about police treatment of African-Americans with supporting law enforcement. The two officials will have to decide whether to continuing appealing or move toward a settlement.

NO-FAULT INSURANCE: Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan sued the state in the U.S. District Court in Detroit about the no-fault insurance law, demanding the state rewrite the law or be ordered to do so by the court. This case is still in its infancy and given the speed with which the federal courts move, it probably won't become a legitimate concern for at least a year. Nonetheless, it will put Ms. Whitmer and Ms. Nessel in an awkward spot to fight the case.

CHILD MENTAL HEALTH: A sweeping class-action case accusing the state of failure to provide adequate mental health services for children is pending in the U.S. District Court in Detroit. Under the Snyder administration, the state was fighting the case. Ms. Whitmer and Ms. Nessel have a big decision to make on this one.

WRONGFUL IMPRISONMENT COMPENSATION: Former Attorney General Bill Schuette stunned and infuriated those who put together the relatively new Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, to assure those wrongfully convicted and imprisoned receive compensation from the state, in fighting claims filed by those who did not do so within six months of the law taking effect. While that is the notice requirement for filing in the Court of Claims, the compensation law specifically gives claimants 18 months to file. Legislation to correct the problem died in the House without explanation last term. The claimants have appealed the Court of Claims siding with Mr. Schuette. Ms. Nessel must decide whether to continue the position of the Schuette administration.

ADOPTION SERVICES FOR LGBT FAMILIES: Ms. Nessel already has signaled her intent to settle the lawsuit challenging a state law allowing adoption agencies with whom the state contracts to deny services based on a sincere religious belief, a law that allows religious organizations to refuse adoption services to prospective LGBT parents.

TESLA: Will Ms. Whitmer, Ms. Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson continue defending state law requiring automakers to sell their vehicles through a franchised dealership? The case is pending in the U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids.

JUVENILE PRISON ABUSE: Here's a thorny one. The Snyder and Schuette administrations have zealously fought lawsuits brought against the Department of Corrections accusing its staff of failing to prevent sexual abuse of juvenile prisoners. Corrections has repeatedly denied the allegations, and most court rulings so far have favored the state.

'RIGHT TO READ': Ms. Whitmer regularly beat up on Mr. Schuette for his office's defense of the state in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan asserting children have the right to read and that the state had failed to fulfill that right. The state has prevailed in court so far, but the plaintiffs have appealed to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. This is another one where there will be pressure for a settlement.

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A Look At Districts That Could Be Redrawn For 2020

Posted: January 22, 2019 5:04 PM

The legal challenge to the maps Republicans drew eight years ago for the Legislature and Michigan's 14 U.S. House districts has suddenly become the center of the Michigan political universe with news that Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, weeks after replacing Republican former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, is seeking a settlement with the Democratic plaintiffs.

A settlement would mean redrawn lines for the 2020 election cycle, maybe even including elections that year for the Michigan Senate, which ordinarily would not be up for election until 2022 with its four-year terms.

Republicans have gone to battle stations, zeroing in on Ms. Benson and raising the specter of the new secretary of state and the plaintiffs concocting a settlement in secret. The plaintiffs, however, have sketched out the idea of having the Republican Legislature redraw maps subject to court approval.

Ms. Benson does have to tread carefully here because she has made transparency in redistricting a hallmark of her agenda. That said, I covered the 2001 and 2011 reapportionment processes when Republican lawmakers all but rubber-stamped maps their consultants drew up behind closed doors, so there is definitely a pot meeting kettle dynamic in the Republican outrage.

However, at this stage, the plaintiffs are not seeking a rewrite of all 14 U.S. House districts, 38 Michigan Senate districts and 110 Michigan House districts. In October, the plaintiffs identified 34 challenged districts to the U.S. District Court handling the case in the case – nine U.S. House districts, 10 Michigan Senate districts and 15 Michigan House districts.

An email sent Monday from one of the plaintiffs' attorneys to one of the attorney representing the Republican elected officials who have been granted intervening defendant status in the cases suggests a settlement structure where "fewer than" the 34 challenged districts are actually redrawn.

Let's look at those 34 districts and try to get a feel for just how much could change politically.

Some of these districts would not fundamentally change based on the political changes in various regions since the drawing of the maps in 2011 unless there were some wild contortions in the way the maps are drawn, the kind of contortions incidentally that was a huge part of the case Voters Not Politicians made for removing redistricting from the Legislature.

I don't see how the 1st U.S. House District that covers the Upper Peninsula and the northern Lower Peninsula can be redrawn to become legitimately competitive in the current political climate. In 2011, the U.P. was still seen as a 50-50 area and the U.S. 23 corridor in places like Alpena still had a strong Democratic vote. That's not the case anymore. In the previous decade, the 1st had what was then solidly Democratic turf in Bay County that Republicans removed. With the weakening of the Democratic base there, putting it back won't have much punch.

The plaintiffs also have their eyes on redoing the 4th and 5th U.S. House districts, likely moving some of the heavily Democratic turf in the 5th (which encompasses Flint/Saginaw/Bay City) to soften up the heavily Republican 4th (north-central Lower Peninsula) and vice-versa. This has risks from a Democratic standpoint, however. These areas overall are trending Republican. It would take a major change to put U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Midland) in the 4th in legitimate jeopardy, one that would require making the district of U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) a very competitive district.

Nearly all the Detroit-area U.S. House districts are challenged. But since the filing of the document identifying districts 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 as challenged, Democrats flipped two of them and now control four of those five. Do the Democrats really want to redraw districts for U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) and U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills), first-term members who won tough races in 2018? There is definitely a way to redraw Ms. Stevens' district and the heavily Democratic 9th U.S. House District of U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Township) to shore up Ms. Stevens' seat, but not Ms. Slotkin's.

The 7th District, held by U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton), also is on the list, as is the neighboring 12th, held by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn). That could get interesting, though a move like placing heavily Democratic Ann Arbor and environs, now in Ms. Dingell's district, into Mr. Walberg's in exchange for Republican-tilting Monroe County, now in Mr. Walberg's, would make Ms. Dingell's seat much less comfortable than it is now.

In the Senate, it will be interesting to see what challenged districts the plaintiffs drop from their list. Do they jettison the 12th Senate District after that was won by now-Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills)? Or is there a way to shore up her seat by giving her some of the territory in the neighboring heavily Democratic 11th held by Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield)? But how would one do that without putting Ms. Bayer and Mr. Moss, who live in neighboring communities, into the same seat?

If the plaintiffs were to amend their list of challenged districts, I have to wonder if they'd like to add the 15th Senate District narrowly won by now-Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) in a much closer than initially expected race. It's unclear if they can do that now, however.

The 10th Senate District in central Macomb is on the challenged list as one would expect. Republicans moved this seat northward in 2011 and made it securely Republican. But the plaintiffs put the heavily Republican 8th District to the north and east on the challenged list, not the strongly Democratic 9th to the south. That will make softening the 10th's Republican leanings more difficult.

The challenged Senate districts also include pairs of districts covering Washtenaw and Livingston counties, parts of Genesee and Oakland counties and the Saginaw-Midland areas. There is some real potential to put new districts in play in these areas that are now solidly GOP.

In the House, the challenged districts offer much less opportunity for Democratic gains in 2020. Of the 15 districts identified, I only see two where redrawing the lines would give Democrats a chance to flip seats – the 91st in suburban Muskegon County and the 94th in suburban Saginaw County. It would be relatively easy to swap heavily Democratic territory from the neighboring 92nd and 95th Districts, respectively, to make the 91st and 94th very competitive.

Of the other seats identified as challenged, some of them Democrats already won in 2018 and others are in areas that have so strongly shifted Republican or Democratic, tinkering with the lines wouldn't really make a difference.

In looking at the challenge overall, the jackpot for the Democrats would be the Senate, where Republicans have held control for 35 years and but for this litigation would be in charge for the duration of Governor Gretchen Whitmer's first term. There's a long way to go in this case, but the potential of a settlement revealed last week has completely scrambled expectations about what the 2020 election cycle could look like.

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How Long Will The Era Of Good Feelings Last?

Posted: January 15, 2019 3:56 PM

There's something in the air in Lansing so far this year, something so unusual, it has startled longtime followers of the goings-on at the Capitol: a bipartisan tone.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer's inaugural address was full of bipartisan themes and outreach. House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) invited all the living former speakers, Democrat and Republican, to the House's Opening Day session, and it was quite a sight seeing eight of the 11 on the rostrum to sign a tribute for the first day of the 100th Legislature. Mr. Chatfield held a news conference with Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel on the House floor after the session in a move that surprised everyone.

The Michigan Supreme Court, which has a 4-3 majority of justices nominated by the Republican Party, elected a Democrat as chief justice with now-Chief Justice Bridget McCormack taking the reins of the high court. Even though the court has operated with a philosophical majority of two Democrats and two Republicans of late, this was still an eye-popping development.

And the Michigan Senate – well, some things don't change. The honey badger of Michigan politics, former Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, may be gone as a result of term limits, but the Senate is still very much a Republican bastion after 35 years of GOP control. Even though the GOP majority shrunk from 27-11 to 22-16 – the biggest shift in seats in 40 years – Republicans have still kept lopsided margins on committees with only a slight increase in Democratic representation.

All that said, Mr. Meekhof's successor, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, isn't quite the partisan animal Mr. Meekhof is and is expected to take a more conciliatory approach.

This is all pretty easy at the moment. The Legislature's just getting organized. It will be a couple weeks, at least, before legislative committees begin work. Ms. Whitmer is still three weeks from delivering her State of the State message and about six weeks from unveiling her first budget recommendation.

In short, there's really nothing for Democrats and Republicans to go to battle on yet as Ms. Whitmer and the bipartisan legislative leadership prepare for their first Quadrant meeting Wednesday.

There will be some telling early decisions, however, that will signal just how long these two weeks of kumbaya will last.

Ms. Whitmer and Ms. Nessel have a decision to make about whether they think the law enacted late last year authorizing the creation of a tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac meets constitutional muster. Mr. Chatfield already pushed back at their even raising the possibility it doesn't, and Republicans strongly favor the tunnel.

Do Republicans start a conga line of bills across Capitol Avenue to the Romney Building designed to put Ms. Whitmer in a jam and force a veto? That's what happened in 2003, the last time a newly elected Democratic governor and Republican Legislature took office. Majority Republicans in a matter of weeks sent then-Governor Jennifer Granholm a bill to regionalize control of the Detroit water system. She opposed the bill. Republicans knew that, but wanted to put her in a bad spot with the suburban Detroit voters who elected her and sent her the bill anyway. She vetoed it.

In that 2003-04 term, Ms. Granholm vetoed 66 bills, 11 in the first year.

In December, Ms. Whitmer warned she saw the huge supplemental appropriations bill as fiscally irresponsible and noted the Constitution says an appropriation is not a mandate to spend. Will her administration hold back on the appropriation of any of those funds, something that surely would antagonize Republicans (and maybe some Democrats too) in the Legislature?

Do the Senate Republicans haul in Whitmer appointees for rough-and-tumble advice and consent hearings or are those hearings as genteel as they were in the second term of Governor Rick Snyder's tenure (they didn't exist at all in Mr. Snyder's first term).

And over at the court, which could now fairly be termed the McCormack Court, does the ruling majority essentially remain Ms. McCormack, Justice Richard Bernstein, Justice Elizabeth Clement and Justice David Viviano with newly sworn-in Justice Megan Cavanagh joining them? Based on the way the court has acted in the past year-plus, the betting money is yes.

On auto insurance, do legislative Republicans and the Whitmer administration work extensively on a compromise right up front, or does it turn into the usual posturing where the Legislature puts together a bill and then talks start on a compromise that gets passed in the middle of the night?

Springtime in Lansing usually features a few days where the aroma of farms to the south wafts northward. By then, we should know whether these early niceties were born of the same thing that generates that springtime scent over the Capitol region.

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Lame Duck Intensity A Term Limits Byproduct?

Posted: December 18, 2018 2:37 PM

It is possible that of the 950 or so public acts that will be signed into law during the 2017-18 term, about one-third of them will have cleared the Legislature during the final seven weeks of the two-year session, also known as the lame-duck session.

That's right – 33 percent of the laws for the term crammed into 7 percent of the term.

It is a phenomenon that has triggered outrage among Democrats with majority Republicans looking to move as much as possible as their eight-year hold on the governor's office comes to an end in January.

Republicans retort that the Legislature is in session, thus it should be working. And lame duck has historically produced some notable bipartisan legislation that all sides have cheered. The energy legislation of the 2016 lame-duck session, for example. There was the phaseout of the industrial portion of the personal property tax in 2014. The bills setting up an authority to run the Cobo Center passed in lame duck 2008.

But the escalating Democratic anger this year owes to many factors. Part of it is the volume. Part of it is the tactic of advancing legislation, much of which didn't even exist prior to the election, after the election. And a big part of it is the nature of the legislation, some of which would curb the powers of the incoming Democratic elected officials. Such maneuvers were not attempted in prior lame ducks.

In the Senate, 37 of the 38 members as a result of term limits will never again face the voters for the seats they now hold. In the House, 67 of the 110 members will never again face voters for the seats they now hold, again as the result of term limits.

In the lame ducks of yore, lame duck was a lot less lame. Sure, there were the dozen or so members who had opted not to run again or lost re-election. But most of the members by far would have to face the voters again, assuming they decided to run again. Considerable time would have elapsed since any controversial votes, yes, but they could not vote with impunity.

So, I decided to look back at the history of the lame-duck session in Michigan since the first full-time legislative session in the 1969-70 term. During the part-time legislative era, there was no regular lame-duck session because the Legislature adjourned for the term many months before the election. There could be a special session after the election, but only on specific items and it was not a regular event.

The number of public acts signed during the lame-duck period offer a pretty clear trend.

The first year that jumps out is 1992. In the first 12 lame-duck sessions, from 1972-92, six of them saw less than 100 acts. Eleven of the 12 lame-duck sessions since then saw more than 150.

And what happened in 1992?

Voters passed the term limits constitutional amendment – three two-year terms in the House and four two-year terms in the Senate. The first four lame ducks following the adoption of term limits saw more public acts out of lame duck, but nothing wildly different than what came in the pre-term limits era. During those years, term limits was still phasing in, with veteran lawmakers still dominating at least one house of the Legislature.

The second year that jumps out is 2004.

That is the first lame-duck session in the pure term limits era, with virtually none of the veteran lawmakers of yesteryear in the fold.

Lame-duck sessions from 1972-2002 saw an average of 138 public acts. Those from 2004-16, when the full churn of term limits was in effect, saw an average of 234. If the state winds up with 300 public acts in the 2018 edition of lame duck as seems probable, the average from 2004-18 will bump up to 242.

There's a lot of anger at lame duck right now, but the numbers suggest it's a symptom of something bigger – large numbers of legislators with pet bills they desperately want passed before they return to private life and no worries about having to answer for those bills and votes.

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A Big Change In Tactics Since Last Struggle Over Authority

Posted: December 11, 2018 5:12 PM

On October 5, 1999, the state's first new attorney general in 38 years, Jennifer Granholm, strode into a committee room on the third floor of the House Office Building with her predecessor, Frank Kelley, at her side to testify about legislation majority House Republicans had introduced to eliminate the attorney general's power to issue binding rulings on state agencies and take both sides of a case.

Ms. Granholm, seated at the witness table, landed a roundhouse with three simple words.

"This is shameful," she said in a room jammed with news reporters and photographers covering the confrontation.

At that moment, the Republican movement to curb Ms. Granholm's powers collapsed, the rising Democratic star leaving GOP lawmakers flustered about how to explain why they were acting to curb the powers of the state's first woman to serve as attorney general after having left Mr. Kelley alone for years.

Fast forward to Michigan's 2018 lame-duck session, where majority legislative Republicans are moving legislation to strip the secretary of state's authority over campaign finance, where it has rested since the enactment of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act in 1976, and move it to a bipartisan commission – legislation that surfaced only after Jocelyn Benson became the first Democrat in 28 years to win the office.

And then there is the legislation to allow the Legislature to intervene in any state court regarding lawsuits involving constitutional or statutory issues, a move that would chip away at the attorney general's and governor's authority to determine the legal strategy of the state when sued. Instead of Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel, both Democrats, deciding in January to, say, drop the state's defense of the law repealing the prevailing wage law and ruling it unenforceable because they agree with the plaintiff union it is unconstitutional, scuttling the law, the House and/or Senate could intervene as defendants to fight for the statute.

But as the Legislature moves these bills, Ms. Benson and Ms. Nessel – the primary ones affected – have communicated remotely, mostly through prepared statements via their spokespersons. Ms. Benson did do at least one radio interview.

What they did not do, unlike Ms. Granholm 19 years ago, was march into House and Senate committees taking up the bills and directly confront Republicans.

The big difference between then and now is that Ms. Granholm was in office. Ms. Benson and Ms. Nessel don't assume office until January 1. And while in 1999, nearly all members of the House who might have had to vote on the bill would face voters for re-election the following year, relatively few members of the Legislature now serving will ever face voters again for the positions they currently hold.

The incoming Democrats appear to be gambling that if they avoid pouring gasoline on the fire, perhaps they could avoid provoking Republicans into passing the bills. That doesn't appear to be working with the bill letting the House and Senate intervene in court. A Senate committee moved swiftly on it Tuesday, and that bill looks primed to land on Governor Rick Snyder's desk sooner than later. The bills curbing Ms. Benson's powers, however, so far have not seen action in the House, and House Speaker-elect Lee Chatfield's comments last week as the court intervention bill passed the House seemed to suggest – perhaps – some reticence about the idea.

That said, those bills could move anytime between now and when the Legislature adjourns for the year.

A court challenge also appears certain on the court intervention bill, so maybe that also makes the incoming governor and attorney general less alarmed about it. There's also the possibility that even if the bills stripping campaign finance powers away from the secretary of state pass and Mr. Snyder signs them, Ms. Whitmer upon taking office could sign an executive order moving the authority right back to Ms. Benson.

Article V, Section 2 of the Michigan Constitution says, "the governor may make changes in the organization of the executive branch or in the assignment of functions among its units which he considers necessary for efficient administration. Where these changes require the force of law, they shall be set forth in executive orders and submitted to the legislature." Now, the House and Senate could vote by simple majorities to overturn such an executive order and keep those powers from reverting to Ms. Benson, but it would be the new Legislature making that call, not the lame-duck lawmakers. Would all those new Republican senators and representatives have the appetite for that?

So, these could be reasons Ms. Whitmer, Ms. Benson and Ms. Nessel are not orchestrating mass protests and confronting the Republicans face to face even with national news media descending on Lansing.

All that said, it's a risk, putting their fates in the hands of Republican lawmakers, Mr. Snyder and the courts, where there will be still a 4-3 majority of the Supreme Court nominated by the GOP.

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Is Snyder Ready To Wheel And Deal? The Betting Money Is Yes

Posted: December 4, 2018 11:49 AM

Today is my birthday. And tonight is the third night of Hanukkah. When I was growing up, if my birthday fell during Hanukkah, which was often, this meant I would get the dreaded "combined birthday/Hanukkah gift."

Aside from revealing me to have acted like a spoiled, ungrateful brat – "I should get multiple gifts, waaah!" – I mention this story because I would roll my eyes when my parents would hand me the gift and declare it a combined birthday/Hanukkah gift.

The same way I roll my eyes when Governor Rick Snyder and his staff, asked about legislation moving in the Legislature and whether he supports it, could support it, opposes it, would like to see changes to it, respond with the same pat answer: The governor will review all bills sent to him before making a decision.

This gives the image of a governor above the fray, nobly calling balls and strikes, signing the good bills and vetoing the bad ones, as though he and his staff had nothing to do with the final form of many of the most important bills ultimately sent to his desk.

False (said in Dwight Schrute voice).

Unless the governor's legislative affairs staff has spent the last three months hanging out with the serially absent Rep. Bettie Cook Scott (D-Detroit), shopping and ignoring their jobs – spoiler alert, they haven't – Mr. Snyder and his staff in fact will have a lot to say about what happens to the bills that reach his desk as they move through the Legislature.

It's true that some bills do arrive on Mr. Snyder's desk without his having made up his mind on them and in some cases, he's vetoed them. The governor *has* vetoed about 60 bills during his nearly eight years in office, and with possibly hundreds more moving toward his desk, there's bound to be some more.

But the big questions as we begin Lame Duck Week Two are what Mr. Snyder thinks of the raft of major bills starting to waddle their way from the Capitol across Capitol Avenue toward the George Romney State Office Building. There're the bills gutting the minimum wage and paid sick time voter-initiated acts. There's the bill stripping power from the secretary of state office as Democratic Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson prepares to take office. There's the bill giving the Legislature an automatic right to intervene in any court action in a state court, a move designed to protect Republican laws that Democratic Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer and Democratic Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel might be less than inclined to defend in litigation.

There's a host of bills that have horrified environmental activists, and that's a topic where Mr. Snyder has occasionally surprised and disappointed his allies in the business community, but as frequently left the environmental community furious.

The governor and his staff have had the same response when asked about his position on any of these issues, that he will review any bills that actually reach his desk and then decide whether to sign them.


Well, what do we know the governor wants out of the lame-duck session? There's the authorization for a tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac to place the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline. But Republican legislators also are itching to get that done, so that appears not a big ask.

What the governor has spent all year urging, however, and the only legislation his team has stated publicly he wants before he leaves office are the bills establishing a new fee on water bills to pay for water infrastructure and increasing the tipping fee on landfills to pay for brownfield and PFAS clean-ups.

The Republican majorities in the Legislature have scrunched their noses at those bills as though they were downwind of a landfill on a hot, humid summer day. What's the old saw? "An f-e-e is a t-a-x."

But there also is plenty of chatter in the air that the message has been conveyed from the governor that if majority legislative Republicans want him to seriously entertain their pet priorities, they must pass Mr. Snyder's water and landfill fee bills. So far, those bills remain buried in committees, but as long as they pass their first house by the end of next week, they remain in the mix. And the sense in the Capitol community is that legislative Republicans are prepared to play ball.

Mr. Snyder has resolutely denied in the past engaging in the time-honored practice of horsetrading with the Legislature. But if he gets those fee bills sent to his desk, there's no telling what Mr. Snyder might end up signing as part of reaching an agreement to secure the necessary votes.

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32 Takeaways From The 32 Closest Races For The Michigan House

Posted: November 28, 2018 3:34 PM

Thirty-two of the 110 races for the Michigan House were decided by less than 16 percentage points.

There are lessons to be learned. Let's go through them in order of biggest to smallest victory margin.

101st: From 2006-14, this district stretching from Ludington to Northport produced some of the closest races in the state. Then in 2016, it edged more Republican. Now, after Republican Rep.-elect Jack O'Malley of Lake Ann routed Democrat Kathy Wiejaczka of Empire by 15.38 percentage points despite a pretty substantial Democratic investment, it's off the board for the foreseeable future. This is a Republican seat.

44th: Yes, that's right, the solidly Republican and heretofore ignored seat in northwest Oakland County won by tea party favorite Rep.-elect Matt Maddock of Milford by 15.06 percentage points was actually closer than the 101st (editor's note: Mr. Maddock's hometown has been corrected). It's a long ways away from being competitive though.

50th: Rep. Tim Sneller (D-Burton) boosted his victory margin nicely in 2018 to 14.36 percentage points, quieting concerns after a closer than expected 2016 win that this seat was vulnerable to the GOP.

30th: Macomb County from M-59 north is a no-go zone for Democrats. Rep. Diana Farrington (R-Utica) clobbered her no-name Democratic opponent by 13.72 points.

66th: This seat in Van Buren and northern Kalamazoo counties, while in the top 30, has many, many miles to go before a Democrat has a chance. Rep. Beth Griffin (R-Mattawan) won by 13.64 percentage points.

40th: It's incredible to think a seat never before held by a Democrat was won by Rep.-elect Mari Manoogian (D-Birmingham) by 13.1 percentage points.

43rd: House Republicans figured better safe than sorry on this seat in Independence and Waterford townships in Oakland County, deciding to spend money on it, and Republican Andrea Schroeder (R-Clarkston) took care of business with a 13.04 percentage point win. That's nowhere near the typical GOP victory margin but, after all that went wrong in Oakland County for Republicans, that's still solid.

96th: Emblematic of the Democratic problems in white working-class areas other than the inner ring suburbs of Detroit, this longtime Democratic bastion based in Bay City was the 24th closest race with Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City) winning re-election by 13.02 percentage points. One wonders if Republicans will take a long look at it in 2022 when Mr. Elder can't run again because of term limits. The trendlines are moving in the GOP's favor.

23rd: One of the few white working-class districts still held by a Democrat and impressively so after Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Township) narrowly won two years ago but prevailed by 12.52 percentage points this time.

39th: Jennifer Suidan's embezzlement scandal turned this potential Democratic flip into a 11.87 percentage point rout for the Republican, Rep.-elect Ryan Berman of Commerce Township. Given the changing dynamics in Oakland County, Democrats are likely to go after Mr. Berman in 2020, but it's no slam dunk. Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer did carry this seat, 52.6 percent to 45.2 percent over Republican Bill Schuette, but a better comparison might be the 15th Senate District race where Sen.-elect Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) carried the territory in the 39th over Democrat Julia Pulver of West Bloomfield, 51.2 percent to 48.8 percent. Ms. Pulver lives in the 39th, incidentally, and could be a logical candidate for the Democrats against Mr. Berman if she's interested. In any case, this district relies heavily on Commerce Township, which remains reliably GOP territory (Mr. Schuette beat Ms. Whitmer there).

91st: It's hard to believe this onetime 50-50 seat has shifted so much to the GOP, but Republican Rep.-elect Greg VanWoerkom's 11.46 percentage point win was eye-popping. All will be watching what happens to this district in the 2021 reapportionment where it won't take much change to put Democrats back in the game. Mr. VanWoerkom is likely to get a free pass in 2020, however.

79th: This longtime Republican bulwark in northern Berrien County was won by Rep.-elect Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet) by a relatively low 11.36 percentage points. It's too early to anoint this a newly competitive district but it appears in a good Democratic year, like 2012 and 2018, it can produce a closer than expected race.

17th: We're into the top 20. Remember how the 37th District in Farmington/Farmington Hills went from solidly Republican to solidly Democratic in the span of like two election cycles? That appears to be the situation in reverse with this seat in Monroe. Republicans actually drew it to make it more Democratic in a bid to make the neighboring and then more competitive 56th District more Republican. Now the 56th is bright red and the 17th isn't much further behind after Rep. Joe Bellino (R-Monroe) dusted his Democratic opponent by 11.32 percentage points despite a major Democratic effort here.

24th: Again, most of Macomb is terrible for a garden-variety Democrat. Rep. Steve Marino (R-Harrison Township) won by 11.08 percentage points. This seat was drawn to make it much more Republican but one has to question with the Republican environment in the county right now if a more competitive map would change the end result.

94th: This suburban Saginaw district has been off the radar for many years but Republican troubles in college-educated suburbs are starting to rear their head here with Rep.-elect Rodney Wakeman (R-Saginaw Township) posting a 10.98 percentage point win, a little smaller than the GOP victory margin the last time this seat was open in 2012. That's probably not enough to draw Democratic interest but the 2021 reapportionment could completely change the outlook in this seat come 2022.

72nd: One of the bigger surprises on election night was Rep. Steve Johnson (R-Shelbyville) winning his previously solidly Republican seat in parts of Kent and Allegan counties by just 10.3 percentage points, less than half the GOP victory margin six years ago here. Kentwood, where much of the population in this seat is, is shifting blue, especially in response to President Donald Trump. Given what's happening in Kent County, one wonders if Democrats will take a long look at this seat come 2020. If reapportionment in 2021 lops off the Allegan part of the seat, it'll be game-on for sure.

45th: I couldn't figure out why Democrats didn't make a push here in 2018 given the environment in Rochester/Rochester Hills. They clearly weren't high on their candidate. But even still, Rep. Michael Webber's (R-Rochester Hills) winning margin of 10.26 percentage points was closer than many other races where Democrats heavily invested. Ms. Whitmer narrowly won the district over Mr. Schuette. Mr. Webber is out in 2020 because of term limits and this seat will be at the epicenter of the race for House control.

67th: This was surprising, that this Ingham County seat was decided by just 9.79 percentage points when Rep.-elect Kara Hope (D-Holt) was a huge favorite and with Ingham going so heavily to the Democrats overall. When Rep. Tom Cochran (D-Mason) won this seat in 2012, the last time it was open, he won it by almost 13 points. This one is still out of reach for the GOP, however.

48th: If the Republicans can develop a bench in this northern Genesee County district, look out. A white working-class area that in the Trump era is shifting to the Republicans, Rep.-elect Sheryl Kennedy's 9.66 percentage point margin wasn't as close as Rep. Pam Faris' (D-Clio) was two years ago but it was still the 14th-closest race in the state. This seat may be a few years away from becoming competitive but by then, who knows what it will look like under the 2021 reapportionment.

25th: Rep.-elect Nate Shannon (D-Sterling Heights) prevailed over a fringe Republican candidate by 8.08 percentage points. Given the environment in Macomb, and with Mr. Trump on the ballot in 2020, Mr. Shannon will have to leave nothing to chance when he seeks re-election. A strong Republican candidate, if one can be found, would put this seat in play.

93rd: A onetime Republican bastion in Clinton and Gratiot counties now looks like it could be an emerging competitive seat. Bath and DeWitt, two suburbs north of Lansing, have shifted toward the Democrats, and Rep.-elect Graham Filler (R-DeWitt) winning this seat by just 7.89 points was intriguing. The Republican victory margin here six years ago, the last time it was open, was more than 13 points.

99th: The district based in Isabella County continues to tease the Democrats into going for it only to break their hearts. Rep. Roger Hauck (R-Mount Pleasant) won by a comfortable 6.84 percentage points. Democrats understandably howled years ago when Republicans made the non-Isabella part of this district part of Midland County instead of Clare County (Midland was a Republican bastion and Clare was a 50-50 county). However, with the way the politics of those two counties have shifted, Democrats are better off with the district's current design.

98th: And we're into the top 10. Was Rep.-elect Annette Glenn's (R-Midland) amazingly narrow 4.06 percentage point win a fluke resulting from Consumers Energy pouring more than a million into defeating her husband, Rep. Gary Glenn, who was running for the Senate? Or was it a sign of something more? This race in a longtime stalwart Republican county was closer than the 17th, 91st, 99th and 101st. Let that sink in a second.

62nd: A solid win by Rep.-elect Jim Haadsma (D-Battle Creek), but that it was by 3.7 percentage points signals this district is going to remain a 50-50 type seat for a while. It seems to flip every time it's an open seat.

20th: One of the suburban surge seats for the Democrats with Rep.-elect Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) ousting Rep. Jeff Noble (R-Northville) by 2.84 percentage points. With the deep Republican bench in this area and the personal issues that hindered Mr. Noble (his wife had been in and out of the hospital all year), Republicans are likely to give this one a long look in 2020.

61st: Rep. Brandt Iden (R-Oshtemo) prevailed again despite an all-out effort from Democrats to defeat him, this time by 2.74 percentage points. This will be a top battleground come 2020 when Mr. Iden cannot run again because of term limits.

41st: Another suburban surge seat for the Democrats with Rep.-elect Padma Kuppa (D-Troy) winning by 2.64 percentage points. It is weird to see "D-Troy" after a legislator's name. Given everything that was working against the Republicans in this district, the relatively close margin might prompt them to take another shot at it in 2020. Then again, Ms. Kuppa's fundraising strength could scare off potential competitors.

110th: Here's the race most misjudged as we move into the top five. The big shift toward the Republicans in the Upper Peninsula carried Rep.-elect Greg Markkanen (R-Hancock) to an upset 1.64 percentage point victory despite being heavily outspent and essentially abandoned by Republicans. Democrats face a tricky decision here in 2020. The environment with Mr. Trump on the ballot will favor the GOP but it's cheap to play in this district and with the right candidate, who knows? There will, though, be better opportunities.

71st: Rep.-elect Angela Witwer (D-Delta Township) won by a smaller margin than expected following the primary at 1.6 percentage points but her win still confirmed that the trendlines in this district favor the Democrats.

38th: This district in southwest Oakland County went from total nonfactor at the beginning of the year to interesting once Novi City Councilmember Kelly Breen filed to run as a Democrat to wow, this is for real after Rep. Kathy Crawford (R-Novi) struggled to win her primary and Democratic primary turnout exploded. Ms. Crawford hung on for a 1.3 percentage point win, taking less than 50 percent of the vote, but Democrats are surely hoping Ms. Breen runs again in 2020. Republicans are in an interesting spot: they lose the well-known Ms. Crawford to term limits but could see some upside with a younger candidate who can work the doors better. The trendlines here favor the Democrats though.

104th: Democrat Dan O'Neil of Traverse City gave Rep. Larry Inman (R-Williamsburg) everything he could handle but Mr. Inman prevailed by 0.74 percentage points. Is Mr. O'Neil up for taking another shot in 2020 when term limits prevents Mr. Inman from running? He raised incredible money in 2018 and would have a good chance, especially with the demographic changes in Grand Traverse County that have it looking more like a suburban Detroit seat than a northern Michigan district. Republicans lose Mr. Inman, who's an institution in the area with a middle of the road bent, but could see some upside if a more skilled campaigner emerges to run.

19th: And the closest House race of 2018 was the Livonia seat won by Rep.-elect Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) by just 0.48 percentage point. Republicans will surely be back for another try in 2020 given how close this one was and how it was the first time in decades Democrats showed a pulse in this seat. Unlike 2018, whoever the Republican is won't have Laura Cox on the ballot to provide a lift. Of the major races in Livonia in 2018 – governor, secretary of state, attorney general, U.S. Senate, 11th U.S. House District, 7th Senate District and the 19th House District – the only Republican to win the city was Ms. Cox, but she lost her 7th District race overall to Sen.-elect Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia).

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A (Very) Quiet Subplot To Election 2018 Sees 'Michigander' Prevail

Posted: November 20, 2018 5:10 PM

One of the unspoken subplots to this year's race for governor was that depending on who won, the next governor would describe residents of Michigan as "Michiganders" or "Michiganians" for the next four years.

The Democratic candidate, and now the governor-elect, Gretchen Whitmer, uses "Michigander." The Republican candidate, Bill Schuette, uses "Michiganian." This was, not surprisingly, never a point of discussion during the campaign. But outgoing Governor Rick Snyder has taken pride in using "Michigander" the last eight years, and Ms. Whitmer's victory means the Michigander crowd has prevailed.

The Michiganian crowd, which is smaller in number but vociferous in its support, has taken umbrage at the momentum Michigander has seized in recent years, especially after Mr. Snyder signed a law that, among many other things, for the first time defined a Michigan resident as a Michigander. Up until then, only Michiganian could claim to be enshrined in the Michigan Compiled Laws.

Michigander vs. Michiganian has become quite the triggering debate, prompting fury and hurt feelings, even if Michigander does seem to have the upper hand both with the public at large and now two consecutive governors. Most news outlets, except for The Detroit News, use Michigander. So this Thanksgiving, keep the residents of this state who call themselves Michiganians in your thoughts at this difficult time. Even if they are wrong.

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Election Shows Realignment Of Michigan's Political Geography Continues

Posted: November 13, 2018 1:27 PM

There's something of a debate on whether last week's elections constituted a wave election for the Democrats.

Nationally, it's hard to argue otherwise with the size of the gains Democrats made in U.S. House and governor's races and avoiding the kind of wholesale losses in the U.S. Senate that could have transpired given how heavily the map of seats up for election favored Republicans.

In Michigan, the story is a little more complex.

Statewide, it was a Democratic wave, no question. Democrats flipped the governor's, secretary of state's and attorney general's offices – the first time a political party has flipped all three top constitutional offices in a single election since 1938. U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) won a fourth term, and Democrats won all eight statewide education board seats. Democrats also flipped a Supreme Court seat with the rare unseating of an incumbent justice nominated by the GOP, and all three statewide proposals, supported by Democrats with two of them actively opposed by Republicans, passed by big margins.

Moving down to the races involving districts, however, the pattern starts to diverge. While Democrats made gains in the U.S. House delegation, Michigan Senate and Michigan House, the delegation will still be a 7-7 split and the Legislature remains under Republican control.

Democrats flipped the two U.S. House seats most seriously contested in this state and even gave U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) a major scare. But U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet) and U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton) comfortably won re-election.

In the Michigan Senate, Democrats flipped five seats – the biggest gain of seats by a caucus of either party since 1974. And in the Michigan House, Democrats net gained five seats after flipping six and losing one back to the GOP. But Republicans held onto both chambers.

Why was this?

Some of it was the depth of the hole. There's no precedent for a party flipping eight seats as Democrats needed to do in the Senate since the Senate elections moved to a four-year term in the midterm elections starting in 1966. House Democrats have not flipped the nine seats they needed for control in a midterm since 1910 when they went from just two seats to 12 before there was an organized Democratic Party in the state.

And yes, some of it was the map Republicans drew for the Legislature in 2011, though it showed some major creaks. It certainly helped the Republican cause in the 10th Senate District in Macomb County. It's kept a couple currently Republican House seats which if configured differently would be more competitive. The Senate seat based in Saginaw County could be a different story if drawn differently. There are others, certainly.

But the biggest factor is why Senate Democrats in advance of the election said they expected a "blue tornado," not a blue wave. A tornado moving down a street might destroy this house here and that house there yet leave a house across street untouched.

This is another way of describing realignment.

Those once competitive outstate seats that have been sliding toward the Republicans this decade continue to do so. Republicans barely lifted a finger to help Greg Markkanen of Hancock in the 110th House District in the western Upper Peninsula. The Democrat, Ken Summers, had all the money and, it seemed, the momentum. But the Upper Peninsula, outside of Marquette, is pivoting hard to the Republican Party, and Mr. Markkanen won. The lines of this seat have not fundamentally changed since the move toward one-person, one-vote, so no complaints about gerrymandering here. This is a white working-class district, and areas that are mostly white with relatively low percentages of people with a bachelor's degree are Republican areas now.

The same could be said of Republican former Rep. Ed McBroom of Vulcan scoring a startling landslide win over Rep. Scott Dianda (D-Calumet) in the 38th Senate District. Or Mr. Bergman, who rolled to a landslide win.

The same could be said of that Macomb Senate district. Yes, it was gerrymandered. But the Republicans also drew the lines for the two Oakland Senate seats that flipped from red to blue last week and those also were carved in a way to help the GOP and hinder Democrats. The difference is that while white working-class voters dominate a district like the one in Macomb, it's districts with large numbers of people with bachelor's degrees that are more racially diverse that are moving rapidly toward the Democrats. And that's the situation in those two Oakland Senate seats, as well as the other three Senate seats Democrats flipped and five of the six House seats Democrats flipped.

Meanwhile, House Democrats invested heavily in three districts with large white working-class populations – the 17th in Monroe, the 91st in suburban Muskegon and the 101st that stretches from Ludington to Northport – only to see their candidates get trucked. I don't want to move into full armchair quarterback mode. I mention these less to question that strategy and more to point out how a seat that until two years ago was solidly Democratic (the 17th) and two others long-considered 50-50 (the 91st and 101st) now seem to be safely in the Republican camp under the new dynamic. On the gerrymandering front, the 17th was actually drawn by the GOP to favor a Democrat so that the neighboring 56th District would become more Republican-tilting.

Just to further underscore this point, three House seats in areas with relatively large percentages of college-educated voters that were not remotely contested at all were closer than those three above – the 93rd in Clinton and Gratiot counties, the 45th in Rochester/Rochester Hills and the 72nd that straddles parts of Kent and Allegan counties.

If you map out the results in the governor's race as far as where Governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer most improved her percentage upon Mark Schauer in 2014 and where Attorney General Bill Schuette most improved his percentage from Governor Rick Snyder in 2014, the same pattern shows up.

Ms. Whitmer massively improved on Mr. Schauer's showing along the I-94 and I-96 corridors, home to racially diverse counties chock full of college-educated voters as well as pockets like the Midland and Traverse City areas, again where there are big chunks of college-educated voters. Mr. Schuette improved most upon Mr. Snyder in white working-class areas.

Realignment continues apace, sweeping the state like a tsunami. Or a tornado. Maybe we should skip the natural disaster metaphors.

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Posted: November 9, 2018 9:57 AM

EAST LANSING – If the Republican candidate's last name were Jones, the race for the 70th House District would be much different.

But his name is Hollister, Bill Hollister to be exact. And having a candidate with the same last name as the popular mayor of neighboring Lansing-though there is no relation between the pair-has given the race between Mr. Hollister and Democrat Gretchen Whitmer an interesting wrinkle.

The contest between the two East Lansing residents in a district centered in Lansing's eastern suburbs looks poised for a photo finish. It's probably the only district where no incumbent is seeking re-election (Democratic Rep. Laura Baird of Okemos is term limited) that ranks as true toss-up with less than three weeks until the November 7 election. Other such races are competitive, but lean toward one party's favor at this stage.

Comprising East Lansing (including the Michigan State University campus) and most of Meridian Township, Republican voters have a slight edge in this district, making up about 52.3 percent of the electorate, according to the Lansing polling firm EPIC/MRA. But Democrats have held the seat for the last 26 years, capitalizing on voters' socially liberal bent and the Republican habit of nominating conservative, pro-life candidates.

But Mr. Hollister, a businessman, comes from a more moderate ilk, making his race against Ms. Whitmer, an attorney, hotly contested. Another emerging theme in the race is experience vs. new vision. Mr. Hollister touts his considerable experience while Ms. Whitmer talks of the need for new leadership.

On issues, both sides largely sound the same themes: preserving strong funding for the district's schools-some of the best in the state-and improving per student funding to hometown MSU.

Republicans control the House 58-52, and if they can snare this district with Mr. Hollister, they will have all but assured retention of their majority.

Whitmer works name issue, touts self as true progressive

Fearful that voters will confuse Mr. Hollister with Lansing Mayor David Hollister, Ms. Whitmer, 29, has gone to extraordinary lengths to clarify the situation. Mayor Hollister has done a radio advertisement in which he says: "Bill Hollister's no Dave Hollister. This Hollister's supporting Gretchen Whitmer. Gretchen Whitmer will be a great state representative."

Also, Ms. Whitmer recently mailed a brochure to voters that features several homonyms, such as a bow ribbon and an archery bow before getting to side-by-side pictures of the two Hollisters with the heading, "Some things that sound the same sure are different." There's also a letter from former Rep. Lynn Jondahl that seeks to prevent any blurring of the two men.

"I think my opponent is doing everything he can to perpetuate that confusion," she said during a recent interview in her campaign office. "If you look at his yard signs, it doesn't say his first name, it doesn't say his party. I think it's important that people know who they're voting for."

Although Mr. Hollister casts himself as a moderate, Ms. Whitmer said she doubts his commitment to the pro-choice cause and other issues. In a June interview, Mr. Hollister said he "does not like being called a pro-choice candidate," saying he is "neither fish nor fowl." But in an interview this week, Mr. Hollister unhesitatingly proclaimed himself to be "pro-choice."

"The most important vote a legislator casts is a vote for leadership-for speaker of the House," she said. "When you look at the viable declared candidates on the Republican side, they're all pro-charter school, pro-voucher, anti-public education and anti-choice."

In fact, Ms. Whitmer seems poised to reverse a charge that Republicans have used to great effect against Democrats in pro-life districts. There, GOP candidates have slammed Democrats over their first vote going to elect a pro-choice speaker.

Mr. Hollister has questioned the depth of Ms. Whitmer's experience, but she refuted that charge.

"I'm the only one in this race that has worked in government," she said of staff work in the House and her position on the East Lansing Transportation Commission. "I may not have been on this earth as long as Bill, but I've done a lot of things. The real thing we should be talking about is not our resumes. We should be talking about vision and issues."

Arguably Ms. Whitmer's biggest obstacle in the general election contest is overcoming a nasty primary campaign that left her party badly divided and her considerable financial resources depleted. Ms. Whitmer and her principal opponent, Mary Lindemann (who was named associate director AARP Michigan Wednesday), bitterly clashed, and there is some question over whether those wounds have healed.

"I hope so," she said if the hatchet had been buried. "That's been a big priority of mine, to bring Democrats together."

Ms. Lindemann could not be reached for comment.

Financially, the consequences have been rough after Ms. Whitmer spent a believed record $148,000 to win the primary, airing television ads on broadcast channels and distributing flashy brochures. Now, the television ads are running on cable and her brochures are mostly black and white. And her campaign is low on yard signs.

Overall, Ms. Whitmer said she expects Mr. Hollister to outspend her by at least two-to-one, a stunning estimate after she raised so much money since declaring her candidacy in 1999.

The Democratic Party also has mailed brochures touting her, assistance that could have gone to other candidates. Asked if she felt bad about that, Ms. Whitmer said "yes and no." But Ms. Whitmer said she expects to have enough money to do what she needs to do.

"Every dime we spent in the primary is carrying over," she said. "It was an investment."

Hollister stresses experience

When he visits voters at their homes, Mr. Hollister, 59, urges them to vote for him because he "has more experience on education and health care" than Ms. Whitmer.

A member of groups that helped keep General Motors Corporation in Lansing and determine improvements to Lansing's schools while also serving on a local hospital's board, Mr. Hollister said his work in the community would make him an asset in the House. Ms. Whitmer has talked about focusing on education and health care, but Mr. Hollister said that's what he has worked on his whole life.

"People are recognizing that in a term-limited Legislature, somebody with experience is a good person to elect," he said during a recent interview in his home. "I'm not going to be influenced by the first person who whispers in my ear. I have too much experience and background."

As an example, Mr. Hollister said David Hollister persuaded Ms. Whitmer into supporting the Proposal 2 constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds majority of both houses in the Legislature to intervene in local affairs-a charge denied by Ms. Whitmer.

On the subject of his last name, Mr. Hollister said it delights him to see the radio ads and brochures repeating it. His own surveying indicates voters know the difference between the two Hollisters, he said.

"If (David Hollister) was trying to overcome name ID, it's a peculiar way to do it by running an ad with my name over and over again," he said.

On a host of issues, Mr. Hollister takes different positions than most of his potentially future House Republican colleagues, staking out a more liberal view on subjects like abortion, education and the environment. Mr. Hollister said he supports keeping the cap on the number of university-sponsored charter schools at 150 and compares his views on the environment to those of former Governor William Milliken.

But on abortion, Mr. Hollister struck a decidedly different note than he did in an interview earlier this year when he resisted being cast as either pro-choice or pro-life. Now, he says, "I'm pro-choice" and "I support the right of a woman to choose." He cautioned that he wants to reduce the number of abortions, but declined to say how he might vote on some of the abortion-related issues the Legislature took up over the last two years, saying he would want to study the specific bills.

Planned Parenthood Advocates has made a dual endorsement in the race.

Ms. Whitmer's lavish spending in a divisive primary has greatly helped him, Mr. Hollister said. The Republican candidate is running radio and television advertisements touting his experience, including one where a Democrat endorses him.

"Despite that she spent that overwhelming amount of money in the primary, her message is not getting through," he said.

On the issue of whom he would support for House Republican leader (the speaker's post if the GOP keeps the majority), Mr. Hollister seemed genuinely unaware of the leadership contest, downplaying it as an issue.

Between his philosophical views and his past support of Democrats like Mr. Jondahl, the former liberal representative, Mr. Hollister was asked what in particular draws him to the Republican Party.

"A Republican is for less government and more opportunity to let people make their own choices," he said. "I think I'm a Republican."

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Novi! Novi! Novi! Vs. Turnout! Turnout! Turnout!

Posted: November 2, 2018 1:12 PM

As the 2018 election finally draws to an end, Gongwer Publisher John Lindstrom and I decided to have a last chat about what we're seeing and expecting headed into Tuesday.

John: Zachary, the witching hour draws near, the election is upon us, what do you see the people deciding upon?

Zach: That they're happy their mailboxes, TVs, phone and social media will no longer be full of campaign material?

No, I think everything we're seeing points to a Democratic advantage just as one would expect with a Republican in the White House and after eight years of a Republican governor. The question is how big is the advantage and will voters split their tickets to elect Republicans farther down the ballot even if they vote for Whitmer, Stabenow and Benson and the top of the ticket.

John: Yes, no one much talks about the effect of not having a straight party voting option this election. The parties themselves have been working triple time to make sure supporters and would-be supporters know who all the candidates are so they will vote straight-party the long way. But this could herald some real ticket splitting. I'll also be interested to see how it affects down-ballot races and initiatives, if voters get tired of voting after the first four or five races and cast their ballots with the rest undone.

Zach: There's a lot of uncertainty on how the lack of the straight ticket option will affect the vote, especially in the education board races. Maybe more people vote in the nonpartisan races and ballot proposals because they used to vote straight ticket and thought they were done voting and now go all the way to the end?

When I keep hearing from politicos that Whitmer is up by 20 to 30 points in Oakland and Kalamazoo counties yet the state Senate races in those locations are really close, I keep thinking major ticket-splitting is a real wild card.

John: If Ms. Whitmer does win by 20 points there should be some coattail effect for the Democrats. But winning by 20 points, especially in Oakland County is a big IF. Both you and I spent our youths in Oakland County and it is interesting that this election that could be the county that decides much of what happens this election, in terms of the top of the ticket, the Legislature, Congress and maybe even some of the ballot issues.

Zach: 20 points seems absurd. I think Granholm won it by 12-15 points in 2006, so something on that order would make sense, but anything is possible if places like Troy, which Rick Snyder won by a 2-to-1 margin just four years ago, suddenly pivot hard to the Democrats. Remember the late, great Tim Russert's "Florida! Florida! Florida!" line on the 2000 presidential election? My version of that this year in Michigan is Novi! Novi! Novi! Here you have a city in southwest Oakland County that historically was a Republican bulwark, but is shifting quickly Democratic, much like Farmington Hills went from solidly Republican to solidly Democratic in the span of like two election cycles. If there is a big Democratic vote in Novi, that gives the Democrats a real shot at flipping the U.S. House, state Senate and state House seats that include the city. Nate Silver talks about a tipping point race. I think the Runestad-Pulver and Crawford-Breen state legislative races that include Novi are tipping point races. By that same point, if Novi doesn't come through for the Democrats, Republicans should be able to mitigate their losses pretty well.

John: Yeah, Republicans are not without hope, but for many of them hope seems their greatest asset now. A top GOP insider said to me the other day he thought there was a chance the House would still stay Republican. A chance of that. Whichever party wins in the House, I anticipate the controlling party to have no more than 57 or 58 seats, a narrow majority. I still think the Republicans win the Senate, but we have not had split control of state government for eight years, so if all this comes to fruition it will be very interesting over the next several years.

Zach: Since it is dangerous to assume anything in politics, what would it take for Bill Schuette to pull off the surprise and win?

John: Democrats would have to do what they did in 2016 and stay home. Ms. Whitmer is certainly worried about that. If he wins rural Michigan by sizeable margins and can win Macomb County by a good margin and stay close to even with her in Oakland, then he can win a narrow race. Forget your Novi! Novi! Novi!, It's Turnout! Turnout! Turnout! which is the message now. If there is a big turnout it should all run Democrats way, if in the end it runs closer to what we saw in 2014 the Republicans should be okay. But everything now seems to point to a big turnout.

Zach: He pretty much needs to mimic the Trump formula, yes. Based on the absentee ballots being cast, however, it looks like Democrats have decided to participate in the midterm election in a substantial way for the first time since 2006. The other big question is whether this shift in the suburbs (Novi! Novi! Novi!) where lots of people with bachelor's degrees live and historically have voted Republican really actually truly vote Democratic in response to anger at President Trump. And what happens in the cities with the highest-performing Democratic voters, African-Americans? Detroit, Flint, Inkster and Saginaw, for example, had much smaller increases in the Democratic primary vote than the suburbs. If turnout among African-Americans looks like 2014 and that suburban shift doesn't happen, that is what could make this race much closer than expected. That said, all the data at this point suggests the suburban surge is real and that turnout in Detroit will far exceed 2014.

John: Yes, but in 2016 all the data suggested something else would happen. Overall, this has been one of the most interesting elections I've seen. You mentioned some of the legislative races that could be key in Oakland, but you see some of that repeated in other races statewide. And the congressional races, especially in the 8th and 11th Districts, are very interesting to watch. Even races where prayer wouldn't help Democrats, the Dems are mounting serious fights and will not go down meekly. And the Supreme Court race, there is an old potboiler from decades back titled "Seduced and Abandoned," and brother, Justice Elizabeth Clement has been abandoned by her party for sure and yet could win one of the two seats. And then we expected outright savagery on the ballot issues and until the last several days they were the calmest campaigns of all.

Zach: Just to be clear, by data, I don't mean polls. I'm looking at the Senate Republicans pouring roughly $1.5 million into four seats in Oakland and Wayne counties they historically have dominated. You don't do that unless you are seeing signs of a huge shift in how those areas vote. Or the fact that Republicans have virtually conceded the Grand Rapids Senate seat to the Democrats, and if I recall correctly, Democrats have not won that seat since the Watergate elections of 1974. Based on the primary turnout, what's happening in that Senate seat (and the House seat in the city that was drawn to be 50-50 but where the GOP has not invested because it is so likely to stay Dem) and the absentee vote so far, Kent County is a big problem for the GOP.

Let's talk about the Supreme Court since it hasn't gotten much attention. Has the Republicans' snubbing of Clement actually backfired? Yes, she was left off the doorhangers and the party has given her no money, but the earned media she has received as a result has been gold it seems.

And by backfired, I mean from the perspective of all those convention delegates who booed her nomination in August and made it clear they would rather she lose to one of the Democrats.

John: In terms of Ms. Clement, I think it has backfired for both the GOP and Democrats. I rather expect her to win, both because of the publicity and endorsements she has won and the fact that she is an incumbent justice and will be so noted on the ballot. Should she win, it will show those Republicans who oppose her that at least many people in this state value someone they can consider truly independent on the court. It also creates a problem for the Democrats and Justice Kurtis Wilder that instead of fighting for two seats they are fighting for one, and I can see any of those three winning the second spot.

Zach: Great point. I think the Democrats probably thought after the Republicans snubbed Clement that she could be beaten. Now it seems between women historically running well for the court, the "Justice of the Supreme Court" ballot designation and all that great publicity, that she is the favorite to be the top vote-getter. And as you say, it's a battle for second place. I differ a little and think it's between Wilder and Cavanagh, who has the better ballot name than Sam Bagenstos, the other Dem nominee.

What race most intrigues you going into Tuesday?

John: Besides the 8th and 11th Congressional races the Senate race between Republican Sen. Margaret O'Brien and Democrat Sean McCann. Could we see a true repeat in that race, with the winner winning by just a few dozen votes? It wouldn't surprise me. And what are you watching most?

Zach: The O'Brien-McCann really is the lab test of candidates vs. environment and ticket-splitting. Democrats are starting to freak out that they could blow the Kalamazoo seat for the 100th time. O'Brien's that good a candidate even though Trump is toxic in Kalamazoo County.

I'd have to say those two congressional seats are what I'm really eyeing. I think the 8th ends up as the closest major race in the state, a few tenths of a point either way. The money Elissa Slotkin has raised and spent is epic. She has run the best campaign Democrats have had in that district since Byrum in 2000. And yet will it be enough? That district was drawn by Republicans to favor a Republican and Mike Bishop has a 20-year history of running for office in northern Oakland County and winning. If Slotkin can't fight him to a virtual tie in that part of the district, it's over. If Bishop does lose a close one, the second-guessing already is under way on why he has ignored the Lansing TV market. He's lost Ingham by 20-25K votes in his two wins, but if Slotkin really amps up that margin and wins, that decision will be seriously questioned (and already is being questioned). And the 11th I think will portend what happens in these legislative races in many ways. A decisive Stevens win bodes well for a pile of Democratic candidates running for state House and state Senate within the confines of the 11th. If Lena Epstein keeps it close, let alone wins, then it signals people are splitting their tickets and Republicans are in a good position to hold those seats and the Legislature.

Any final thoughts?

John: This has the potential, not just in Michigan but nationwide, of being the fifth wave election in 12 years, and I do wonder with the changes in demographics, economic structure and technology if this means wave elections -- dramatic shifts in party control -- will be routine for the next 10 to 20 years, and what that means for governing overall.

Zach: The political environment keeps changing so drastically from election to election. The single biggest force in the midterms continues to be that the president's party struggles and loses ground. Yet four of the last five presidents have won re-election. It's a curious dynamic and indeed does create complications for governing.

We didn't mention the attorney general's race, and I think that's going to be fascinating to see if the Democratic environment is strong enough to carry Dana Nessel through or whether the attacks Tom Leonard and the Republicans have mounted against her and her campaign's internal problems enable Leonard to win that office.

I think everyone's relieved the election is nearly over and we'll be able to exhale -- just in time for what could be a monstrous lame-duck session.

John: The AG race will be telling for a couple reasons. Can the Republicans win on a traditional message and are progressive Democrats still not mainstream? Or will we see the public be willing to go more left?

People may be relieved for a couple days, but then we do have lame-duck and then we will be into the early stages of 2020. Fear not political junkies, the game is always in extra innings.

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Gongwer Elections App Price Reduced, Updated With New Info

Posted: November 1, 2018 1:32 PM

Gongwer News Service has reduced the price of its 2018 Michigan Elections app for the final days of the 2018 election and updated its analysis of all key races with the latest changes of where those contests stand.

Now available for $2.99, a 40 percent reduction, the app – one of the best-selling paid news apps in the country – contains candidate biographical information, the latest analysis of all state and federal races and resources like district maps.

On election night next week, users will be able to monitor live election results for each race and will receive push notifications on developments in key races.

The app is available for iOS and Android devices.

Download for iOS:

Download for Android:

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Epstein-Stevens Result Should Reveal Plenty

Posted: October 29, 2018 4:34 PM

Probably the biggest question as Election Day nears is whether voters in suburban areas with higher incomes and lots of people with bachelor's degrees will vote Democratic in far greater numbers than their Republican voting traditions suggest.

The answer to that question, pondered since the early days of President Donald Trump's tenure, will determine whether Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer rolls to a big win or has to sweat out a close race against Republican nominee Bill Schuette. It will probably decide the attorney general race. And it will determine a host of U.S. House, state Senate and state House races that will shape the conclusion about whether one party dominated the 2018 cycle or whether it was something of a split decision.

Lucky for those of us eagerly trying to look for clues about that question, we have the 11th U.S. House District, which Republicans drew in 2011 to give them the best chance of assuring control of a district mostly based in Oakland County. Now it conveniently serves as a litmus test for whether these college-educated voters in fact are going to shift to the Democrats. It by far has the highest percentage of people 25 and older with a bachelor's degree of any U.S. House district in Michigan.

The race pits Republican Lena Epstein of Bloomfield Township against Democrat Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills. And the general sense is Ms. Stevens has an edge. She's outspent Ms. Epstein and the outside money has heavily favored Ms. Stevens as well.

Look at some of the communities in this district – Troy, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Novi, the Plymouths, the Northvilles, Livonia. These are all communities that historically have voted Republican but appear ripe to vote Democratic this time because of how unpopular President Donald Trump is with these higher-income, college educated voters. The thing is, as far as Michigan goes, this is all still theoretical. It has yet to actually happen.

If the shift in this area among these types of voters is real, Ms. Whitmer should win the district decisively. And Ms. Stevens should win, not in a blowout, but win.

Why is this especially important? There are a pile of state legislative races within this U.S. House district up for grabs, again, mostly ones not historically competitive but newly so because of the changed dynamics.

There are seven wholly or partially contained state House districts of varying levels of competitiveness within the 11th. And there are five state Senate districts wholly or partially contained within the 11th, also of differing levels of competitiveness.

It seems logical that a solid Stevens win would be a great sign for Democrats like Padma Kuppa of Troy, Mari Manoogian of Birmingham, Kelly Breen of Novi, Matt Koleszar of Plymouth, Laurie Pohutsky of Livonia, Mallory McMorrow of Royal Oak and Dayna Polehanki of Livonia and to a lesser extent Rosemary Bayer of Beverly Hills, Nicole Breadon of Clarkston and Julia Pulver of West Bloomfield.

Conversely, if Ms. Epstein were to win – or for that matter lose a very close race to Ms. Stevens – it would put in doubt just how strong the Democratic surge there is. If Ms. Epstein can overcome a massive financial and environmental disadvantage and still win or at least come close, that should bode well for Republicans like Doug Tietz of Troy, David Wolkinson of West Bloomfield, Rep. Kathy Crawford of Novi, Rep. Jeff Noble of Plymouth, Brian Meakin of Livonia, Sen. Marty Knollenberg of Troy and Rep. Laura Cox of Livonia as well as Rep. Michael McCready of Bloomfield Township, Andrea Schroeder of Independence Township and Rep. Jim Runestad of White Lake.

All those Republicans are at least financially competitive with their Democratic counterparts or even in better financial shape, unlike the lopsided edge Ms. Stevens enjoys in that department.

Democrats should gain some seats in the Legislature next week. Whether it's just a smattering or something much more significant, that funny-looking district that hooks from Livonia northwest, then east, then southeast and then northwest again to Bloomfield Hills should tell us a lot.

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Final Debate Looking Like Schuette's Last, Best Chance

Posted: October 23, 2018 5:51 PM

Election Day is two weeks from today, and at this point, no one, not even Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette, says he is leading the race.

The conventional wisdom, fallible as it can be, is that Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, barring a major change in the race, is on her way to victory and becoming the state's 49th governor.

One could point to various factors, be it polls, the general environment, the way the candidates are acting or the caliber of the surrogates coming to campaign for each side (Lara Trump vs. former President Barack Obama). Of course, we can point to many examples in Michigan of the conventional wisdom falling on its face and surprise winners like Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, John McCain, John Engler and Jesse Jackson – to name a few – who triumphed in upset statewide wins.

And Mr. Schuette has noted this history and said he will ultimately win on Election Day, but Mr. Schuette also has said this week he is currently trailing.

So what can Mr. Schuette do at this point to change the trajectory and win? He has to find a way to break through at Wednesday's televised debate in Detroit. It will be his one chance before the massive Detroit media market to share the stage with Ms. Whitmer (the Grand Rapids debate on October 12 was not broadcast in the Detroit area).

Mr. Schuette's challenges are many, some in his control, some not in his control.

He can't change the fact that Michigan has had a Republican as governor for the past eight years and that there is an unpopular Republican as president. Both those factors are big boosts to Ms. Whitmer (the state has not elected a governor in an open seat race of the same party as the outgoing governor since 1960 and the president's party has lost nine of the last 10 gubernatorial elections). And he can't undo the damage inflicted from the advertisements aired against him during the Republican primary while Ms. Whitmer basically went unscathed on that front.

But, as far as what the candidates can control, what Ms. Whitmer has done so far is offer something more tangible to voters than Mr. Schuette.

Ms. Whitmer's central message has been that she will "fix the damn roads." It's a nice nonpartisan, nonpolarizing issue on which everyone can agree (exactly how, if she wins, will surely be the subject of a partisan, polarizing fight in 2019).

Mr. Schuette's central message has been to cut the income tax, but his call to reduce the rate is somewhat ethereal. With a federal income tax cut taking effect earlier this year, taxes have ranked well down the list of priorities, and if voters have a beef about state income taxes, it's more likely to be the pension tax or the elimination of popular income tax credits like the child credit under Governor Rick Snyder. What would an income tax rate cut mean for people? That's never really been made tangible.

I was on an election panel last month where Adrian Hemond, a political consultant, said voters want to know, "What am I going to get?" when choosing a governor.

That's the difficult path Mr. Schuette has to navigate Wednesday night. He needs to clarify for voters what they can expect in a Schuette governorship and how the tax cut would improve their lives while still taking the fight to Ms. Whitmer. Has the Schuette camp been holding onto something from its opposition research book for this moment, a "break glass in case of emergency" type item? We're about to find out.

Ms. Whitmer's task is simpler. She can continue to discuss her bread-and-butter issues – roads, protecting Medicaid expansion, her proposal for two years of tuition-free college and redirecting School Aid Fund money back to K-12 schools – while continuing to hammer Mr. Schuette on health care. And perhaps she has a surprise of her own in store.

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Democratic Path To Legislative Control Is A Tight Rope

Posted: October 18, 2018 6:41 PM

With 20 days to go before Election Day, it's clear that everything is going to have to go just right for Democrats – and just wrong for Republicans – if Democrats are going to win one or both houses of the Legislature.

In the Senate, Democrats need to flip eight seats (assuming they win the governorship, and it's safe to assume if they win eight, then Gretchen Whitmer wins the governorship and Garlin Gilchrist can break the 19-19 tie as lieutenant governor) and the playing field of competitive seats is realistically eight, maybe nine or 10 under the rosiest Democratic scenario.

There's a theory going around regarding the race for partisan control of the House and Senate, one I did not come up with but with which I concur, that Democrats will either flip three or four seats in each chamber and fall well short of seizing control from the Republicans or will flip a pile of seats in both and take control.

Here's why: Democrats need to flip seats in wealthier suburban areas with large percentages of college-educated voters where historically they have seldom, if ever, won, but that are shifting away from Republicans out of anger at President Donald Trump. While we look at races individually, national political dynamics are the major driver of what happens and there's a good argument to be made that when looking at the nine House and Senate seats under close watch in Oakland and Wayne counties, most of them are going to go in the same direction.

These seats are vulnerable for the same reasons. If some go, they all could go.

So, looking at this year, it seems possible for the five House seats clustered in southern Oakland and northwest Wayne County, all in Republican hands and fiercely contested by Democrats, that one party will win four or five of those races as opposed to a 3-2 split. The same could be said for some seats in northern Oakland County that are farther off the radar screen, along M-59, where Republicans appear concerned though Democrats have concluded they must stick to their priority seats and not spread themselves too thin and so are not investing. It stands to reason, though, that if the seat in the Clarkston area flips, so would the seat in Rochester and Rochester Hills.

Two House seats in northern Michigan, one running from Ludington to Northport and the other in Grand Traverse County, seem likely candidates to go the same direction.

Looking at the Senate, with the four seats in Oakland and Wayne counties up for grabs, again, it seems like one party is going to win three of the four. Either the environment propels these Democratic candidates to victory in places they have never won or it doesn't.

There are some overlapping House and Senate seats that would seem likely to go the same way. There's a good case to be made that Rep. Brandt Iden (R-Oshtemo) and Sen. Margaret O'Brien (R-Portage) will either be celebrating victory or mourning defeat together. The same is probably true in the Muskegon area where the 34th and 91st House districts seem like good candidates to go the same direction.

The 10th Senate District and the 25th House District in Macomb County show similar leanings.

Sometime after midnight November 7, we could be talking about Democrats gaining seats but falling short of flipping the Legislature and Republicans avoiding a wholesale incursion by Democrats into longtime GOP territory. The other scenario looks like what Republicans did in 2010 when they won every seat in sight and then some to win majority, though this time it's Democrats cleaning up and winning control with victories in places where the caucus didn't spend a dime.

Republicans are spending in places no one ever thought they would have to defend to limit the damage and prevent such a scenario.

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The Dark Arts Of Negative Political Ad Photos

Posted: October 9, 2018 11:43 AM

Eighteen years ago, I was in Monroe to write about a competitive race for the state House between the incumbent Republican, Randy Richardville, and the Democratic challenger.

Mr. Richardville handed me a negative mail piece Democrats were sending that showed him, then with a moustache, kind of slouching on a couch with a wry look on his face, which was resting on his hand. It was … not a flattering photo. How did the Democrats get this photo? Well, Mr. Richardville said someone on his team posted it to his campaign website for reasons not entirely clear. By the time he said he saw it and frantically demanded it be removed, it was too late. The Internet is forever and Democratic operatives had their photo.

Presto, negative mail piece.

It's October of an election year, which means mailboxes across the state in areas with hot races are filling up with political mail. "Candidate A is the greatest human being in the history of humanity." "Candidate B is evil incarnate who should be burned at the stake." Well, not really. But sometimes I am amazed this stuff works. Yet it does.

Which brings us to Julia Pulver of West Bloomfield, the Democratic nominee in the 15th Senate District in southwest Oakland County.

Below is an image of a mailer sent by Republicans attacking Ms. Pulver.

And below is the actual photo Republicans used for the mailer.

In a Facebook post showing the contrasting images, Ms. Pulver explains: "It's true, my picture is super scary: for paczkis. The picture they are using is my 'I'm gonna eat the heck out of these paczkis and there's nothing you can do about it' face! So, unless you're a Polish seasonal donut, I'm not very scary and am actually a pretty nice person."

It's amazing. Republican operatives combed her Facebook page and found a funny photo of her planning to devour some paczki like any good Michigander should on Fat Tuesday. I think I annihilated an entire box myself before slipping into a sugar-induced food coma. I digress…

Anywho, the Republicans did some cropping and filtering while adding a background that looks like a jail cell wall and – ta-da – Ms. Pulver looks, well, pretty darn frightening.

For a state legislative candidate running for office for the first time, Ms. Pulver's gotten a big response to her post on Facebook and Twitter.

If she can spread her response wide enough, it could be pretty effective. There are not many things in politics people agree on these days, but I'm pretty confident one of the few causes out there with 100 percent support is paczki.

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Prepare For The Election With Gongwer's 2018 Michigan Elections App

Posted: October 4, 2018 1:45 PM

The 2018 Michigan Elections app has you covered to get ready for the November 6 general election with live election results, candidate biographical information and updated analysis from our staff on the state of play in all state and federal races on the ballot.

Available for iOS and Android users, the app is the perfect portable tool to keep track of the 2018 election in the state. It is powered by Gongwer News Service, Michigan's leading source of independent, nonpartisan news and information on Michigan government and politics.

We've been updating races constantly, adjusting our rating of where we think they stand and that will continue through the election.

On election night, the app will update every 15 minutes with the latest election results. Additionally, the app will send out alert notifications as major races are called.

Once the election is over, the app will remain active and serve as an ongoing resource about what happened in this election cycle. And when we unveil the 2020 Michigan Elections app sometime early in 2020, you'll get a notification to let you know it's available.

The app is available for $4.99.

Download for iOS:

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Is Congressman Bishop On The Ropes?

Posted: October 2, 2018 3:14 PM

The news from Washington last Friday was stunning: the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super political action committee affiliated with top U.S. House Republicans, was canceling $2.1 million in ads for U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Rochester). Unnamed sources told Politico, which broke the news, it did so because it saw his race against Democratic challenger Elissa Slotkin of Holly as unwinnable.

For some time, it was apparent that Ms. Slotkin was presenting a formidable challenge to Mr. Bishop. She was outraising him in campaign cash, boasted an incredible resume with her background in the CIA and was campaigning like gangbusters in an election cycle when the national political winds are at the backs of Democrats.

Still, Mr. Bishop had some structural advantages. While Ingham County on the district's west end is strongly Democratic, Livingston County in the middle has long been one of the most solidly Republican counties in the state. The northern Oakland County portion of the district mostly is way out in the typically conservative exurbs of Detroit: the Holly, Lake Orion, Oxford and Clarkston areas. Those are areas that voted heavily for President Donald Trump and generally have not shown signs of shifting toward Democrats like areas south of M-59 in Oakland County.

The one area in the Oakland portion of the 8th that has shown signs of that shift, Rochester Hills and Rochester, is Mr. Bishop's home turf. He lives in Rochester and represented those communities in the state House and Senate. If any Republican should be able to ride out the changes there, he should.

A look at what happened in the August primary, thought, signals that assumptions about how the district will perform based on the past could be flawed.

Ms. Slotkin actually pulled more votes out of Mr. Bishop's home precinct in Rochester in the primary than Mr. Bishop did. In the 2014 and 2016 primaries, Mr. Bishop easily had more votes than the Democratic candidate in his home precinct.

Republicans are deeply, deeply concerned about what's happening in Oakland County, and the Rochesters are a big part of their worries. The problem for Mr. Bishop goes beyond those two cities, however.

Democrats are making moves in the Clarkston area where Republicans are having to commit resources to defend a onetime reliably GOP state Senate district and, more startlingly, a previously assumed to be safe state House seat. What might that portend for Ms. Slotkin in that populous area?

There are signs that the Republican juggernaut in Livingston County has weakened in the Brighton area where there is a high percentage of residents with bachelor's degrees, a prime anti-Trump demographic. Could Mr. Bishop's margin out of Livingston fall below what he needs?

Mr. Bishop doesn't have anywhere near the presence in Ingham County that his predecessor, former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, had and he's at risk of losing the county by a significantly bigger margin than in his first two runs.

Add up all those factors and it's no wonder Mr. Bishop's own polling shows the race within the margin of error with him at 45 percent and Ms. Slotkin at 43 percent. Ms. Slotkin's polling shows her up 47-43, also too close to call. The New York Times and Siena College have been conducting a live poll of the race since Friday and that also is a statistical dead heat.

Still, there's no indication as of yet that Mr. Bishop is a lost cause. Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel was on WJR-AM's "The Frank Beckmann Show" today vowing Mr. Bishop would win and noting that the National Republican Congressional Committee still has $5 million invested in the race with the RNC investing in the race as well when asked about the Congressional Leadership Fund's action.

The Congressional Leadership Fund's decision set off alarm bells that Republicans were cutting Mr. Bishop loose but right now, despite that decision, this looks like a race that could go either way.

Still, one wonders if Mr. Bishop's hometown looks politically unrecognizable to him. In 1998, in his first run for the state House, he won 71 percent of the vote in Rochester and Rochester Hills over the Democrat. In his 2016 run for a second term in the U.S. House, he took 60 percent of the vote in those two communities. How far does he fall this year? That should provide a good clue as to whether Mr. Bishop wins a third term or Ms. Slotkin scores one of the more impressive wins over a U.S. House incumbent Michigan has seen.

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Supreme Stakes As MIGOP Snubs Justice Clement

Posted: September 25, 2018 12:51 PM

This year's race for two seats on the Michigan Supreme Court has suddenly become one of the most consequential ever for the court.

The Michigan Republican Party has informally ostracized one of its nominees, Justice Elizabeth Clement, and whether Ms. Clement wins election to a full term on the court will have significant ramifications.

Ms. Clement's rulings in two cases have infuriated a big chunk of Republican activists. The former Senate Republican staffer and top legal counsel to Governor Rick Snyder, who appointed her to the court a year ago to fill a vacancy, joined majority opinions that school districts can regulate firearms on school campuses and that the redistricting ballot proposal met legal muster to go on the ballot.

Ms. Clement was not the only Republican-nominated justice to rule that way in those cases, but she's the only one on the ballot this year who did so and has been pilloried by some Republicans as traitorous as a result. The person giving the speech to nominate her at the August Republican state convention was roundly booed throughout his remarks. And when the voice vote was held on whether to nominate her, the nays sounded a bit louder than the ayes, but the convention officer declared the ayes outnumbered the nays and gaveled her through.

That would not prove the end of the story. Last week, a Republican activist excited to be passing out literature supporting Republican candidates tweeted an image of a door hanger the party was distributing in the Monroe area. The Michigan Republican Party retweeted it for their followers to see.

As I scanned the door hanger, there were the names and faces of Bill Schuette, John James, Lisa Posthumus Lyons, Tom Leonard, Mary Treder Lang, Supreme Court Justice Kurtis Wilder, U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, state Sen. Dale Zorn and state Rep. Joe Bellino.

Ms. Clement's name and face were glaringly absent.

This was a stunning snub. State GOP spokesperson Sarah Anderson said the party's grassroots activists overwhelmingly communicated to the party they would not distribute literature for Ms. Clement.

The stakes are now extremely high in this Supreme Court election.

If Ms. Clement wins, it will signal that the political parties who nominate the justice candidates (who officially run on the nonpartisan ballot) are powerless to, depending on one's point of view, kneecap/hold accountable an incumbent whose rulings anger party activists. Incumbent justices can nominate themselves and enjoy a designation on the ballot that says "Justice of the Supreme Court" that historically all but guarantees re-election/retention.

With an eight-year term won despite a finger in the eye from the Michigan Republican Party, Ms. Clement, who already appears unencumbered by partisan considerations, could feel validated and continue to rule as she has so far.

If Ms. Clement loses, and one of the Democratic nominees – attorneys Sam Bagenstos or Megan Cavanagh – replaces her, the court moves from a 5-2 Republican majority to a 4-3 Republican one. But more significantly, an unmistakable signal will have been sent to the other Republican justices, that ruling in a way that infuriates party activists puts them in peril. Mr. Wilder and another Republican-nominated justice still eligible to run for re-election, Justice Brian Zahra, have generally ruled conservatively during their time as judges, but Justice David Viviano has broken ranks like Ms. Clement on other key rulings.

Mr. Viviano wrote the majority opinion in the redistricting case and tangled intensely with Chief Justice Stephen Markman, a Republican-nominated justice, in that ruling. Might he see a Clement defeat as a signal to tone it down? He made it clear Monday he thought the Michigan Republican Party's move was wrong. He doesn't have to seek re-election until 2026.

Throughout the Clement controversy, it seemed unlikely that Republicans would sacrifice her in the name of ideological purity if it meant a Democratic replacement who overall would be unlikely to rule in their favor as often as Ms. Clement presumably would.

While there are some Republicans aghast at the MIGOP's snub of Ms. Clement, like Lt. Governor Brian Calley and state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker of Lawton, among others, it appears the bulk of the activists would rather take their chances.

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Nessel Passes On Directly Addressing Reported Campaign 'Chaos'

Posted: September 18, 2018 5:14 PM

Democratic attorney general candidate Dana Nessel, faced with allegations from former campaign staffers that she has created a verbally abusive environment that has led to repeated staff resignations and firings, is not addressing the claims head on.

Ms. Nessel, who declined our requests for an interview to respond to the allegations, instead issued a prepared statement calling the whole thing a "ridiculous and desperate ploy" by her Republican opponent, House Speaker Tom Leonard, "to distract the media and voters from the fact that Dana Nessel is up by double digits in the polls."

Except, this was not a Leonard planted story. Former Nessel staffers came forward. And the turnstile nature of Ms. Nessel's approach to press secretaries had started to become apparent in recent weeks when Ken Coleman replaced Lucas Bezerra and then Brian Stone replaced Mr. Coleman. Mr. Stone was then fired last week just days into the job and some of the former staffers, speaking on background, revealed that there had been repeated turnover in the campaign manager post as well.

Campaigns can be inherently chaotic and internally fraught with tension. To have former staffers, however, publicly describing the candidate in such acerbic terms (even as all said they would still vote for her over Mr. Leonard) is unusual. And a coup for Mr. Leonard, who needs to try to separate himself from the Democratic momentum building toward the election.

In refusing to directly address the controversy, Ms. Nessel might be hoping to avoid inflaming the story. But in falling back on the ol' "My opponent is attacking because he's behind" strategy, Ms. Nessel runs the risk of what to say if at some point the polls show Mr. Leonard gaining ground on her. Further, at some point in this race, whether in debates or interviews, Ms. Nessel will have to discuss what happened in her own words, not through a written statement.

Generally, the "speak from a prepared statement amid crisis strategy" ends poorly for a candidate.

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From His Home Turf, Warning Light Flashing For Schuette

Posted: September 11, 2018 2:32 PM

The August primary numbers contained plenty of good news for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Gretchen Whitmer and troubling signs for Republican nominee Bill Schuette.

There was the obvious matter of more people voting in the Democratic primary statewide than the Republican primary. But a slightly deeper peek into the data shows a big flashing red light of warning for Mr. Schuette in the most unlikely of places – his home county of Midland.

Yes, Midland County, where Mr. Schuette has lived nearly his whole life, which elected him to Congress and the state Senate and where Mr. Schuette has been its public political face for three decades. Midland County, a Republican bastion.

In the last two primaries in gubernatorial election years, Republicans dominated primary turnout in Midland County. In 2010, Republicans made up 80.1 percent of the primary vote. And in 2014, Republicans made up a whopping 84 percent of the primary vote.

So now in 2018, with the native son Mr. Schuette on the ballot, one might think that Republican domination would have continued or even increased.

It did not.

A month ago, of those in Midland County who participated in the gubernatorial primary election, 60.7 percent did so on the Republican side.

That’s an incredible falloff. In fact, when comparing 2018 (a year when both parties had expensive, hard-fought gubernatorial races) to 2014 (a year when neither party had a contested primary), the total number of Republican votes for governor in Midland County rose 15 percent in 2018. On the Democratic side, total votes cast for governor in the primary increased by 291 percent.

No, that is not a misprint. The increase in primary turnout on the Democratic side from 2014 to 2018 in Midland County soared by 19 times the rate at which turnout increased on the Republican side – in a year with Mr. Schuette on the ballot.

What’s happening in Midland County? The same thing that’s happening in so many other urban/suburban areas with a relatively high number of residents with bachelor’s degrees: enthusiasm to vote Democratic as a statement against President Donald Trump. What’s happening in Midland County does not appear specific to Mr. Schuette, but that the attorney general isn’t getting any hometown benefit of the doubt signals trouble.

By the way, it’s not unheard of for Republicans to comprise 61 percent of the primary turnout for governor in Midland County instead of a much loftier number. It happened in 2002 and 2006.

Anyone remember who won the governorship those years?

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Could Suburban Surge Propel Dems To Complete Control?

Posted: September 4, 2018 2:22 PM

For most of this election cycle, when I have spoken to various groups and written in this space about the chances of Democrats winning control of the Legislature, it went something like this:

The House, now controlled 63-46 with one vacancy by the Republicans, possible but unlikely. The Senate, now 27-10 Republican with one vacancy and under GOP control for 34 years, hahaha. In fact, a little more than three months ago in this space, I wrote it would take a political earthquake or some other cataclysm for Democrats to flip the Senate.

Well, the ensuing events – specifically, the wild turnout patterns in the August 7 primary – have the feel of at least a tremor, maybe much more.

Take, for example, the 15th Senate District in southwest Oakland County, long a ruby red area where the Republican nominee has won the last four races by an average of 20 points, suddenly turning purple. The term limited Republican incumbent, Sen. Mike Kowall of White Lake, recently said that while the seat was once one where winning the GOP primary was all that mattered, the Republican nominee this year is going to have to work extremely hard to hold the seat.

Three months ago, I wrote the Democrats’ task to flip control of the Legislature was “daunting.” Now there’s a plausible path. Not a clear path. Not an easy path. Vegas would not put great odds on it. But doable.

Earlier this cycle, there was no plausible path, certainly not for the Senate.

The path goes straight through Michigan’s suburban regions, which appear boiling mad at President Donald Trump and ready to storm the polls in November to vote Democratic. The tenure of President Barack Obama accelerated the shift of onetime competitive white working class districts toward the GOP. Now Mr. Trump has accelerated the shift of onetime Republican bastions (higher-income, large percentages of people with bachelor’s degrees and increasingly racially diverse) into competitive, maybe even Democratic tilting, territory.

Looking at the turnout in the August primary, Democrats showed up in force in three Oakland County Senate districts now held by Republicans as well as a northwest Wayne County district now in GOP hands. Not only did Democrat Mallory McMorrow of Royal Oak get thousands more votes than Sen. Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy) in the 13th Senate District primary (neither had an opponent) but Democratic turnout was up in the seat 253 percent from the last midterm primary in 2014. Republican turnout rose only 12 percent from that same year, meaning Democratic turnout shot up at 21 times the rate Republican turnout did.

There are big numbers, though not quite as flabbergasting, across the other three Senate districts as well as six House districts in the same area (four in Oakland, two in Wayne) now held by Republicans. In each, at least as many Democrats participated in the primary as Republicans, usually more, and the increase in Democratic turnout was up by three, four, five, even nine times the amount GOP turnout rose.

The 40th House District in Birmingham, Bloomfield Township and part of West Bloomfield went from Republicans making up 61 percent of the primary vote in the 2014 midterms to Democrats making up 59 percent of the primary turnout in this year’s primary. If that’s not something that registers on the political Richter scale, I don’t know what is.

Now, you may be reading this right now and uttering the immortal words of Frank “The Tank” Ricard in “Old School” after he accidentally shoots himself in the neck with a tranquilizer dart: “You’re crazy man. You’re crazy. I like you, but you’re crazy.”

But ask yourself this, what if Democrats win a clean sweep of those four Senate races and six House races?

House Democrats would only need to flip three more seats for control. Senate Democrats would need just four (we’ll assume that if voters come out en masse in these areas to vote for Democrats that Democratic gubernatorial nominee Gretchen Whitmer will win the governorship, meaning Garlin Gilchrist II as the new lieutenant governor would break the 19-19 tie in the Senate to give Democrats control).

What odds would you give at that point that House Democrats could find those three seats? It doesn’t seem far-fetched to think they could nab the open 62nd District based in Battle Creek, the open 71st District in Eaton County and the open 91st District in suburban Muskegon, right? Mr. Trump is not as unpopular in those areas as he is in the 10 House and Senate districts referenced earlier, but he’s not in great shape either.

What odds would you give Senate Democrats to find those other four seats? They are the favorites in two GOP-held districts, one in Macomb County and one in the western Upper Peninsula, thanks to candidate-to-candidate advantages, even though the national environment isn’t nearly as favorable. At this point, Rep. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) has something approaching a layup to flip the 29th District based in Grand Rapids and some of its suburbs. Democratic turnout in that seat rose 300 percent from the 2014 midterm while GOP turnout was up just 9 percent – meaning the Democratic turnout increase exceeded the GOP’s by an astounding 33 times. There’s that rumble again.

Then there’s the rematch between Sen. Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage) and Democratic former Rep. Sean McCann of Kalamazoo in the urban/suburban 20th District, which Ms. O’Brien won by just 0.07 percentage point in 2014. Ms. O’Brien’s been doing all the right things but the environment in Kalamazoo County is deeply anti-Trump. Not only did Mr. McCann pull in 9,000 more votes in the primary than Ms. O’Brien but Democratic turnout was up at five times the rate GOP turnout rose from the 2014 midterms.

Going into this cycle, it was clear Republicans faced some problems in some onetime strongholds. The 40th House District and the 41st House District in Troy/Clawson loomed as clear issues with Mr. Trump’s poor performance there and term limits ousting GOP incumbents, but this suburban surge against the president has spread more deeply into places with distinct Republican voting traditions like Novi, Plymouth, Northville and Livonia.

The Republicans could certainly quell this possibility of the first Democratic sweep of state government since 1982 if they can re-elect their incumbents and avoid stunners. If Mr. Knollenberg, Rep. Kathy Crawford (R-Novi) and Rep. Jeff Noble (R-Plymouth) take care of business and win re-election and if Rep. Laura Cox (R-Livonia), Rep. Michael McCready (R-Bloomfield Township) and Rep. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) win open Senate seats few seriously thought until recently Democrats could win, the Republicans should hold the Legislature.

Of note, in these 10 suburban Detroit districts, the race pits a Republican man against a Democratic woman in seven of them. How high is the pink wave?

That this is even up for discussion is incredible.

Is a Democratic sweep probable? Not at this point. Plausible? Far more than I thought.

Interested in more analysis on these races? Gongwer News Service’s 2018 Michigan Elections app has you covered with analysis on all 148 races for the Legislature, plus the statewide offices and Congress as well as candidate biographical information and much more. It’s available for $4.99 for iOS devices at and for Android devices at

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No Doubt About It, 11th Congressional Up For Grabs

Posted: August 29, 2018 4:52 PM

About a year ago, when U.S. Rep. David Trott (R-Birmingham) declared he would not seek re-election, national political analysts immediately declared the seat a toss-up. I held off from doing so, given the Republican-voting history of the communities that make up the district that snakes through Wayne and Oakland counties.

Let’s see the candidate fields. Let’s see how fundraising goes. Let’s see who makes it through the primary.

Well, we’ve passed all those markers, and there’s no question any more – this district, drawn by the GOP to bring together as many Republican-leaning municipalities as possible, is indeed a toss-up.

The Republican history of the communities in this district – Birmingham, Novi, the Plymouths, the Northvilles, Livonia, Troy and more – is no longer terribly relevant. Like other similar communities across the country – wealthier, increasingly diversifying racially and with lots of people who have bachelor’s degrees – there is revulsion at President Donald Trump. College-educated women are extremely motivated to send a message.

The numbers in this district from the August 7 primary are eye-popping.

Three thousand more people participated in the Democratic primary than the Republican one. Both parties had hotly competitive, five-candidate primaries. But more tellingly of the trend here, Democratic turnout rose by 229 percent over the turnout in the August 2014 primary (a midterm to midterm comparison makes the most sense) while Republican turnout rose by 42 percent compared to 2014.

That means Democratic turnout jumped at 5.5 times the rate Republican turnout rose here.

So that’s a big data point in assessing the status of this race.

Democrats probably got their most electable candidate through the primary in Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills. The only notable vulnerability uncovered (so far) is her having moved back to the state recently (she grew up in the district). Republicans have been telegraphing their plans to label her a carpetbagger, but that’s going to be complicated by the Republican nominee, Lena Epstein, not living in the district. Ms. Epstein, who lives in Bloomfield Township, lives just several hundreds of feet outside the district’s boundaries, but nonetheless Ms. Stevens has an easy retort if the Republicans try to label her as an outsider.

Neither candidate has really had to respond to an attack so far. The Democratic primary stayed clean. One of Ms. Epstein’s Republican foes raised her lack of attendance at the meetings of a state commission where she was a member, but lacked the resources to really press the point and Ms. Epstein sidestepped the topic when confronted with it at a debate.

Ms. Epstein, a business owner, can self-fund to a significant degree. Ms. Stevens showed she could raise good money from donors. So both should have the resources they need.

Mr. Trump won this district in 2016, though not by much and he ran below the Republican base. Now there are signs this district has turned on Mr. Trump and voters are looking to send a message.

Ms. Epstein, one of Mr. Trump’s strongest supporters in the state, has done enough television interviews extolling him to provide Democrats with almost limitless material to use in television advertising if Mr. Trump proves to be toxic here.

Add it all up, and there’s only one conclusion: the 11th is up for grabs.

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A Bumpy Running Mate Selection Process Concludes

Posted: August 20, 2018 5:10 PM

Neither Bill Schuette nor Gretchen Whitmer appears to have done anything in the selection of their choice for lieutenant governor that could cost them the gubernatorial election.

And that, when it comes to winning the election, is the only factor that matters when selecting a running mate. Former Governor James Blanchard lost his 1990 re-election to John Engler by 17,000 votes for several reasons, but one of them surely was the mishandling of the replacement of then-Lt. Governor Martha Griffiths on the ticket. Ms. Griffiths, whom Mr. Blanchard feared was no longer up to the rigors of the job, spent the rest of the election cycle publicly castigating Mr. Blanchard.

That said, the roads to the selections of Lisa Posthumus Lyons as Mr. Schuette’s running mate and Garlin Gilchrist II as Ms. Whitmer’s had their share of bumps.

Let’s start with the Democrats since the campaign news of the day is Ms. Whitmer making her selection of Mr. Gilchrist official.

For a long time, up until the spring, it appeared Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon had the inside track as Ms. Whitmer’s running mate. Then he seemed to fall out of favor. Was it because he was openly telling people he was going to be the choice? One Democratic source said he did just that at an event in the spring, leaving the audience stunned. One would assume the Whitmer team was less than pleased. And while Mr. Napoleon could have countered the law-and-order resume of Mr. Schuette, the attorney general and former Court of Appeals judge, he also had some baggage from his days as Detroit police chief.

Ms. Whitmer was boxed in by the Democratic choices for attorney general and secretary of state, both of whom are white, at the party’s April endorsement convention. The party has had an African-American on the ticket every gubernatorial cycle for one of the big four constitutional offices since 1970.

Mr. Gilchrist’s name began showing up on watch lists months ago, and the reaction outside of Detroit probably was something akin to “Garlin who?” He’s the first lieutenant governor candidate since 1978 not to have any prior experience in elected office and at 35 is a relative newcomer to the state political scene. But as a young, progressive Detroiter who is African-American with a background in technology, he adds some qualities the Whitmer campaign thinks can help the cause.

For a time, one of the names getting the most buzz in Democratic circles was state Sen. Vincent Gregory of Lathrup Village. A former U.S. Marine who fought in the Vietnam War who later was a detective in the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department and is widely liked, the main knock against him was he is not from Detroit. But then he got routed in his bid for the 35th House District, finishing a distant third in the Democratic primary. That result, coming after the 2014 cycle when he nearly lost renomination for his Senate seat, appeared to remove Mr. Gregory from contention.

And for as much emphasis as Ms. Whitmer has put on her experience in state government, Mr. Gilchrist has none. He has experience in the city of Detroit government as a technology director, but if Mr. Gilchrist ever did ascend to the governorship, he would not have what Ms. Whitmer called crucial last year. “We’re hiring someone to run state government. Knowing what that means and what it takes and what it does is a crucial part of my experience that sets me apart,” she said.

Some unpaid late fees Mr. Gilchrist’s city clerk committee had as a result of filing two reports after the election have become fodder for Republicans to attack the pick. The Whitmer campaign says he paid the fees over the weekend, but it’s surprising the issue was not resolved much sooner given how long Mr. Gilchrist’s name has been in the running mate conversation.

Turning to the Republicans, the choice of Ms. Lyons came amid a widespread sense among Republicans that Plan A was Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller and Plan B was Rep. Laura Cox of Livonia. Ms. Miller is a popular figure statewide and especially in southeast Michigan. Ms. Cox is a popular figure in the northwest Wayne County suburbs that figure to be a bellwether on who wins the governor’s race.

Ms. Lyons’ name began emerging relatively late and while the factors she brings to the ticket are clear – a track record of winning office in Kent County, which has been slipping as a Republican bulwark; gender and age balance with Mr. Schuette; and legislative and executive experience as a member of the House and now Kent County clerk – there’s one big contrast she has with Mr. Schuette.

From the time Lt. Governor Brian Calley jumped into the race, Mr. Schuette made the contest mainly about one issue – Mr. Calley unendorsed President Donald Trump in the waning days of the 2016 election and Mr. Schuette remained behind Mr. Trump’s campaign. Mr. Schuette hit Mr. Calley time and again on “abandoning” Mr. Trump and emphasized Mr. Trump had endorsed him.

But like Mr. Calley, who withdrew his endorsement of Mr. Trump after the revelation of the “Access Hollywood” video in which Mr. Trump is overheard boasting of being able to grope women “by the p-ssy” and get away with it because of his star status, Ms. Lyons similarly lambasted Mr. Trump. She said he had neither earned her respect nor her vote. And last week, Ms. Lyons would not say whether she voted for Mr. Trump, only that she supports Mr. Trump now. Mr. Schuette sidestepped questions about how he could name Ms. Lyons after pillorying Mr. Calley for months on the Trump question.

The choice has rankled some Republican activists who see anything other than staunch support for Mr. Trump as betrayal and raised questions about how she will be received at this weekend’s Republican convention.

So the “Loot Guv” speculation has concluded for this cycle, bringing to an end one of the Capitol community’s favorite parlor games.

While it wasn’t a straight line toward the Gilchrist and Lyons picks, both fill needs for their tickets and will fade into the background like running mates generally do for the duration of the campaign. At the very least, neither Mr. Schuette nor Ms. Whitmer should have a Griffiths-esque figure slamming them publicly on a regular basis over the choice.


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It’s The End Of The 2018 Primary As We Know It

Posted: August 7, 2018 2:45 PM

The 2018 Michigan gubernatorial primary, which has been building for years, finally ends tonight.

The seven major party candidates will be winnowed to two, who will face off along with the minor party nominees, in the November general election.

But before we bid farewell to the primary season, I thought it appropriate to pay homage to the candidates through the songs of my favorite band, REM. Why REM, which broke up seven years ago? Well, I’m on a REM kick thanks to the “R U Talkin’ REM Re: Me?” podcast and, well, it’s my blog, so I get to pick the band and the songs.

I’ve picked one song to fit with the dominant theme of each candidate’s campaign and one song to reflect what the candidate’s critics have said about the campaign, or something that has dogged each candidate’s campaign.

We’ll go in ballot order, which means Republicans first, Democrats second and the candidates in alphabetical order within each party.



Mr. Calley, as the second-in-command to Governor Rick Snyder, has run unapologetically as the candidate who will continue the economic policies of the current administration. REM’s first big commercial hit, off of 1988’s “Green,” opens with the line “Stand in the place where you live.” That’s what Mr. Calley has done.

CRITICS’ THEME SONG: “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”

There’s a reason no lieutenant governor since the adoption of the 1963 Constitution, which made the lieutenant governor a running mate of the gubernatorial candidate instead of an independently elected office, has won direct election to the governorship. The LG gets all the governor’s enemies and half the governor’s friends, as former Governor John Engler once said of his No. 2, Lt. Governor Dick Posthumus. And the lieutenant governor typically is not well known among the greater electorate. The grinding opener of 1985’s “Fables of the Reconstruction” fits for the uphill struggle Mr. Calley’s campaign always was going to be.


THEME SONG: “I Believe”

Mr. Colbeck is the true believer conservative who came out of the tea party movement and pens various ideas on how to put more money into roads and health care without raising taxes, an idealism befitting this gem off of 1986’s “Lifes Rich Pageant.”

CRITICS’ THEME SONG: “Exhuming McCarthy”

Mr. Colbeck, without evidence, accused Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, who is Muslim, of being part of a purported, unproven conspiracy of the Muslim Brotherhood to elect Islamists to public office in the United States. This song off of 1987’s “Document” was about the band’s anger at the Reagan era and the feeling that 1950s Communist conspiracist Joseph McCarthy would fit right in.


THEME SONG: “The Outsiders”

Not one of REM’s best-known songs, off their relatively obscure “Around the Sun” album from 2004 that the band now disparages as a low point. Nonetheless, there’s no better fitting song for the candidate who kept trying to convince voters to back him as the lone political outsider in the Republican field.

CRITICS’ THEME SONG: “What If We Give It Away?”

Mr. Hines is going to spend almost $3 million of his own money on a bid that, as this hour, has no apparent chance of coming close to success. The opening lyrics of this song off of 1986’s “Lifes Rich Pageant” are “On the outside/underneath the wall/all the money/couldn’t buy.” Sounds about right.


THEME SONG: “Orange Crush”

Mr. Schuette said it himself the other day. The story of the Republican primary has been President Donald Trump’s endorsement of him. And Mr. Schuette has referenced that endorsement time and time again. Even though this song off of 1988’s “Green” is about the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, given Mr. Trump’s famous orange hue, the title could not be more perfect here.

CRITICS’ THEME SONG: “Finest Worksong”

Democrats and his Republican opponents have hammered Mr. Schuette on allegations of performing political work on government time. Thus, the opening track off of “Document” seems like the right fit.


THEME SONG: “Talk About the Passion”

I debated this one against “Ignoreland” off of 1992’s “Automatic for the People,” a rant against the Reagan/Bush era that dovetails nicely with Mr. El-Sayed’s fury at the political establishment. But if Mr. El-Sayed is going to spring an upset, it’s going to be because of what he inspired in voters, making this stone-cold classic (podcast fans will get this reference) off of 1983’s “Murmur” the clear choice. Plus, it’s in my top five all-time REM songs.

CRITICS’ THEME SONG: “Leaving New York”

I can’t believe I have two songs from “Around the Sun” on here, but the controversy that erupted in the winter over whether Mr. El-Sayed was eligible to run for governor because he was simultaneously registered to vote in New York City and Ann Arbor set his campaign back months. This is the best song off of “Around the Sun.”


THEME SONG: “Shiny Happy People”

I don’t like this song, which was a commercial hit, off of 1991’s “Out of Time” and by all accounts the band isn’t terribly fond of it either, but the bright, bubbly feel of Mr. Thanedar’s ubiquitous television commercials made me think of it.


I debated between “Hollow Man” off of 2008’s “Accelerate” and “Animal” off of the 2004 best of collection, “In Time.” “Animal” because of the torrent of negative coverage Mr. Thanedar got after questions were raised about his company’s treatment of animals at a testing facility. But “Hollow Man” is the better song, so I’m going with it because of the fury directed at Mr. Thanedar by Democrats that he is masquerading a Democrat and on a vanity mission.


THEME SONG: “Driver 8”

The meaning of this stone cold classic off of “Fables of the Reconstruction” is murky and the lyrics refer to trains, not cars, but it seemed the best fit for Ms. Whitmer’s “fix the damn roads” theme. The only song of REM’s that overtly uses the word road (I think) is the band’s drunken cover of “King of the Road” and that wasn’t going to work.

CRITICS’ THEME SONG: “Second Guessing”

Another one I debated. “All the Right Friends,” a really old REM song that somehow showed up on the “Vanilla Sky” soundtrack, would be a nice nod to Ms. Whitmer’s sweeping virtually every Democratic endorsement and the sense among some Democrats she has the party’s machine behind her. I decided to go with “Second Guessing” because (A) I wanted to get something off of 1984’s “Reckoning” on this list and (B) Ms. Whitmer’s moves have been second guessed for the last 20 months. Did she get in too early? Why did she churn through staff early on? Why wasn’t she on television sooner? Etc.

For the five candidates who fall short tonight, I have a few recommendations. “Why Not Smile” off of 1998’s “Up,” “All the Best” off of 2011’s “Collapse Into Now” and – of course – “Everybody Hurts.”

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Prepare For The Primary With The 2018 Michigan Elections App

Posted: August 6, 2018 7:56 AM

The 2018 Michigan Elections app has you covered to get ready for Tuesday’s primary election with live election results, candidate biographical information and updated analysis from our staff on the state of play in all state and federal races on the ballot.

Available for iOS and Android users, the app is the perfect portable tool to keep track of the 2018 election in the state. It is powered by Gongwer News Service, Michigan’s leading source of independent, nonpartisan news and information on Michigan government and politics.

On election night, the app will update every 15 minutes with the latest election results. Additionally, the app will send out alert notification as major races are called.

And once the primary is over, the app will take users through the general election. Gongwer’s staff will update the analysis of races to reflect the latest dynamics with notifications to alert users of updated information. And then on November 6, the app will again have live results.

The app is available for $4.99.

Download for iOS:

Download for Android:

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Prepare For The Primary With The 2018 Michigan Elections App

Posted: August 4, 2018 10:43 AM

The 2018 Michigan Elections app has you covered to get ready for Tuesday’s primary election with live election results, candidate biographical information and updated analysis from our staff on the state of play in all state and federal races on the ballot.

Available for iOS and Android users, the app is the perfect portable tool to keep track of the 2018 election in the state. It is powered by Gongwer News Service, Michigan’s leading source of independent, nonpartisan news and information on Michigan government and politics.

On election night, the app will update every 15 minutes with the latest election results. Additionally, the app will send out alert notification as major races are called.

And once the primary is over, the app will take users through the general election. Gongwer’s staff will update the analysis of races to reflect the latest dynamics with notifications to alert users of updated information. And then on November 6, the app will again have live results.

The app is available for $4.99.

Download for iOS:

Download for Android:

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A Chat On The Primary Five Days Out

Posted: August 2, 2018 1:45 PM

The intensity of the gubernatorial primary is running high, so Gongwer Publisher John Lindstrom and I decided to have a chat about what’s happening and what might happen.

Zach: Well, John, the primary election is just days away. Let's dissect these primaries for governor. Since you've been covering the Democrats, what's the state of play there at this point?

John: If the election were held today Gretchen Whitmer would win. Since it will be held Tuesday, she will probably win...but it will depend how well she has run her ground game, gotten supporters to the polls, hauled in sufficient absentees, and hope none of the complacency and ennui Democrats lolled in during the 2016 election comes to pass. If those factors fail for her, Katie bar the door.

Zach: So Abdul El-Sayed is going unconventional, trying to nationalize his campaign. He's continuing to stoke national media attention and bringing in national figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. From the Democrats I talk to, there's a sense he has definitely displaced Shri Thanedar as the main alternative to Whitmer and has gained on her, though still trails.

John: El-Sayed is definitely the media star this moment, and his campaigners are confident he will pull an Ocasio-Cortez (even though there is no comparison of the dynamics of her race to Michigan). They excitedly point to a poll taken before Sanders endorsed El-Sayed that shows El-Sayed 6 points behind Whitmer. They don't note that 24 percent of those polled were still undecided. He is focusing his effort on Detroit-metro, Flint, hoping big turnouts there will knock her over. She has a statewide approach and today is beginning a statewide get out the vote effort. The campaign appearances El-Sayed has on Sunday in Detroit and Ypsilanti only.

Zach: Yes, it's really something. El-Sayed has no television presence in the Lansing media market. Yet from what I understand he is on heavy in the Detroit market.

John: Plus, his message is mainly health care and getting after Whitmer on Blue Cross donations. Shri Thanedar is doing the same thing. While health is a big issue nationwide, not sure it will dominate here. Interestingly all of the candidates are trying to really personalize their stories in their ads. Outside of the Blue Cross dig on Whitmer, it has been a surprisingly civil campaign.

Zach: And for all the buzz El-Sayed’s generating, the Whitmer people must be confident. They have not gone negative on him even as his campaign on a daily basis casts her as corrupted by corporate influences. But yes, you're right, at least on TV, it's been civil.

John: No, the closest she has gotten to negative is to point out her struggles getting her mom coverage and her effort on Healthy Michigan as a rebuttal to El-Sayed/Thanedar's dig at her. I am wondering if El-Sayed wins, will he face a backlash from all Whitmer's female supporters in November, angry both from the Hillary Clinton loss and a loss in the primary. That all depends on Tuesday of course.

Zach: Oh, a Whitmer loss would send devastating aftershocks through the party. For as much as the Whitmer campaign clearly is trying to avoid antagonizing El-Sayed's supporters and keeping it clean, the El-Sayed campaign clearly has no such concerns about how Whitmer's supporters will react if he wins.

Whitmer really seems to be banking on dominating outstate, following the Granholm model where she lost in the city of Detroit in 2002 but won almost everywhere else other than Macomb County. That could work -- unless Bernie Sanders' outstate supporters flock to El-Sayed. Then she could have trouble.

John: Her model is very much the Granholm 2002 model. In terms of out-state Bernie supporters, I suspect they aren't as excited for El-Sayed as they are for Whitmer. I'm not detecting enormous support for him outstate. And there is the money question, she has produced mail and TV ads and has a good-sized phone effort. El-Sayed's latest ad is online (not sure that will have the viewership impact that cable/broadcast will) and seems to rely more on volunteers stuffing doors than mail. His folks have not answered a question I've put to them on mail. Word of mouth works but El-Sayed will likely need than that.

Zach: El-Sayed's rise has coincided with Thanedar's fall it seems?

John: Well, Thanedar is not polling as well as he has. But there is still a big undecided factor and if anyone of them dominates that that person will win. Even there I think the advantage is Whitmer just because of the infrastructure she has pushing for her.

Zach: So while there seems to be some movement on the Democratic side based on what Democrats are telling us, the Republican race seems unchanged. Bill Schuette continues to lead even as he is under siege from a battery of attacks launched by the campaign of Brian Calley and organizations with a Democratic bent.

John: Yeah, Schuette seems to hold his own. I'm not ruling Calley out (and I don't see a surprise from Pat Colbeck or Jim Hines a la Joe Knollenberg in 1992), but unless there is a big last second swing Calley's way it looks like Schuette will be serving coffee on the campaign this fall.

I suspect the latest accusation against Schuette has come too late to make a difference. Just as the drunk driving charge against George W. Bush in 2000 came too late.

Zach: Schuette started out with a name ID edge and then has successfully stiff-armed Calley with the Trump endorsement and highlighting the aspects of Calley's record least palatable to the Republican base. Calley has tried to emphasize Michigan's economic recovery and bomb Schuette with attacks on his ethics, and while that's probably driven up Schuette's negatives, it doesn't seem to have moved Republican voters away from him.

The question is how much damage has Calley inflicted on Schuette for the general election. There's been an interesting dynamic where Calley attacks and then the Democrats follow up or the Democrats attack and then the Calley campaign follows up.

John: Schuette's Trump support brings out the question of whether the biggest issue in the general election will be not roads, or schools, or health care, but the president himself. There are plenty of issues in the state the candidates have to focus on, but if all light in the room emanates from one source you tend to follow that light.

Zach: Right, could the governor's race just be a proxy fight about national politics? That seems entirely possible.

And how do the Republicans put the pieces back together? Calley today called Schuette unqualified to be governor or AG and a law-breaker.

John: Little difficult to bury the hatchet when you're leaving them in each other's back. But I expect there will be a serious effort to bring out party unity for the election. Of course, there has been a lot of bad blood spilt with Calley and Gov. Snyder supporters not happy with Schuette (especially because of the Flint investigation), so do they take a walk in November? And what of the Republicans who aren't crazy about Trump but voted for him in 2016 out of party loyalty? What do they do come November? I forecast a lot of aspirin and heartburn medicine sold in the next several months among Republicans.

Zach: The expectation for so long has been a Schuette-Whitmer general election yet after 2016 with Sanders beating Clinton in the primary and then Trump beating Clinton in the general here, there's still this sense anything can happen, especially in the Democratic primary where the candidates did not start out with much name recognition.

John: Yes, should Schuette win he starts with a name ID advantage over whoever the Democrat is. And Whitmer supporters are pushing the fact that she has polled better against Schuette than her two opponents. Presuming Whitmer does win the Dem nomination, the November race against Schuette starts as a toss-up, maybe a tiny advantage for the Dems. If it’s either El-Sayed or Thanedar, it starts with a better advantage for the GOP. The GOP is only worried about Whitmer.

Zach: Yes, Tuesday marks only the end of the beginning.

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Signs, Signs, Everywhere A Sign

Posted: July 24, 2018 2:38 PM

Two weeks to go until the August primary, and that means yards from Erie to Ironwood are covered with political signs touting candidates, from governor all the way down to county commissioner.

Increasingly, in recent cycles, political professionals have begun to openly mock the value of yard signs as a total waste of money and campaign resources.

And yet, there they are. My hometown of East Lansing is chock-full of them. Signs for the three Democratic candidates for the 69th Michigan House District are everywhere. Big ones, little ones. There’s a slew of signs for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer, whose hometown is East Lansing. There’s more than a few signs for one of her rivals, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed. Signs are up on both sides on the local proposal to create a city income tax. And so on.

Yard sign aficionados should make a pilgrimage to Macomb County during election season. Signs there can be two or three times the size of those everywhere else and often feature the candidate’s face on them. Because Macomb County.

But do yard signs actually help win elections?

The political pros would say no. Actually, they would probably include another word before “no” that rhymes with duck.

Why all the hate for this venerable low-tech device?

For one, cost. What’s a better use of a candidate’s relatively spare resources? Direct mail and staff to canvass neighborhoods, techniques that have the chance to persuade voters to support the candidate, or a yard sign that merely affirms the house that put it up is supporting the candidate? That’s a rhetorical question.

Another gripe about signs: time. The time it takes to deliver and put up a couple thousand signs across a legislative district pulls staff resources away from the real bread-and-butter of legislative campaigns – door-to-door visits from the candidate and their staff. Time often is spent after the campaign removing the signs as well.

And then there’s theft. In high school, several of my friends, knowing I was a political geek, thought it would be funny one night to fill my house’s front yard with 40 political signs plucked from the yards of houses across the greater Birmingham metroplex. All that money and effort can get upended by kids playing a prank.

That said, signs can lift a campaign’s morale. The meaningful ones, anyway. And by meaningful, I mean signs in the yard of an actual registered voter, not those slapped along rights-of-way on major roads. Candidates slogging through a neighborhood on a 90-degree day for the second time in six months wondering if the next house is the one where Cujo is going barrel through a screen door and turn them into a chew toy can have their spirits lifted if they see houses up and down the street featuring their name in the gleaming colors of their campaign.

And in a strong grassroots campaign, the kind that aggressively goes door-to-door to meet voters, that can mean the installation of so many signs that they perhaps they can raise name identification at least a little.

But that’s the thing, it’s not the sign that makes the difference in an election, it’s the work behind getting a voter to put up the sign.

So let’s have a moment of silence for the political pros who have to acquiesce to candidates’ demands for signs. Take it away Five Man Electrical Band…

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A Curiosity: 2 Republicans Not Wild About Trump Avoid Challenge

Posted: July 20, 2018 3:46 PM

Several Republicans across the nation have lost primary races or seen their popularity tank after distancing themselves from or outright criticizing President Donald Trump.

U.S. Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) opted not to seek re-election after clashes with Mr. Trump caused their polling numbers to crater. U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford (R-South Carolina) lost renomination in his primary. U.S. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada) attracted a pro-Trump primary challenger, but then pivoted so hard to the pro-Trump side that the challenger dropped out.

Some of the same dynamic is playing out in Michigan. Attorney General Bill Schuette is reminding Republican voters again and again – and again – that Mr. Trump has endorsed him and that his main foe for the GOP nomination, Lt. Governor Brian Calley, withdrew his endorsement of Mr. Trump. Mr. Calley did so after the revelation of the “Access Hollywood” video where Mr. Trump boasts of being able to get away with groping women because of his star status.

Mr. Schuette, when asked about Mr. Trump’s controversies, never directly criticizes the president. Nor, for that matter does Mr. Calley, who, clearly aware of Mr. Trump’s power among Republican voters, has tried to flip the topic on Mr. Schuette by noting he was originally a Jeb Bush supporter in 2016 who criticized some of Mr. Trump’s statements.

Nonetheless, by all indications, Mr. Schuette is well ahead of Mr. Calley.

So, if the outcome for a Republican who criticizes Mr. Trump is the equivalent of staring Medusa in the face, why have two prominent Michigan Republicans who have never embraced the president escaped political trouble?

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Cascade Township) never endorsed Mr. Trump, said he would not vote for him in 2016 (nor the Democrat, Hillary Clinton) and has been one of the president’s most vocal critics. For a brief period, he had a pro-Trump primary challenger, but that candidate ended up deciding to challenge a state House Republican incumbent instead. Another low-level challenger failed to collect enough signatures to make the ballot.

Then there’s U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Saint Joseph), who also never endorsed Mr. Trump in 2016 and called for him to consider withdrawing from the race after the “Access Hollywood” video controversy. Yet Mr. Upton, who has faced several primary challenges from the right through years, does not have one this time. Among the state’s nine U.S. House Republicans, Mr. Upton is right there with Mr. Amash in terms of frequency of distancing himself from the president, though for different reasons and less sharply.

So why have the two not suffered the same fate as Mr. Corker and Mr. Flake?

This is guesswork, but the two have built brands that appear to have inoculated them, at least for now. Republicans seem to recognize Mr. Amash takes a libertarian independent approach and can understand, if not agree with, his criticism of Mr. Trump.

Mr. Upton has his critics in his party, but he’s put down so many challengers in the past and is generally so well-liked personally that at least for now his distancing of himself from Mr. Trump on some topics probably hasn’t turned anyone against him who already wasn’t down on him. Plus, his ample campaign war chest and ability to raise much more is a strong deterrent to a challenge.

Republican voters are enthusiastic about Mr. Trump and appear inclined to punish those who stray, but for the time being Mr. Amash and Mr. Upton have found a way to avoid getting caught in the Trump tsunami that has swept away other GOP critics of the president.

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The Biggest Question In Town: Redistricting And The Supreme Court

Posted: July 16, 2018 3:28 PM

“Hey, what do you think the Supreme Court is going to do with the redistricting ballot proposal?”

That’s the question on the mind of the Capitol community this week as the Michigan Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments on whether the ballot proposal to move the redistricting process out of the Legislature and into a new commission consisting of self-identified Democratic, Republican and independent voters.

Foes of the proposal – the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, Attorney General Bill Schuette and other Republicans – have contended it violates the Michigan Constitution, claiming it is a general revision of the Constitution that can only be accomplished via a constitutional convention and that the petition failed list all the sections of the Constitution it would alter or abrogate. Supporters have scoffed at the general revision claim since it focuses on one topic and said they believe they did list all the affected sections.

On the law, the foes probably have a better shot on the alter or abrogate challenge. Six years ago, the Supreme Court denied ballot access to a casino expansion ballot proposal on that basis, and all it takes is finding one section not listed on the petition where text is altered or rendered inoperative. The general revision argument appears a reach given the measure contains nowhere near the number of changes that the ill-fated 2008 Reform Michigan Government Now proposal included (and which offers the precedent for the challenge).

Beyond the law, there’s just as much interest – probably more – in the politics of how the Supreme Court will rule.

Politics on the court, you say? Shocking.

In recent years, the courts – save for the casino proposal – have tended to leave matters to the voters. The court let the referendum on the emergency manager referendum go to the ballot. It let the recall campaign against then-Rep. Paul Scott proceed. It let three proposals other than the casino one in 2012 go to the ballot.

Prior to Governor Rick Snyder appointing Justice Kurtis Wilder to replace Robert Young Jr. and Justice Elizabeth Clement to replace Joan Larsen, there had been something of a bipartisan four-justice majority consisting of Justice Richard Bernstein, Ms. Larsen, Justice Bridget McCormack and Justice David Viviano on several major decisions. The court now has a different look and how it confronts one of two closely watched decisions (there is a major case involving guns and schools that is the other) will signal how it will operate for the foreseeable future.

In terms of the politics, the focus is on Ms. Clement and Mr. Wilder because they stand for election this year.

To the extent political considerations play any part, it comes down to this calculus: What is the bigger obstacle to winning election, a handful of angry high-level Republicans who feel betrayed or incurring the wrath of the massive grassroots organization Voters Not Politicians formed to put the redistricting proposal on the ballot?

On that question, the answer seems obvious – the latter. Ms. Clement and Mr. Wilder, while they surely would prefer a clean nomination without any trouble at the state Republican convention in August, technically don’t need the convention’s blessing. As incumbents, they can just renominate themselves. And no matter how angry Republican funders would be, what is their alternative? Sit out the race and allow the two Democratic nominees to win, putting the court into a 4-3 majority of justices nominated by the Democrats?

The Voters Not Politicians organization gathered more than 400,000 valid signatures of registered voters in relatively short order purely through volunteers, a rare achievement that has wowed politicos of all political stripes. It has engaged people who do not typically work in the political trenches. Its supporters have passion. And if the court denies their proposal access to the ballot, they will have nothing to do for the next three-plus months other than turn their anger and organization on Ms. Clement and Mr. Wilder.

Not to mention if the court did find Voters Not Politicians made a correctable error like failing to list a section that would be altered or abrogated that the group would surely come back in 2020 with a cleaned-up petition that would then make the ballot, meaning possibly Ms. Clement and/or Mr. Wilder would have put themselves in serious danger of losing for nothing.

The court has been harder to predict in recent years. Besides the former Bernstein-Larsen-McCormack-Viviano bloc, Ms. McCormack has joined the justices nominated by the Republican Party on several cases, especially insurance ones, upsetting some Democrats. While the focus short-term is on Ms. Clement and Mr. Wilder, if Ms. McCormack ended up voting to deny the redistricting proposal ballot access, it would almost surely throw into the open what have been behind-the-scenes grumblings among some Democrats and make her expected 2020 re-election campaign interesting (though, again, she can just renominate herself).

The upcoming decision has a trifecta of implications, all significant. The short-term direction of the court. The November election of two justices. And the long-term process for redistricting in the state. No pressure.

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A Red-Letter Date In Democratic Campaign History To Remember

Posted: June 26, 2018 4:44 PM

The three Democratic candidates for governor all have been in the field for at least a year, but this still feels like a race that has yet to begin in earnest.

Former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer has been in the race the longest, almost 18 months, the front-runner by measures both traditional (key Democratic constituency endorsements and money) and unique to 2018 (women are dominating in Democratic primaries nationally).

Business executive Shri Thanedar had the airwaves to himself for months thanks to a self-financed campaign that has boosted his name recognition past Ms. Whitmer’s, tapping into less engaged Democratic voters. The activist, establishment and progressive wings of the party all regard him with some level of suspicion, doubt and even resentment, yet his uncontested presence with cutesy television ads has captured interest among those less engaged in day-to-day political battles.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed had a big 2017 and positioned himself as the progressive alternative to Ms. Whitmer, only to see Mr. Thanedar swipe his oxygen and use 2018 to make him the outsider alternative to Ms. Whitmer. Mr. El-Sayed now is fighting a two-front battle to reclaim that mantle and yet still keep Ms. Whitmer in check.

If all this seems familiar, it’s because the contours of the Democratic race have basically been in place since Mr. Thanedar began his ads during the winter. Unlike the all-out battle in the Republican primary, with new twists and turns by the day, the Democratic race has been floating along. Ms. Whitmer began her first television campaign ads today. A 527 committee supporting her has been on the air for two weeks.

But it’s all positive bromides from the candidates so far, at least when it comes to mass communications on television and in their one televised debate so far. The recent televised debate was downright soporific. Neither the Thanedar nor the Whitmer forces have gone after the other on television. Mr. El-Sayed has begun to come after Ms. Whitmer on corporate support in his press releases, and Mr. Thanedar months ago called for Ms. Whitmer to leave the race over her handling of the Nassar case while Ingham County prosecutor, but neither has put their money behind those attacks so far.

On the Republican side, Attorney General Bill Schuette and Lt. Governor Brian Calley, the main contenders, are making plays to move the numbers, whether it’s Mr. Schuette’s ads labeling Mr. Calley a tax-hiker and supporter of Obamacare or Mr. Calley’s ad featuring a survivor of sex abuser Larry Nassar lauding Mr. Calley’s leadership.

But there’s still plenty of time for one of the Democrats to grab hold of the primary.

As evidence, I point to July 8, 2010.

On that date – just 27 days before the gubernatorial primary that year – the Genesee County Democratic Party began a multimillion ad push to both extol Virg Bernero and trash Andy Dillon. Up until that point, Mr. Dillon had clung to a lead in public opinion surveys on the two relatively unknown Democratic candidates. But the soft money ads quickly shifted the numbers, and Mr. Bernero romped to a nearly 20 percentage point victory over Mr. Dillon.

At some point, unless their own internal research convinces them they have the race locked up, Mr. Thanedar and Ms. Whitmer (and Mr. El-Sayed) are going to have to take a swing at one or more of their foes, whether via television, mail, online, radio, the news media or some combination of them. It’s perplexing (to me) why Mr. Thanedar has not gone negative on Ms. Whitmer. Had he done so months ago, it would have forced her hand and she and/or her 527 would have had to go on television much earlier than they wanted to respond and burned resources they surely preferred to save for the general election.

That said, this race is still incredibly malleable and there’s still a ton of time. Ask Mr. Bernero.

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Is DeLuca’s ‘Governor Streak’ In Jeopardy?

Posted: June 19, 2018 1:57 PM

Walk into the waiting area of one of Lansing’s most venerable, loved restaurant’s – DeLuca’s – and while you’re waiting for your table, you can gaze upon the local celebrities that have dined at the eatery that Italian immigrants Pat DeLuca and brother-in-law Jim opened in 1960.

And in the capital city, local celebrities means politicians.

Signed photos of former Governors Jim Blanchard, John Engler and Jennifer Granholm, who led Michigan from 1983-2011, adorn the walls. And there’s other former elected officials.

DeLuca’s is cherished among locals for a few reasons.

There’s the pizza, which locals would put up against any other pie.

Photos of the last three governors, as well as former Lansing Mayor David Hollister with former President Bill Clinton, among others, adorn the walls of the waiting area at DeLuca’s.

There’s the portions. Interested in eating your weight? You can do it at DeLuca’s.

And there’s the affordable prices, especially when you consider the joy of having leftovers for days.

But with six months and change remaining in Governor Rick Snyder’s time in office, there’s no sign of Mr. Snyder having partaken. No signed photo.

When I asked one of the owners, Tom DeLuca, if Mr. Snyder had visited, he said to his knowledge he has not.

That’s not exactly shocking. Mr. Snyder is the first governor since a Lansing residence was provided to the state’s chief executive not to live in Lansing. He lived for much of his term in Superior Township near Ann Arbor and now lives in an Ann Arbor condominium. DeLuca’s, located in the northwest part of town, isn’t on his commute.

But here at the Gongwer blog, we deal with both the serious and the silly, and the last time my family and I ate at DeLuca’s I noticed the lack of a Snyder photo and it has nagged at me since.

Which clearly makes me weird (obviously) considering the matter has not been front of mind for the DeLuca family.

“Honestly, I’ve never given it a thought. I’m not politically active,” Mr. DeLuca said when I asked if it had occurred to him the streak of governors eating at his restaurant and providing a signed photo might end.

Mr. DeLuca said Mr. Blanchard was the one who started the photos as best he could remember.

“He just came in and volunteered. That was nice,” he said. “Engler was the same way. And Governor Granholm too. She was real friendly.”

Of what the photos add to the restaurant, Mr. DeLuca said, “People just enjoy seeing notable people that have been in. I know I do.”

I shouldn’t have written this blog before lunch. I need a meatball sub, stat.

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Despite Some Dysfunction, Legislature Has Owned The Year

Posted: June 12, 2018 2:57 PM

In a year where Governor Rick Snyder’s legislative priorities are few and he has put most of his focus on talking up Michigan’s economy in stops across the state, the Legislature has firmly asserted control of the agenda at the Capitol.

From the moment the year began, when the Legislature overrode Mr. Snyder’s veto of a sales tax break on vehicle trade-ins to today, the expected last session day before lawmakers leave to campaign, on items like the Medicaid work requirement, it’s been the Legislature playing the role of the aggressor and Mr. Snyder in a reactive posture.

Yes, the Legislature has taken some detours. House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) no longer bother to conceal their disdain for the other. There was the curious time spent looking into whether to adopt the marijuana legalization ballot proposal to enable the easier amending of it, a task destined to fail from the get-go.

But looking at the most significant bills signed into law, or on their way to being signed into law, so far, they almost universally have the Legislature’s fingerprints. Mr. Snyder’s? Not so much.

The one exception at this point is the K-12 budget. Mr. Snyder pushed for the biggest increase in more than a decade, and the Legislature approved it without argument. There’s the governor’s workforce training/talent plan, but given that it may not even exist in a few years once the funding runs out and how limited in scope it is, it’s hard to say at this point that it stands as a landmark piece of legislation. Mr. Snyder started the momentum to speed up the schedule of General Fund investment into the roads, but given the size of the problem, the amount of new funding injected into the system was relatively small.

Besides the veto override, Mr. Snyder also had no choice but to agree to the Legislature going well beyond what he wanted to do on increasing the personal exemption to the income tax or he surely would be overridden again.

Mr. Snyder, while a chief backer of scrapping the driver responsibility fees years ago, resisted legislative calls to grant amnesty to those unable to get their licenses back because of outstanding fees. Mr. Leonard and Mr. Meekhof insisted on it. Mr. Snyder eventually agreed.

Mr. Snyder proposed new fees to fund brownfield redevelopment and water infrastructure that have gone nowhere beyond the introduction phase as Republican legislators virtually dismissed the proposals out of hand.

The governor’s opposition to prevailing wage repeal held off the issue for years, but non-union construction firms succeeded in bringing an initiative petition before the Legislature, which the Republican majorities adopted, killing prevailing wage. Under the Constitution, Mr. Snyder had no ability to stop it, save for trying to lobby lawmakers against it, and there was no sign of a concerted effort by the governor on that front.

The Legislature decided to pursue a Medicaid work requirement and persuaded Mr. Snyder to go along with an 80-hour a month mandate for those in the expanded portion of Medicaid called Healthy Michigan.

While the Snyder administration, especially First Lady Sue Snyder, have been outspoken about combatting campus sexual assault, the legislation inspired by the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal at Michigan State University appeared mainly driven by lawmakers and the groups working the issue. The administration’s work was more behind the scenes than taking an outfront, public, leading role.

Mr. Snyder said he wanted a victims’ compensation fund for the 37,000 people the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency wrongly determined committed fraud to get unemployment benefits sent to him before the Legislature left for the summer. A bill has yet to be introduced, the basic framework still under debate.

Some key issues in the Department of Corrections were a wash. The Snyder administration resisted closing another prison until it was made plain the Legislature would not be persuaded otherwise, though the administration did win legislative approval to bring prison food service back under state employee operation and get funding for more corrections officers.

The bills designed to improve school safety were a fairly even collaboration in terms of ideas between the two branches as far as what will become law. But Mr. Snyder, who said at the beginning of the year that preventing mentally unstable people from owning guns was a “tangible step I hope we can all agree on” omitted a proposal on that topic from his plan, his spokesperson saying the administration did not want to lose the chance to act on areas of agreement. Top Republican lawmakers panned the concept of a “red flag” law.

The governor has fewer than seven months left in office. There are 29 scheduled legislative session days remaining, though the number of days the Legislature will actually meet will surely be less. Unless the governor reverts to his M.O. from his first term, when he was flooding the Legislature with proposals and ideas, leaving it relatively little time to push its own priorities, the rest of the year promises more of the same – the Legislature driving the agenda.

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Psst … It’s A Workforce Training Plan, Not A ‘Marshall Plan’

Posted: May 29, 2018 12:03 PM

One of the biggest topics at this week’s Detroit Regional Chamber Mackinac Policy Conference is going to be about a word that should be a candidate for Lake Superior State University’s annual list of words it declares should be banished from the Queen’s English for misuse, overuse and general uselessness: talent.

Merriam-Webster defines talent as I think most people understand the word: “a special often athletic, creative or artistic aptitude” or “the natural endowments of a person.”

But the word has morphed, at least in Michigan political and economic development circles (and maybe beyond), into the idea that for a state to succeed it needs to attract, retain and develop talented people. And that brings us to Governor Rick Snyder’s plan on that front, which in reality is an education plan, but “education plan” lacks the buzzwordy pizzazz of “talent.”

And that in turn brings us to what Mr. Snyder has dubbed his proposal: “The Marshall Plan for Talent.”

The original “Marshall Plan,” named for Secretary of State George Marshall (officially known as the European Recovery Program), was the United States’ expense of $13 billion between 1948 and 1951 ($128.3 billion in today’s dollars) to rebuild western European economies that were in ruins after World War II. “Marshall Plan” has become a shorthand for identifying a goal and coming in with overwhelming resources to achieve it.

In recent years, Mr. Snyder began saying Michigan needed a “Marshall Plan for talent.” It was a turn of phrase to say Michigan needed radical change to assure it had a workforce trained and skilled in the jobs of today’s economy. So, when Mr. Snyder announced his plan earlier this year, he and his administration dubbed it the “Marshall Plan for Talent.”

Mr. Snyder’s plan centers on putting $100 million toward various career and technical education programs, as well as encouraging school districts to provide more choice on how to complete high school diploma requirements, to be spread out over three to five years.

It may be a good plan. It may even be a great plan. Or it may end up flopping. That’s not the point here.

The point is, it is not of the same scope, not even close, as the Marshall Plan, one of the greatest successes of the 20th century and American history.

And unless Lt. Governor Brian Calley wins the governorship, the odds that the next governor will continue and increase the funding for it seem low. The effects of the original Marshall Plan can still be seen today. After two cataclysmic world wars in the first half of the 20th century, the western economies have largely enjoyed peace and prosperity in the ensuing 67 years.

Mr. Snyder’s plan might not even have a shelf life of five years. And while it brings in some new concepts and ideas to the education system, its scope is such that it will be limited to a slice of school districts and pupils, not the entire K-12 system. A sizeable chunk of that $100 million isn’t even new money, but rather money the state already is spending on similar programs that would be repurposed under Mr. Snyder’s education, er, workforce, er, talent, er, Marshall Plan.

The way Mr. Snyder and his team have managed to brand his education, er, workforce, er, talent plan as a “Marshall Plan” is one of the better public relations achievements in some time.

But calling it a Marshall Plan doesn’t make it one.

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Dems’ Task To Flip Legislature Daunting

Posted: May 22, 2018 4:43 PM

Democrats are increasingly dreaming big about what they could achieve in the 2018 election, thinking they could gain the nine seats needed to win control of the House. There’s even a dreamer or two out there thinking they might even flip control of the Senate, which has been in Republican control since 1984.

All this talk of a “blue wave” and a Democratic takeover of state government is based on two major factors. One, President Donald Trump has energized Democrats who want to hand him a huge defeat in November, and the president’s party historically fares poorly in mid-term elections. Two, typically after eight years of one party holding the governor’s office, the ensuing open seat election is a change election, and in this case that means Democrats have the change argument following two terms of Governor Rick Snyder.

Let’s be clear from the top, though, before diving more deeply into the state of play for partisan control of the Legislature: It would take a political earthquake, tsunami, EF-5 tornado, Category 5 hurricane, pick your phenomenon, to flip control of the Senate. Democrats need nine seats for outright control, and only twice in state history have Democrats ever swung that many seats in one election – 1932 with the landslide led by Franklin Roosevelt and 1964 in the landslide topped by President Lyndon Johnson.

Neither party has ever come close to flipping nine seats in one Senate election since the 1963 Constitution moved Senate elections to four-year terms occurring in mid-term election years. Additionally, Senate Republicans have an overwhelming advantage in money, capable candidates in most key districts and would have to suffer a disaster without precedent in Michigan politics to lose control.

Democrats, however, if a wave materializes, could make significant gains in the Senate to dig out of their deep hole, a 27-10 Republican majority with one vacancy in a reliably Democratic seat, and position themselves for a legitimate run at control in 2022.

As of today, Democrats, based on candidate and/or national political dynamics, look like favorites to pick up three Senate seats now in Republican hands:

  • There’s the 10th District in Macomb County, where Democrats have Rep. Henry Yanez (D-Sterling Heights), a firefighter with a history of winning tough races, while Republicans have several B- and C-team candidates. It’s not a lock by any means – this is still a district in Republican-tilting and pro-Trump Macomb County territory. But Mr. Yanez is well-positioned against a cast of unknowns.
  • The 29th District in Grand Rapids and some suburbs has drawn two top candidates in Rep. Chris Afendoulis (R-Grand Rapids Township) and Rep. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), and both parties will spend a fortune to win it. But on paper, the dynamics favor Ms. Brinks. She represents the part of the city of Grand Rapids where Mr. Afendoulis needs to run adequately to win, and Mr. Trump ran well below the Republican base in this district, putting some serious headwinds in Mr. Afendoulis’ face.
  • The 38th District is in jeopardy of flipping to Democrats because of the bipartisan popularity of Rep. Scott Dianda (D-Calumet), who won re-election in a rout two years ago even as Mr. Trump romped to victory in the western Upper Peninsula. Former Rep. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) is a great candidate for the GOP, but as long as Mr. Dianda wins big on his home turf and the big Democratic vote in Marquette shows up, geographically, there’s not enough votes for Mr. McBroom to overcome those dynamics.

There’s two other Senate seats that look like coin flips – the 20th District where Sen. Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage) and Democratic former Rep. Sean McCann of Kalamazoo are set for a rematch of their 2014 thriller narrowly won by Ms. O’Brien and the 34th District in the Muskegon area. Both parties have primaries to sort out first there.

If Democrats won all five of these seats – which would be a major achievement – they would still be facing a 22-16 Republican majority in the Senate. To actually win control, they would need to flip seats in Republican-tilting territory and/or oust incumbents. In most of these districts, Democrats have scored good to very good candidates, but as long as Sen. Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy), Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth) and Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) win re-election, majority is effectively out of reach for the Democrats. And while each has hurdles to re-election, each as of today looks like a good bet to win.

Moving to the House, just about everything that’s transpired so far this cycle has looked good for the Democrats with one major exception – money. House Republicans have swamped their Democratic counterparts in funds raised so far, though Democrats have said they have raised more than they have at this point in past cycles as the minority caucus.

Democrats got some breaks with three House Republicans in key seats opting to run for the Senate instead of re-election. If Rep. John Bizon (R-Battle Creek), Rep. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) and Rep. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington) had run for re-election, probably none of them face a serious challenge from the Democrats.

Another factor that has moved in Democrats’ favor is that Republicans did not recruit strong candidates in several seats they would have been expected to contest seriously after the 2016 elections. I count five such seats where Democrats won’t have to play the kind of defense I would have expected – Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Township) in the 23rd District, the open Yanez seat in the 25th District, the open Rep. Pam Faris (D-Clio) seat in the 48th District, Rep. Tim Sneller (D-Burton) in the 50th District and Rep. Donna Lasinski (D-Scio Township) in the 52nd District. Mr. Trump’s problems in Grand Rapids also might remove the open Brinks seat in the 76th District from contention, but it’s too early to go there yet.

So with the exception of the open Dianda seat in the 110th District, Democrats will mostly be able to play offense.

To get the nine seats they need for majority, Democrats would need to win all the 50-50 seats – the Bizon seat in Battle Creek and environs, the Barrett seat in the western suburbs of Lansing, the 91st District in the Muskegon suburbs and the open VanderWall seat. From there, they would need to win at least two of the three open Oakland County seats where Mr. Trump figures to be a millstone for the Republican candidates and then oust three Republican incumbents – Rep. Joe Bellino of Monroe, Rep. Brandt Iden of Oshtemo Township and Rep. Beau LaFave of Iron Mountain.

There are other possibilities for Democrats to spring a surprise. Democrats have intriguing candidates in the 19th District in Livonia and the 38th District in southwest Oakland County, but those candidates first need to win their primaries and those are historically GOP districts that seem at least a couple cycles away from truly becoming up for grabs. There’s the 99th District, centered in Isabella County, perpetually pulling the football away from Democrats like Lucy Van Pelt to Charlie Brown. Democrats have a quality candidate in the 51st District in southern Genesee and northwest Oakland counties, but that area has become ruby red.

All this is to say that as of today, Democrats look like a good bet to gain seats in both legislative houses. But to actually win majority in the House, it will have to replicate what happened in 2006 when the depth of the Democratic wave flipped seats in unexpected places like northwest Wayne County and the Thumb. The Senate? It would be a wave without precedent.

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The GOP Debate In GR: What To Watch For

Posted: May 9, 2018 3:14 PM

Happy debate day! Tonight is the first televised debate among the four Republican gubernatorial candidates, and it’s probably the best shot the three candidates not named Bill Schuette will have to knock the attorney general from his front-runner’s perch.

Lt. Governor Brian Calley, Sen. Patrick Colbeck and Dr. Jim Hines have been itching for this opportunity for months, to share a stage with Mr. Schuette. The three have held several joint town halls, which Mr. Schuette declined to attend.

At this point, with Mr. Colbeck short of funds to mount a serious campaign, and Mr. Hines having yet to spend the millions he promised to boost him from an unknown to major contender, the main focus will be on Mr. Calley and Mr. Schuette, who have been tearing into each other in earnest for about six weeks. The negativity, however, has yet to seep into the Republican electorate. Both remain broadly popular with Republican voters.

So as we prepare for tonight’s debate, here’s a few storylines to monitor.

HOW DOES CALLEY HANDLE THE TRUMP PROBLEM: Hey, did you know Mr. Calley unendorsed President Donald Trump in the waning weeks of the 2016 election? Mr. Schuette has been hammering that point, again and again – and again, during a time when Republicans disloyal to Mr. Trump have seen their political careers implode.

Of late, Mr. Calley has tried to undo the potential damage by saying he supports Mr. Trump and has feverishly latched onto Mr. Trump’s call to upgrade the Soo Locks. His campaign also has tried to call out Mr. Schuette as hypocritical for having criticized Mr. Trump’s various outlandish/outrageous statements in 2016. Indeed, up until Mr. Calley withdrew his endorsement of Mr. Trump, he had been the more stalwart defender of the two. But that doesn’t change two key facts. Mr. Calley unendorsed Mr. Trump. And Mr. Trump has endorsed Mr. Schuette.

There is some potential hazard for Mr. Schuette, however. He never mentions the context of Mr. Calley’s unendorsement, that it occurred after the “Access Hollywood” video featuring Mr. Trump boasting about his star status enabling him to get away with grabbing women “by the pussy.” Might moderator Rick Albin put Mr. Schuette in the awkward position of explaining on live television why he stood by Mr. Trump in the wake of that revelation?

FLINT WATER INVESTIGATIONS: It’s likely not a decisive issue in this primary, but the war of words between Mr. Calley and Mr. Schuette over the criminal investigation Mr. Schuette launched into the Flint water crisis has been remarkable. Mr. Calley has accused Mr. Schuette of holding “show trials” and committing a gross abuse of power in the process. Mr. Schuette has furiously responded that he is doing his job and Mr. Calley is acting out of desperation.

There is real, deep-seated personal animosity between the administration of Governor Rick Snyder and the Department of Attorney General about Mr. Schuette’s handling of the investigation, particularly the charging of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive.

If this topic comes up, there could be some real fireworks, though voters not following the daily machinations of the Flint case (which probably means nearly all of them, save those in Genesee County), might get lost in the back and forth.

Mr. Calley could hammer Mr. Schuette on the cost of the proceedings so far (more than $20 million) while Mr. Schuette can counter with the no contest/guilty pleas that have occurred to date.

ETHICS: Mr. Calley and Mr. Schuette, and their surrogates, have ripped into each other on various ethics matters. Mr. Calley has taken fire for having his campaign launched at the home of someone who had an $8 million state economic development grant up for consideration and the number of session days he missed presiding over the Senate while in Massachusetts one day a week working on master’s degree at Harvard University.

Mr. Schuette has been under attack for hiring constituent services workers at the Department of Attorney General who have resumes dominated by Republican political activities. Mr. Calley also has claimed Mr. Schuette’s investigation into Michigan State University is rife with conflicts of interest.

Assuming there’s an exchange on ethics between these two, Mr. Calley needs to win it. He won’t be able to move to Mr. Schuette’s right on major issues. He needs to dent Mr. Schuette’s reputation here.

HOW DOES SCHUETTE NAVIGATE ‘THE COMEBACK’: Mr. Calley’s best card is that Republican voters see Michigan on the right track, and he’s been a key cog in the incumbent administration for the past eight years. Mr. Schuette will talk up his plans to cut the income tax rate, but Mr. Calley will surely say – as he has already – that Mr. Schuette is proposing ideas the Snyder administration already has achieved. That’s a bit of a tricky spot for the lieutenant governor because the Snyder administration’s 2011 tax changes wiped out a slew of income tax credits that left many paying more in taxes, but there are a host of other tax cuts Mr. Calley can cite.

Can Mr. Calley keep the focus on the current state of the Michigan economy and avoid getting drawn into a cut the income tax vs. don’t cut the income tax debate with Mr. Schuette?

STYLE: Mr. Calley and Mr. Schuette have very different speaking and presentation styles. One is not necessarily better than the other. Mr. Calley has a more relaxed, conversational style. He hasn’t had to take and give a punch on a big political stage, but those who have crossed Mr. Calley know he has no problem doing so in private conversations. Mr. Schuette has a faster pace, is comfortable publicly dropping the hammer on others and likes to sprinkle in pop culture references.

CAN COLBECK, HINES STRIKE LIGHTNING: If the debate turns into an ugly brawl between Mr. Calley and Mr. Schuette, maybe that opens the door a crack for Mr. Colbeck or Mr. Hines to make a case to the Republican electorate. Expect Mr. Hines to talk up his outsider status early and often. Mr. Colbeck is the one candidate on the stage who can attack Mr. Schuette from the right. Can he expand his support beyond the most fervent arch-conservative activists? Mr. Calley would love it if either Mr. Colbeck or Mr. Hines could peel away some support from Mr. Schuette’s right flank, or at the very least make Mr. Schuette uncomfortable in explaining any positions they see as less than purely conservative.

DOES COLBECK’S FALSE ATTACK ON EL-SAYED GET MENTIONED: Mr. Colbeck recently got outed for advancing a conspiracy theory with no supporting evidence that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dr. Abdul El-Sayed is part of a supposed plot by the Muslim Brotherhood to infiltrate U.S. institutions with fellow Islamists, insisting that a series of loose, unconnected threads constituted evidence. Mr. Colbeck has not backed down, even lamenting recently getting called names from those angered by his spreading of the attack without legitimate evidence.

Mr. Hines is the only one of the other three candidates to condemn Mr. Colbeck’s attack. Mr. Schuette mostly dodged when asked about it, saying only that people should be treated with respect but refusing to say whether he thought Mr. Colbeck had treated Mr. El-Sayed with respect. I contacted the Calley campaign at least three times in the span of a week for Mr. Calley’s reaction to Mr. Colbeck’s actions. They never responded.

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Birkholz, Giant On Environmental Policy, Dead At 74

Posted: May 4, 2018 11:08 AM

Patricia Birkholz, whose 14 years in the Legislature left a legacy of achievement, especially on natural resources and the environment, died Thursday of cancer. She was 74.

Ms. Birkholz, a Saugatuck Republican who served in the House from 1997-2002 and the Senate from 2003-10, did not suffer fools and during an era where men mostly called the shots in the Legislature, especially in the Republican caucuses in which she served, she was a force with several major pieces of legislation to her name.

Indeed, while some legislators merely get their name on the bill with staff and leadership doing the heavy lifting, Ms. Birkholz did her own heavy lifting and emerged as a major figure in the previous decade from her perch as chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee.

The list of major bills signed into law that she sponsored or had a hand in sponsoring is long:

  • The recreation passport bill of 2010 that enabled all motorists to purchase a passport to state parks when renewing their vehicle registration to create a steady funding stream for state parks;
  • The Great Lakes Compact of 2008 that put Michigan into the compact on how water withdrawals from the Great Lakes were to be regulated;
  • The requirement that utilities produce 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2015;
  • The income tax checkoff for breast cancer research;
  • The tool to analyze proposed water withdrawals;
  • The film production tax credit;
  • A wetlands protection law;
  • The law that allows a mother to surrender her newborn child safely instead of abandoning it; and
  • Land use regulations.

She later said the law allowing the safe, legal surrender of newborns was her best memory of her time in the House.

“Patty cared deeply for the people she served and for the natural beauty of our Michigan land and water,” U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and former House Speaker Paul Hillegonds said in a statement. “We are forever thankful for her stewardship and the friendship we shared. She will be greatly missed.”

Ms. Birkholz succeeded Mr. Hillegonds in the House in 1997 after a run as the Allegan County treasurer and a Saugatuck Township trustee.

She quickly became a go-to person for the House on natural resources and the environment. She served two terms as the speaker pro tem, presiding over the House. She briefly put her name in to run for speaker at one point.

Ms. Birkholz developed a reputation for smarts and kindness – and purple. She wore purple seemingly everywhere and every day and it was her calling card.

It was in the Senate that Ms. Birkholz hit her stride as chair of the natural resources committee.

The recreation passport legislation was one telling example. It had some setbacks and at one point appeared on life support, much to her fury after the House gutted it, but it eventually passed and provided a lift to a strapped state parks system.

As Ms. Birkholz walked past reporters on her way to a Senate Republican Caucus meeting, she pumped her fists in triumph.

After term limits ended her run in the Senate, Governor Rick Snyder named her director of the Office of the Great Lakes, where she served for two years before going to work for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. She recently endorsed the redistricting ballot proposal.

“Patty was a tireless and highly regarded advocate for Michigan and our lakes,” Mr. Snyder said in a statement. “Under her leadership, we saw the formation of the Great Lakes Inter-Basin Compact and the passage of significant legislation regarding water withdrawal assessment, the Michigan state parks passport, ballast water standards, and renewable energy mandates. We all should remember Patty for her dedication to protecting Michigan’s environment and residents, which will benefit Michiganders for generations.”

In 2010, a 291-acre portion of the Saugatuck Dune State Park was renamed the “Patricia Birkholz Natural Area” by the state.

She is survived by three sons, and two grand-daughters. The family plans a private service with an announcement for a celebration of life service to be made at a later date.

Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said among Ms. Birkholz’s strengths was being able to work both within her party and across the aisle. She noted Ms. Birkholz’s work with Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor), then in the House, on the Great Lakes Compact. She said a picture of the bill signing, with Ms. Birkholz behind then-Governor Jennifer Granholm smiling with her arms raised, illustrated her passion for her work.

“Patty was a force to be reckoned with and it wasn’t the kind of force that was in your face,” she said. “She was a story teller.”

Ms. Birkholz had breast cancer about a year ago and had thought it was in remission, Ms. Wozniak said. After a recent fall, though, blood tests showed the cancer had returned and had spread, she said.

“The decline was, for everybody, very fast,” she said.

Ms. Birkholz had her differences with others, but seemed to relish the chance to obtain wide agreement on major legislation.

“The best takeaway that I have is the lesson my mother taught me as a very young child. We are all God’s children, and we should treat others as we would like to be treated,” she said in her 2010 farewell speech to the Senate. “If we work that way in the legislative process, we can accomplish good things for the people of our state. We can bring all parties together – both sides of the aisle and both sides of the dome – but we have to listen. We have to communicate honestly, we have to negotiate fairly, and with that and God’s help, you can reach reasonable and doable compromises and promote good public policy for our state.”

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Go Time Is Nearing For Whitmer

Posted: May 1, 2018 1:58 PM

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer faces a critical strategic decision: When is the right time for her to begin airing television commercials?

The Democratic gubernatorial campaign has moved along relatively under the radar compared to the slugfest on the Republican side that has featured a tenacious back-and-forth between Lt. Governor Brian Calley and Attorney General Bill Schuette.

There have been a few swipes here and there on the Democratic side, but overall little major battling between the candidates. Shri Thanedar has poured millions of his own money into television advertisements that have made him the most recognized name in the Democratic field, several polls have said. While the horse race polling has been scattershot and should be viewed cautiously given the unpredictable nature of the primary electorate and that only one candidate has been on television, at this point they show Mr. Thanedar and Ms. Whitmer in a statistical dead heat. The third Democrat in the race, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, trails further behind.

Ms. Whitmer, while the front-runner, still has some serious name recognition issues, especially in metro Detroit. Traveling the state to visit with Democratic voters at clubs, county meetings, homes, fundraisers, festivals and events the last 16 months has taken her about as far as she can go on the name recognition front. It’s going to take television advertising to introduce Ms. Whitmer to the rest of the electorate.

But when is the right time? Ms. Whitmer has raised strong money, but not enough to run three months’ worth of television through the primary.

So far, Mr. Thanedar has kept his ads positive and focused on his message, so there’s no need for Ms. Whitmer to respond to any attack ads.

Of course, waiting to launch her own ads until after someone attacks her would deprive Ms. Whitmer of the chance to put a message on television without a competing message going against her. That’s part of what’s helped Mr. Thanedar so far. He’s had the airwaves to himself on the Democratic side, and his ads’ lighthearted, humorous touch appears to be working.

Even if no one attacks Ms. Whitmer on television for a while, there’s also a risk to waiting too long.

The more Mr. Thanedar has the chance to own the airwaves, the better chance he has to cement what at the moment likely is soft support. That’s why some daggers, albeit not televised ones, are starting to get thrown Mr. Thanedar’s way, like the stories about how dogs and monkeys were treated after a lab he owned was placed under receivership and allegations that a customer of his chemical analytics company produced a male herbal supplement illegally spiked with Viagra. Whether any of the campaigns helped tip off reporters to those stories is unclear, but politics being politics, it wouldn’t be a surprise.

A year ago at this time, Ms. Whitmer would have accepted her current circumstances in a heartbeat. She has locked up virtually the entire Democratic establishment’s support. She’s running against two unknowns for the Democratic nomination. The two Republicans with the best chance of coming out of the GOP primary are beating each other’s brains in. She’s had strong success in the fundraising game.

Not that there haven’t been bumps. Having to change campaign managers twice was not part of the plan. Mr. El-Sayed and Mr. Thanedar have challenged Ms. Whitmer from the left and with nothing to lose have not hesitated to take immediate positions favoring the $15 per hour minimum wage and shutting down Enbridge Line 5 where Ms. Whitmer took more time to land in the same spot. That’s insider fare, however, that won’t ultimately matter when it comes to winning or losing the governorship.

No, the big concern is the same one that helped sink the last two Democratic gubernatorial nominees, neither of whom, like Ms. Whitmer, had ever represented the Detroit area – lack of name recognition in that region, especially the city of Detroit itself. It’s the concern that has lurked over the East Lansing resident’s candidacy from its launch in January 2016.

She’s raised that name recognition level through face-to-face meetings and will get some more help from all the unions who have endorsed her and can educate their members about her. There’s also the 527 committee her allies have formed that presumably will air commercials at some point.

But three months out from the primary, there’s only one sure way for Ms. Whitmer to bring up her name recognition levels to assure no surprises in the Democratic primary – television. But it isn’t cheap, and the timing is critical. Too soon and she risks depleting her funds. Too late and she risks allowing Mr. Thanedar to turn that soft support into commitments that could make this primary a fight.

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The Rest Of The Story On Pensler, Trump

Posted: April 27, 2018 2:58 PM

When Republican U.S. Senate candidate Sandy Pensler filed his petitions for ballot access Monday, he declared, “I’m a Trump Republican.”

Republican candidates are generally embracing President Donald Trump, who despite overall low job approval ratings with all voters, is hugely popular among Republican voters, aka the voters who choose Republican nominees for offices and the voters whose support is essential for a Republican candidate to win election. Ask U.S. Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona how taking on Mr. Trump worked out for them (Republican voters turned on them, their approval ratings fell through the floor and they decided not to run for re-election).

So as Mr. Pensler seeks the Republican nomination against fellow business executive John James for the right to face U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) in the general election, his branding of himself as a “Trump Republican” is not a surprise.

Except, well, it is, based on what he had to say about Mr. Trump last year at the Michigan Republican Party’s Mackinac Policy Conference.

During a late September interview, I asked him about why he was considering running. At that point, he had not formally joined the race. He said he saw a need to get involved.

“There’s a battle going on in Washington. I may not love everything about Donald Trump, but he’s leading a good battle,” he said.

Whoa there.

Now, he was hardly blasting away at Mr. Trump, but saying, “I may not love everything about Donald Trump” is a world apart from “I’m a Trump Republican.”

In that interview, Mr. Pensler credited Mr. Trump with trying to limit regulations and fostering energy independence as well as showing strength in international relations.

I asked him what about Mr. Trump he doesn’t love.

“He’s a good counterpuncher,” Mr. Pensler said. “I’m stylistically very different than he is. I’m comfortable with my style. He’s comfortable with his.”

Again, it’s not like Mr. Pensler went “Never Trump” on the president. He seemed to appreciate what Mr. Trump’s administration is trying to do on policy.

But a “Trump Republican”? He stopped well short of that back then.

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Nassar Victims Turn Against Engler

Posted: April 17, 2018 4:44 PM

When former Governor John Engler became the interim president of Michigan State University amid the tumult of the Larry Nassar scandal, those who survived the sexual abuse inflicted upon them by Nassar mostly decided to give him a chance.

Rachael Denhollander, the first of Nassar’s victims to publicly accuse him, initially criticized the choice but then said she would wait and see how he operated before judging him as allies like Sen. Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage) said they thought Mr. Engler could succeed at bringing reforms to the university and reaching a settlement with Nassar’s victims in the lawsuits they brought.

That seems like a long time ago now.

It’s apparent from their public statements that Nassar’s survivors, Ms. Denhollander included, are done with Mr. Engler after a series of events, the most serious of which took place last week.

Kaylee Lorincz, a Nassar victim, said at Friday’s MSU Board of Trustees meeting that at a meeting that included her, Mr. Engler, two top MSU staff and her mother in which she hoped to share her story, Mr. Engler said cooperation between the university and Nassar’s victims could not occur until a settlement is reached in the lawsuits. Ms. Lorincz’s attorney was not present.

Ms. Lorincz said Mr. Engler then asked if he wrote her a check for $250,000, would she take it. After she balked at the question and a subsequent one she said he asked about what number it would take, she said Mr. Engler said he had met with Ms. Denhollander and she had given him a number. Ms. Denhollander subsequently said in a tweet she has never met with Mr. Engler, nor given him a number. Ms. Lorincz said she felt bullied by Mr. Engler into revealing information that would help MSU in settlement talks.

In a prepared statement, Mr. Engler said his memory of the meeting was different than Ms. Lorincz’s but never outright denied Ms. Lorincz’s allegation.

This incident wrecked whatever credibility Mr. Engler had left with the Nassar victims, and it was already in tatters after he criticized Senate legislation that would end government immunity in situations involving sexual assault and retroactively lengthen the statute of limitations on sexual assault lawsuits.

Only the five people in the room know exactly what was said but the idea that Mr. Engler raised the civil litigation and possible terms of settlement without her attorney present, if that is in fact what happened, is a major gaffe at best and breach of legal ethics at worst.

There will be a resign rally on the MSU campus Friday demanding the resignations of Mr. Engler and the entire Board of Trustees, which hired him.

All this underlines the festering reality that MSU has yet to settle the lawsuits from Nassar’s victims.

On the one hand, it’s easier said than done. It is going to take big money, easily hundreds of millions, perhaps pushing $1 billion, given the more than 200 victims.

On the other hand, developments continue to come to light that would seem to raise the price of a settlement. The most significant was the charges against Nassar’s former boss, Dr. William Strampel, accusing him of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct, misconduct in office and willful neglect of duty. He’s accused of sexually harassing students as well.

The Strampel charges have dramatically weakened one of the defenses MSU has mounted in court to the lawsuits, that Nassar fooled everyone and that no one believed he had committed any crimes. No doubt Nassar did fool many people, but the charges suggest the person overseeing him, Mr. Strampel, harbors a world view conditioned toward seeing women as playthings, not people to be believed. Mr. Strampel was the one who failed to ensure new protocols for Nassar when seeing patients – wearing rubber gloves, asking permission before digitally penetrating patients’ vaginas, having a parent in the room – were followed.

The parties are in mediation now. The sooner MSU can get this case settled, the sooner it can show Nassar’s survivors it truly is taking them seriously. The sooner it can extricate itself from the worst chapter in its 168-year history.

But presuming a settlement does occur, it will be too late for Nassar’s survivors to see Mr. Engler as an ally.

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London Calling For Leonard

Posted: April 13, 2018 7:10 PM

Well, there’s one photo House Speaker Tom Leonard surely wishes had not ended up on Facebook.

Mr. Leonard (R-DeWitt) is one of the foremost users of social media among the Legislature’s members. Legislative business, family, campaigns, some sports, Mr. Leonard usually posts something daily.

But one photo he did not post was of him and legislative leaders from other states last August in London as part of a trip paid for by the conservative GOPAC Education Fund’s Institute for Leadership Development, something that surfaced in the Cincinnati Enquirer’s reporting on the scandal that led to Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger’s surprise resignation this week. Mr. Rosenberger resigned as word broke he is under FBI investigation, and the news reports say federal authorities are looking into his travel.

A lobbyist on the trip posted the photo to her Facebook page that shows several of the legislative leaders, including Mr. Leonard and Mr. Rosenberger.

So now Mr. Leonard is getting some unwanted publicity as a result.

Leonard spokesperson Gideon D’Assandro said no one lobbied Mr. Leonard on the trip. One of the questions is whether lobbyists in the title lending industry, including one from Ohio, were trying to lobby Mr. Rosenberger during the trip because there is some legislation on that issue in the Ohio legislature.

To be clear, there’s no indication Mr. Leonard did anything wrong. Mr. D’Assandro further noted there is no title lending legislation before the House. That could change at any time of course.

Lobbyist/Organization-funded travel is one of the perks legislators have enjoyed for years that only becomes a problem when one of those unannounced trips slips into the public realm and requires some explaining. Travel on someone else’s dime to someplace warm or highly desirable, attend some meetings where some potentially useful information might be shared and otherwise enjoy the trip.

These travels, however, happen largely in the dark because of the state’s lax disclosure laws.

Facebook, for all its flaws, shed some light on this trip, however.

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At What Point Does Ted Nugent Become Toxic To Michigan Republicans?

Posted: April 10, 2018 2:43 PM

Ted Nugent has done it again.

Again, as in saying something outlandish and/or reprehensible.

And yet, again, it appears the aging rocker’s standing remains solid among many Michigan Republicans who covet and trumpet the endorsement of the longtime hunting and Second Amendment advocate born in Detroit who gained fame in the 1960s and1970s with the Detroit-based Amboy Dukes and eventually with the multiplatinum solo album “Cat Scratch Fever.”

He now lives in Texas but maintains property in Jackson County, and his endorsement has been eagerly touted this election cycle by Republicans such as Attorney General Bill Schuette in his race for governor, House Speaker Tom Leonard in his race for attorney general and Lena Epstein in her race for Congress.

During a weekend interview with InfoWars’ Alex Jones, the same guy who shamefully called the Sandy Hook school massacre a “hoax,” Mr. Nugent equated liberals, Democrats, the news media, academia, half of the U.S. government and RINOS (Republicans In Name Only) to “rabid coyotes” and “scam artists” responsible for evil and dishonesty.

"So come to that realization," he said. "There are rabid coyotes running around, you don't wait till you see one to go get your gun, keep your gun handy. And every time you see one, shoot one."

One could dismiss such comments as inane hyperbole, except they come on the heels of Mr. Nugent referring to the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who survived the deadly shooting massacre and have since campaigned for new restrictions on guns as soulless and manipulated by far-left elements. Mr. Nugent made those comments in a separate radio interview about 10 days earlier.

Some of the students have been especially vocal and searing in their criticism of the National Rifle Association, where Mr. Nugent is a long-time board member and which has staunchly resisted any increase in firearms regulations for decades. He reacted in particular to the outspoken survivor, Emma Gonzalez, saying candidates accepting donations from the NRA were in effect accepting “blood money.”

“The lies from these poor, mushy-brained children who have been fed lies and parrot lies,” Mr. Nugent said. “I really feel sorry for them. It’s not only ignorant, dangerous and stupid -- it’s soulless. To attack the good, law-abiding families of America when well-known, predictable murderers commit these horrors is deep in the category of soulless.”

We could go back-and-forth about the NRA and whether it is standing up for Second Amendment rights or doing the bidding of gun manufacturers at the expense of people’s lives. That’s not the point insofar as it involves Mr. Nugent and Michigan politics where he remains a coveted celebrity endorsement in Michigan Republican circles. The point is that Mr. Nugent has a penchant for engaging in vicious, unhinged ad hominem attacks that could eventually render him radioactive politically.

There was the Internet meme he posted to his Facebook page in 2016 that blamed Jews for gun control that featured the photos of 12 Jewish politicians or activists (including former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin of Detroit) with Israeli flags over their faces. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was referred to as “Jew York City Mayor Mikey Bloomberg,” and the following words appeared in front of former U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s face: “Gave Russian Jew immigrants your tax money.”

After criticism began of his use of a blatantly anti-Semitic meme, Mr. Nugent defended the meme by saying Jews supporting gun control are Nazis in disguise. Eventually Mr. Nugent apologized, even throwing in an “oy vey” for good measure, claiming he had focused only on the images of the politicians known for backing gun restrictions and not the accompanying wording. Or the Israeli flags. He admitted it was a “nasty and offensive” meme.

Then there’s the diatribes against President Barack Obama, like calling him a “subhuman mongrel” in an epithet straight out of the 1850s, and saying Mr. Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should be “tried for treason and hung” over their handling of the attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed.

Democrats have started to poke at Republicans, especially Mr. Schuette, for eagerly accepting Mr. Nugent’s support as the number of unsavory remarks grows. But at this point, for Republicans, there’s no sign they see support from Mr. Nugent as anything other than a plus.

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The Live Version Of A Press Release

Posted: March 27, 2018 4:17 PM

What’s the point of calling in reporters from across the state, even from other states, for a press conference to hear an official regurgitate in person the exact same information being made available through a formal written press release and refuse to take questions?

If you’re waiting for some ingenious answer, I don’t have one.

But for whatever reason, Bill Forsyth, the special assistant attorney general tasked with investigating whether anyone at Michigan State University committed crimes that enabled Larry Nassar to get away with his serial sexual abuse of patients, has done that twice now.

There are a host of questions to ask about the investigation, which now has charged its first person, Dr. William Strampel, the longtime dean of the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine. As reporters, we want to get answers for the public. On the surface, it seems like there are some topics Mr. Forsyth could discuss without compromising the investigation.

Department of Attorney General spokesperson Andrea Bitely told WLNS-TV that Mr. Forsyth could not take questions because of Trial Publicity rule, which according to the American Bar Association prohibits attorneys participating in the investigation or litigation of a matter from making “an extrajudicial statement that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know will be disseminated by means of public communication and will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding in the matter.”

So let’s grant for the moment that Mr. Forsyth determined virtually every question he could anticipate he could not answer. Why call a press conference at all? Issue the written statement with details of the charges, and save everyone the wasted hour (for Lansing-based reporters, much more for those outstate and beyond) to work on actual journalistic activity.

What’s surprising though is that Attorney General Bill Schuette generally is accessible. He conducts interviews. He holds media availabilities to take questions on whatever topic. He has held many news conferences on charges his office or attorneys his office has retained – the Flint water cases especially comes to mind – where he and his attorneys take and answer many questions.

At the June 2017 news conference announcing criminal charges against Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive, in the Flint water case, special prosecutor Todd Flood told reporters of what he observed during the investigation, "There are two types of people in this world: people who give a damn and those who don't.”

In the MSU case, Mr. Schuette is deferring to Mr. Forsyth. Nonetheless, it’s hard to reconcile how Mr. Flood can offer that comment yet Mr. Forsyth saying anything at all risks violating the trial publicity rule.

Why, I asked Ms. Bitely, is the trial publicity rule such a concern here but not in other cases?

“Different prosecutors have different styles,” she said.

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Gongwer Unveils 2018 Michigan Elections App

Posted: March 20, 2018 11:47 AM

Gongwer News Service today announced the availability of the 2018 Michigan Elections app that provides easy-to-use information and analysis of this year’s elections, as well as enhanced functionality.

The app, which is available for download on devices using iOS and Android, offers exclusive analysis of races for the Michigan Legislature, the state’s 14 U.S. House seats, the governor’s 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, Michigan Senate 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.

New in the 2018 app is an improved push notification feature. Gongwer will periodically alert users when new information has been uploaded to the app. The latest 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 24 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.

Organizations interested in purchasing advertising space on the app can find information on that opportunity at the Gongwer website.

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Of Special Elections And Timing

Posted: March 13, 2018 4:13 PM

For the second time in recent months, Governor Rick Snyder is getting some criticism about when he scheduled a special election to fill a vacancy in the Legislature or Congress.

First, Mr. Snyder got intense criticism, with a resulting lawsuit, after setting the special election to replace U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) after he resigned in the wake of a sexual misconduct scandal in tandem with the regular 2018 elections. Mr. Conyers resigned in December, and now his seat will sit vacant until mid-November while voters choose major party nominees in August and then the next representative in November at the same time they vote for all other partisan offices.

Then Monday, Mr. Snyder called for the same schedule – an August 7 special primary and November 6 special general election – to fill the remainder of the term for now-resigned former Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park) after his guilty plea in a corruption case. Mr. Johnson’s Senate seat will sit vacant for eight months.

Under the Michigan Constitution, Mr. Snyder has complete control over when to call a special election.

Many years ago, Michigan governors generally would call special elections quickly, often on dates when no other elections were occurring. The thinking was to get the vacancies filled quickly. In 2003, for example, a House member died less than a month after taking office. A special election was called with a primary on April 22 and a general election on May 20.

But in the past 15 or so years, the pattern has changed.

The major forces behind that change has been the state’s move to consolidate elections on relatively few dates – the second Tuesday after the first Monday in May, August and November – and, like almost anything else, money.

If a vacancy occurs in the odd-numbered year, as happened with two seats in 2017, the general pattern is to call a special primary for August and a special general election for November. In the past, for a vacancy occurring in an odd-numbered year, a November/February or February/May schedule in the even-numbered year might have been used, but now the February date is gone. So if the vacancy occurs in the second half of the odd-numbered year, it likely will not be filled until well into the following year.

By the end of the previous decade, local governments began urging the governor to time special elections to coincide with the regular election cycle because local governments have to pay the cost of running a special election. The state pays for the regular even-numbered year primary and general election, so scheduling the two together saves local governments money at a time when many of them are not flush with extra cash.

That was part of Mr. Snyder’s thinking (it also was part of former Governor Jennifer Granholm’s thinking in her special election scheduling decisions toward the end of her tenure). Mr. Snyder also wanted to give potential candidates for Mr. Conyers’ seat time to considering running given the unexpected, sudden nature of his departure from office.

The criticism, however, is that there is no price on democracy, and what about the people of the 13th U.S. House District losing their voice in Washington, D.C., and the 2nd Senate District in Lansing?

Mr. Snyder seems a convenient punching bag on this topic. For years, Michigan local governments, in liberal and conservative areas, have urged governors from both parties to time special elections when they are already having elections to spare them the cost. And for years, the Legislature has winnowed the number of dates when elections could be held.

The next time there’s a vacancy, unless the hue and cry about it lasting too long includes the government(s) that has/have to pay for the special election, there’s no reason to think anything will change.

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Advertise On The 2018 Gongwer Election App

Posted: March 13, 2018 2:18 PM

Attention Associations and Organizations

Get Your Logo, Platform and Information In Front of Candidates

Advertise on the Gongwer 2018 Election App, and you’ll be seen early and often by key Michigan candidates and those with a keen interest in the state’s election process and results.

The Gongwer 2018 Election App is a third-generation app that is available for purchase by all users through the iTunes Store and Google Play with information about state and federal candidates, exclusive Gongwer analysis of those races and live results on election night.

New this year on the app:

  • An enhanced push messaging system that will drive users to the app more often with an archive of previous messages so you won’t miss anything;
  • Improved functionality; and
  • More frequently updated race analyses and district leanings.

Your ad will rotate evenly with ads from all other advertisers, giving you prime exposure on the state’s premier mobile source for campaign matchups, district leanings, candidate biographies and expert race analysis.

All ads will also link to the advertiser’s preferred website.

Information about ad rates, sizes, dimensions and terms will be distributed on request.

Each app advertiser will also receive three promotional codes that can be used to download the app at no cost.

For additional questions, or to secure an ad space on the 2018 Gongwer Election App, contact Zach Gorchow at 517-482-3500 or

Gongwer has sole discretion in determining whether advertisements will be accepted.

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Beating The Judicial Age Limit By A Day

Posted: March 8, 2018 4:40 PM

For 63 years, those aspiring to don a black robe and serve as a judge in Michigan have only been able to do so before they turn 70.

More specifically, that 1955 constitutional amendment passed by voters, as refined in the 1963 Constitution, says, “No person shall be elected or appointed to a judicial office after reaching the age of 70 years.”

Enter Court of Appeals Judge Kathleen Jansen. A former Macomb Circuit Court judge appointed by then-Governor Jim Blanchard in 1989 to the Court of Appeals, Ms. Jansen has now served four full six-year terms plus a partial term in the court’s 2nd District.

Ms. Jansen turns 70 this year. And her term expires January 1, 2019.

So that must mean the end of her judicial career, right?


Ms. Jansen turns 70 on November 7.

Election Day is November 6.

So Ms. Jansen is free and clear to run for and, presumably, win another six-year term on the court. She filed to run Monday.

Had she been facing the same circumstances in 2017, 2011 or 2006, when Election Day fell on November 7 or 8, she would have been ineligible.

Whether the 70 and out age limit still makes sense given the average American life expectancy in 1955 was 66.7 years and it’s now 78.6 years is another question.

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To What Extent Will Detroit Be Represented By Detroiters?

Posted: March 6, 2018 4:40 PM

Come this time next year, it is possible that Detroiters will be represented in the U.S. House by residents from Southfield and Westland and in the Michigan Senate by residents of Dearborn Heights, Allen Park, Harper Woods and Dearborn.

Population loss in the city, combined with one of the provisions of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, has caused the city’s legislative districts to require more and more suburban turf to contain enough people to meet population requirements. And Michigan's primary election system, which usually means huge fields of candidates for the nomination of the dominant party in areas that overwhelmingly favor one of the two major parties, enable a suburbanite to prevail with a small plurality as city residents split up the bulk of the vote.

The trend began showing up in 2012, when now-U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township) won the U.S. House seat covering about half the city of Detroit, the Grosse Pointes and parts of Oakland County. In 2014, then-Rep. David Knezek (Dearborn Heights) won the 5th Senate District seat that covers Detroit’s west side and several western Wayne County suburbs.

In 2014, now-U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) replaced Mr. Peters in the 14th U.S. House District.

In 2018, the trend could leave Detroit represented by suburbanites in the U.S. House and in the Michigan Senate.

In the 13th U.S. House District, once held by former U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Detroit), Westland Mayor Bill Wild could win the Democratic primary as a result of his strength in the suburbs and a slew of Detroit candidates who split up the city vote.

In the 2nd Senate District, one of the candidates with a strong shot at winning is former Rep. Brian Banks (D-Harper Woods). In the 3rd Senate District, Wayne County Commission Chair Gary Woronchak (D-Dearborn) will be formidable though Rep. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) is a strong candidate as well. In the 4th Senate District, Rep. Frank Liberati (D-Allen Park) will go up against Rep. Fred Durhal III (D-Detroit). Mr. Knezek is a heavy favorite for re-election. The one exception is the 1st Senate District, where both major candidates are Detroiters.

The U.S. Voting Rights Act prohibits something called retrogression, which means a redistricting plan cannot reduce the number of majority-minority districts. The 1992 reapportionment plan, back when Detroit still had 1 million people, had two U.S. House Districts consisting almost entirely of Detroit and five Michigan Senate Districts almost entirely based in Detroit. But as the city has lost population, those districts have had to stretch out to cover more and more ground.

And in Michigan, where the major party general election candidates for Congress and the Legislature are chosen through the August primary with no requirement that the winner take 50 percent plus one of the vote, these heavily Democratic districts in Detroit often feature crowded primaries. That means, as happened with Mr. Knezek in 2014, if the Detroit candidates split the vote, a suburban candidate has a better opportunity to win.

If the state went to a “jungle” primary for example, where the top two candidates advanced regardless of party, that almost surely would produce a head-to-head race between a Detroiter and a suburbanite and take away the issue of having a field with one suburbanite and 10 Detroiters.

This does not presume that the suburban elected officials representing Detroit would not look out for the city or its interests. Failure to do so would likely produce a primary challenge and electoral trouble.

But it is still remarkable that Detroit could lack having one of its own represent it in the U.S. House and suburbanites holding four of its five Michigan Senate districts. It’s becoming a point of emphasis in the 13th U.S. House District, and it would not be surprising if it became a theme in other races as well.

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Imploding Roads Natural Consequence Of 2015 Plan

Posted: February 27, 2018 4:42 PM

There were a couple aspects of the 2015 road funding plan that were puzzling.

One was that lawmakers decided to finally take the potential political hit for increasing taxes and vehicle registration fees to pay for road repairs yet did so in a way where motorists would not see a discernible increase in road work for years. The second was that lawmakers decided to finally take the potential political hit for increasing taxes and vehicle registration fees to pay for road repairs and yet did not do so at a level to actually fix the problem.

Pure fury among motorists has exploded in the past three weeks as Michigan’s roads disintegrated after a sudden warm-up, re-freeze and major snowstorm followed by a sudden warm-up and flooding rains. Potholes have erupted everywhere. The endless on-the-cheap patch jobs in recent years blew apart.

Since everyone has a road story, I’ll go to the one I have to face the most. Saginaw Highway in East Lansing, from Coolidge Road on the west to Abbot Road on the east, is a state trunk line that has been deteriorating for several years to the point where I switch lanes in advance of knowing when the really bad potholes and ruts are imminent. Every year, I think this is the year that the road will at least be resurfaced. Every year I have been wrong, and now it is a traveshamockery of a road.

But, why, I have seen many people ask, are Michigan’s roads in such horrible condition given the substantial vehicle registration fee increase motorists are paying and the less noticeable 7.3 cent per gallon gasoline tax increase that has gone into effect?

The answer gets into the weeds a little, but here are the basics.

In the early part of the decade, Governor Rick Snyder, unable to persuade the Legislature to back a tax increase for roads, agreed with the Legislature to for the first time spend General Fund money on roads. This provided an increase in road funding, albeit it a fraction of the billions needed. Eventually, this amounted to $400 million.

Then, once the road funding plan passed and the tax and fee increases came online, all that new revenue initially did was replace what the General Fund had been providing. That General Fund money – historically used for higher education, prisons, Medicaid, human services and the basic operations of state government – went back to those functions. Taxes went up, but road spending did not.

This year, road spending will rise, but the real increase is contingent on the second part of that 2015 plan – dipping back into the General Fund to the tune of $600 million by the 2020-21 fiscal year for roads. Lawmakers, feeling the heat from constituents, have decided to speed up the phase in of that $600 million, with a plan to appropriate $175 million this year (none was planned under the 2015 legislation) and $150 million for the next fiscal year (as planned).

Still, that full $1.2 billion in new spending under the 2015 plan will not become a reality under current law for three more years.

Speaking of that $1.2 billion, that’s the other problem – it's well short of what is needed. Even with that $1.2 billion in new road spending, it’s still not enough to reverse the slide in the percentage of Michigan’s roads rated good. That figure dated to the previous decade and by the time legislative action actually began to happen in 2014 and 2015, it was, well, dated. Road officials said the real need was more than $2 billion, but the Legislature seemed to settle on the old $1.2 billion figure even though there was plenty of evidence and data to say it was not going to be enough.

So if you’re wondering why your road is awful, it basically comes down to this – a refusal through the previous decade and the latter part of the 20th century to install a funding system that could keep up with inflation, the defeat of such a system by House Republicans who objected to a large gasoline tax in 2014 in favor of the infamous Proposal 1 of 2015 that voters crushed and the 2015 plan that lacked sufficient revenue and pushed off the new spending for years.

Get used to those “Rough Road” signs popping up everywhere and shelling out for new tires.

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What To Do About Choosing University Trustees?

Posted: February 20, 2018 4:24 PM

This is sort of a rebuttal to and sort of a continuation of a blog my colleague John Lindstrom wrote last week on the debate about whether the members of the governing boards for Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University should continue to be elected by statewide voters.

The MSU Board of Trustees, as a result of its fealty to former MSU President Lou Anna Simon and in particular the comments of Trustee Joel Ferguson (D-Lansing) minimizing the significance of the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal, has brought Michigan’s unique system of electing university governing boards front-and-center.

Relatively few large public universities have their trustees elected by voters. Among the 13 public universities that make up the Big Ten Conference, MSU, U-M and the University of Nebraska are the only three with boards chosen by voters, and Nebraska uses a district system instead of the statewide one in place for MSU and U-M (and Wayne State). In the Big Ten and nationally, governors tend to appoint most of the large public university governing boards.

The MSU board’s approach has prompted legislation to move Michigan’s three large research institutions to gubernatorial appointment for their governing boards. The legislation is likely going nowhere because Democrats have reacted negatively to the idea, and it will take Democratic votes in the Michigan House to attain the two-thirds majority necessary to put a constitutional amendment before voters.

The politics of the situation are easy to understand. If voters adopted the constitutional amendment, it would allow Governor Rick Snyder to replace the governing boards of all three universities. Democrats control the U-M and WSU boards, and the MSU board is a 4-4 split. Instantly, there would be, presumably, 8-0 Republican majorities on all three boards.

University boards would move to a spoils system. Critics of this system have noted it means appointees tend to be political supporters of the governor, even if they are well-qualified. And it means that the governor’s political opponents, even if also well-qualified, have no shot. Further, it means when a new governor takes office that quality board members will get replaced upon the expiration of their terms simply because they belong to the opposite political party.

The system’s supporters have countered that once appointed, the members are largely freed from partisan political concerns.

This is the system now in place for Michigan’s 10 other public universities (I’ve seen several people refer to 12 other public universities, but two of those are the University of Michigan-Dearborn and University of Michigan-Flint, which fall under control of the same board of regents as the main campus in Ann Arbor).

Part of the hue and cry about ceasing election of the MSU, U-M and WSU boards stems from the idea of taking the choice away from voters. And from a philosophical standpoint, that makes sense.

The realities of how those elections work, however, are completely at odds with that lofty ideal.

The candidates for the board are nominated by the political parties’ state convention delegates. As Rep. Aaron Miller (R-Sturgis) pointed out last week, that means Republican nominees result from those who can meet conservative litmus tests even on issues that have nothing to do with university governance. No one said so on the Democratic side, but those hoping to win Democratic nominations generally have no chance unless they have the blessing of the United Auto Workers and/or other major unions.

Republican convention delegates elect their nominees through one-person, one-vote secret ballot. Theoretically, Democratic delegates elect their nominees through an open ballot process with votes apportioned according to congressional district through in practice, powerbrokers sort out the nominees in advance and the convention rubber stamps those choices.

And then voters, carefully vetting the nominees based on the issues, make their grand pronouncement on who is fit to lead the three universities in November elections in even-numbered years.

Well, no. Voters generally have no idea who the candidates are or what they stand for unless there’s a famous name in the mix. Former MSU head football coach George Perles didn’t get elected to the MSU board because of his views on tuition and the cost of room and board.

So voters default to their basic partisan leaning, whether through using the straight-ticket voting option or going through the candidates one by one.

There’s a reason Mr. Ferguson lost re-election in 1994 and won back a seat in the 1996 elections. It’s the same reason Republicans dominated the board races in 2010 and 2016 while Democrats did so in 2006, 2008, 2012 and 2014.

In big Democratic years, Democratic university board candidates win. And in big Republican years, Republican candidates win. 1994 was a historic Republican sweep, so Mr. Ferguson lost. 1996 was a solid Democratic year, so Mr. Ferguson won.

Defenders of the current system note, rightfully, that upending the U-M and WSU boards because of the fiasco at MSU makes little sense. Indeed, blowing up the electoral system for the three universities because of a hopefully once-in-a-century scandal at MSU feels like a knee-jerk reaction.

There’s no way to know if a board consisting of members chosen through a different system would have responded differently.

That said, regardless of the MSU situation, the current system, which dates to the 1908 Constitution, has flaws, and they are obvious. A serious research project by the Legislature into whether there’s a better system would be fascinating and maybe even lead to genuine reform.

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On Tax Cuts Vs. Services, Democrats Go For Tax Cuts

Posted: February 15, 2018 12:01 PM

When it comes to taxes this year, the Legislature had Governor Rick Snyder over the proverbial barrel, as a lobbyist once said of the position in which it put former Governor G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams during the 1959 cash crisis, and as that lobbyist advised then, today’s legislators kept Mr. Snyder there until he screamed “uncle.”

First, the Legislature overrode Mr. Snyder’s 2017 veto of legislation that speeds up the phasing out of applying the sales tax to the value of a trade-in when purchasing a vehicle.

Then, majority Republicans who have chafed for years at Mr. Snyder’s reluctance to cut individual income taxes, realizing that Mr. Snyder could not stop them if they pursued tax cuts with bipartisan support, seized on Mr. Snyder’s proposal to prevent Michigan income taxpayers from losing their personal exemptions as a result of an unintended consequence in the federal tax law.

Michigan law now allows a $4,000 exemption, with the amount rising annually by inflation, rounded to the nearest $100. The Michigan Income Tax Act says Michigan taxpayers can claim the same number of personal exemptions as they claim on their federal taxes. The end of the federal personal income tax exemption thus also means the end of the Michigan one.

Mr. Snyder proposed a technical wording change and a modest boost in the personal exemption to bring it to $4,500 by 2021 instead of the $4,300 where it likely would have stood by then.

Republicans swiftly and unsurprisingly upped the ante. House Republicans called for a $4,800 personal exemption by 2021 and Senate Republicans a $5,000 one. House Republicans proposed a new tax credit for seniors 62 and older. Senate Republicans proposed bringing back a tax credit for parents with minor children.

Mr. Snyder never flatly said “no,” but he warned against acting fiscally irresponsible and reminded legislators of all the tax cuts coming online in the coming years.

The governor last week suggested a proposal “in between” his and lawmakers. He did get Republicans to drop the credits, but the personal exemption plan fell “in between” the House and Senate plans at $4,900.

Absent a threat to go scorched earth on the Legislature if it overrode another veto, and anyone who has observed Mr. Snyder for his seven years in office knows that is not in his DNA, Mr. Snyder had no leverage. The Legislature easily could have and would have overrode a veto. He also caved on a House Republican push to grant amnesty to some 300,000 motorists with a cumulative $637 million in unpaid driver responsibility fees and agreed to that plan too. Again, with Democrats backing that legislation, he had no leverage.

One of the interesting storylines is that Democrats, who typically ally themselves with the groups reliant on the state budget (K-12 schools, social service programs, universities, local governments, et al), ditched them to back tax cuts. Schools opposed the trade-in bill because most sales tax revenues go to schools. And the Michigan League for Public Policy, whose priorities generally are in sync with legislative Democrats, opposed the $4,900 personal exemption plan.

“We were disheartened today to hear that the Legislature and governor have reached an agreement on an increase to the state personal exemption that will result in hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue in the coming years with little benefit to most families,” said Gilda Jacobs, a former senator and House member who is the president and CEO of the league. “Simply put, the juice is not worth the squeeze on a tax cut right now. Lawmakers are making bad decisions today that will force future legislators to pay for them with significant cuts to the services residents value and rely on.”

Mr. Snyder isn’t the only one in town feeling a knife in his back right now.

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Democrats Go Easy On Snyder To Face, Sharply Critical Afterward

Posted: February 8, 2018 2:26 PM

Governor Rick Snyder delivered his last annual budget recommendation to the House and Senate Appropriations committees Wednesday, and once again Democrats, the minority party in the Legislature for all eight years of his governorship, opted not to fire tough questions at the governor.

The same dichotomy played out as it has in previous years.

The one moment Democrats have during the year to ask Mr. Snyder questions in public, face-to-face, the leading Democrats on the Appropriations committees ask questions so easily teeing the governor up to give a flowery answer, you would think they were in the same party as Mr. Snyder.

And yet, during the budget presentation, the Twitter accounts of the press offices for both House and Democrats were busy tweeting all manner of criticism with Mr. Snyder’s budget priorities.

One example: At 11:15 a.m., the House Democrats’ Twitter account tweeted, “Governor Snyder, Lt. Governor Calley, and House Republicans have been in charge of the budget for transportation for seven years. Do you feel that our roads, bridges, and water infrastructure have improved in that time?”

The governor’s answer to that question would have been interesting, given the much-ballyhooed road funding plan of 2015 and the general public’s fury with the current condition of the roads.

Except, a little while later, when Rep. Fred Durhal III (D-Detroit), the minority vice chair of House Appropriations, got his turn to ask a question, he asked Mr. Snyder how much of a difference the additional $175 million the governor proposes for roads would make in road quality.

No surprise, Mr. Snyder declared it would make a significant difference.

When Sen. Vincent Gregory (D-Southfield), the minority vice chair of Senate Appropriations, got to ask his question, he asked Mr. Snyder a fairly innocuous inquiry about the money the governor was proposing to deal with Flint water.

Mr. Snyder answered it without breaking a sweat.

Then, after the presentation concluded, statements from Democrats came pouring into reporters’ email inboxes, all generally lambasting the governor’s proposals.

“Too little, too late,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint).

“The small increases proposed in this budget don’t make up for the last seven years of missed opportunities and underfunding of our schools, roads and communities,” said House Minority Leader Sam Singh (D-East Lansing).

This same scenario has played out for several years. Each Democratic vice chair gets one question of the governor, it’s an easy one and then the Democratic members rain criticism on Mr. Snyder in prepared statements and interviews afterward.

Not that they have to go all Daniel Caffey from “A Few Good Men” and thunder “I want the truth!” at Mr. Snyder when asking him a question, but given their vocal disdain for most of Mr. Snyder’s policies and budget priorities, one would think they would have tailored some tougher questions to put the governor on the spot when they get their one chance to do so in the public eye.

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El-Sayed Getting Taste Of Big League Politics

Posted: February 2, 2018 4:26 PM

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dr. Abdul El-Sayed’s anger at news stories raising questions about whether he meets the eligibility requirement to run for governor in Michigan is in some ways understandable.

Mr. El-Sayed has built a credible to strong campaign from nowhere. He has gone from an unknown to someone who has excited some factions of Michigan Democratic politics looking for someone who pushes unabashed strong progressive policies and speaks without equivocation. He has raised far more money than anyone outside his campaign thought possible. He’s cultivated remarkable national media attention.

And he has done it all while having to confront bigotry toward his religion and the possibility he could become the first Muslim governor in U.S. history. His campaign headquarters address remains a secret because of security concerns.

So when news stories, including one from this publication, popped up earlier this week regarding growing murmurs about whether Mr. El-Sayed’s having lived in New York as recently as August 2015 runs afoul of the Michigan Constitution saying a person must be a registered elector for the four years preceding the election to run for governor, the El-Sayed campaign went nuclear. In this case, that means he would have to have been a registered voter in Michigan as of November 6, 2014.

And in fact, Mr. El-Sayed was registered to vote in Michigan the whole time he was in New York. But he should not have been. Bridge Magazine reported Mr. El-Sayed registered to vote in New York in 2012. As often happens when a person moves to another state, their new hometown did not notify their previous hometown of the change.

I’ll come back to the finer legal points of this discussion in a moment. Let’s first look at how the El-Sayed campaign responded.

El-Sayed spokesperson Adam Joseph said the attack “falls in line with a long history of attacks on certain kinds of people when they aspire to leadership in our democracy. We knew attacks like this were coming since day one - it happened when Barack Hussein Obama had the audacity to run for president, and his opponents questioned his belonging too. While we knew the attacks were coming, we didn’t think they would come in the form of insider Democrats using Trump’s birther tactics. "

The El-Sayed campaign is right that this situation recalls an event involving former President Barack Obama, but it’s not the birther lie that President Donald Trump and others fabricated for years, that Mr. Obama was not born in the United States and thus ineligible to run for the presidency.

No, what it recalls was Mr. Obama’s first electoral victory in 1996 when as a candidate for the Illinois Senate his campaign knocked his Democratic opponents for the party nomination off the ballot by successfully challenging whether they had sufficient petition signatures. One of those included the incumbent senator.

It also recalls what happened to Mike Duggan when he was denied ballot access in the 2013 Detroit mayoral primary because of a foul-up in when he moved to the city and when he started collecting his signatures. He eventually won the primary as a write-in.

Republicans unsuccessfully tried to kick a key Democratic House candidate in Macomb County off the ballot in 2016, claiming he did not live in the district in time to be eligible to run for the seat.

It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Politics ain’t beanbag. What’s happening is not a birther-esque fabrication questioning his status as an American based on no underlying facts, but an examination of questions about whether Mr. El-Sayed’s having lived in New York during part of this four-year window violates the eligibility for governor provision in Michigan election law.

And assuming Mr. El-Sayed eventually does end up on the ballot, if he manages to become a real threat to win the nomination, he’ll have to deal with far worse. The last two competitive Democratic gubernatorial primaries, in 2002 and 2010, were vicious. Over on the Republican side this year, Attorney General Bill Schuette and Lt. Governor Brian Calley appear prepared to engage in something akin to the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

The election law source with whom I have spoken, on background, says the facts of Mr. El-Sayed’s situation suggest a gray area, one where someone could mount a well-reasoned challenge to his eligibility, but also one lacking an ironclad argument that would persuade Michigan courts, which have tended of late not to deprive voters of choices, to toss him.

The El-Sayed campaign’s attorneys, one of whom is a former Federal Elections Commission chair, have said the law is on his side, that he remained continuously registered with a residence in Michigan for the full four-year period. But it will take more than the campaign’s attorneys to settle this issue, and Michigan election law is clear for non-students that the place where someone spends the majority of his time when they have two residences is their legal residence.

The good news for the El-Sayed campaign, assuming any eventual challenge is unsuccessful, is that clearly people are taking him seriously. What will be interesting to watch is whether Mr. El-Sayed decides to stick with the nuclear approach the next time it is under attack, that it enjoyed the fury in the Democratic establishment about the comparison to Mr. Trump, or if it decides to dial back the rhetoric.

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Engler’s First Moves Will Be Telling

Posted: February 1, 2018 4:19 PM

All we need now are Englervilles sprouting up on Munn Field, references to critics as “Jake and the Fatmen” and the passing out of nickels across the Michigan State University campus, and our transportation back to the 1990s will be complete.

Such is the polarized reaction to the MSU Board of Trustees naming former Governor John Engler interim president this week that one could be forgiven in thinking we somehow hopped into a Flux Capacitor-equipped DeLorean, reached 88 mph and suddenly were transported back in time to an era when property taxes, school funding and welfare reform ruled the day.

Mr. Engler’s appointment is under attack on various fronts.

From many Democrats, who fear he will turn MSU into a conservative ideological laboratory, breaking unions, spearheading a university foray into charter school expansion and using the school to advance other right-wing causes.

From the faculty, who prefer someone from academia.

From attorneys who remember how as governor he fiercely contested litigation from female prisoners who sued the state, claiming rampant sexual assault by corrections officers and who wonder how he is the right person to lead the school in a post-Larry Nassar era.

From those who see someone with ties to key university powerbroker Peter Secchia and Attorney General Bill Schuette, who has opened a criminal investigation into who knew what about sexual assaults at MSU, Nassar and otherwise, and what they did about it, and question potential conflicts of interest.

From some students and others, who felt a unifying figure during the deepest crisis in the university’s 163-year history would be a better fit than a polarizing one like Mr. Engler.

Mr. Engler’s backers, and others not ordinarily aligned with the former governor, see someone with a well-earned reputation of cutting through bureaucratic indifference and forcing change on drifting institutions that desperately need it. Mr. Engler has long been able to set a goal, see three or four moves ahead on the proverbial chessboard, and then execute them.

There weren’t exactly accomplished, unifying, nonpolitical figures storming the Hannah Administration Building begging the MSU board to let them take on an interim job on short notice in a hellacious climate.

The MSU board was basically left to choose between Mr. Engler and former Governor Jim Blanchard. Going with Mr. Engler at a time when Republicans control the Legislature and are threatening to withhold appropriations from MSU in retaliation for its leaders’ handling of the Nassar scandal makes some strategic sense.

Mr. Engler’s first moves will either justify his critics’ fears or set them at least somewhat at ease.

The most important decision he has to make right away is whether to continue MSU’s resolute defense in the civil suits against it from Nassar victims at the U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids.

Before former President Lou Anna Simon resigned, MSU’s attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the case, claiming it came too late to satisfy the statute of limitations and that the university has immunity from civil suit, among other technical arguments. This maneuver outraged the victims, though Ms. Simon suggested the university had to use this strategy to assure its insurers would not walk away from covering liability the school might eventually owe.

Since then, there have been some cracks in the Green and White armor. MSU Trustee Joel Ferguson (D-Lansing), even as he self-immolated with his infamous “just this Nassar thing” interview on WVFN-AM, said in the same interview he expected the victims would see some compensation. MSU Board Chair Brian Breslin (R-Alto) has said he wants the university to reach out to the victims’ attorneys to see about negotiations.

If Mr. Engler decides the university has to defend itself at all costs against the lawsuits, he will surely find himself the target of Nassar victims’ anger, which has proven extremely powerful, and invite more comparisons to what happened with the Department of Corrections. If, however, there is some type of legitimate overture, that would likely gain him some goodwill and show the comparisons to the female prisoner lawsuit to be unfounded.

If Mr. Engler does what he said he would do and listen, especially to Nassar’s victims and anyone else who thinks the university shabbily treated their sexual assault complaints, that will go a long way as well, particularly if he follows with concrete actions.

If Mr. Engler removes people found to have been bad actors in the Nassar ordeal and puts in place systems to assure the university takes all sexual assault complaints seriously, that will speak volumes.

Wednesday, Mr. Engler sounded like a disgusted and stunned alumnus prepared to go to work to fix the problem, not use the presidency to remake MSU into a conservative educational model where everyone has to memorize “The Conservative Mind” by Russell Kirk and Fox News Channel becomes the only 24-hour news channel offered on university cable.

If Mr. Engler in fact sticks to the former and clears the disgusting Nassar odor from the banks of the Red Cedar without dabbling in the latter, it will quiet most of his critics, though probably not the dude/protester who climbed on top of the MSU Board of Trustees’ table in the middle of yesterday’s meeting.

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Three Telling Words On MSU’s Defense Of Simon

Posted: January 23, 2018 4:05 PM

There is a phrase in journalism called “burying the lead,” when the news organization puts the most important element of the story somewhere in the middle instead of at the top where it belongs.

This phase came to mind Friday when reading embattled Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon’s 1,415-word letter to “MSU community members” at the close of an extraordinary week that saw scores of women sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar, a former sports medicine physician on campus for several women’s teams and the public, publicly berate MSU and Ms. Simon before a national audience.

These women used their chance to deliver victim impact statements at Nassar’s sentencing proceedings to vent their fury not only at his betrayal, but also Ms. Simon and the MSU employees to whom some of them reported Nassar’s abuse only to be ignored. Scathing is not a strong enough word.

Amid widespread calls for Ms. Simon’s resignation and fury at the MSU Board of Trustees for standing steadfastly behind her, Ms. Simon sent the lengthy email describing actions MSU has taken in response to the Nassar revelations, detailing how she had watched the first two days of the victim impact statements (the first day via livestream, the second in person), apologizing for the pain suffered by Nassar’s victims and providing an update on the criminal and civil cases stemming from the scandal.

It was in this section, nine paragraphs into the 16-paragraph email, that Ms. Simon shed some light on why the university has taken the approach of issuing carefully worded denials that no university official “believed” Nassar committed crimes until he was arrested and why it is mounting an all-out defense in federal court against the more than 100 lawsuits Nassar’s victims have filed against the school.

“MSU is entitled to, and its insurers require, that we will mount an appropriate defense of these cases,” Ms. Simon wrote.

Ms. Simon then goes on to explain that motions by its attorneys for the judge to dismiss the case are “based on a number of arguments.” She doesn’t list them off, but they are claims the victims lack standing, the university has absolute immunity and that the victims failed to file their cases before the statute of limitations expired.

But let’s go back to those three words – “its insurers require.”

The fear among MSU brass appears to be that if MSU were to immediately settle in those cases instead of mounting a defense, which always includes a motion to dismiss the case, that the university’s insurers would walk away and MSU would have to rely on its own resources – its endowment, general fund, other internal sources – to pay the victims instead of its insurers.

This approach also appears to govern Ms. Simon’s refusal to resign, and the Board of Trustees’ decision not to fire her, that such a move would somehow signal an admission of guilt and provide an opening for the university’s insurers to avoid covering what could be many hundreds of millions in liability.

The Nassar victim count is up to 200 – and rising. It doesn’t take advanced math to see the liability potentially surging past $1 billion.

That type of a judgment or settlement would have massive consequences for the university if it had to pay out of its own funds. So every move MSU is making appears governed by that fear.

The problem with this approach is obvious. In its effort to stave off financial ruin, MSU is suffering reputational ruin.

Having scores of women call the university an enabler of a sexual predator will do that.

Having those women say the decision to keep Ms. Simon as president is an affront to them will do that.

Having the school fire absolutely no one in response to its handling of Nassar will do that.

Having the school’s beloved basketball coach, Tom Izzo, give an at best uninformed answer when asked about Ms. Simon and blasted as “a total moron or just a LIAR” by the mother of Olympic gold medal gymnast Aly Raisman, one of Nassar’s victims, will do that.

Having a member of the Board of Trustees, Joel Ferguson, scoff that the board is keeping Ms. Simon as president “because there’s so many more things going at university than just this Nassar thing” will do that.

Having your school excoriated as tone deaf and fomenting a culture of enabling for sexual assault in one national opinion article after another will do that.

I know of at least one family whose daughter MSU accepted for admission next fall that decided she will go elsewhere in part because of the university’s actions. And I know of other parents now rethinking whether MSU is the right place for their child.

MSU is afraid of the financial consequences if its insurers walk away.

But what if it keeps those insurance policies in place only to see large numbers of potential students, donors and alumni walk away in disgust?

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The Roof Is Caving In On MSU President

Posted: January 18, 2018 1:13 PM

It was probably too late for Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon to change the prevailing narrative about MSU’s handling of Larry Nassar, the former physician who sexually assaulted at least 125 women and girls under his care, when she showed up at the sentencing hearing Wednesday to hear Mr. Nassar’s victims tell their stories.

That narrative is this: That many of these women informed several employees at MSU, some mid-level and some lower-level, that Mr. Nassar assaulted them and those employees either discouraged them from coming forward, sided with Mr. Nassar or failed to initiate a legitimate, unbiased investigation of him. And further that senior MSU officials, like Ms. Simon and the Board of Trustees, rather than showing horror, empathy and transparency as soon as the Nassar revelations hit in 2016 and immediately moving to ascertain the scope of the problem, cleaning house and quickly assisting the women coming forward, instead circled the wagons in a strategy designed to minimize the university’s legal exposure.

MSU has insisted no university official believed Mr. Nassar committed crimes until the first news report in the fall of 2016. Mr. Nassar’s victims have scoffed at that position.

Despite some calls for Ms. Simon to resign, she has refused and maintained the resolute backing of the Board of Trustees.

The events of the past week though show the Nassar scandal turning into a full-on conflagration raging across the banks of the Red Cedar.

Last Friday, the university – under siege from something like 150 victims who have sued it in federal court, filed a motion asking a judge to dismiss the case because the university has “absolute immunity from liability” for Mr. Nassar’s conduct. The Lansing State Journal reported that attorneys for MSU asserted the statute of limitations expired, the plaintiffs lacked standing and that MSU employees are immune from liability.

This was filed on a Friday evening of a holiday weekend, a classic tactic to minimize media attention.

Now, whether these legal arguments have merit is for a judge to decide. From a political and public relations standpoint, the motion is a disaster. Trying to escape liability in this situation based on a technicality like the statute of limitations, claiming the victims lack standing and asserting immunity? That looks … bad.

Today, The Detroit News reported that 14 different MSU employees were warned of Mr. Nassar’s abuse. One of those notified was Ms. Simon herself, who was told in 2014 a Title IX complaint and police report had been filed against an unnamed physician. Ms. Simon said she never received a copy of the university’s Title IX investigative report, which cleared him. MSU police forwarded a report on the complaint to the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office, but that office did not bring charges.

The revelations in the News story have prompted a fresh wave of fury at Ms. Simon today. Sen. Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage) called for her resignation, as did The State News, MSU’s independent, student-run newspaper.

On Tuesday, the first of some 100 of Mr. Nassar’s survivors began delivering their victim impact statements in court. Ms. Simon had considered attending, but opted against doing so because of the distraction it would create. She was excoriated by several victims and denounced for staying away in a Detroit Free Press column.

So Wednesday, she showed up, and it did not go well.

When Ms. Simon stepped before the cameras, she quickly found herself engaged with one of Mr. Nassar’s victims, who peppered her with questions and criticism. Ms. Simon voiced horror at Mr. Nassar’s conduct and emphasized the focus of the day should be on the victims and their stories, not on MSU.

And yet, as these victims continue to speak, they are directing a huge portion of their focus on MSU and Ms. Simon.

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Income Tax ‘Fix’ Addresses Unexpected Political Mess

Posted: January 9, 2018 3:33 PM

Governor Rick Snyder has come up with his answer to the federal tax law causing the elimination of the personal exemption for those paying state income tax, a technical change that will enable taxpayers to still claim an exemption for themselves and their dependents.

Michigan law now allows a $4,000 exemption, with the amount rising annually by inflation, rounded to the nearest $100, in effect saving taxpayers $170 each for themselves and their dependents. But the Michigan Income Tax Act says Michigan taxpayers can claim the same number of personal exemptions as they claim on their federal taxes. The end of the federal personal income tax exemption thus also means the end of the Michigan one.

It would mean a $1.4 billion tax increase, or again, $170 more for each taxpayer and dependent.

Well, no one thinks that’s a good idea, and so discussions began on how to remedy the issue.

The Snyder administration’s answer is a technical wording change, which is not yet available in bill form, which would in effect decouple the Michigan personal income tax exemption from the federal one. As an added bonus, the personal exemption would rise to $4,500 by 2021. Had it been up to inflation alone, the exemption probably would have needed more time to get to that level.

So everyone gets to keep their $170 per taxpayer and dependent. All’s well that ends well, right?

Well, while the legislation is simple, the process of getting it to the governor’s desk looms as a big political headache.

First of all, the probability of a legislator offering an amendment seeking a much more substantial increase in the personal exemption seems like at least 100 percent.

The House could avoid an uncomfortable record roll call vote, which became a thing of the past on amendments in that chamber once the majority decided it was tired of the minority party putting its vulnerable members in a tough spot. Now it just gavels down amendments on a voice vote. But the Senate does allow record roll call votes on amendments, and that could make for some interesting theater on the south side of the Capitol.

Republicans love tax cuts, and if there’s one tax cut Democrats prefer, it’s the personal exemption, because increasing it means the same amount of money for every taxpayer, unlike a reduction in the income tax rate.

The advantage of a “simple” fix, as the Snyder administration has called it, is that it requires amending only one section of the Income Tax Act. That’s important because it means any amendments can only affect that section of the act, thus confining the potential for mischief other changes to the bill. A bill that amends more than one section enables legislators to propose amending any portion of the act, and that would turn into a free-for-all.

Democrats could propose increasing the Corporate Income Tax, the tax Mr. Snyder championed to replace the Michigan Business Tax. The CIT, in effect since 2012, raises a small fraction of the revenues the MBT did. While businesses have applauded the new tax as far more reasonable in size and easier to administer than the complicated MBT, it is a pariah among Democrats because most of the revenue loss was made up by wiping out individual income tax credits.

Republicans could take another run at cutting the income tax rate from 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent although the House fell short of the votes necessary to make that change 11 months ago.

There have been proposals to restore some of those lost income tax credits from the 2011 tax changes. Someone could take a swing at reviving one of those.

Oh, and here’s the one that would be the most interesting: the pension tax. The 2011 tax changes extended the income tax to pension income from public sector jobs for the first time and greatly expanded the tax’s application to pension income from private sector jobs, though those born before 1946 were exempted.

In the years since then, when our reporters at Gongwer News Service have interviewed candidates for the House about the pension tax, virtually every one of them, Republican and Democrat, has said they support repealing it. If the House were to vote on pension tax repeal today, it would probably pass unanimously.

If you combine the seven Republican senators who voted against the bill in 2011 who are still in the Senate with all 11 Democrats and the Republican senators eligible for re-election in 2018, that makes well more than the 20 needed to pass something in the Senate. The only reason the pension tax made it through the Legislature in 2011 is it was combined in the same bill with the MBT repeal and Republicans could not afford to embarrass their new governor in his first year in office.

Will legislative Republicans be willing to introduce a simple single-section bill like Mr. Snyder wants and limit the drama (though there would still be plenty of it)? Or will they decide to go for more and open the proverbial political floodgates?

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A Diversion … Happy Birthday, Hugh McDiarmid Sr.

Posted: January 2, 2018 2:09 PM

Oh, my.

It has come to the attention of this V-E-R-Y junior reporter that on December 31, the legendary former Detroit Free Press political columnist Hugh McDiarmid Sr. celebrated his 83rd birthday.

Those under 30 may ask, who is this Hugh McDiarmid, eh?

Well, let me tell you…

NOBODY did it better.

It, was political commentary, and whether you agreed or disagreed with Mr. McDiarmid, his staccato, conversational writing style made politics accessible to readers, including…

This reader. When I was growing up, the Free Press was placed every day at our house in a beautiful yellow box with “Detroit Free Press” emblazoned on it in blue, using the classic Old English font, as it should be.

Mr. McDiarmid’s patented use of “Oh mys,” words in all capital letters (sometimes spelled out, sometimes not), ellipses, italics and various other devices was delightful. It made politics fun, even when he was tearing somebody a new one. To this kid in Troy, when Lansing might as well have been in another state, I could hardly wait for the next McDiarmid column.

How great was this start to a 1997 column?

“H-e-r-e comes Jim Blanchard. What, pray tell, are you talking about?

“Well, it's clear the ex-guv is running for something, isn't it?”

And who else in these parts could dismember someone so effortlessly with the written word? In a 1999 column, he dutifully went through the Michigan Republican Party’s tortured attempt to slap then-U.S. Rep. David Bonior, a Mount Clemens Democrat, as a carpetbagger. His ending to the column?


And… And…

It will always be one of the great privileges of this reporter, who was just cutting his teeth as a cub reporter in this town as Mr. McDiarmid was wrapping up his newspapering career, to have the chance to cover the same beat, if only for a brief period, and wonder how Mr. McDiarmid would write about the same stories. The first news conference I attended where Mr. McDiarmid also was in attendance was a true thrill.


So what?

So let’s end this conversation – which, in case you hadn’t noticed borrows extensively from Mr. McDiarmid’s writing style and some specific columns, lest anyone think I am trying to do anything other than pay homage to him – by thanking Mr. McDiarmid for all he contributed to the coverage and spirit of the Michigan Capitol during a career spanning at least the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Happy Birthday, Mr. McDiarmid.


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Could Nassar Scandal Affect MSU Trustee Races?

Posted: December 11, 2017 3:46 PM

As the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal has metastasized, the criticism of Michigan State University’s handling of their former employee and resolute insistence to this day that “no MSU official believed” Mr. Nassar committed sexual abuse before the first news reports in 2016 has intensified.

There have been calls for MSU President Lou Anna Simon to resign. The Lansing State Journal Editorial Board said if Ms. Simon does not resign, then the MSU Board of Trustees should fire her.

But so far, the board has rejected calls for Ms. Simon’s ouster.

In 2018, two of those trustees – Brian Breslin and Mitch Lyons – will be up for re-election.

Typically, the statewide education board races, the MSU board included, always favor the party having the better election year or some other macro-trend. Voters tend to know nothing about the candidates or their positions on the issues, so they default to their basic partisan instinct.

And that surely will hold true again next November.

But what about the nominating process? The political parties will each nominate two candidates for the MSU board at their conventions next summer, and it if the Nassar scandal is going to play a role in the election, that’s when it would happen.

If Mr. Breslin and Mr. Lyons run for re-election, will they secure renomination or might one or two challengers, unhappy with their handling of the Nassar scandal and Ms. Simon, decide to give them a fight?

And on the Democratic side, given the party’s effort to harness the energy among liberal and moderate women revolted by President Donald Trump and the push in the party to oust those accused of sexual misconduct (see John Conyers, Al Franken et al), might Michigan Democrats nominate two candidates pledging to bring dissenting voices to the board and question the university’s approach?

Once the nominations are set, that’s when the prevailing political winds will likely take over.

But if the MSU board remains steadfast in its support of Ms. Simon, those who think the board is making a mistake will have their best chance to effect change next August when each party’s most devoted activists gather to make what usually are very low-profile nominations.

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Calley Vs. Schuette: Let The Battle Begin

Posted: December 1, 2017 4:45 PM

Lt. Governor Brian Calley and Attorney General Bill Schuette shared a stage at the Michigan Republican Party’s Mackinac Policy Conference two months ago with other top elected Republican leaders, and maybe it was just me, but it looked like whenever one spoke, the other stared through him, intensely listening to each word.

From the moment each won election to his respective post in 2010, every Republican and politics-watcher in the state knew the two would eventually become rivals for the governorship. Mr. Schuette had completed a 20-year political comeback by winning the AG post (which officially stands for attorney general and unofficially stands for aspiring governor). Mr. Calley, after a well-regarded four years in the House, became Governor Rick Snyder’s lieutenant governor at the age of 33, and there was little doubt what the future could hold for him in eight years once Mr. Snyder could not seek re-election.

Now, finally, the match-up is a reality with Mr. Calley declaring his candidacy for governor this week. Mr. Schuette declared in September. There are two other candidates, Sen. Patrick Colbeck and Dr. Jim Hines, but for now, all eyes are on the Calley-Schuette dynamic. Mr. Colbeck’s campaign is virtually broke and if Mr. Hines is going to break through, he will have to deliver on his vow to spend millions, something he has yet to do.

It didn’t take long for it to get testy. The Super PAC backing Mr. Schuette, which officially operates independently of the Schuette campaign but will surely amplify the messages from the campaign, immediately lit into Mr. Calley for rescinding his endorsement of President Donald Trump in 2016. Mr. Schuette had said many times he stood with the party and had not deserted it.

Mr. Calley, on WJR-AM, was asked this week about the Super PAC’s criticism, and he criticized Mr. Schuette for not waiting a day to get into the “gutter.” Mr. Schuette, on the same program the next day, said he had not made the attack, the Super PAC did, but then also echoed the Super PAC’s attack, that the truth hurts, that Mr. Calley did in fact rescind his endorsement of Mr. Trump and deserted the Republican Party.

Mr. Schuette and Mr. Snyder have disagreed on … well almost everything since they took office in 2011. That’s an exaggeration, of course; they have worked together on several topics, but the number of disagreements has been extraordinary, though the rancor has exploded with Mr. Schuette’s investigation into the Flint water crisis.

Mr. Calley went on offense when asked on WFDF-AM in Detroit about Mr. Schuette’s handling of the criminal investigation, saying the process had been politicized and asserting there is no way people would have been “charged with the things they are charged with if Bill Schuette was not running for governor.” Mr. Schuette’s office swiftly responded that the people of Flint deserve justice. It was an interesting moment that pulled Mr. Calley a bit off his opening day message of continuing Michigan's comeback but underlined the Snyder administration's anger at Mr. Schuette's handling of the Flint cases that include two top administration officials.

There’s been some tension over Mr. Schuette’s “Make Michigan Win Again” message, with Mr. Snyder saying Michigan already is winning, and Mr. Calley saying he was flattered to hear an opponent promise to do things he already has done.

One can already hear each side loading its cannons with reams of opposition research. Mr. Schuette has spent 31 years in public office, Mr. Calley 15.

Mr. Schuette has a relatively straightforward path to the Republican nomination. A Republican who combined the party’s economic and social conservative wings for years, he has moved to capture the Trump energy. Mr. Schuette was an enthusiastic supporter of Jeb Bush for president in 2016 and did not endorse Mr. Trump until after he had all but secured the GOP nomination, and once that happened he was a resolute supporter, though he sought to distance himself from some of Mr. Trump’s racially loaded remarks. By sticking with the president, Mr. Schuette could combine his money, name recognition and popularity with the Republican base into an unbeatable force.

Mr. Calley’s path is more complex.

One of the big questions is whether Mr. Colbeck, if he gets enough funding, can grab support from the tea party wing of the party and siphon support away from Mr. Schuette. He comes from the movement and its most ardent activists are backing him. And don’t forget, in 2010, the preferred tea party candidate for attorney general at the Michigan Republican Party convention was Mike Bishop, not Mr. Schuette, who got something of a hostile reception at a gathering its members held the night before the convention. In the past eight years, has Mr. Schuette convinced these folks he is one of them? We’ll see.

Even though Mr. Schuette has a financial edge now, Mr. Calley has money, too, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see a lot more on the way. Mr. Snyder’s charitable fund, Making Government Accountable, had a ritzy fundraiser in Detroit on Thursday at the cost of $100,000 a person, and while a spokesperson would say nothing for the record about the plans for those funds, it doesn’t take a wild imagination to see it going toward saying nice things about Mr. Calley on television (that’s all legal as long as the ad does not urge a vote for him).

And what of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Snyder ally? His PAC out of nowhere aired some ads criticizing Mr. Schuette in 2015 about opposition to the federal Clean Power Plan. Mr. Calley will need aid from outside groups like that because Mr. Schuette is going to have them, too.

Mr. Calley also needs Mr. Hines to actually spend some money and entice conservatives who might otherwise vote for Mr. Schuette to back him as an outsider. Mr. Calley has told those who work in and around the Capitol he thinks he can expand the Republican primary electorate as a result of his work on mental health issues, bringing voters who have appreciated his efforts into the primary.

If all those things happen, Mr. Calley could try to ride a similar path to what Mr. Snyder used in 2010 as three strong conservative candidates split the vote.

There are flaws to that theory. Mr. Snyder went unscathed with no attacks against him nearly the entire election. There is going to be a concerted attack against Mr. Calley. Democratic voters were almost lifeless that year and Mr. Snyder attracted some of them to crossover and vote for him in the primary. There’s no chance of that working for Mr. Calley this time around with Democrats energized to replace Mr. Snyder and stop Mr. Trump.

There will be plenty of talk about polls, as though everyone has forgotten the brutal performance of Michigan polls in recent years. And there is no doubt Mr. Schuette starts out with structural advantages, the number one being that attorney general is a much better perch to seek higher office than lieutenant governor. What is the old saying, the lieutenant governor inherits half of the governor’s friends and all of his enemies? It’s Mr. Schuette’s race to lose.

But for now, this is shaping up as a pass the popcorn dandy where ambition and grievances years in the making are about to get put on full display.

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Michigan Democrats Have A John Conyers Problem

Posted: November 30, 2017 1:39 PM

Michigan Democrats seem frozen on what to do about U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. in the wake of mounting allegations of sexual misconduct by women who worked for him.

The House minority leader, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California), became the most prominent Democrat nationally to do so today – four days after resisting the idea – and the question now is whether Michigan Democrats will follow suit. Within about 90 minutes of Ms. Pelosi’s comments, the first major Michigan Democrat also did so, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint).

The party has sought to tie Michigan Republicans to the GOP U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama, Roy Moore, whom multiple women have said made sexual advances on them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. It has hammered at President Donald Trump, whom at least a dozen women have accused of sexual misconduct.

But as the revelations of sexual misconduct by men sweep the nation, the one case so far in Michigan involves Mr. Conyers (D-Detroit), and it’s clear party leaders and elders are struggling with what to say and do publicly with the 27-term member of the U.S. House. The talk among some Democratic sources is a hope Mr. Conyers will resign, but based on the comments of his attorney this week, there is little indication that will happen, though how Ms. Pelosi’s move changes the calculus is yet to be seen.

Mr. Conyers’ attorney has said the congressman denies all allegations of misconduct, which include groping, and has said the statements from elected officials would not affect his decision on what he will do. And statements issued from Mr. Conyers’ office, attributed to Mr. Conyers, also deny the allegations.

But it’s not that simple. When an Associated Press reporter spoke to Mr. Conyers at his home the morning after BuzzFeed broke the story about former employees accusing him of misconduct, Mr. Conyers claimed to have no knowledge of any allegations against him nor that he had settled a lawsuit from one of the accusers. In fact, he had settled the lawsuit.

The problem for Democrats is that liberal and moderate women, disgusted and infuriated by Mr. Trump, have provided new energy for the party. The Women’s March in cities and towns across the nation after Mr. Trump’s inauguration and the Women’s Convention this fall in Detroit stand as two examples. Women also are filing to run as Democrats for political office in large numbers across the country, and that includes Michigan.

One of the mantras as men in positions of power have been outed as sexual harassers, assailants or both is that women accusing men of such misconduct have the right to be believed. So far, when it comes to Mr. Conyers, the response from most Michigan Democrats has been to say the allegations are extremely serious and they are glad the House Ethics Committee is investigating.

But the Democratic response to Mr. Conyers and U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) – to express concern about the allegations and request an investigation but not to strongly denounce them or ask for their resignation – suggests the same tribalism that has kept most Republicans firmly behind Mr. Trump despite a long list of women accusing him of sexual misconduct also is keeping them from publicly turning on two of their own.

Ms. Pelosi, who on Sunday resisted calls for Mr. Conyers resignation, calling him an “icon,” became the first major Democrat to demand Mr. Conyers resign.

Mr. Kildee became the first prominent Michigan Democrat to publicly denounce Mr. Conyers and tell him it is time to go. Will that finally open the floodgates some 10 days after the scandal first broke?

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Revisiting A Sexual Harassment Claim Against A Michigan Legislator

Posted: November 21, 2017 12:30 PM

Imagine if an allegation surfaced that a member of the Michigan Legislature sexually harassed and assaulted a staffer. In the post-Harvey Weinstein climate, heavy media coverage would ensue and calls for the legislator to resign would echo across the state.

In fact, that allegation did occur.

But it happened four and a half years ago, before the exposure of Mr. Weinstein’s predatory behavior and the #metoo campaign inspired people, mostly women, across the country to go public with their experiences of men sexually harassing and assaulting them in the hopes of holding them accountable for horrific and sometimes criminal behavior that for years went on with impunity.

When the allegations from Tramaine Cotton, a former staffer for then-Rep. Brian Banks, a Harper Woods Democrat, went public in 2013, there was coverage in the media but no large-scale outcry, certainly nothing like what has been happening in recent weeks. WJBK-TV, the Fox affiliate in Detroit, provided the most rigorous coverage of what happened, but overall the story never got traction.

Some conservative groups called for action against Mr. Banks. But Mr. Banks’ fellow Democrats said virtually nothing about the allegations, which surfaced in a lawsuit. Majority Republicans could have refused to seat him after he won re-election, but declined to do so. In the wake of the recent allegations against U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota), there has been a combination of calls for him to resign and support for a Senate Ethics Committee investigation.

With Mr. Banks, there was basically silence from his fellow legislators. Mr. Cotton was on his own, with little support.

One of the mantras these days is those who level allegations of sexual harassment have the right to be believed instead of dismissed and doubted.

No one came forward at the time and said, “I believe Tramaine.” Maybe that’s because Mr. Cotton is a man. Maybe it’s because WJBK reported Mr. Cotton at the time was a strip show promoter. Neither has anything to do with whether the allegation he made is true, but those facts could have affected the perception of the case.

Whatever the reason, Mr. Banks was able to outlast the allegations and the lawsuit without apologizing to Mr. Cotton or commenting publicly in a substantive way. He said he fired Mr. Cotton for driving on a suspended license, not, as Mr. Cotton claimed, because he refused to provide sexual favors and reported the harassment.

Eventually, in 2015, the House settled the lawsuit for $11,950. Mr. Banks did not admit to any wrongdoing as part of the settlement. The House also paid a law firm more than $85,000 to work on the case.

In 2016, as he ran for a third term, Mr. Banks faced an aggressive challenge for renomination in the Democratic primary. The Democratic establishment rallied to Mr. Banks. He received donations from unions, the trial lawyers PAC and soon to be House Minority Leader Sam Singh (D-East Lansing).

Mr. Banks won, but in early 2017, he resigned his seat as part of a plea deal on charges he had provided false information to obtain a loan years earlier. Now, however, he is running for the 2nd Senate District in 2018.

Prior to the wave of sexual harassment revelations across the country, most saw Mr. Banks as the favorite with his ability to appeal to voters and win elections despite a checkered past (he won his seat in 2012 despite having multiple felony convictions years earlier for writing bad checks).

Maybe that’s still the case. But one has to wonder in a post-Weinstein world whether Mr. Banks will be able to glide past the Cotton story one more time.

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Why Is Getting Election Results Still Such A Chore?

Posted: November 15, 2017 2:50 PM

Have you ever wondered why you hear a steady stream of vulgarities and fists pounding against desks on election nights across Michigan?

The answer is that in many Michigan counties, trying to find election results in real time on election night is like some weird cross-movie challenge asking people to perform a triple-lindy, locate all the Horcruxes and find the Holy Grail

It’s the year 2017. No, we don’t have the Hoverboards and flying cars as promised in “Back to the Future,” but the technological advancements are astounding to anyone who recalls the old days where the only way to get results in real time was to have someone on site at clerk offices. And yet, a not small number of Michigan clerk offices have websites that look unchanged since 1996 when Netscape Navigator was all the rage. And live election results? Um, no. Some have archived election results and some have none whatsoever.

Let’s start with a few examples of what counties are doing it right.

The gold standard is Oakland County. It’s been that way through two clerks from both political parties. Intuitive, updated constantly throughout the night, containing data on the number of precincts reporting and featuring slick maps showing which candidate won which precinct, the wealth of immediate data is terrific.

Next up is Macomb County with a system designed under former Clerk Carmella Sabaugh. It’s another easy to use site that is updated early and often on election night. It has everything data-wise that Oakland has except the precinct-level maps.

I also like the Election Magic website, which usually about a dozen counties, mostly in southwest Michigan, use. It has detailed data down to the precinct. The one hitch is some counties are slower than others to transmit their data so sometimes there’s a relatively long wait compared to Oakland and Macomb for results to appear.

Two counties, Ingham and Wayne, have started using a new system that has some nifty map features to select individual communities. For Wayne County in particular, that’s a major advancement from the old days of posting a scan of election results as a PDF every two to three hours. But it’s hard to find the number of precincts reporting with this technology, if you can find it at all.

Detroit just rolled out a nice new system that allows mapping of city council districts and includes the number of precincts reporting, though at times it was a little balky switching between different races.

Washtenaw County has a solid website that updates regularly and has detailed information. Genesee County is okay.

Beyond that group, it can get challenging. Many of the other counties will post their full results at the end of the night as opposed to updating results as they come in. Many others will post nothing at all. We ask clerks in the counties that tend to post nothing to fax or email the results to us. Sometimes they remember, sometimes they do not. And especially in the northeast Lower Peninsula, where there is a dearth of media outlets engaged in real-time reporting, that means waiting until the next day to call and get the results.

That triple-lindy Rodney Dangerfield's Thornton Melon performed in “Back to School” was tough. Getting election results from Gladwin County at 1 a.m. might be tougher.

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Your Latest Tally On Departing House Members

Posted: November 14, 2017 4:18 PM

The march of House members toward the Senate and its 26 open seats in 2018 continues with seemingly a House incumbent eligible to seek re-election deciding weekly to forgo a second or third House term to instead run for the Senate.

2018 should have been a relatively low turnover year for the House with just 23 members serving in their third and final term under the Michigan Constitution which sets a lifetime limit of three two-year terms in the House.

But it’s also the once-every-eight-years cycle where most of the Senate turns over, in this case 26 of the 38 seats now have an incumbent in his or her second and final four-year term allowed under term limits. So House members seeing themselves termed out of the Capitol in another two or four years instead are hoping for an eight-year Senate run.

The number of House members in their first or second term who could run for re-election who have instead decided to run for the Senate is now up to 15. The last time I checked on that number, in July, it was 10.

That means there will be at least 38 new members in the 110-member House in 2019 – and that number could rise if more bolt for the Senate or lose re-election. It also means, like the current term, there will be a relatively small group of people in their third and final term to lead the chamber – 25.

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Shades Of 2009 With U.P. House Seat Special Election?

Posted: November 8, 2017 3:19 PM

Democrats have a little extra bounce in their step today and with good reason after their candidate, Sara Cambensy of Marquette, romped to a 14.3 percentage point win over the Republican nominee in the special election to fill the 109th House District.

Given the longtime Democratic stranglehold on the seat – a Republican had not won it since 1950 and the Democratic candidate typically takes anywhere from 56 percent to 66 percent of the vote – the idea of Republicans actually winning the seat always seemed a reach.

However, President Donald Trump carried the district in 2016, the Upper Peninsula has been trending Republican over the last nine two-year election cycles and the district is the kind of mostly white enclave with relatively low numbers of people holding bachelor’s degrees that has swung heavily to the GOP in the last few years. Democrats have had a long drought of underperforming in elections for state offices. And a House Republican Caucus with a pronounced cash advantage decided to make a play for it.

That Ms. Cambensy kept the seat over a quality Republican opponent could give Democrats some hope that this is 2009 in reverse.

In 2009, Michigan Republicans were at their weakest point in twenty years. The Democrats had the governorship, control of the House by an astonishing 67-43 majority and were in decent shape in the Senate where the GOP held a 21-17 majority. Democrats had just knocked out Supreme Court Chief Justice Clifford Taylor, held both U.S. Senate seats and had a majority of the state’s U.S. House delegation.

Republicans had gone through three consecutive election cycles of having Democrats kick their teeth in as the national political mood turned heavily against President George W. Bush.

But with the opening of 2009, the political tide began to shift now that a Democrat was in the White House and voters were souring on Governor Jennifer Granholm. Republicans had the ideal opportunity to harness newfound energy in the party and regain confidence that, yes, the party can win competitive elections in the state.

Democratic state Sen. Mark Schauer had won election to the U.S. House in 2008. That set up a November 2009 special election to replace him in his competitive district covering Calhoun County and part of Jackson County.

Instead of a competitive contest, however, the election turned into a rout as now-Sen. Mike Nofs, a Republican former House member, demolished the Democrat, then-Rep. Martin Griffin.

Mr. Nofs’ win heralded a coming Republican wave. It signaled a reinvigorated Michigan Republican voter base and a cooling off of the Democratic enthusiasm that swamped the state in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles. That dynamic held sway for the next year and hit a crescendo with the Republican tsunami of 2010 that saw the party win a nearly 20-point margin for the governorship, retake control of the U.S. House delegation, gain four seats in the Senate, 20 seats in the House and a seat on the Supreme Court.

Much like Ms. Cambensy’s win occurring in tandem with Democratic victories in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races, eight years ago when Mr. Nofs won, Republicans also won those offices in those states.

Is Ms. Cambensy’s win a similar foreshadowing? We’ll know in a year. But in the last quarter-century, the party that does not control the White House traditionally seizes momentum and energy in the mid-term elections in Michigan.

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'Michigander’ Set To Win New Edge Against 'Michiganian'

Posted: November 1, 2017 5:17 PM

It is one of the great debates of our time, what to call those of us who live in this peculiarly shaped state of two peninsulas, Michigan.

Michigander vs. Michiganian.

Actually it’s not much of a debate at all in the sense that there are only a few stubborn pockets of resistance clinging to Michiganian, most prominently The Detroit News. But those Michiganders who call themselves Michiganians for some reason are fierce in their misguided convictions.

I’ve obviously already revealed my opinion on the topic. I hate, hate, hate the term Michiganian. When The Detroit News awards its “Michiganian of the Year” award, I half want to ask the winner if they plan to take the award somewhere to have the “ian” erased, buffed, whatever and replaced with “der.”

Michigander has the support of the majority of the state’s residents, based on public opinion polls. Governor Rick Snyder uses it. Virtually every news publication, including this one, uses Michigander. President Abraham Lincoln popularized the term as an insult to then-U.S. Sen. Lewis Cass, but it no longer is seen as pejorative (editor's note: this story corrected to indicate Mr. Lincoln popularized the term; it existed before his use of it). Most of Michigan’s current elected officials use it, though I do see Attorney General Bill Schuette using Michiganian.

The few defenders of “Michiganian” – and they are a sad lot – note that some recent governors used Michiganian. And they emphasize the negative origin of “Michigander.”

But those defenders of Michiganian, ill-advised as they are, do have one major argument in their favor: the Michigan Compiled Laws.

Yes, the official statutes of Michigan have many references to “Michiganians” and exactly zero references to “Michiganders.”

That may finally be about to change. A relatively obscure bill, SB 562 , received final approval in the Legislature today and will soon go to Mr. Snyder for his signature.

It amends the Michigan Historical Markers Act. It would allow the Department of Natural Resources to enter into an agreement to help administer the historical marker program with various goals.

Under current law, one of those goals is to “encourage the public to preserve historic resources indicative of Michigan history and to develop a sense of identity as Michiganians.”

Under the bill, the goal would change to “encourage the public to preserve historic resources and to develop a sense of identity as Michiganders.”

As far as I can discern, this would be the first toehold Michigander has gained in the Michigan Compiled Laws.

There are many more references of “Michiganian” that would have to be replaced in Michigan statutes before the cringe-inducing term can finally be consigned to the ashbin of history. Even if that improbably happened, the defenders of “Michiganian” still have one bulwark – the News. Unless and until my friends at the newspaper decide to amend their style, the Michiganders who call themselves Michiganians will always at least have that in their favor.

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Marleau Silent Amid Freep Report Questioning Campaign Expenses

Posted: October 31, 2017 3:18 PM

If Sen. James Marleau did nothing wrong with funds in his campaign committee, he’s adopted a counterproductive approach to communicating it.

On Sunday, the Detroit Free Press, in a story by Staff Writer Paul Egan, reported that Mr. Marleau (R-Lake Orion) has used campaign contributions to pay credit card bills totaling more than $114,000 since 2011 with little to no detail about the reason for the purchases.

Mr. Marleau was the main example in the story of how candidates for office – and term-limited incumbents like Mr. Marleau – can obscure the purchases they make and their purpose by simply reporting the expense is to pay a credit card bill. The Free Press reported that $65,000 of the $114,000 Mr. Marleau’s Senate committee paid to cover credit card bills was not itemized.

As a term-limited incumbent, Mr. Marleau can still raise money and spend it toward incidental expenses of holding office. That could mean using it to cover attending conferences, putting on events in his district, travel and so forth. But like any other candidate committee, it cannot be used for personal expenses. The Bureau of Elections requires itemizing purchases with credit cards when they exceed $50.

The Free Press story highlighted clothing purchased from Kohl’s, gasoline bought on the same day he obtained a Senate reimbursement for a trip to Lansing, cable and Internet charges and a purchase from the Home Shopping Network.

And what was Mr. Marleau’s response to this story, which raises serious questions?


The Free Press reported he declined repeated requests to discuss the issue. And Tuesday, when Mr. Marleau appeared on the Senate floor, he also refused to comment to reporters there.

Now, there could well be legitimate explanations for these purchases. Maybe the clothing at Kohl’s was for a bunch of Polo-style shirts he planned to have his logo placed on for his staff to use (he seemed to say as much in response to questions from the Bureau of Elections). Maybe he goofed on the gasoline and it was a mix-up. Maybe the purchase on the Home Shopping Network was for some type of supply that would be handy for an elected official holding an event, like a microphone. I’m spitballing here. The Comcast bill, which appears to be a recurring monthly expense, is harder to figure.

Or maybe there is no legitimate explanation and Mr. Marleau is using the funds donors have given to him, ostensibly for the purpose to aid him with the expenses of serving in office or to help the Senate Republican Caucus, as a slush fund. If that’s the case, that would be illegal and get him into a pile of legal trouble.

Mr. Marleau is his own campaign treasurer. And hey, this is an example of why candidates are not supposed to serve as their own treasurers because they have no one to blame when something gets fouled up.

If Mr. Marleau has nothing to hide, he could speak publicly about what happened and explain what he spent the money on and why.

But the longer Mr. Marleau hunkers down and says nothing, the more scrutiny he will attract.

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Okay, Can We Focus On Actual U.S. Senate Candidates Now?

Posted: October 24, 2017 3:07 PM

President Ulysses S. Grant is buried in Grant’s tomb. Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead. And Kid Rock is not running for U.S. Senate.

Now that we’ve dispensed with three consecutive statements of the obvious, the last of which went from 99.999999 percent clear to 100 percent following the comments of the musician to Howard Stern today, perhaps this will allow the actual U.S. Senate race and the actual current and potential U.S. Senate candidates to gain some focus.

I could rant about what a joke the whole Kid Rock thing was, how it started with the musings of a Republican activist who thought it would be neat if Kid Rock ran but had no insight into his interest. And I could vent about how Kid Rock stoked the nonsense so it mushroomed into a savvy fountain of free publicity for a musician whose album sales have faded in the last decade and was conveniently about to launch a tour, release an album and open a restaurant at the new Little Caesars Arena.

And I could shake my head about how the clickbait underbelly in the news media leapt at the story, running articles about every tweet and about polls, at least one of which appears to have been fabricated, pitting the musician against U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing). Or the remarkable reporting resources devoted to covering his concerts to keep watch in case he said something political. And then there were the silly attempts by candidates to draft off the Kid Rock Free Publicity Machine with videos and fundraising pitches. Disclosure alert: We at Gongwer wrote a couple stories about the Kid Rock tease, though I think each was framed in an appropriately skeptical way.

Well, I guess I just did go on a rant. But I’ll keep it to two paragraphs. Because, to paraphrase Hickory High School Coach Norman Dale of “Hoosiers” fame, I am going to write about who the candidates are and not who they are not.

Ms. Stabenow is the Democratic candidate, obviously. And so far, there are two Republicans in the race, business executive and Iraq War veteran John James and former Supreme Court Justice Robert Young Jr. Business executive Sandy Pensler is seriously considering a bid and given the relatively low fundraising totals Mr. James and Mr. Young showed in the third quarter, Mr. Pensler could make major waves with his personal wealth if he gets into the contest.

The big unknown is U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), who’s sitting on more than $1 million in his campaign war chest and as of the Michigan Republican Party’s Mackinac Leadership Conference at the end of September was said to be a week or two away from formally declaring. Yet a month has passed and Mr. Upton is not yet in the race. He’s clearly still seriously looking at it – he was recently at an Oakland County Republican Party function, and that’s an event hundreds of miles from his 6th U.S. House District.

None of the four current or potential Republican candidates in the race fits the “Steve Bannon Lane” – the type of candidate that makes the older guard Republicans cringe. But of the four, Mr. Upton has the most obvious establishment bona fides of the bunch. He didn’t endorse President Donald Trump. He’s spent the last 30-plus years in Congress. He comes from the “Let’s get something done” school, not the “Let’s find an issue to use as a cudgel” school.

And in this current climate, where Mr. Trump remains popular among Republican voters and Mr. Bannon is lurking, Mr. Upton has a tricky path to winning the Republican nomination. It basically relies upon dominating in west Michigan and using resources to prevent either Mr. James or Mr. Young from rolling up a big enough win in metropolitan Detroit to eat into his west Michigan advantage. Mr. James has a resume straight out of central casting. And Mr. Young’s message and persona is, for now, best channeling the anger of the Republican base at U.S. Senate Republicans.

The winner then gets to take on Ms. Stabenow, who has crushed the last two Republican challengers but now has to contend with a damaged Democratic brand in parts of the state where she historically has run well and some antipathy in the Democratic base more concerned about her lack of support for a single-payer health insurance system than her record on other issues during 40 years in elected politics. Nonetheless, Ms. Stabenow has proven a strong campaigner for years and is sitting on $7 million cash on hand.

There’s a reason Republican Lena Epstein jumped at the chance to run for the 11th U.S. House District seat once U.S. Rep. David Trott (R-Birmingham) announced he wasn’t running again and ditched her U.S. Senate campaign, and it wasn’t because Kid Rock never took her up on her offer to campaign together across the state.

The actual U.S. Senate campaign marches onward. Kid Rock is not a candidate and won’t have to file a campaign finance report, but the antics of the last 10 months produced an in-kind contribution for the Romeo native as big as any other we will see this cycle.

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Redistricting Fight Is On The Way

Posted: October 10, 2017 3:36 PM

There have been two major signs in the last week that Michigan voters will get the chance to vote on a ballot proposal next year overhauling how maps for state legislative and congressional districts are drawn.

One, the group heading up the effort, Voters Not Politicians, said as of October 6 it had collected 200,000 signatures from registered voters. They need at least 315,654 to qualify, and they probably would like a 100,000-signature cushion to deal with inevitable duplicates and invalid signatures, so they are nearly halfway there.

That’s significant because signatures become stale after 180 days, so the group is nearly halfway there using 28 percent of the time available before the first signatures collected August 17 expire. If they keep going at the same rate, they should have their signatures, including a cushion, by early December. It might be tricky to keep up that pace as the weather gets worse, but it would allow them to wrap up before the winter hits, everyone dons their parkas and doesn’t want to be troubled by petition gatherers in the cold and the ink in the pens freezes.

There are plenty of high school and college football games between now and then, along with fall festivals, a fairly busy election day in November and the Detroit Thanksgiving Day parade, all ripe for signature-gathering.

Two, the Michigan Republican Party sent an email to its activists and members last week urging them not to sign the petition, labeling it a Democratic plot. The worry in that email was real and reminded me of the email Michigan Democrats sent to their activists and members about a week before the November 2016 election virtually pleading with them to return their absentee ballots, a message that proved accurate in its fears when Donald Trump carried the state by 10,000 votes and thousands of absentee ballots requested in Democratic areas were never returned.

When Voters Not Politicians launched its efforts to put a commission consisting of voters in charge of redistricting, there was a big question as to whether it could pull together the organization necessary to get its proposal on the ballot. Typically, all-volunteer petition campaigns go poorly, and it takes paid petition-gatherers to get the job done. We’ll find out October 25 when the group files its next campaign finance report if it has used any paid collectors, but the group is clearly out there collecting (update: the group's spokesperson, Walt Sorg, contacted me to say they are using an all-volunteer group with no paid collectors).

This issue has gotten some traction. I’ve been struck at how many of my friends and acquaintances, whom I would generally consider active voters who pay attention to politics but don’t live and breathe it by any means, are fired up to participate on this proposal.

Michigan Republicans are worried. The current structure, where the Legislature passes and the governor signs a bill altering the maps every 10 years, with the process thrown to the Supreme Court if the Legislature and governor cannot agree on a plan, favors them because they control the entire government and will likely still control at least some of it during the 2021 reapportionment.

The 2011 plan, which was drawn by Republican operatives, passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Rick Snyder, favors the GOP. It’s not the insurmountable wall Democrats say it is – Democrats did win the state House and a majority of the state’s U.S. House delegation under the GOP-drawn 2001 plan – but it does make it tougher. There are definitely a number of seats out there that could be made more competitive with a few tweaks here and there, but Democrats also have struggled to win the legislative seats that already are competitive, underlining there’s more to winning and losing than the map.

There’s still a long ways to go for the Voters Not Politicians group. They have to get the signatures they need. They have to clear a review of those signatures from the Bureau of Elections. And then there almost surely will be a court battle from the proposal’s foes challenging some aspect of it.

Then, if the proposal survives a legal challenge to make the ballot, supporters will have to overcome a likely torrent of money from Republican donors paying for advertising criticizing it. They will have to hope their relatively simple message of letting the people draw the maps instead of politicians becomes the dominant theme, not the complex, multilayered structure the proposal would devise to draw the maps.

There will be plenty of time to dive into those future fights. For now, Voters Not Politicians appears to be succeeding beyond what anyone, including themselves, expected so far.

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When The Pro-Gun Movement Won Michigan

Posted: October 3, 2017 10:12 PM

It was the year 2000, and a nascent push for gun control in Michigan had some momentum with the public.

Pro-gun activists and lawmakers had nearly achieved a long-sought goal – to change Michigan’s concealed weapon law so that any Michigander, provided they had no convictions of serious crimes or mental illness, would have an automatic right to a permit allowing them to carry a concealed pistol. In the past, it was up to county gun boards to decide whether someone could get a CPL, or as it was known then, a CCW (for carrying a concealed weapon).

Bills had passed the House and the Senate in 1999, though only after a searing debate because the action occurred almost immediately in the wake of the shooting massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. That massacre had nothing to do with carrying a concealed pistol, but it ignited a major debate about gun laws and with the Michigan Legislature pressing ahead with a loosening of gun laws, it was gasoline on the fire.

What the bills did do was allow persons with CPLs to carry in schools, houses of religious worship, day care centers and other sensitive locations. That was already allowed under the law at the time, but there were far fewer CPL-holders than what would occur if Michigan became a “shall issue” state. More gasoline on the fire.

Then, the bills stalled, virtually unheard of for legislation that passed both the House and Senate. It had become too politically toxic and some key players were talking about putting the bill up for a referendum if the Legislature passed it and then-Governor John Engler signed it.

The November 2000 election came and went, and then pro-gun supporters pounced in the lame-duck session. The bill was substantially rewritten, but the core of it remained, to effectively grant an automatic right to a CPL to those who applied. The big change was the establishment of “gun-free zones” where CPL-holders could not carry their firearms – schools, the houses of religious worship, etc.

And in the first time the Legislature deployed this tactic, funding was added to the bill in a bid to inoculate it from referendum, manipulating using language in the Michigan Constitution that barred any bill making appropriations to state institutions from being subject to voter referendum. The purpose of that language, as the debates during the Constitutional Convention of 1961 and 1962 showed, was to prevent zealots from paralyzing state government by putting the major budget bills up for referendum, but a staffer or attorney saw an opening in the language and it worked.

Nonetheless, activists organized a committee to pursue a referendum. They collected valid signatures from 232,582 registered voters, about 80,000 more than needed to make the ballot. It was a remarkable display of organization essentially from scratch.

But they lost at the Supreme Court, which sided with Republicans on whether the bill could be eligible for referendum in light of the $1 million appropriation in the bill to the Department of State Police. It wasn’t, a 4-3 majority of the court declared, effectively ending the right to referendum.

Gun control supporters still had an opportunity to go to the ballot. They could have pursued a voter-initiated act, a new law entirely to replace the law Mr. Engler would eventually sign. And they vowed to do so.

The idea bandied about at the time was to return the state to a “may issue” state, restoring discretion to gun boards on who would get permits, and leave in place the provisions of the new law creating the gun-free zones and training requirements to get a permit. One flaw, gun control supporters noted at the time, with a referendum is that had one been possible and voters repealed the law, it would have meant repealing the gun-free zones too.

But it never happened. At that point in time, the gun control groups had some key players on their side against the new CPL law – law enforcement, educators and the owners of major entertainment venues. They had an organization that showed it could collect signatures.

Why they never decided to go for it, there could have been many reasons. Perhaps they polled the idea and it was tenuous. Getting yes votes to pass a proposal is much harder than no votes to defeat the law the Legislature passed. Perhaps they knew going up against the National Rifle Association and other gun groups was going to be difficult (in the fall of 2000, I followed a Democratic candidate for the state House as he walked door-to-door in his Downriver district, and I swear every house had an NRA sticker in the front window).

Whatever the case, the momentum they built quickly evaporated. There are still gun control advocates in the Legislature and activists who call for gun control legislation following the appallingly regular shooting massacres in this country, yet they have been totally outflanked politically in Michigan.

The NRA endorsement remains coveted among Republicans. There is no comparable endorsement for the other side. When some House Democrats introduced some pro-gun control legislation late in 2016, it quickly became the subject of internal caucus angst because Republicans started tying it to House Democratic candidates in northern Michigan, where a candidate has to be pro-gun to win.

In the wake of the Columbine massacre in 1999, there were Capitol news conferences with Democratic lawmakers demanding a halt to the CPL legislation. A variety of groups spoke out against those bills. The issue virtually dominated state government and politics.

In the wake of Sunday’s slaughter in Las Vegas, there has been no similar organized outcry, save for some tweets and a press release focused on legislation in Congress, not Michigan laws.

That’s basically a continuation of what’s happened on this issue in this state for the last 16 years.

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The Elephant In The Room During Auto Insurance Event

Posted: September 29, 2017 4:53 PM

House Speaker Tom Leonard and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan are counting on their bipartisan partnership to deliver the major changes to how auto insurance handles coverage for catastrophic injuries they have sought for a long time.

If they succeed, and at this early stage it looks like an uphill fight, Mr. Leonard and the majority of House Republicans who agree with him rightfully will celebrate a long-sought victory.

Even if a moment during Tuesday’s news conference announcing the legislation had to make them wince.

While it could end up just a footnote, Mr. Duggan spent a good chunk of his time during the news conference explaining it was the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that makes the finances work for hospitals if HB 5013 becomes law.

The Affordable Care Act. The ACA. Obamacare.

The federal health care legislation reviled by Republicans, though they have been unable to muster the votes in the U.S. Senate to repeal it and replace it with a new law.

That law made possible the expansion of Medicaid, known in Michigan as Healthy Michigan, and that has meant hospitals receiving payment for provided care that largely went uncompensated in the past. Mr. Leonard voted against Medicaid expansion in 2013.

Mr. Duggan noted that 600,000 more people have health insurance under Healthy Michigan who lacked it in 2012. Hundreds of millions more money is going to hospitals, he said.

“That’s a good thing,” he said. “The hospitals deserve that. They were providing the care.”

Now, the hospitals – which oppose the auto insurance legislation – should show their appreciation for their improved financial situation by supporting the overhaul to auto insurance, Mr. Duggan said.

What if Congress and President Donald Trump do succeed in repealing the Affordable Care Act? The plans proposed so far would almost surely mean the end of the Healthy Michigan program. Would that not then put hospitals in a precarious financial position if they must bill much less than they do now for catastrophic traffic crash injuries, Mr. Duggan was asked.

Mr. Duggan said officials and stakeholders would have to address that matter if the time comes, but he expressed confidence the Affordable Care Act isn’t going anywhere.

The involvement of the Detroit mayor, a Democrat and former hospital CEO, is essential to this plan having any chance of passing, so House Republicans must make some accommodations for that reality. And if they had not grasped that reality prior to this week, they surely did upon hearing Mr. Duggan extol the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare in the Speaker’s Library at the Capitol in front of them.

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Two Candidates, Two Different Ways Of Announcing For Governor

Posted: September 19, 2017 5:11 PM

Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette and Democratic former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer are the early frontrunners for their respective parties’ nominations for governor, but they announced their candidacies in two very different ways.

Ms. Whitmer’s announcement was more in line with how most candidates announce today – tightly scripted and not via an in-person event, at least on the first day. She sent an email to her supporters, as well as the news media, declaring she was entering the race and posted announcements to her social media accounts as well. The day after that announcement, Ms. Whitmer conducted one-on-one interviews with several news organizations, including this one.

Mr. Schuette’s was more old school, mixed with some new school. He held a well-organized, well-attended rally so he could announce his bid to longtime supporters in his hometown of Midland. The venue was full of Americana – U.S. flags everywhere at the Midland County Fair Grounds.

After the announcement, Mr. Schuette took about five minutes of questions from reporters, and it was during this session that one of the, maybe the, most memorable lines of the evening occurred when Mr. Schuette compared himself to Obi-Wan Kenobi from “Star Wars,” referencing Princess Leia’s entreaty to Mr. Kenobi, “I’m our only hope.” Whether he was referring to being the only hope for Michigan Republicans or for the state at-large, I’m not sure.

The new school part came from having staff live-tweet his announcement speech, and the speech was broadcast live via Facebook as well.

The upside and downside of both options was on display.

Ms. Whitmer got tight messaging on the first day. She was (A) in the race, (B) labeling herself a fighter and (C) stating what she would fight for – workers, children, students, public health and public safety. But without any in-person events, she didn’t get the chance to show a wider audience more about herself and who she is. Most people running for office say they support those priorities.

Mr. Schuette got the great visuals, coverage of his call for an income tax cut and his personality came through. But the Kenobi reference competed for attention with his message of running to be the state’s “jobs governor” fighting for more jobs and bigger paychecks. Such is the risk of entertaining questions from reporters, though I asked the question that led to the Kenobi reference, and the question was not, “If you were a ‘Star Wars’ character, which one would you be?” I asked him if he considered 2018 to be a change election in Michigan and if so, how does he argue he is the change candidate having been in elected office for most of the past three decades (and Mr. Schuette did answer that question after the Kenobi quip).

Both candidates have a long way to go to prove good on their frontrunner status. The candidate fields for each party probably are not fully set yet.

Mr. Schuette has to deal with a challenge from the right from Sen. Patrick Colbeck and an outsider who looks inclined to self-finance in Dr. Jim Hines. Lt. Governor Brian Calley could still enter the race.

Ms. Whitmer is confronting an unexpectedly intriguing challenge from Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, who seems to be the subject of a new national media profile every week and is generating excitement among the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, and a potentially well-financed candidacy from business executive Shri Thanedar.

But if these two candidates do end up facing each other following next August’s primary for the chance to be Michigan’s 49th governor, they will have started that path in very different ways.

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11th’s Appeal Grows For Dems, But It’s Still GOP’s To Lose

Posted: September 12, 2017 2:28 PM

Michigan’s 11th U.S. House District is not a toss-up seat, even with U.S. Rep. David Trott’s decision not to seek re-election in 2018.

Yes, it has gone from a longshot opportunity for Democrats if they had to try to unseat Mr. Trott (R-Birmingham) to one very much on the radar screen where they could, with the right circumstances, win it.

Various national political analysts and reporters, whom I hold in high regard, have gotten a bit carried away on what Mr. Trott’s departure means. They’re calling the 11th District a toss-up.

I define toss-up, as I assume most do, as neither party having an advantage and it would not take much for the seat to go either way. Remember when the old 8th U.S. House District flipped between Democrat Bob Carr to Republican Dick Chrysler to Democrat Debbie Stabenow to Republican Mike Rogers in the span of just five election cycles?

That’s a toss-up seat. Or when U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak retired in 2010 after a long run where his personal popularity led to nine victories in a politically competitive seat, triggering a razor-close race to succeed him? That’s a toss-up.

But the 11th District was drawn by Republicans in the Legislature to favor Republican candidates, plain and simple. When it comes to seats in the Michigan Legislature, I’ve downplayed the significance of GOP control of the map drawing process, but the design of the U.S. House districts in metropolitan Detroit, with the requirement that they be even in population, was a flagrant move by Republicans to help their cause, and the 11th stands as the most obvious example.

The district basically stitches together every Republican-leaning community in Oakland County south of M-59 along with the one corner of Wayne County that tilts GOP, snaking from Canton Township north to White Lake Township, east to Auburn Hills and then south to Clawson. The Democratic turf in this seat consists of Canton and Auburn Hills. Everything else is Republican country.

What intrigues Democrats, and it should, is the district has the highest percentage of any district in Michigan of those 25 and older with bachelor’s degrees at 46 percent. The median household income is $77,183, also high.

Politics is starting to break more along educational and income lines, with higher-income voters with bachelor’s degrees starting to leave their longtime home in the Republican Party in response to President Donald Trump. Democrats are hoping to make inroads in these types of seats.

Still, Mr. Trump did carry the district in 2016, though he ran below the Republican base. And it’s still a district that’s 80 percent white, a demographic that favors Mr. Trump.

And look at the potential candidate fields. The Democrats have two candidates in the race making their first run for political office and could have a third rookie. Potentially, the Democrats could add a seasoned candidate in state Rep. Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills) if he decides to run.

When we went over the list of potential Republican candidates yesterday in our office, we came up with 20. 20! Now, some of those ruled themselves out right away, and there’s no way that many will run, but the Republicans have plenty of potential options. The reason there are more Republican options than Democratic ones is this is Republican territory.

Of the nine state House districts that heavily overlap with the 11th, seven are held by Republicans. And of the three state Senate districts that significantly overlap with the 11th, all three are in Republican hands. This also filters down to the municipal level.

Yes, Democrats can win this seat. They no longer have to worry about Mr. Trott pouring millions of his own fortune into the seat to defend himself, and the usual advantages of incumbency are gone for the GOP. The president’s party traditionally loses seats in the mid-term elections, and this is a district where Mr. Trump is more likely to be a negative than a positive, though it’s still too early to say for sure.

But this is still a district anchored in Troy, Novi, Birmingham, Livonia, the Plymouths, the Northvilles and reliably conservative exurbs like Milford, White Lake and Waterford. Hey, guess what those communities historically have had in common in their politics? Hint: It’s not electing Democrats.

Democrats’ chances of winning this seat improved Monday with Mr. Trott’s departure. But calling this seat a toss-up now? It’s way too early to draw that conclusion.

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Dancing In September? Waiting For Calley, Schuette

Posted: September 5, 2017 5:04 PM

In less than three weeks, perhaps as many as 2,000 Michigan Republican activists will gather on Mackinac Island for the biennial fire up the troops meeting the fall before the election year, and with next year’s election featuring an open seat governor’s race, it figures to be quite the scene.

One would think.

Now that September has arrived, the question is when will Lt. Governor Brian Calley and Attorney General Bill Schuette make official what has been expected for more than six years: they are running for governor in 2018? If they both announce prior to the conference and join Sen. Patrick Colbeck and Dr. Jim Hines, the two Republicans already in the race, the island figures to be jammed with activists ferried in by the candidates in hopes of getting a little bit of a jolt from the straw poll that will take place.

Remember eight years ago when then-candidate and now-Governor Rick Snyder brought along an army of young people – including former Michigan State University Quarterback Jeff Smoker – wearing neon green “Rick Michigan” T-shirts to vote for him in the straw poll? It worked. Mr. Snyder, an unknown at that point, won the straw poll and got some publicity. And at that point, all five candidates who would appear on the 2010 ballot were in the race.

The straw poll, which Gongwer News Service co-sponsored in 2013, doesn’t have the greatest success in predicting what will happen, however. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul won it in 2013 and 2015 when activists were asked to select their presidential choice for 2016, and Mr. Paul quickly flamed out in the 2016 primaries and caucuses.

If they do not declare prior to the conference, it’s going to take some of the juice out of the event. Sure, the two of them will make the rounds and work the activists, but there’s a big difference between being a candidate in waiting and an actual candidate. In 2009, then-Attorney General Mike Cox used the meeting to offer a large policy platform in the days leading up to it.

Sure, Mr. Calley and Mr. Schuette could keep doing what they have been doing, raising money and padding their campaign war chests, funds that can be transferred to a gubernatorial campaign committee if and when they form one. But it is hard to figure what advantage would exist in passing on the opportunity to start making their case, face-to-face, with 2,000 of the most loyal, active Republicans in the state as to why they should carry the party’s flag for governor next year.

Staying on the sidelines would allow them to continue going about their current jobs without everything they do being explicitly viewed in the context of 2018, though it has felt for some time like they already are judged in that manner anyway.

The party’s biennial meeting has long been seen as its launching pad for the upcoming election. We’ll find out soon if two long-presumed candidates for governor still think that is so.

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Unexpected National Buzz On A Gubernatorial Candidate

Posted: August 29, 2017 5:10 PM

Pop quiz: Which candidate or potential candidate for governor in 2018 has garnered lengthy profiles in Politico and The Guardian?

Is it:

(A) Lt. Governor Brian Calley, a Republican

(B) Sen. Patrick Colbeck, a Republican

(C) Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a Democrat

(D) Dr. Jim Hines, a Republican

(E) Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican

(F) Business executive Shri Thanedar, a Democrat

(G) Former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat

If you said “C,” congratulations, yes, it’s Mr. El-Sayed, who until he launched his unexpected candidacy this spring was a total unknown in statewide political circles. The combination of Mr. El-Sayed bidding to be the first Muslim to win a governorship in the United States, his ability to work a crowd and his youth (he’s 32) appears to be driving the national interest.

That profile, combined with President Donald Trump’s actions to curb immigration with a focus on Muslim nations and local events like the Kalkaska council member who reposted a message on Facebook advocating the killing of all Muslims, adds further context to the national interest in Mr. El-Sayed’s candidacy.

As Democrats analyze the race for their party’s gubernatorial nomination, the comments from seasoned operatives, on background, about it usually involve the following sentiments:

  • Mr. El-Sayed has tapped a nerve among the party’s activists;
  • Mr. El-Sayed, with nothing to lose as the insurgent candidate, has staked out ground to the left of Ms. Whitmer, the frontrunner, a helpful place to be in a Democratic primary;
  • Mr. El-Sayed has raised impressive money for someone who was totally unknown; and
  • Mr. El-Sayed is not going to win.

Ms. Whitmer still enjoys some major advantages in the race. Unions are rallying around her. Not only has she raised the most money from individuals (Mr. Thanedar has technically raised the most, but it’s from his own funds), but it’s also the most efficient in assuring she gets the full $990,000 in matching funds from the state. Mr. El-Sayed still has a ways to go to ensure he can do the same. Ms. Whitmer’s also spending her money at a slower rate than Mr. El-Sayed.

Ms. Whitmer has EMILY’s List and a network of supporters across the state built up from 14 years as a prominent figure in Michigan politics.

It is for these reasons and others that Ms. Whitmer remains the favorite. There are major questions about whether voters will elect someone named Abdul El-Sayed governor at a time when there’s no shortage of Islamophobia.

The candidacy of Ismael “Ish” Ahmed is exhibit A in that cause for concern. He ran for State Board of Education as a Democrat in 2016 and finished fourth among the four major party candidates, 214,000 votes behind the third-place finisher, Democrat John Austin. In 2002, he ran for University of Michigan regent and again finished fourth among the four major party candidates, 190,000 votes behind the third-place finisher, also a Democrat.

Most voters have no idea who the education board candidates are so they tend to vote their base party instinct. But something happened when they got to Mr. Ahmed on the ballot and he did substantially worse than the other Democrat.

Mr. El-Sayed has confronted the topic head on and taken an approach of trying to meet as many voters face to face as he can to win them over. The national articles suggest he’s had some success in that regard.

What seems to be driving the interest in Mr. El-Sayed is what could be viewed either as fearlessness or pandering.

He’s called for a state public health insurance system, either a single-payer system or a public option to compete with private health plans. He’s put out a policy platform that includes increasing Michigan’s minimum wage to $15 an hour and making Michigan a “sanctuary state” where local law enforcement does not enforce federal immigration laws. In a recent Gongwer News Service story, he said he would initiate settlement negotiations with plaintiffs in the hundreds of lawsuits against the state stemming from the Flint water crisis.

On each of these points, Ms. Whitmer has taken a more cautious approach. She held off for months before committing to the $15 that service employees are championing (this story corrected to reflect Ms. Whitmer's website was recently updated to add the support for a $15 an hour minimum wage). She has decried the immigration policies coming out of Washington but has not called for making Michigan a “sanctuary state.” She has hammered how the state treated Flint and promised to help its residents, but her campaign did not directly answer a question about whether the state would initiate settlement talks or continue vigorously contesting those lawsuits.

The 2016 election cycle did plenty to upend traditional assumptions about elections in this state. Mr. El-Sayed appears to have taken note.

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Welcome To The Jungle … Primary

Posted: August 22, 2017 5:29 PM

For the last 25 years, at least, there’s been a dominant theme in the composition of the Michigan Legislature.

Democratic members have become more liberal. Republicans have become more conservative.

In this era of ever-increasing partisan polarization, the formula for winning election to the Legislature now largely consists of running to the right in a primary for Republicans and running to the left in a primary for the Democrats. Granted, this does not always hold. Name recognition, money and candidate effort can upend the formula.

Those who work in and around the Capitol, who represent varied interests, increasingly are chafing at this dynamic as making it difficult to build the coalitions necessary to pass legislation.

Backers of changing how legislative districts are drawn have said one benefit would be to force candidates to campaign toward the political middle because there would be more districts drawn with a more even split in political composition. That’s highly unlikely because the existing primary system would remain in place, benefitting those who best target their party’s core constituencies.

Look at the legislators who currently hold the currently competitive districts in the House. They are largely down-the-line Democrats or Republicans who vote the party-line. The one clear exception is Rep. Scott Dianda (D-Calumet), who frequently breaks with his caucus. Sen. Tory Rocca (R-Sterling Heights) also is in that mix.

Now, whether this is good or bad is up for debate. The candidates are running as representatives of their parties. Why should parties nominate people who don’t share a core set of views? And one could understand the laments of liberals and conservatives about what makes centrists so superior to them.

Under the current system, candidates can win their party’s nomination with a small plurality of the vote in the August primary and then in districts that lean so strongly to one party they are assured of victory in the November general election. A tiny plurality of the district in effect decides the next representative.

In the 2016 House elections, 22 primaries were won by candidates taking less than 50 percent of the vote (12 took 40-49 percent, eight took 30-39 percent and two took 20-29 percent). That was in a year where more than a third of the House had open seats with no incumbent running. Extrapolated over three cycles, when the entire House turns over under term limits, that means conservatively at least half of the 110 House members are arriving by winning less than a majority in their primary.

There is a remedy to this issue, used in other states, that would blow up Michigan’s long-time system. It would mean the certain end of straight-ticket voting in general elections. And its critics say it has its own flaws.

The jungle primary.

I’m not calling for its installation, but as a political junkie, it’s fun to think about its implications. And for reformers who dislike the results of the current system, it would address at least some of their complaints.

In the jungle primary, everyone would run together, Democrats, Republicans (and at least for now, Libertarians) in the August primary. Voters would no longer have to choose which party’s ballot to vote (and getting rid of that dynamic would greatly reduce the number of spoiled ballots). The top two candidates, regardless of party, would advance to the November general election.

In just 2016, there were 28 House seats where the top two vote-getters in primaries were of the same party.

What if Brian Banks and Pam Sossi faced off in the November general election for the 1st House District? Mr. Banks narrowly beat Ms. Sossi in the Democratic primary and then didn’t have to lift a finger to win the general election in the solidly Democratic district.

But what would have happened in the far higher turnout general election with those two going head to head? Surely the two would have had to appeal beyond the core Democratic base of the seat.

On the Republican side, what if now-Rep. Michele Hoitenga (R-Manton) and Morris Langworthy, both Republicans, faced off in the general election in the 102nd House District? They were the top-two vote-getters in the primary, regardless of party, in this safe GOP seat. In fact, all four Republicans took more votes than the lone Democrat. Yet the Democrat won a ticket to the general election and the larger electorate missed a chance to compare Ms. Hoitenga and Mr. Langworthy side-by-side.

The unpredictability would be wild. Some hard-fought general election seats, such as the 20th, 23rd, 50th, 57th, 66th and 106th House Districts would have seen two members of the same party advance to the general election, shutting the opposite party out of competition in the fall.

But, theoretically, a jungle primary would force those advancing to the general election, presuming they want to win, to build coalitions beyond their party’s core constituency.

That’s the kind of dynamic many of those working issues at the Capitol would like to see.

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On Unemployment Fraud Debacle, Snyder Has Said Little

Posted: August 14, 2017 3:23 PM

The state government that Governor Rick Snyder leads wrongly determined about 37,000 Michigan residents committed fraud to obtain unemployment benefits and seized almost $21 million from them in principal, penalties and interest that is now says it is repaying.

It is a disaster whose consequences have yet to be fully quantified.

In the more than two years since the scandal surfaced publicly through lawsuits filed by those wrongly found by the Unemployment Insurance Agency to have committed fraud and then forced to pay in many cases tens of thousands to the state through wage garnishments and seized income tax refunds, Mr. Snyder has said little.

For more than a year and a half, the administration fought the allegations aggressively in court and before the Legislature.

Last July, 15 months into the public phase of the crisis, Mr. Snyder began to take action. He installed Wanda Stokes as the new director of the Talent Investment Agency and while a Snyder spokesperson said at the time the problems at the UIA had nothing to do with the change, that spokesperson also said Ms. Stokes was in charge of improving the agency to prevent the issues from recurring.

This year, the state settled the federal lawsuit involving the UIA with a series of detailed steps the state had to take. However, it has continued to fight, so far successfully, other cases seeking damages for plaintiffs wrongly accused. The UIA continues to fight in court a finding that it wrongly claimed a woman owes the state the relative pittance of $158 in unemployment benefits it says she should not have received (the Court of Appeals says she had the right to that $158).

On the Flint water crisis, Mr. Snyder, several months into it, offered an emotional apology for the state’s role and lamented he had not responded the concerns about water quality as they arose.

But on the unemployment fraud scandal, Mr. Snyder has largely avoided the topic in his public remarks. He did not address it in his State of the State speech this year. He has left the public pronouncements on actions the state is undertaking to Ms. Stokes.

When Mr. Snyder signed into law last year policies initiated by the Legislature in response to the scandal, Mr. Snyder’s office, in the prepared statement it released on his signing of 32 bills, led with his signing of a bill allowing advanced practice registered nurses to provide expanded medical services and provided a statement from the governor on that legislation. The statement dismissively said the unemployment legislation, PA 522 of 2016, “codifies reforms the UIA has already put in place.”

When the Detroit Free Press’ Paul Egan asked Mr. Snyder whether he thought those wrongly accused deserved compensation from the state at a press briefing with reporters after his budget presentation in February, the governor, sounding agitated, retorted that Mr. Egan had asked him a question involving pending litigation and he would not discuss pending litigation.

Late last year, in the only other public comments I could find from Mr. Snyder on the unemployment fraud story, Mr. Snyder told the Free Press the problems were “not a good thing.”

“The system didn’t work well. We’ve worked hard to go back and review those cases and hopefully correct them,” and “I think we’ve made a lot of progress in addressing those issues,” he told the Free Press.

Much like the Flint water crisis, the still unfolding unemployment benefits scandal has become a constant story with a drip-drip-drip quality that is drowning out other initiatives the governor wants to emphasize.

Unlike the Flint water crisis, Mr. Snyder has yet to publicly get involved.

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A Few Quick Takes On Tuesday’s Campaign Fundraising Reports

Posted: August 2, 2017 2:34 PM

Tuesday’s submission of campaign finance reports by candidates for state office and those groups seeking to place proposals on the 2018 ballot contained no shortage of surprises and interesting developments.

SHRI WHO? SHRI $3.3 MILLION, THAT’S WHO: Very few voters have heard of Shri Thanedar, the business executive from Ann Arbor running for governor as a Democrat. That appears likely to change in a big way with his decision to put $3.3 million of his own fortune into his campaign. Whether his millions can persuade Democratic voters to make him their party’s standard bearer is another matter entirely.

Former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer posted a strong $1.5 million raised for the period, from January 1 through July 20, though Mr. Thanedar grabbed the headlines with his surprise.

Nonetheless, Mr. Thanedar’s move helps Ms. Whitmer in a couple ways.

It means under Michigan law she can now accept public financing from the state for the primary without the attendant $2 million cap on spending (the cap is lifted once a candidate spends at least $340,000 of his or her own money). Ms. Whitmer might have had to forgo public financing to avoid that limit given her strong fundraising so far. Now that’s not a concern and, based on her fundraising so far, she’s in a good position to get the full $990,000 match from the state.

Additionally, Mr. Thanedar’s potential emergence complicates matters for the man who was emerging as a viable threat to Ms. Whitmer for the Democratic nomination, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, whose game plan is to turn this race into a progressives (him) versus the Democratic establishment (Ms. Whitmer) contest. If it becomes two men playing the outsider card against a woman saddled with some establishment baggage, that helps Ms. Whitmer.

That said, Mr. Thanedar’s money is a concern for Ms. Whitmer. Ask those who worked for Republicans who went up against Governor Rick Snyder in the 2010 primary how his resources affected the race. There was a concern that if they attacked Mr. Snyder as he steadily rose in polls, he would respond with overwhelming force they could not match. If Mr. Thanedar catches fire, that’s going to put Ms. Whitmer in a position of perhaps having to spend all her money just to get out of the primary.

SCHUETTE LAPPING GOP ‘FIELD’: Attorney General Bill Schuette raised almost double what his next closest potential competitor for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Lt. Governor Brian Calley, pulled in.

Neither Mr. Calley nor Mr. Schuette is a candidate yet, but both are raising money like candidates for their committees. Mr. Schuette has a $1.55 million to $1 million cash on hand lead over Mr. Calley with Sen. Patrick Colbeck and Dr. Jim Hines – the announced candidates – well behind.

PART-TIME LEGISLATURE COMMITTEE PROBLEMS: The filing of statements from Clean Michigan, the committee backing the ballot proposal to make the Legislature part time, and MIPAC, the PAC affiliated with Mr. Calley that publicized the run-up to his announcement of the proposal, did not go well.

First, there were errors in the statements, prompting both committees to file amended statements (Clean Michigan filed two) within hours of submitting the original statements. Second, the statements revealed that Clean Michigan had spent almost every cent it received prior to getting a last-second cash infusion (it still had a burn rate of 86 percent). Third, it only added the awkward dynamic of a group vowing to “clean up” Michigan government almost entirely financed by a group – the Fund for Michigan Jobs – refusing to disclose its donors. Fourth, there was the revelation that the head of a petition-gathering firm Clean Michigan hired, Signature Masters, was once convicted in Virginia of petition fraud.

Mr. Calley, who is spearheading the ballot drive, insists signature-gathering is going well, even after the committee had to start over with new language. If he’s right, and his proposal makes the ballot, he’ll have the last laugh. If he’s wrong, and his effort collapses in disaster, he’s going to sound like Frank Drebin in “The Naked Gun” ordering bystanders to leave the scene of a fireworks store explosion with the immortal line, “Please disperse, nothing to see here!”

(Editor's Note: An earlier version of this blog contained incorrect information regarding funds Lt. Governor Brian Calley and Attorney General Bill Schuette are raising toward those committees and how such funds would be counted toward limits on contributions to gubernatorial committees should they eventually run for governor. Any donations the two men received after the November 2014 elections to their lieutenant governor and attorney general committees would count toward the $6,800 individual and $68,000 PAC limits on donations toward their gubernatorial committees). Back to top

Spin Media Right Round, Baby

Posted: August 1, 2017 4:12 PM

The response of the Republican field for U.S. Senate to the potential candidacy of Kid Rock has been something of a Rorschach test.

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young Jr., as far as I can tell, has had nothing to say about a possible run by the musician, whose most recent public proclamation was a tweet of himself aboard a private plane giving a double middle finger salute to the camera with the message, “Wheels up motherfuckers.” Business executive and Iraq war veteran John James has personally said nothing publicly.

Lena Epstein, however, has sought to draft off the media coverage of Mr. “Rock’s” musings about whether he would run. She said his considering of a run brings attention to the race and has lightheartedly suggested the two could campaign in the same places to discuss the issues.

Last week, Ms. Epstein took her efforts to spin Mr. “Rock’s” comments he is considering running to a new level.

Her campaign issued a statement with the headline, “Lena Epstein Leads James and Young in New Poll of Michigan GOP Primary Voters.” The subheadline was, “Kid Rock would lead the field if he actually ran.”

The poll to which Ms. Epstein was referring was conducted by Trafalgar Group, which found Robert Ritchie, aka Mr. “Rock,” at 50 percent of the vote from traditional Republican primary voters, Ms. Epstein at 9 percent, Mr. James at 7 percent and Mr. Young at 6 percent.

In the prepared statement, Ms. Epstein said she was “pleased to be leading the polls amongst the announced candidates in the first public primary poll of this election cycle.”

Claiming a lead based on the 22 percent of Republican voters with a preferred candidate other than Mr. “Rock” where her “lead” is less than the margin of error is pretty thin gruel. But Ms. Epstein clearly is going to look for any publicity edge she can find. We just have to remember to carefully scrutinize the subheadlines in her releases.

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Detroit 1967: A Legislator Opens Fire, Another Arrested, Romney Tested

Posted: July 20, 2017 12:23 PM

The 50th anniversary of the unrest that convulsed Detroit and several other Michigan cities in July 1967 is days away.

I decided to go through the Gongwer News Service archives to see how the state reacted in the immediate aftermath of an event called a riot by some and a rebellion by others as racial tensions in Detroit, and other cities, but especially Detroit, exploded. A shout-out here to Lauren Gibbons of MLive, whose story about what happened in other Michigan cities, particularly the incident involving then-Rep. Arthur Law, prompted me to open up the box in our archives marked “1967” back when we published our report on legal-sized paper and quotations were printed in italics.

A news blackout of the unrest, which reports have said lasted 24 hours from the time the violence began in the early morning hours of July 23, meant that the first coverage of the incident did not occur in Gongwer until July 25, presumably after the newspapers hit the streets in Lansing that morning.

Governor George Romney declared states of emergency on July 25 for Flint and Grand Rapids as the unrest spread. Detroit already was under one. Mr. Romney also put those cities under what was described as “virtual martial law,” with the order also applied to East Grand Rapids and Wyoming.

One of the points of contention during the day was whether Mr. Romney had the situation under control.

President Lyndon Johnson had dispatched federal troops to Detroit and said he did so only after receiving “proof of (Mr. Romney’s) inability to restore order.” Mr. Romney told reporters he “requested federal troops in the morning and that was my consistent position all the way through.”

Mr. Johnson’s comments drew criticism from state Rep. Philip Pittenger (R-Lansing) – yes, there apparently was an elected Republican in now-totally Democratic Lansing in 1967 – that he had put the problems of Detroit “into the business of politics.”

The Department of State Police moved to protect the Capitol as “riot jitters” unnerved Lansing. Nine state troopers armed with automatic weapons and shotguns took up posts in the Capitol after 5 p.m. Among what Gongwer reported were “riot rumors” that swept the city during the day was a threat the Capitol would be burned down.

But it was an incident in Pontiac, not Detroit, that most directly enveloped the Legislature in the unrest. Pontiac also saw violence.

Rep. Arthur Law (D-Pontiac), a 61-year-old grocer who spent 18 years as a Pontiac city commissioner or mayor before winning election to the House in 1958, shot and killed a 17-year-old boy after a firebomb hit his small grocery and liquor store in his hometown.

Once the fire was extinguished, Gongwer reported at the time, Mr. Long and his 27-year-old son, Charles, waited in the darkened store. About 4 a.m., a window was shattered and Mr. Long said then, whether to Gongwer or multiple reporters was unclear, it looked like eight to 10 men were attempting to enter the store. He walked around the end of the meat counter and opened fire with a shotgun. The 17-year-old was struck and killed.

Mr. Law said his store had been broken into so many times his insurance had been cancelled, and he recalled a violent hold-up at the store in 1951 as well as a man firing shots at his son two years earlier (his son shot and killed the man).

“I shot several times – how many I don’t know,” he said. “It’s hard to describe the fear. I’ve been afraid for years for my wife, my son. You can’t let fear guide your life. I was desperate enough and I wasn’t going to be pushed any further. It was a hell of a thing, a terrible thing. I don’t know what I’m going to do now.”

Mr. Law continued, “It’s not pleasant to do what I did. But the fact is I did it. I did it because I felt it was necessary. It didn’t make me happier but if I had to do it over again, I presumably would do the same thing.”

Mr. Law’s actions drew a furious response from Sen. Basil Brown (D-Detroit), who represented the area in Detroit where the unrest began. He sent Mr. Law a telegram.

“My observation of the situation in my district has prompted me to ask you this question: What was contained in your place of business and what property interests were you protecting when you decided to execute an unarmed 17-year-old boy who, according to news reports, had illegally and unlawfully broken a window at your place of business. Your answer may help me to determine the extent of the vicious hatred I have seen demonstrated in the last two and one-half days in my senatorial district.”

Mr. Law was easily re-elected in 1968.

The other legislator directly caught up in the unrest was Rep. James Del Rio (D-Detroit), a 43-year-old former mortgage banker, real estate broker and insurance executive elected to the House just two years earlier in a special election. Police arrested Mr. Del Rio during the unrest, claiming he attempted to interfere in the arrest of a suspected looter.

House Speaker Robert Waldron (R-Grosse Pointe) said he was “reviewing” whether a special House committee chaired by Mr. Del Rio to investigate Detroit’s Total Action Against Poverty Program would continue.

Mr. Waldron later set up a special committee to look at police-community relations, especially how adequately local police, the State Police and the National Guard were recruiting African-Americans to join.

And as the Legislature prepared for a special session in October, there was conflict over how to respond to the unrest. Sen. Charles Kuhn (R-Birmingham) called for “anti-riot legislation” to be the main focus while Democrats urged adding open housing legislation to the agenda.

On September 20, 1967, Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh appeared before a Senate committee and said long-time indifference by state officials helped spawn the unrest in Detroit. Mr. Cavanagh came under heavy questioning from senators about he and the police chief responded to the violence.

Mr. Romney eventually embraced calls for an open housing law to ban discrimination on the basis of race and other factors but encountered resistance from legislators urging anti-crime legislation instead. Sen. L. Harvey Lodge (R-Waterford Township), a former county prosecuting attorney, warned that failure to pass anti-crime legislation could lead to “vigilante groups ready to march at a moment’s notice in defense of their homes and to protect them against arson, destruction and violence.”

Mr. Kuhn said Mr. Romney’s open housing legislation “rewards the rioters.”

One of the first housing bills passed the Senate on October 19. It was designed to aid families displaced by what supporters called “urban renewal” projects.

Sen. Coleman Young (D-Detroit), who would win the mayor’s office six years later, said, “Most people equate urban renewal with Negro removal.” But Mr. Young also had some interesting comments about a last-minute amendment needed to win the votes for passage. Language was removed banning relocation that would perpetuate or promoted segregated housing.

“I’d have traded off a few more sections if I’d have been pressed,” he said. “It really didn’t mean anything to begin with.”

The fair housing act, a separate bill, failed to clear the Legislature during that 1967 special session. But in 1968, the Fair Housing Act – co-sponsored by some familiar names like Mr. Young, then-state Sen. Sander Levin, Mr. Brown and then-Majority Leader Emil Lockwood – was signed into law. It passed the Senate on the same day the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

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Will Snyder Pull An Engler?

Posted: July 11, 2017 1:26 PM

A governor who agrees to sign a key bill that’s not especially important to him, as long as the House grants final passage to a bill he really wants. The Legislature fails to pass the bill the governor wants, so in a retaliatory move, the governor vetoes the other bill prioritized by others.

It happened in 2002. Could it happen again this week?

In 2002, in the waning days of then-Governor John Engler’s time in office, a push to create a regional transit authority for southeast Michigan finally cleared the Legislature. This was an issue Mr. Engler did not see as a high priority, but the Detroit Regional Chamber had sought the legislation for years to address the Detroit region’s Balkanized and troubled public transit systems.

What Mr. Engler did very much want as his term closed was legislation authorizing universities to sponsor more charter schools. The Legislature adjourned for the year, however, unable to get a charter school expansion bill to Mr. Engler’s desk.

There had been rumblings, unconfirmed, that Mr. Engler had tied his support for the public transit bill to charter schools. Then, on January 1, as Governor Jennifer Granholm took the oath of office to become the new governor, news broke that Mr. Engler on December 30 had vetoed the public transit legislation.

Mr. Engler, in his veto message, said southeast Michigan had to deal with both transportation and education, and the public transit legislation dealt with just one component.

That brings us to today and the staring contest underway between Governor Rick Snyder and House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt).

The Legislature has sent Mr. Snyder a bill that would overhaul teacher pensions. Mr. Leonard has said this was his top priority. Mr. Snyder had long seen changes to the teacher retirement system as unneeded but agreed to a revised bill in part to get budget talks moving and in part, sources have said, but no one has publicly confirmed, to secure House passage of a tax incentive package the business community and Mr. Snyder support.

After the agreement on the budget and teacher pensions, however, Mr. Leonard suddenly pulled the tax incentive legislation from an expected vote about three weeks ago, saying the House GOP was concerned about a side deal Mr. Snyder might have made with Democrats.

The House meets Wednesday, and the question is what happens if it does not pass the tax incentives legislation.

Mr. Snyder has until 4:55 p.m. Thursday to sign or veto the teacher pension legislation.

If the House did repudiate the governor on tax incentives, Mr. Snyder would have a couple options if he wanted to retaliate. He could veto the teacher pension bill, though that would probably cause him big problems with Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive), who strongly supported the tax incentive legislation, which long ago passed the Senate, and is a big proponent of the teacher pension bill.

The other option would be to break out his line-item veto pen on the budget bills the Legislature formally sent to him Monday and start striking spending items of importance to House Republicans.

Maybe all this intrigue disappears Wednesday and the House passes the tax incentives legislation. But if it does not, the stage will be set for one of the biggest signing/veto decisions of the governor’s six and a half years in office.

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House Members Feel The Churn, Eye The Senate

Posted: July 6, 2017 4:10 PM

There are about 13 months to go until the August 2018 statewide primary and increasingly House members are declaring they will forgo re-election in the House to instead run for the Senate.

So far, by our count, 10 members of the House have said – or all but said – they will run for the Senate even though they have at least one term of eligibility remaining in the House. Another five have said they are considering doing so.

2018 is the election cycle that comes along once every eight years when term limits brooms most Senate incumbents. When term limits first took effect on the Senate in 2002, it brought 29 new senators into office. The 2018 elections will bring 26 new senators into office based on the number who cannot run again because of term limits.

A House member only gets, at best, one chance to run for an open Senate seat while serving in the House with the advantage incumbency affords in a Senate battle: the ability to raise more money.

That’s why so many are opting against a good bet to win re-election to a final two-year term in the House for the chance at potentially eight years in the Senate.

When the term opened, a relatively small number – 24 – seats in the House were set to feature no incumbent in 2018 because of term limits. Now that number is up to at least 34 and rising quickly (we won’t count the two members to be elected in special elections to fill vacancies this year).

This is one of the realities of Michigan’s strictest in the nation term limits law – three two-year terms in the House, two four-year terms in the Senate and a lifetime limit. There’s a constant churn.

Politically, it’s worth noting that the early departures so far have helped the Democrats, who face an unfriendly terrain in 2018 when it comes to which seats open up because of term limits.

Of the 24 seats scheduled to open up, 10 have the potential to be competitive in the general election, five of which are now held by a Democrat and five now held by a Republican. That doesn’t sound bad, but Democrats need to gain a whopping nine seats to win House control.

That’s a huge hill, and it’s made more difficult when having to defend some seats that current political dynamics suggest will be very difficult to hold like Rep. Scott Dianda’s seat in the western Upper Peninsula and Rep. Henry Yanez’s seat in Macomb County, for example.

But the likely Senate bid of Rep. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) and definite Senate bid of Rep. John Bizon (R-Battle Creek) open up two new prime pick up opportunities for the Democrats. Democrats held the seat of Rep. Brett Roberts (R-Eaton Township) as recently as the 2009-10 term, and while that isn’t as competitive a seat as Mr. Barrett’s or Mr. Bizon’s, it could be an opportunity with the right Democratic candidate.

The political pros keeping tabs on House races no doubt will be sweating it out in the coming months, hoping that the incumbents they worked so hard to elect to competitive House districts don’t drift their eyes southward across the Capitol toward the Senate.

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Term Limits: Many Lamentations (Again), No Action (Again)

Posted: June 27, 2017 3:54 PM

Bigfoot has reappeared in Michigan politics.

Ah yes, term limits reform, often rumored, but never actually seen, is once again the subject of sound and fury.

The spring saw the latest flurry of denunciation for the 1992 amendment to Michigan’s Constitution, accelerated with Lt. Governor Brian Calley announcing a ballot proposal to make the Legislature part time but leaving term limits intact. No other state in the nation would have as restricted a legislature as Michigan under the twin combination if Mr. Calley’s plan makes the ballot and voters pass it.

Earlier, there was Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive), who called its limit of three two-year terms in the House and two four-year terms in the Senate a failed experiment.

Mr. Meekhof’s comments came a couple weeks after some candid remarks from Rep. Edward Canfield (R-Sebewaing), heading up the monstrously large budget for the Department of Health and Human Services as chair of the House Appropriations Health and Human Services Subcommittee for the first time this year.

Mr. Canfield told Gongwer News Service in an interview that putting rookie lawmakers in charge of budgets of that scope was a major error of term limits. He said what surprised him most about the process was that a legislator would be trusted with a $25 billion budget (that’s the size of the DHHS budget) when they had not done it before.

And once again, for the umpteenth time, some legislators have raised the idea of letting legislators serve a total of 14 years, in the House, the Senate or some combination of the two. Past rumblings on that concept have gone nowhere.

Over the years, defenders of term limits have said the sky has not fallen since their implementation. But as Chris Christoff, the former Lansing bureau chief of the Detroit Free Press, once said on Michigan Public Television’s “Off the Record,” “it’s getting pretty low.”

Indeed, I could point to a litany of errors, outright fiascos and negative trends attributable to the inexperience wrought by term limits, but to name a few off the top of my head:

  • In 2000, the House – with 64 first-term lawmakers – rushed through a multiyear repeal of the state’s then main business tax, the Single Business Tax, one day after then-Governor John Engler proposed it, moving it through committee and the House floor the same day with no real scrutiny. Days later, the Canadian government raised objections to provisions in the bill that would tax foreign companies, and the Senate – still populated by those yet to be affected by term limits – had to amend the bill to address that concern.
  • The 2007 and 2009 budget shutdowns: These had many causes, perhaps none more so than the toxic interpersonal relationships between then-Governor Jennifer Granholm, then-House Speaker Andy Dillon and then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, but underlying it all was a lack of experience and familiarity among the three because of term limits.
  • A succession of green House speakers. Some succeeded despite their inexperience and some did not. House speakers under term limits take the helm of the House, its large staff and policy apparatus, with either two or four years in office, and it’s too much to ask of anyone to fill all the roles the job requires with so little experience.
  • Constant churn: How many times does a House district, with about 90,000 residents, have to turn over every six years to a new representative before it becomes difficult to find someone up to the job? Judging by the seemingly ever growing police blotter featuring current or former legislators, some districts already have reached that point. There are House seats that have turned over as many as six times in the past 10 elections, sometimes because of term limits, other times because the House member gave up re-election to run for a Senate seat that became open, and with term limits, a House member usually only gets one shot at an open Senate seat.

There is some good term limits have brought.

Sometimes a legislator in the pre-term limits era would stay as a committee or subcommittee chair for so long that they built up too large a power base or became too cozy with the department with which they ostensibly were supposed to serve as a check.

Overall, there’s a greater sense of humility. Hugh McDiarmid Sr., the legendary former Free Press columnist, frequently railed about the massive egos in the Senate during those pre-term limit days. Not that the current crowd thinks poorly of itself, but while the old guard couldn’t be bothered to applaud for the school groups that passed through the House and Senate chambers visiting on session days, the post-term limits crowd reacts enthusiastically when the kids come through.

Nonetheless, after almost 18 years in a post-term limits environment, the evidence on balance points to Michigan’s strictest in the nation term limits law – a lifetime maximum of six years in the House and eight years in the Senate – as damaging to the legislative branch.

And yet for all the hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth about the negative consequences of Michigan’s version of term limits, none of the advocates of change has ever actually done anything. Not one vote in the Legislature. No attempt to start a petition drive for a new constitutional amendment.

That’s because voters have never shown any inclination to repeal or amend term limits. And whenever the talk does seem to gather any steam, the party in the minority at the time of the discussion rightfully looks upon the discussion with suspicion as an attempt by the majority party to allow its popular incumbents to continue running and maintain its majority.

Is the possibility of a part-time Legislature finally what pushes a real effort to amend or repeal term limits to form? The last I checked, Bigfoot remains elusive.

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Here’s One Look At A Legislator’s Day

Posted: June 9, 2017 3:03 PM

The debate on the merits of Michigan moving to a part-time legislature already is off and running with Lt. Governor Brian Calley pursuing a proposal to put the change on the 2018 ballot.

Two days after Mr. Calley announced his proposal, Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker (R-Lawton) posted a video to show what she said is a typical day for her as a legislator. Ms. Schuitmaker said in an interview the timing was coincidental and indeed the video appeared to have been recorded in March.

But it’s a useful, if lacking in the politics that also is a part of a typical legislator’s day, look at how a legislator spends their time at the Capitol – and what might be lost if the Legislature becomes part time and limited to 90 consecutive session days (which when subtracting weekends and holidays would mean more like 60-65 session days if the Legislature met five days a week).

Ms. Schuitmaker’s video starts at 5:30 a.m. at her Lawton home in Van Buren County, her house still mostly dark. She shows her dog, Baxter, wagging his tail, looking amusingly baffled.

Next we see Ms. Schuitmaker in a vehicle, sitting in the backseat, with Sen. Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage), who’s driving, and Rep. David Maturen (R-Vicksburg) as part of an apparent VanKal legislator carpool to the Capitol. We don’t learn much here, other than that Mr. Maturen seemingly wanted viewers to know he had not called “shotgun” beforehand and let Ms. Schuitmaker have her pick of what seat she wanted. It’s 6:45 a.m. and still dark, so this was probably recorded no later than March.

The group arrives at the Capitol at 8:25 a.m., and Ms. Schuitmaker heads to her first meeting of the day, the Senate Appropriations Community Colleges Subcommittee.

Next up is Senate session at 10 a.m. Ms. Schuitmaker is the president pro tempore of the Senate, which means she presides over the session when Mr. Calley is not present. And on this day, Mr. Calley is not in the Senate chamber, so Ms. Schuitmaker records herself on the Senate rostrum.

“I preside when the lieutenant governor is not here, so today the lieutenant governor’s not here, so I’m presiding so it was great stuff,” she says.

On the surface, this looks like some epic shade Ms. Schuitmaker was throwing at Mr. Calley, but again, the video was recorded two to three months ago, long before he proposed his part-time legislature plan, so it wasn’t. Alas.

At 11:35 a.m., the Senate session concluded, Ms. Schuitmaker is off to a Michigan Works! office to present a tribute to a business owner from her district. Next she returns to her office in the Binsfeld Building, says hi to her staff, then handles some paperwork and answers some constituent mail.

The afternoon consists of several meetings – 1:15 p.m. with First Lady Sue Snyder to discuss how to stop campus sexual assault, a top issue for Ms. Snyder and Ms. Schuitmaker; 2:15 p.m. with senior advocates; and 3 p.m. with those representing a university (Ms. Schuitmaker is the chair of the Senate Appropriations Higher Education Subcommittee).

At 4 p.m., Ms. Schuitmaker is walking to the Capitol for a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) to discuss legislative priorities.

At 4:30 p.m., she’s recording a public service announcement for March is Reading Month.

At 6:10 p.m., she’s at a Michigan Works! conference. A half-hour later, she’s on her way back to the district to meet with local physicians. Finally, at 9:10 p.m., Ms. Schuitmaker is home. It’s dark out.

“We’ll start the whole thing over tomorrow,” she says.

Now this omits some typical parts of a legislator’s day. If the Senate Republicans held a private caucus meeting that day, that’s not part of the video, nor could it be under caucus rules that what happens in caucus stays in caucus.

And if there were any political fundraisers Ms. Schuitmaker attended – common on session days first thing in the morning, during lunch and in the evening – those aren’t in the video either.

Nonetheless, if you want some basics on a legislator’s day, the video is helpful.

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Part-Time Proposal, With Term Limits, Would Make Michigan Unique

Posted: May 31, 2017 10:08 AM

MACKINAC ISLAND – If the part-time Legislature proposal Lt. Governor Brian Calley is spearheading qualifies for the ballot in 2018 and passes, it, combined with Michigan’s strictest in the nation term limits, would restrict the legislative branch like no other state in the Union.

Some of this depends on what type of part-time Legislature Michigan would have, and more on that later, but according to tracking from the National Conference of State Legislatures, the only states that have comparable term limits to Michigan and run bona fide part-time legislatures are Maine, South Dakota and Montana.

There are a couple of other states – Colorado and Arizona – that have similar term limits but have what the NCSL terms “hybrid” legislatures where legislators say they typically spend two-thirds of a full-time job on their legislative work. But that’s not what Mr. Calley is suggesting his proposal would mean. He’s saying legislators would only take three months out of the year for legislative work.

No other state limits their House members to six years (though several limit them to eight and many, like Michigan, limit their senators to eight as well).

But no state in the Union currently has a part-time legislature, a six/eight year limit on representatives/senators AND a lifetime limit on the number of terms served like Michigan. Other states say legislators cannot serve more than a number of consecutive terms, so a legislator would take a term or two off and then could return.

Mr. Calley’s proposal has touched off some real anger in the Capitol community, among those already fuming that term limits has left the Legislature bereft of expertise (except for a handful of senators) and especially considering that Mr. Calley made a tidy $79,000-plus annually during his four years in the House and is now running a de facto campaign for governor. Mr. Calley’s part-time legislature proposal -- conveniently several insiders are saying privately and publicly -- would substantially weaken the legislative branch at a time when Mr. Calley wants to head the executive branch.

The expertise in the Legislature currently comes from the staff, and if Mr. Calley really wants to save “tens of millions” as he said Tuesday from moving to a part-time Legislature, the only way to do so would be to slash the staff. Cutting legislative pay in half as his proposal would achieve would save only $4.6 million.

So would a part-time Legislature mean the end of the House and Senate Fiscal agencies, whose staff is instrumental in putting legislators’ ideas into actual budget language and walking legislators – and the public – through the complexities of the budget? Rep. Edward Canfield (R-Sebewaing), who is chair of the House Appropriations Health and Human Services Subcommittee, said, candidly, recently that the Health and Human Services budget is so big and complex (and it is) that a legislator with only two or four years of experience is ill-suited to managing it.

That’s where the rub of this unique combination of a strict part-time legislature and term limits law exists. Legislators heavily rely on staff expertise to perform their work. What happens when that staff gets obliterated?

And while the main public focus on the Legislature is its votes on the budget and policy, much of the actual legislative work surrounds constituent services. Michigan is a higher service state, and when residents run into a problem with state government – Medicaid, human services, state roads, state parks, environmental concerns, unemployment benefits and more – often their first call is to their representative or senator. That legislator’s staff then contacts the relevant department and tries to get answers.

In fact, it was calls to legislators from constituents seeking help that played a major role in bringing to light the scandal in the Unemployment Insurance Agency where a computer system falsely determined more than 22,000 had committed fraud.

House members already have just one or two staffers, tops. Senators have more, anywhere from three to five. Do legislative offices even carry staff when the newly part-time Legislature is not in session? Who will take those calls? And who does the staff call when the legislator personally needs to get involved during non-session times, because Mr. Calley says they will only be working three months of the year?

What Mr. Calley has proposed, when combined with the state’s term limits law, would leave Michigan with the weakest legislative branch among the 50 states. He is betting, and virtually everyone agrees, that Michigan voters will take the same approach as they did in 1992 with term limits, and stick it to those dastardly politicians.

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GOP Legislature Testing Snyder Devotion To Early Budget

Posted: May 23, 2017 3:58 PM

Governor Rick Snyder has taken great pride that the six budgets completed during his governorship saw the Legislature complete action on them no later than early June, avoiding the tortuous budget battles of the previous decade which twice went beyond the October 1 start of the fiscal years.

Mr. Snyder has had the advantage of having a Legislature controlled by his party the whole time, which has made a big difference compared to Democratic former Governor Jennifer Granholm always having at least one house of the Legislature run by the opposition party. Nonetheless, his first budget was the earliest completion of a budget in 30 years and final budget talks have been remarkably free of difficulty.

That is now in doubt as the governor seeks to put the finishing touches on the seventh budget of his tenure.

House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) have made ending pension benefits for newly hired teachers a major priority. They have cited the $29.1 billion in unfunded liability in the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System as the major reason to put all new hires into 401(k) plans instead.

The problem, Mr. Snyder says, is that $29.1 billion is entirely a result of older pension plans already closed to new hires. Those new hires now go into something called the hybrid plan that has some pension benefit and some 401(k) benefit. It is fully funded, and Mr. Snyder says it is working as designed. Pension critics say once the next stock market contraction arrives, it will likely cease to be fully funded and add to the unfunded liability problem.

Mr. Snyder opposes moving new hires to 401(k) plans. He has for some time. Last year, the Senate tried a quick-strike move to pass a plan moving new hires to 401(k) plans and it swiftly died once Mr. Snyder conveyed his disdain.

Mr. Leonard and Mr. Meekhof have called off talks to finalize the 2017-18 fiscal year budget with Mr. Snyder until they see more progress on ending pension benefits for public school employees.

This is shaping up as a classic game of chicken. The two legislative leaders are going to see just how important it is for Mr. Snyder to go “seven for seven” on budgets wrapped up in early June (Mr. Snyder annually boasts he is four for four, five for five, six for six, etc.).

There’s some precedent for them to test the governor. In 2013, Mr. Snyder decided not to tie completion of the budget to Medicaid expansion and signed the budget without a final deal on Medicaid, a move that avoided dragging out the budget but also cost him leverage on Medicaid expansion and prevented passage of it for months. And in 2015, Mr. Snyder again agreed to sign the budget despite the Legislature having not passed a transportation funding increase plan. That would eventually occur in the fall, but it fell well short of what Mr. Snyder wanted.

The two leaders are signaling they might – might – be willing to pass a budget without Mr. Snyder’s input, put it on his desk and dare him to veto it.

That last happened in 2009 when then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop and then-House Speaker Andy Dillon cut Ms. Granholm out of the negotiations and dared her to veto the budget they put on her desk. Ms. Granholm acquiesced and signed a budget she admitted she disliked.

It’s hard to imagine it would get to that point. During the Snyder era, the governor and Republican legislative leaders have always been able to bridge their differences on the budget and finances.

Mr. Snyder has shown, many times, he is willing to sign legislation prioritized by Republican lawmakers he might not personally see as important – except when it comes to budgeting and finances. This is clearly an area that falls within that budget/finances zone. Mr. Leonard and Mr. Meekhof seem interested in seeing just how deep of a line in the sand Mr. Snyder is willing to draw when it comes to going seven for seven.

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Democratic Gubernatorial Nomination Now Whitmer’s To Lose

Posted: May 9, 2017 10:04 AM

Fifteen months from now, Michigan Democrats will nominate their candidate for governor, the person they are counting on to end eight years of Republican control of state government, and as of today, former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer is the clear frontrunner with U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee’s decision to pass on the race and seek re-election to the U.S. House.

This has been brewing for at least the past month. Michigan Democratic sources have said Mr. Kildee’s uncertainty about whether he would run, combined with Ms. Whitmer having started her campaign in January and a general consensus in Democratic circles that Mr. Kildee was not terribly excited about a potentially fractious year-long battle with Ms. Whitmer to win the party’s nomination, pointed to him passing on the race.

Still, as recently as last fall, Mr. Kildee (D-Flint) seemed a likely candidate. He was visiting areas of the state far-flung from his 5th District, even meeting with the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce on Ms. Whitmer’s home turf, talking topics more in sync with state government than Congress. He was raising big money to his congressional committee, funds that could have been transferred to a gubernatorial bid. He was making the rounds among Michigan Democratic activists and speaking on out state issues, going after Governor Rick Snyder.

But it seems the election of President Donald Trump altered the dynamic and injected major uncertainty in Mr. Kildee’s mind. And a Kildee source said late last night as the word spread of his decision that after the U.S. House voted to replace much of the current federal health care law, he had made up his mind he could not turn away from the fight in Washington.

That brings it back to Ms. Whitmer, the East Lansing Democrat who spent 14 years in the Legislature and has been riding a wave of anti-Trump fury among Democratic activists in the first four months of her campaign. While there are several other Democrats who have formed campaign committees, the only other Democrat actively campaigning for the nomination at this point is Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, the former Detroit health department director who has been working aggressively and exciting the more anti-establishment Democratic activists with his message.

Mr. El-Sayed is making a play for the Bernie Sanders lane, but that’s a lane that’s still there for the taking as has been the case for some time. Mr. El-Sayed is still an unknown, new player on the scene, though he presents a potential problem for Ms. Whitmer if he can carve out territory to her left. He’s already declared support for making Michigan a sanctuary state, and there’s potentially space to Ms. Whitmer’s left on the type of targeted business tax incentives current Democrats in the Legislature are supporting.

Ms. Whitmer is a well-known, longtime figure in Democratic activist circles, if still unknown to large swaths of the statewide Democratic primary electorate. She’s been positioning herself for years for this moment, and now it’s there for the taking.

But will other major Democratic figures cede the nomination to her? There remains unease among some Democrats about how her legislative record can be used against her. She spent her time in the House on the Appropriations Committee and was more involved in budget matters than legislation. Eight of her years in office coincided with the tenure of Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm, and she had to cast a pile of politically bad votes on the budget and taxes during dark times for the state.

Michigan Democrats must win the governorship in 2018. A loss, coupled with continued minority status in the Legislature, which at this early date appears likely, would put Democrats at risk of moving into permanent minority status. So as Democratic players evaluate the new playing field minus Mr. Kildee, other potential major candidates will surely survey the scene and analyze whether they would offer a better chance for the party.

With Mr. Kildee out of the race, Ms. Whitmer now has the chance to build upon the organization she already has established and crank up her fundraising and endorsements with donors who were sitting on the sidelines to see what Mr. Kildee did.

There’s only a few big players at this point who could dislodge Ms. Whitmer from the front-runner’s seat – a Mark Bernstein, a U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (who does not appear interested) or a Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (who has fiercely denied any interest, though doubt will remain until he says so after the Detroit mayor race concludes this November). There’s a real fear among Republicans about Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel getting into the race for the Democrats, but his independent streak and warm relationship with Governor Rick Snyder make it hard to see how he can win a Democratic nomination fight.

Mr. Kildee’s exit gives Ms. Whitmer the chance to erase the doubts among the faction of party leaders as to whether she can vanquish the Republican nominee in 2018 and prevent any new entrants to the race. By the fall, we should know whether she succeeded or failed.

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Calley Moves Toward Governor Run, And The GOP Race Intrigue Heightens

Posted: April 25, 2017 3:27 PM

There was an obvious major political development in the last two days – Lt. Governor Brian Calley taking steps toward running for governor.

But beyond the obvious about how this sets up the primary everyone has been anticipating for more than seven years – Mr. Calley vs. Attorney General Bill Schuette, who while he has not announced or teased an announcement is most definitely going to run – there was plenty of more subtle but fascinating material to emerge Monday.

First of all, Mr. Calley has secured the services of John Yob, the Republican consultant who has made a fortune and formed a national clientele from advising anti-establishment Republican candidates and his involvement in a company, The Washington Post reported last year, that became an email list broker for the Republican National Committee and was paid more than $30 million by clients in the 2016 election cycle.

Mr. Yob oversaw the rollout of the new website and video previewing an assumed May 30 announcement that Mr. Calley is running for governor, through an entity called MIPAC, a political action committee. While it never seemed likely that Mr. Yob would have a role with the expected Schuette campaign, he did work for Mr. Schuette involving the 2010 and 2014 Michigan Republican Party conventions when Mr. Schuette was working for the attorney general nomination.

And there was always the possibility that a Republican outsider could have snapped up Mr. Yob’s services, much as Governor Rick Snyder did in 2010. But there were longstanding ties between Mr. Calley and Mr. Yob – Mr. Yob’s firm Strategic National worked for Mr. Calley on his 2010 Senate bid and then on his 2014 efforts to secure renomination as lieutenant governor.

Then there was the $500,000 that MIPAC purportedly will spend on online advertising leading up to May 30 when Mr. Calley will presumably announce. That’s an amazing sum to spend 15 months before the primary, but it underlined a couple points – that Mr. Calley will have access to considerable resources but also that he has a name recognition deficit compared to Mr. Schuette and will need those resources to catch up.

While the attorney general post enables the office-holder tremendous free exposure from the activities of the office, the lieutenant governor typically toils in relative anonymity although Mr. Snyder seems to be delegating a far greater number of public events to Mr. Calley in the past year.

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller’s involvement in Monday’s event at the Macomb Chamber of Commerce luncheon where Mr. Calley spoke also was intriguing. She introduced Mr. Calley around the room. There’s a few different ways to speculate about what her actions could mean (remember, this is just speculation):

  • Ms. Miller, whose name remains mentioned as a possibility to run for governor, clearly is not planning to do so, otherwise why would she help Mr. Calley out on her home turf;
  • Ms. Miller might endorse Mr. Calley;
  • Ms. Miller is in the middle of a crisis with the Fraser sinkhole and is asking the state for millions in assistance and thus can ill-afford not to keep friendly relations with the Snyder administration, so this was less about gubernatorial politics and more about local politics; or
  • Forget all the theorizing, Ms. Miller was just showing some courtesy to the visiting lieutenant governor.

Whatever the case, Ms. Miller’s ally, Democratic Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel also stirred the pot again yesterday with warm remarks at the event for Mr. Calley. Mr. Hackel is keeping his name in the mix for governor too though few expect he would run and fewer still can see how Mr. Hackel, whose affiliation with the Democratic Party often seems pretty loose, could possibly win the party’s nomination.

All this material to dissect, and the race has yet to truly begin.

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Georgia Race Portends Little For Michigan In 2018

Posted: April 18, 2017 12:56 PM

All political eyes today are on the 6th U.S. House District in Georgia, a suburban Atlanta seat where everyone who runs for office, is in the business of politics or studies and writes about politics will try to glean some greater national meaning from the special election taking place there.

The seat is a longtime Republican bastion, but because President Donald Trump ran more than 20 percentage points behind 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and it has the type of highly educated, high-income population slowly trending toward Democrats, Democrats still fuming about Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory and the first three months of his presidency see a chance to make a statement.

If the Democratic candidate were to win the seat, it would surely and rightfully produce euphoria among Democrats about their chances of putting the U.S. House in play in 2018 if they can flip similar seats. A Republican victory would reaffirm that while rural, blue collar, mostly white areas have moved sharply to the Republicans, Democratic hopes about an incursion into once Republican high-income, high-education areas are still a ways off.

Reading much into these results as far as what it would mean for Michigan in 2018 looks like a big stretch, however.

The Atlantic published an interesting piece today looking at several dozen U.S. House seats similar in profile to Georgia’s 6th District based on how much worse Mr. Trump did than Mr. Romney in the seat as well as the percentage of college-educated white.

Georgia’s 6th District is at the uppermost end of that scale.

There’s one Michigan district that meets the criteria, the 11th District held by U.S. Rep. David Trott (R-Birmingham), not surprising given the high-income, high-education demographics of the district that covers well-to-do areas of Oakland and western Wayne counties, but it is on the lower end of the scale.

And a deeper look at the demographics of the two seats show they have less in common than at first glance beyond both being groupings of traditionally Republican, high-income, high-education suburbs in a major metropolitan area.

Georgia’s 6th District, with a white population of 69.8 percent, is far more diverse than Michigan’s 11th, with a white population of 80 percent. And the percentage of those born outside the United States, a bad demographic for Mr. Trump with his policies curbing immigration, is 21.3 percent in Georgia’s 6th compared to 13.6 percent in Michigan’s 11th.

While Michigan’s 11th has a relatively high number of residents with bachelor’s degrees at 46 percent compared to other Michigan congressional districts, Georgia’s 6th is at a sky-high 69.8 percent.

And maybe most of all, Michigan’s 11th simply did not seem to recoil from Mr. Trump in the way Georgia’s 6th did. While Mr. Trump’s margin over Hillary Clinton in 2016 fell by 21.8 percentage points in Georgia’s 6th compared to Mr. Romney’s margin over President Barack Obama in 2012, it only dropped by 1 percentage point in Michigan’s 11th, based on data compiled by Daily Kos.

National Democrats have put Mr. Trott on their radar given that Mr. Trump ran below 50 percent in the district even as he topped Ms. Clinton there. Electing a Democrat in Michigan’s 11th will be a steep hill to climb. There is no obvious all-star Democratic candidate given the way Republicans drew the district, and Mr. Trott’s enormous personal wealth means any Democratic candidate will need tremendous resources to compete.

The 2018 elections are too far away to know yet exactly what that race will look like. But while today’s special election in Georgia (and a subsequent runoff there, if it happens) could provide some signals on how the overall 2018 national political dynamic is shaping up, it’s value as a parallel for anything in Michigan looks low.

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On The Subject Of Michigan’s Lax Transparency Laws…

Posted: March 21, 2017 1:13 PM

Transparency in government is suddenly all the rage in Michigan among a number of top officials.

It seems every major player other than Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) backs extending the Freedom of Information Act to the governor’s office and applying a similar law to the Legislature, opening up records to those two entities to the public for the first time, although Governor Rick Snyder has yet to publicly sign onto the idea.

Democrats are backing financial disclosure for Michigan elected officials. That has yet to catch on with Republicans, but it’s not been something about which even the minority caucus, whether Democrat or Republican, has shown much excitement in the past. Lt. Governor Brian Calley is reviewing how Michigan can improve its transparency laws.

But beyond the familiar terrain of the FOIA and the Open Meetings Act, there’s a relatively new issue that has surfaced on the transparency front.

The Michigan Department of Treasury no longer is making public how much it spends to pay each judgment in lawsuits it loses or for each settlement in other cases. This is a huge change. As recently as two years ago, the department provided the itemized information to the Senate Fiscal Agency, which annually publishes a report on how much the state paid out in lawsuit settlements and judgments in each of those cases and for all departments.

Now all the department is providing to the Senate Fiscal Agency, or any other member of the public, is the overall amount for the fiscal year paid out with no information about how much it paid in any of those specific cases.

One could track down judgments by looking up each individual case through the courts. Those are a matter of public record, but involve a multitude of courts and would not include settlements, which usually are not a part of the court record and generally are far more frequent than judgments.

Treasury might be the most frequently sued of all the state agencies as a result of lawsuits challenging its taxing decisions. In the 2015-16 fiscal year, the department paid out $65,841,278 in judgments and settlements.

Gongwer News Service published a recent story on why Treasury changed its approach. That’s available for subscribers. In short, Treasury officials said the Department of Attorney General instructed them that changes to law in 2014 and 2015 meant the department could not release the specific case data.

The two laws in question are PA 240 of 2014 and PA 10 of 2015. In neither case did it seem the major purpose of the law was to wall off from the public how much the state is paying out in settlements and judgments in tax cases, but the changes to the law, under the Department of Attorney General’s interpretation, did just that.

Transparency laws provide an accountability mechanism. Legislators will have to ask whether they and the public can adequately evaluate the actions of the Department of Treasury without knowing whether they lost a judgment or settled a case and how much that cost taxpayers.

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The $600M Question: Confidence Low On State Delivering For Roads

Posted: March 15, 2017 3:03 PM

This morning I was on a media panel as part of the County Roads Association of Michigan’s annual conference in Lansing, and moderator Tim Skubick asked the audience, which filled a large room at the Lansing Center, a question to gauge their confidence on the road funding plan the state enacted in 2015.

Part of that plan called for $600 million in gasoline tax and fee increases. Those took effect January 1. The other $600 million in the plan, designed to raise $1.2 billion overall, would come from the General Fund, which historically, until recent years, was not a source of funding for roads, but of other state functions like Medicaid, public health, university aid, prisons and basic government regulatory functions.

Under the plan, starting in the 2018-19 fiscal year, the General Fund would contribute $150 million to roads. In 2019-20 – when there will be a new governor, a 66 percent turnover in the Senate and a pile of new House members – the contribution will rise to $325 million. And in 2020-21 and subsequent years, the figure is $600 million.

Probably the $150 million in the first year will happen given that Governor Rick Snyder has promised it, and the 2018-19 fiscal year will be the last budget he proposes and signs.

But beyond then, who knows? What if there’s a recession and revenues fall? Would a governor and a Legislature really sign away $600 million from the General Fund, which would be under severe pressure if revenues plummet, for roads?

Road interests know how tenuous that money is. And it was startlingly apparent at the County Road Association’s meeting.

Mr. Skubick asked the audience to applaud if they were confident that $600 million would actually become a reality.

The response?

Total silence.

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Flint Water Exhibit At Broad Museum A Must See

Posted: March 7, 2017 12:29 PM

It’s not a substitute for talking to living, breathing Flint residents face-to-face about how the city’s water crisis has affected them, but the exhibit calling attention to the crisis at Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum serves as a gut-punch reminder of all Flint’s residents have had to endure in the last three years.

On display until April 23, “Beyond Streaming: A Sound Mural for Flint” is haunting.

It consists of copper pipes running from the floor to the ceiling with a series of spigots. Turning the faucet for each spigot triggers the voice of a Flint resident, emanating from the spigot, describing what they have had to experience, their pleas to officials or frustrations with the government, among other messages.

The Flint water crisis is not a national story like it was at this time a year ago. And even in Michigan, it’s not generating the daily news like it did then. But it is still monumentally important, even as lead levels recede.

There’s still a criminal investigation underway. There’s still an enormous number of civil lawsuits taking place. There’s still the question of if and when the city will switch away from the Detroit system to a new pipeline. There’s still residents in need of monitoring and care after having been exposed for more than a year to lead-tainted water.

There’s still been virtually no policy changes in the state in response to all the decisions and errors that precipitated the crisis. There’s still a long, long, long way to go to replace the city’s lead service lines.

And, oh yeah, Flint residents still can’t drink their water without a filter.

If you feel numb to Flint water crisis news after the past year and a half, go to the Broad. See the exhibit. Listen to those voices. It’s a vital reminder of all that happened and all that is still to come.

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Treasury: Hold The Staples At Tax Time

Posted: March 1, 2017 4:48 PM

Tax day is nearing, and you can almost sense the frustration from the legions of Department of Treasury employees tasked with processing all those documents in a plea the department made today for taxpayers not to staple those documents unless tax forms explicitly say to do so.

While e-filing is a popular way to file state taxes, there are still many who use an honest-to-goodness paper tax form requiring an actual pen and real fasteners to hold the materials together. In fact, a statement from the department said Treasury employees receive and process more than 1.3 million pieces of mail each year.

Workers must remove every staple and repair damaged documents before scanning and processing them.

“Staples are one of the largest problems encountered in the mailroom,” said Ann Luepnitz, manager of Treasury’s Facility, Mail and Data Operations, said in a statement from the department. “When the staples are removed, the paper rips and holes are created. Unfortunately, this means staff members must take extra time to recondition the documents before scanning and processing.”

This sounds like a scene out of “Office Space” with the taxpayers represented by Milton mumbling about his coveted Swingline stapler and the boss, Bill Lumbergh, representing Treasury, offering up a variation of his classic line, “Hi taxpayers, what’s happening? I’m going to have to ask you to go ahead and stop stapling your tax documents together. So if you could stop stapling those documents, that would be great. Mmmmkay?”

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Leonard Speakership Suffers Major Wound

Posted: February 23, 2017 1:17 PM

House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt), just six weeks since accepting the gavel as the new speaker on the Rostrum of the House chamber, faces a crisis like no other speaker I have seen.

It is one he could have, should have, avoided, and one surrounding his decision to make cutting the income tax his top priority for the term.

That a tax cut was a House Republican priority is not the reason he lacks a functional majority today. The problem was how he and his team sought to pass it.

He lent his support to legislation that would have cut the income tax rate from 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent and then repealed the entire tax over the next 40 years, wiping out $9.75 billion, nearly the entire General Fund. This was a bill that had no chance of making it past Governor Rick Snyder to become law and turned into a food fight with the governor that included Mr. Leonard sending an email to supporters that Mr. Snyder’s team interpreted as a shot at the governor.

And as it would turn out, it also was a bill that had no chance of even getting out of the House. A big chunk of the House Republican Caucus and virtually all Democrats saw the bill as extreme.

The resistance should have been a sign to apply the brakes and determine what it would take to get to 55 votes. Or perhaps the speaker should have sacrificed the message of putting tax relief first to instead go for an issue that would be more unifying for the caucus to get a quick early win, maybe repealing the Common Core State Standards.

Instead, Mr. Leonard had the House take up the bill Tuesday and drop the repeal provision, phasing the tax down over four years to 3.9 percent. That there was not the support Tuesday to immediately pass the bill should have again been a signal to slow down and regroup.

But Mr. Leonard continued to press ahead. For 12 hours starting at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, the House was “in session.” I put that in quotes because not a damn thing was taking place, not one vote on another matter until midnight neared. There were several long caucus meetings, one-on-one meetings, milling around, the more than 40 new members no doubt taking in the drama, maybe the subject of the NBA trading deadline on Thursday came up, who knows.

The longer Mr. Leonard kept the House in session, the more pressure for the House to pass it and the more attention was paid to exactly how short of votes he was.

The word spread that Mr. Leonard was well short of the 55 votes needed. Perhaps 10-15, maybe as few as five. At any point, Mr. Leonard could have pulled back and called it a day to keep working behind the scenes for those votes. Live to fight another day, as the saying goes.

Finally, at 1:45 a.m., the speeches concluded, a new amendment adopted, the House was set to vote on HB 4001*. It would be a Pyrrhic victory to be sure, Mr. Leonard having had to drag his caucus over the finish line in a way that would hardly leave Mr. Snyder or Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) shaking in their boots. But it would at least be a win.

Except when the votes went up on the board, there was a little more red for no votes than green for yes votes. Our House reporter squinted at the voting board and thought, “That looks short.”

Now usually in the House when this happens the majority party moves to clear the voting board so the defeat is not recorded. That would have been bad enough on this night, a humiliating surrender. Instead, the House did in fact record the vote, 52 yes and 55 no, with a motion to reconsider made and the bill shelved for another day, maybe. Instead of raising the white flag for the day, Mr. Leonard sent his caucus on a Kamikaze mission.

Mr. Leonard said his caucus wanted the vote recorded. But this also had the feel of payback, putting all those Republicans who resisted the legislation – most of whom backed Mr. Leonard’s opponent last year to lead the House Republican Caucus and thus become the speaker – on the record against a big tax cut. Have fun defending that in a Republican primary, seemed to be the message.

There were many points in the past week where Mr. Leonard could have showed more patience and played a longer game. Instead, he decided to go for the quick strike, failed to lay the necessary groundwork and now finds himself with 22 months left in his speakership, a caucus bitterly divided, a governor and Senate majority leader very unhappy with his early moves, his signature issue in flames and the path to fixing those problems unclear.

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The FOIA And Legislators’ Constituent Communications

Posted: February 14, 2017 1:34 PM

As the House gears up to open up some legislative records to the public for the first time, as well as records of the governor’s office, there’s one constant, bipartisan refrain from lawmakers: constituent communications will be exempt.

Lawmakers who have championed greater sunshine laws for Michigan’s legislative branch of government for years have said much the same. Materials involving constituent communications – the underappreciated but essential role of legislators to aid those who live in their districts with problems they are experiencing with state government – are off-limits.

The blanket exemption would make the Legislature the only public body in the state where communications between people and their governments, and the materials showing how governments handled those requests, are wholly exempt from public record laws.

That’s right, communications between the public and their city council, township board, county board, mayor, township supervisor, school board, school superintendent, road commission, etc., are subject to the Freedom of Information Act – subject to the act’s exemptions.

Let’s repeat that: subject to the act’s exemptions.

Viewed in the best light, legislators understandably are concerned about their constituents contacting them about private situations, perhaps involving their children’s education, their health, a tip about illegal activity and problems they are encountering as a business owner.

Under the existing Michigan Freedom of Information Act, all such records and materials already are exempt from disclosure. The wide-ranging exemption of “information of a personal nature if public disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual's privacy” provides another layer of protection.

So what is the value of making constituent communications that do not fall into one of those exemptions public?

For starters, it can provide a feel for what is moving the needle with the public. Are ordinary citizens so concerned about an issue that they feel motivated to write their legislator? Communications from those living outside the legislator’s district would be public, but those would largely consist of mass mail campaigns.

When then-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was under siege, I obtained via the Freedom of Information Act the communications his office received from Detroiters to get a sense of what Detroiters wanted to tell the mayor as he confronted the text message scandal. It would be interesting to see what former Rep. Brian Banks’ constituents were writing him as he faced charges that ultimately led to his recent resignation.

The chance to see how legislators and their staff handle constituent communications also would provide some sunshine on which ones excel at it and which ones do not. While news coverage mostly focuses on the policy-making role of the Legislature, most legislators will say how they vote on bills pales in importance as far as their standing with their district to running a strong constituent service operation that assists their constituents, i.e. voters, with navigating the state bureaucracy on a pothole, problem with Medicaid, an issue at a state park, etc.

Additionally, making constituent communications public, with appropriate redactions to protect privacy within the FOIA’s existing exemptions, would allow reporters and others to look for any trends in problems with state operations.

The woes besieging the Unemployment Insurance Agency, which falsely determined through a computer system that tens of thousands of those approved for jobless benefits did so fraudulently, did not break into the open until spring 2015. In reality, the false fraud scandal began in late 2013, and legislators have said now that they were hearing an earful from their constituents about it.

What if those constituent emails had been public three years and several months ago? Might the public have learned of the unfolding debacle at the unemployment agency sooner? And might the agency have stopped using that computer system as the sole arbiter of whether someone committed fraud before August 7, 2015, when it did so? How many people would have been spared having to pay to the state tens of thousands of dollars in unjust penalties and interest?

Those are questions we can only ponder. And they are questions we will have to continue pondering under the bills as drafted.

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The First State Police Colonel And The News Media

Posted: February 7, 2017 11:34 AM

The Department of State Police turns 100 this year, and its rich history is getting a fresh look with some troopers riding in vintage-looking vehicles and wearing old school campaign hats.

At the conclusion of a recent interview with State Police Director Kriste Etue, I asked the age-old questions reporters ask those they interview if there was anything we hadn’t covered she wanted to discuss. And the colonel was eager to discuss the department’s centennial, specifically the first head of the department, Roy Vandercook.

So who was Mr. Vandercook, appointed in 1917 by then-Governor Albert Sleeper to head up what was then called the Michigan State Troops Permanent Force?

Thanks to State Police archivists, there’s some pretty thorough detail about Mr. Vandercook, a Mason native.

At the time, he was public relations manager for the Pere Marquette Railroad. Yes, apparently public relations positions existed in 1917, and that makes sense given the primacy of newspapers across the country at this time. And probably most pertinent to the appointment, he had served as the full-time adjutant general of the Michigan National Guard in 1912 before retiring in 1915 to take the P.R. gig.

But before those roles, Mr. Vandercook was a reporter. As a young man, he had worked for a local newspaper, presumably in or near Mason while serving as a member of the state militia before two terms as the Mason city clerk. He volunteered as an infantry private with the Michigan regiment in the Spanish-American War.

Upon returning to Michigan, Mr. Vandercook became a reporter for the Lansing State Journal before becoming the first resident Capitol correspondent for the Associated Press in Lansing. All this time, he remained active in the Michigan National Guard before eventually leaving the reporting ranks to lead the Guard.

Mr. Vandercook was able to establish the nascent State Police upon his appointment until he resigned in 1920. And upon resigning, where did Mr. Vandercook go? Back to the National Guard? No. Back to public relations? Did he start a multiclient lobbying firm with powerhouse clients like the railroads and oil companies? Nope.

Mr. Vandercook returned to the AP as its Capitol correspondent.

It did not take. In 1921, then-Governor Alex Groesbeck, reorganizing the State Police, appointed Mr. Vandercook as the first commissioner of the Department of Public Safety where he served for two years.

It’s not what would constitute a typical journalistic career path today, working on the high school newspaper, getting a journalism degree and working for the college newspaper or other news outlet at the university, getting a professional internship, hooking on with the Tinytown Daily Bugle writing obituaries and then working your way up to write for a major international news outlet like Gongwer News Service.

But, oh my, imagine the sources Mr. Vandercook had when he returned to the AP in 1920. How he handled covering his old boss, Mr. Sleeper, for the remaining time Mr. Sleeper was governor (he did not seek re-election in 1920), I do not know. Hopefully, he did so without fear or favor and collected some good tips along the way.

The State Police historian wrote of Mr. Vandercook’s essential role in establishing the department, “Some criticized Vandercook’s blatant lobbying on behalf of his state trooper force, but the department’s survival was due in no small part to his talents and connections as a journalist and lobbyist.”

Reporter-Spokesperson-Solider-Lobbyist-Colonel. That’s a not a resume anyone is likely to find on LinkedIn nowadays.

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Breaking Down MIGOP Reaction To Trump Immigrant/Refugee Order

Posted: January 31, 2017 1:17 PM

The reaction of Michigan’s elected Republican leaders to President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily barring the admission of all refugees as well as immigrants and visitors from seven Muslim-majority nations covers a range, running from support to outright opposition.

Through the middle, there’s a range of responses as well.

How elected Republicans in Michigan react to Mr. Trump’s implementation of his agenda will be under close watch from many quarters:

  • From Democrats, most of whom have decided to mount all-out opposition, many calling themselves the resistance, in the face of what they see as Mr. Trump taking the nation toward autocracy;
  • From Republican activists, most of whom remain squarely in Mr. Trump’s corner and are thrilled with his actions so far;
  • From their potential rivals in the Republican Party, with those questioning Mr. Trump opening themselves up to a primary challenge from someone who declares them insufficiently loyal to their party’s president, as well as those jockeying for higher office like governor or U.S. Senate;
  • From potential Democratic rivals in future elections, who would like to tie them to everything they hate about Mr. Trump, although how Mr. Trump will play in the 2018 mid-term elections in Michigan is purely a guessing game right now, though traditionally the president’s party suffers in the mid-term election; and
  • From national observers looking for any sign of Mr. Trump’s fellow Republicans breaking ranks.

So with that in mind, let’s look at how Republicans have responded, going from the most critical to the most supportive.

U.S. REP. JUSTIN AMASH: Mr. Amash (R-Cascade Township), the maverick libertarian who often does not see eye-to-eye with his party, already had made clear his concerns about Mr. Trump. And he lambasted Mr. Trump’s executive order in a Tweetstorm and several subsequent tweets. He called it illegal and said if Mr. Trump wants to implement the policies in his executive order, he needs to work with Congress.

In 2014, business groups and others in the establishment wing of the Republican Party tried to oust Mr. Amash in the primary. Now one wonders if Trump supporters might take him on if this keeps up.

U.S. REP. FRED UPTON: The dean of the House Republican Conference called for Mr. Trump to scale back the order, saying it created confusion for travelers and those who enforce the law. Mr. Upton (R-St. Joseph) said Mr. Trump should have worked with Congress.

U.S. REP. MIKE BISHOP: Mr. Bishop (R-Rochester) was clearly upset with how the Trump administration provided no advance notice to Congress the executive order was coming. He made clear on his Twitter account that he was taking his concerns about the scope of the order to Washington and said he was inundated with concerns from constituents in his district. He said the nation needs to find the right balance between security and civil liberties. Overall, he seems most concerned with the process and implementation.

U.S. REP. JACK BERGMAN, U.S. REP. BILL HUIZENGA, U.S. REP. JOHN MOOLENAAR, U.S. REP. PAUL MITCHELL AND U.S. REP. TIM WALBERG: All have said largely the same thing – support for Mr. Trump taking actions to protect the country, rejection of the term “Muslim ban” Democrats have used and emphasizing the temporary nature of the moves (though the prohibition on Syrian refugees is indefinite), but urged the plan not to affect green card holders or those who have assisted the U.S. military. Mr. Bergman’s statement did not specifically refer to green card holders, however.

GOVERNOR RICK SNYDER: Mr. Snyder once proclaimed himself the most pro-immigration governor in the nation and at one time wanted Michigan to become a major landing spot for Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn country. But he backed off that position a year ago. In a Tuesday statement, he neither expressed support for the program, nor opposition, nor did he delve into some of the specific concerns raised by the congressional members. “The president’s 120-day reassessment period is leading to a much-needed national dialogue on immigration policy, and I plan to be part of that discussion,” the governor said.

U.S. REP. DAVE TROTT: Mr. Trott (R-Birmingham) issued a supportive statement about the executive order on Friday, saying the first priority is to protect Americans and their families.

ATTORNEY GENERAL BILL SCHUETTE: Mr. Schuette rejected calls from Democrats to join a lawsuit from Democratic state attorneys general against the executive order and defended Mr. Trump’s plan. "The United States must have an immigration policy that provides safety and security for our nation, that is hopeful to all new Americans and which discriminates against no one," he said. "President Trump's Executive Order is not a ban on Muslims, and he is placing the security of Americans first."

Just 12 days into the Trump presidency, it's clear how Democrats and Republicans react to his moves will be a litmus test in many different ways, this just being one of the first big ones.

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Snyder’s State Of The State Speech: Deja Moo

Posted: January 18, 2017 4:27 PM

The most memorable line of Governor Rick Snyder’s State of the State address was a bad pun about how he wants Michigan’s productive cows, No. 2 in the nation for milk production, to pass the top state, Colorado.

“We want Colorado to moo-ove on over," Mr. Snyder said before a joint session of the Legislature on Tuesday night.

My Dad, who delighted in torturing my sister and me with bad puns when we were young, would say a pun has to be bad to be good (I cannot take credit/blame for the pun in the headline, having found it on the interwebs). And it’s good to hear Michigan’s important milk producing industry is thriving. Gongwer News Service’s resident dairy farming expert, retired Vice President Larry Lee, no doubt was amused.

But when Holsteinian humor is the most memorable moment of the biggest opportunity Mr. Snyder will have this year to address the state – massive social media coverage, livestreams everywhere online, wall-to-wall coverage on the state’s major newspapers and their websites, a live broadcast on public television and a gaggle of television news reporters making for most a rare trip to the capital city – Mr. Snyder’s speech left more than a few wondering what happened.

Mr. Snyder offered no new proposals, no roadmap for the year ahead other than essentially to stay the course. He barely mentioned the Flint water crisis, speaking for 97 seconds on it halfway through the speech (including breaks for applause). He did not address the other major fiasco that is hanging over his administration and state government, the tens of thousands of people falsely judged by a state-run computer his administration implemented to have committed fraud in seeking unemployment benefits.

It reminded one of Mr. Snyder’s widely panned 2012 State of the State address, where he offered one significant new proposal, to codify the Educational Achievement Authority for some Detroit schools.

Mr. Snyder’s job approval and favorability numbers have yet to recover from the hit they took as his administration’s handling of the decisions prior to Flint’s water becoming a full-blown crisis was revealed. A 54-minute speech chock-full of positive numbers about the state’s economy and other good developments in state government could be targeted at those voters who once liked Mr. Snyder but have since soured on him.

There will be significant issues this year – auto insurance, municipal employee retirement benefits, infrastructure, taxes, criminal justice and more. At least for now, Mr. Snyder either was not ready to offer a proposal or chose not to do so.

In 2012, Mr. Snyder said the style of his speech was in keeping with an older school model that was more of a literal State of the State, offering a report card of sorts and talking about where the state stood on a variety of fronts. Subsequent Snyder State of the State messages were meatier. In 2013, he emphasized his road funding plan. 2014 centered on his plan to bring Detroit out of bankruptcy. 2015 focused on his merger of the departments of Community Health and Human Services into the Department of Health and Human Services. And 2016 was heavily focused on Flint.

However, it should be noted that 2012 turned out to be one of the most consequential and prolific years for legislation in Michigan’s modern history, topped by Michigan becoming a right-to-work state. It’s also worth noting the Legislature drove that issue to become law over Mr. Snyder’s public disinterest. The same is true of the repeal of Michigan’s mandatory motorcycle helmet law and major changes to the law on recalling elected officials that were enacted that year.

Perhaps Mr. Snyder will do what he has done in past years and drive the legislative agenda with a series of subsequent proposals, offered via special messages or other means. When he has done so, it has left the Legislature with less time to pursue other issues.

When Mr. Snyder has stepped back, however, the Republicans in the Legislature have shown they will fill the void.

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NYT Story On Betsy DeVos A Trip Down Memory Lane

Posted: January 10, 2017 4:11 PM

President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Michigan Republican powerbroker Betsy DeVos to become the next secretary of the U.S. Department of Education has brought national scrutiny to Ms. DeVos, as expected.

So much so that a Monday story in The New York Times headlined, “Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Education Pick, Plays Hardball With Her Wealth,” offers something of a time warp into the politics of the Michigan Legislature.

Raise your hand if you ever expected to see the following people quoted in the Times, let alone in the same article – former House Speaker Rick Johnson, former Rep./ex-Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, former Rep. Mike Pumford and former Rep./current Sen. Tom Casperson.

My hand is not raised.

The article recounts the aggressive campaign Ms. DeVos’s then new Great Lakes Education Project political action committee waged to unseat Mr. Pumford in the 2002 Republican primary for the 100th House District in Newaygo County.

Mr. Pumford was a staunch ally of traditional public schools and strongly resisted a variety of attempts to expand the number of charter schools allowed by law, which then capped universities at sponsoring no more than 150. The PAC funded a primary challenger and repeatedly attacked Mr. Pumford, who prevailed in the race, but was furious at the attempt from fellow Republicans to unseat him.

I was covering the House at the time, and Mr. Pumford crowed the night of the primary about how he and his team was “kicking their ass,” referring to GLEP (and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce).

The Times article serves as a reminder of how much politics changed for Republican legislative primaries once Ms. DeVos sized up the 12 to 18 House Republicans resistant to outright hostile to charter school expansion through the 1999-2000 and 2001-02 terms and decided to extinguish them (and like-minded potential successors) from the Legislature.

She and her husband, Dick DeVos, had just suffered a lopsided defeat in the 2000 elections when their school voucher proposal was crushed by voters. Ms. DeVos had a tense relationship at the time with then-Governor John Engler, who opposed the voucher proposal out of concern it would draw more Democrats to the polls. Ms. DeVos resigned her position as chair of the Michigan Republican Party as a result.

When Ms. DeVos announced the creation of the Great Lakes Education Project with the express purpose of helping candidates who supported greater choice for students in K-12 public education, Mr. Engler, himself frustrated at the Republican-led House’s inability to pass charter school expansion, clearly was still unhappy with Ms. DeVos about the vouchers proposal, declaring GLEP would be less influential politically than the Sierra Club.

Just to be clear, Mr. Engler held the Sierra Club in low regard, so that was not a compliment.

But Mr. Engler was wrong.

Even though GLEP lost its most visible battles in 2002, losing bids to unseat incumbent House Republicans who had opposed charter school expansion, it began winning the war and getting their candidates nominated in the open seat races. The Michigan Education Association, which had quietly backed allies in Republican primaries for years, was outgunned financially and within a few election cycles, the House Republican Caucus ceased to have the Mike Pumfords and Pan Godchauxs who had fought charter school expansion and instead became almost uniformly in favor of allowing more charter schools.

In 2011, once Republicans had total control of the Legislature and governor’s office, Ms. DeVos’ efforts paid off with the Legislature removing the charter school cap and Governor Rick Snyder signing that legislation.

These days, the battle on school choice among Michigan Republicans clearly won, GLEP emphasizes other issues when selecting whom to support and in the 2016 cycle for the most part the major Republican organizations rallied behind the same candidate in House GOP primaries.

That’s why, if you were not around during the 2002 election cycle, when GLEP first burst onto the scene and proceeded to make opposing charter schools disqualifying for a Republican to serve in the Legislature, Mr. Richardville’s quote to the Times rings true: “I would never underestimate Betsy DeVos in a knife fight.”

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Is The Emergency Manager Law Already, In Effect, Dead?

Posted: December 28, 2016 10:41 AM

The question of whether the law empowering the governor to appoint emergency managers to run financially troubled local governments and school districts needs major changes or outright repeal has been a major aftershock of the Flint water crisis and especially so after Flint’s last two emergency managers were charged with multiple felonies.

Michigan has had some form of the law since 1990 when the first modern law allowing a governor to appoint an emergency financial manager was enacted. That law enabled the governor to in effect take control of a troubled community with local elected officials sidelined.

In 2011, one of the first major bills Governor Rick Snyder signed was PA 4 of 2011, which added significant new authority to what were now to be called emergency managers, most significantly the ability to unilaterally temporarily modify contracts with the local government’s or school district’s employees.

Voters repealed that law in a 2012 statewide referendum, but Mr. Snyder and the Legislature responded with PA 436 of 2012, the Local Financial Stability and Choice Act that exists today. The major changes were that it gave local governments and school districts the opportunity choose alternatives to an emergency manager, like a consent agreement with the state, and put a time limit on how long an emergency manager could serve.

For a time, these emergency managers ran about 10 of the state’s cities and multiple school districts.

Today, there none running cities and soon to be just one running a school district.

The Flint charges have added to the growing chorus of voices calling for wholesale changes or outright repeal of PA 436. Democrats and liberal activist groups have long called for such changes (and orchestrated the referendum that repealed the predecessor PA 4). The legislative committee on the Flint water crisis recommended consideration of a committee approach to financial emergencies with three people in charge instead of one, one with financial expertise, one with operational expertise and one to serve as a liaison to the public.

Richard McLellan, the Republican attorney, recently said in a Facebook post that the call for such dramatic changes or repeal might be right. Mr. McLellan said while the law was a thoughtful attempt to deal with local financial irresponsibility and the need for restructuring, “in retrospect, the singular focus on finances was a mistake and the cause of many unintended consequences.”

Mr. Snyder has defended the law, saying outside of Flint, it succeeded. He’s shown no desire to lead a reform effort, saying only he’s open to ideas. Republicans in the Legislature appear less than eager as well. The legislative committee’s recommendation for consideration of a committee produced nothing in the way of legislative action.

So the Local Financial Stability and Choice Act remains on the books, unchanged, and that could be the case for a while.

But some longtime Capitol-watchers are now noting the law, in effect, may be dead. Conservatives like John Truscott of the Truscott Rossman public relations firm and Charles Owens of the National Federation of Independent Business-Michigan have raised the question of who would agree to become an emergency manager now in the wake of the criminal charges former Flint Emergency Managers Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose now face.

Mr. Snyder himself seems disinclined to appoint new emergency managers, now preferring earlier, less dramatic intervention when local governments or school districts show signs of trouble or putting in place consent agreements that leave local elected and appointed officials in place with some enhanced powers.

What the future holds for PA 436, known unofficially as “the emergency manager law,” is unclear. But the Flint water crisis might have informally achieved what Mr. Snyder and the Republican-led Legislature so far have been unwilling to do – bring a halt to that law’s most dramatic powers.

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Talabi Leaves Office In Difficult Circumstances

Posted: December 19, 2016 5:26 PM

One of the more notable farewell speeches last week from a departing member of the House came from Rep. Alberta Tinsley-Talabi, who appeared frustrated with how her six years in the House went.

“When I arrived here six years ago, I didn’t know any of you and now six years later not much has changed,” she said, according to the transcript in the House Journal. “It is been somewhat of a tumultuous time for me, as many in this chamber decided early on to be guided by news stories that never really panned out. So much for judge ye not.”

Ms. Tinsley-Talabi didn’t say so, but this was clearly a reference to the investigation of the U.S. attorney in Detroit into corruption in the Detroit pension system.

During part of her 16 years on the Detroit City Council, Ms. Tinsley-Talabi also was a member of the Detroit Police and Fire Retirement System Board of Trustees. The U.S. attorney blew the lid off corruption in the city’s pension system in which some board members would accept bribes from companies hoping to win investments from the pension funds in exchange for voting for the investments.

One of those snared was Ms. Tinsley-Talabi’s longtime city council chief of staff, George Stanton, who pleaded guilty to accepting bribes in exchange for urging Ms. Tinsley-Talabi to support certain investments.

When Mr. Stanton was sentenced more than 14 months ago, prosecutors took what former federal prosecutor Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor, considered a problematic tack of laying out allegations of wrongdoing by Ms. Tinsley-Talabi without actually charging her. The government’s sentencing memorandum claimed she told Mr. Stanton to inform a person seeking pension fund investment to provide $1,000 to the eastside nonprofit she organized and thousands to her city council campaign committee.

There was another investment where Mr. Stanton pleaded guilty to accepting a $100,000 bribe from someone seeking pension fund investment, and the government in its sentencing memorandum for Mr. Stanton claimed Mr. Stanton was carrying out Ms. Tinsley-Talabi’s orders, which included a donation to her campaign committee and contributions to entities tied to other voting members of the pension boards or their bosses.

Ms. Tinsley-Talabi has mostly declined to comment on the swirl that erupted in earnest more than three years ago when Mr. Stanton was charged.

When Mr. Stanton was sentenced, Mr. Henning said Ms. Tinsley-Talabi might have a legitimate beef with the U.S. attorney for effectively accusing her of soliciting and accepting bribes in a sentencing memorandum without actually charging her.

"This can be problematic because it's accusing her of a crime without going through all of the usual requirements, presenting evidence to a grand jury, having a determination," he said 14 months ago. "Certainly, Tinsley-Talabi has a fair claim that, 'If you think I did something wrong, accuse me of it.'"

The U.S. attorney moves deliberately in its investigations, but it’s hard to imagine that it would charge Ms. Tinsley-Talabi after all this time.

And yet, as far as is publicly known, she is not in the clear. I’ve contacted the U.S. attorney’s office in Detroit multiple times about whether it is still investigating Ms. Tinsley-Talabi, including last week after her speech, but the office has not responded to my inquiries.

The U.S. attorney’s office does not typically publicly clear those it investigated but declined to charge.

The only time I can remember it doing so was when it cleared former Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara – after he died and well after its investigation of his administration had largely failed to produce any major convictions.

Now Ms. Tinsley-Talabi is leaving office, put on trial in the court of public opinion, but never actually given her day in an actual court to defend herself.

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Closing The Book On Michigan House Elections 2016

Posted: December 6, 2016 2:56 PM

I have closely covered all but one of the last 10 battles for control of the Michigan House, and the 2016 contest is in many ways the most surprising result I have seen.

It’s not surprising in one sense. Once again, in the term limits era, top of the ticket was king.

Candidate quality, redistricting, money, messaging, votes by incumbents in the Legislature – all of those factors and more have mostly paled in importance to the overall result in the Michigan House to what happens at the top of the ticket, assuming there is a decisive result in the presidential or governor’s race.

Donald Trump carried the 81 counties other than Oakland and Wayne counties by 10 percentage points and considering all but three of the key Michigan House races were outside those two counties, it produced a tsunami that carried into office several Republican candidates or padded their victory margins. Just as was the case in 1998, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014, the House result followed the top of the ticket pattern. In 2000 and 2002, when the top of the ticket was more mixed, then other factors became more significant.

The first surprise is that Democrats failed to net seats, stuck at the same 47 they won in 2014. In 2000 (the only other time that happened in the term limits era for a presidential cycle), that was not a shock because Democrats were trying to oust well-funded Republican incumbents with mostly B-team candidates during the peak of an economic boom.

But this time, there were a slew of open seats as a result of Republicans who could not run again because of term limits. Democrats had several strong candidates.

Even where Democrats had perhaps their strongest candidate, they lost. It’s amazing to me that Democrat Bryan Mielke of Mount Pleasant lost his race in the 99th District and maybe more so how he lost.

Mr. Mielke in 2014 took on the two-term incumbent, Rep. Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant), as a relative unknown and came within 3 percentage points of winning. Running again in 2016, he was following a successful pattern in the term limits era to build up a profile by running against a two-term incumbent and then going for the open seat the following election with term limits forcing out the incumbent. When I asked Democrats which candidate they thought was campaigning the best, Mr. Mielke’s name usually was mentioned. Republicans were concerned. He was doing all the right things.

Then he lost, to now-Rep.-elect Roger Hauck (R-Mount Pleasant) by 9.1 percentage points – triple the margin of his 2014 defeat. The general reaction in the political community involves the letters w, t and f.

Some of this goes back to top of the ticket – Mr. Trump won the district by a greater margin than Governor Rick Snyder did in 2014. Still, Mr. Mielke won the Isabella County portion of the seat in 2014 and then lost it in 2016. How does that make any sense, other than it’s the latest and most painful chapter (for Democrats) with this district playing Lucy Van Pelt to the Democrats’ Charlie Brown in snatching away the football before he can kick it.

Here’s another strange one that party strategists surely will spend time analyzing. Of the 16 closest races, eight came in seats that were almost or totally off the political radar screen as far as attention and investment by the two parties.

The third closest race in the state was the 50th District won by Rep.-elect Tim Sneller (D-Burton) by 4.1 percentage points. I was a bit surprised the Republicans made no moves here, given how the Genesee County exurbs have shifted away from Democrats, this was an open seat and the Republican candidate was a local elected official with credibility. That said, the Republicans had no need to play offense to keep the House. Spending resources here probably would have been questioned had the House GOP done it.

The seventh-closest race was in the 40th District, where Mr. Trump clearly hindered Rep. Michael McCready (R-Bloomfield Hills) as he won by 7 percentage points in a seat with a Republican base well bigger than that. Think about that though – Democrats with no outside help for their candidate came far closer to victory in the House seat with Birmingham, Bloomfield Township and Bloomfield Hills than the Macomb County seats where they heavily invested, the Lenawee County seat where they spent significant money and especially the Alpena-area seat where their candidate got destroyed by 26.5 points.

One has to wonder if Democrats have regrets about the 20th District, where they had a well-funded, well-organized candidate in Colleen Pobur of Plymouth Township whom they ceased assisting late in the race. She lost by 7.1 percentage points. In a high-income, high-educated area where Mr. Trump struggled (much like the 40th), spending big in this seat (instead of say the Van Buren County seat where the demographics were less favorable and they lost big again) might have paid off.

Another surprise was in the 48th District, where Rep. Pam Faris (D-Clio) won by 7.6 percentage points. This one was totally off the radar, but clearly Mr. Trump’s strength in Genesee County outside of Flint and its inner-ring suburbs is going to prompt a long look by both parties at whether previously held assumptions should be revisited.

The 17th District was, as we know now, the big shocker of Election Day with Rep.-elect Joe Bellino (R-Monroe) toppling Rep. Bill LaVoy (D-Monroe) by 8 percentage points. There was some buzz about this seat as a sleeper and Mr. Bellino’s effort had impressed Democrats, but no one was betting on him winning, let alone by 8 points. Mr. Trump dominated in Monroe County.

If the Democrats knew in September what they know now, they might have gone into a defensive crouch, gone to DefCon 1 for Mr. LaVoy and limited their focus to fewer offensive opportunities to come in with overwhelming force. That’s unfair of course. In late September, when Mr. Trump showed signs of going into free-fall, the thinking understandably was to go big and try to flip the nine seats needed for majority.

The Republicans probably would not change much. Surely, they are looking to 2018 and thinking about targeting Mr. Sneller and going after Ms. Faris’ seat, which will be open, as well as other open seats now held by Democrats in competitive areas. They also are likely looking at the McCready seat, which will be open, and thinking that cannot be taken for granted and pondering who will run to replace the term-limited Rep. Klint Kesto (R-Commerce Township), who won by 8.1 points, though he barely cleared 50 percent (there was an independent candidate who won more than 7 percent of the vote).

Yes, that’s how strange 2016 was in the Michigan House. It leaves us ignoring, for 2018, longtime competitive ground like Alpena, Adrian, Monroe and Mount Pleasant and instead turning our eyes to Birmingham and Burton.

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Rethinking The Governor’s Race In The Context Of Trump

Posted: November 29, 2016 4:17 PM

One of the lessons of President-elect Donald Trump’s surprise victory is not to rely too heavily on traditional measures when it comes to analyzing an election.

Mr. Trump was outspent, out-numbered in staff, got dominated on the airwaves, trailed in most polls, conducted himself in a way that broke all the molds for a winning presidential candidate (running with an angry, doom and gloom edge as opposed to the optimism about the country’s future that pervaded winning campaign’s post-Nixon). He struggled in two of the three debates.

But some traditional metrics held, namely the power of the change argument (the candidate of the party in charge of the White House for two consecutive terms was 1-6 starting in 1952). The candidate who inspired more passion among his/her voters again won. We also cannot overlook that for the 45th consecutive time, the country elected a man to the presidency, defeating the first woman nominated by a major political party for the office.

How do we reconcile these crosscurrents in the context of the upcoming 2018 open seat race for governor in Michigan?

Both parties are expected to field, by traditional measures, strong candidates.

On the Republican side, Lt. Governor Brian Calley and Attorney General Bill Schuette both are raising big money already. Both have many years of involvement in Republican politics. They know the drill.

Mr. Schuette has the useful perch of attorney general from which to run and a long resume (U.S. representative, Michigan Department of Agriculture director, state senator, Court of Appeals judge and now attorney general). He’s got a knack for retail politics.

Mr. Calley would have the blessing and curse of carrying the banner for the incumbent Snyder administration, a blessing because he can point to the administration’s successes and a curse because his opponents can link him to its defeats. Lt. Governors John Cherry Jr., Dick Posthumus and Jim Brickley saw their gubernatorial bids fail with Mr. Cherry and Mr. Brickley unable even to get past their party’s primary. He’d have youth on his side (he’ll be 40 when the campaign gets rolling).

On the Democratic side, there’s U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) and Ingham County Prosecutor Gretchen Whitmer, the former Senate minority leader.

Mr. Kildee has local and federal experience and has received enormous publicity in the past year for his efforts on the Flint water crisis. Ms. Whitmer has high level legislative experience, having worked the Appropriations process as minority vice chair in the House and risen to minority leader in the Senate. Both have strong built strong followings with Michigan Democrats.

But I can’t help but wonder, even as the early focus among those who work in and around Michigan politics and those of us who cover it is on these four names, whether someone – or someones – will shake up the race with an unexpected bid, similar to Mr. Trump. For that matter, who saw Mr. Snyder winning the Republican nomination when he entered the race against three far better-known Republican figures in the 2010 election?

There’s going to be an opening in both primaries for an outsider, someone not now in state or federal government, or only having recently arrived in one of those spots, to channel the same type of message that Mr. Trump, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and, yes, even Mr. Snyder used to win elections in this state.

Specific names of who could (and would want to) capitalize on that kind of message, I do not know. But Mr. Calley is joined at the hip to the incumbent administration and Mr. Schuette has served in government essentially for the last three decades. There’s an opening for someone to make the case provided they can capture the imagination of the Republican electorate and raise enough money to get their message out. When I recently spoke to Mr. Schuette, he didn’t want to say much about 2018, but one thing he did say is the “key thing” for 2018 is that “it has to be fresh. It can’t be more of the same.”

Mr. Kildee and Ms. Whitmer have an advantage over someone running on a Sanders-type platform in the Democratic primary to the extent that either would still represent an enormous change from Mr. Snyder, Democrats are hungry to win back the governor’s office and they will have the chance to denounce Mr. Trump early and often. Still, the space is there for someone with a populist platform a la Mr. Sanders.

Sure, the race could play out as expected without any surprises.

But if the 2016 presidential race taught us anything, it was to expect the unexpected. Or not to expect the expected. Or something like that.

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Revisiting Election Analysis: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Posted: November 22, 2016 3:42 PM

Before putting the 2016 election to bed, it seemed worthwhile to review some blog posts through the year to revisit what I had wrong since that happened more than I would like and on occasion what I had right.

As reporters, we review and critique candidates, elected officials, pollsters, political consultants and much more, it’s only fair to look in the mirror.

This was an election year that busted all conventional wisdom. As part of a media panel this fall the day after the first presidential debate, one of the questions was who we thought won that first encounter between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

I said at the time that by any traditional measure, Ms. Clinton mopped the floor with him. But then I also said that seemingly every time this year I thought Mr. Trump had erred or suffered a major setback, that usually proved not to be the case, so in the end I was uncomfortable saying who really won because Mr. Trump was tearing up all the usual rules in elections and writing new ones.

That’s the kind of year it was.

THE FIEGER-TRUMP COMPARISON WAS FLAWED: In February, I compared Mr. Trump to Geoffrey Fieger, the 1998 nominee for governor in Michigan, because of their penchant for trashing the establishment in their party in caustic, insulting terms. I suggested Mr. Trump was poised to do to Michigan Republicans what Mr. Fieger did to Michigan Democrats in 1998 – wreck the entire ticket.

Ooof. Talk about a whiff.

Not only did Mr. Trump win the presidency and put Michigan in the Republican column for the first time since 1988, but Republicans maintained all their seats in the U.S. House and held onto the 63-47 majority they won in the 2014 election for the Michigan House, only the second time in the term limits era that Democrats failed to gain seats in the Michigan House in the presidential cycle.

Yes, Mr. Trump’s style was very similar to Mr. Fieger’s. But the comparison failed for at least two reasons.

One, the pure hatred Republicans hold for Ms. Clinton was far more intense and widespread than the dislike Democrats held for Mr. Fieger’s opponent, two-term Republican Governor John Engler. Yes, some Democrats hated Mr. Engler, but people at Fieger rallies were not en masse calling for his imprisonment. Mr. Engler pulled more than 60 percent of the vote with a solid majority of the state content with his record and unwilling to hand the keys to Mr. Fieger.

Two, 1998 does not equal 2016. The partisan divide, while strong then, was not what it is now and there were a greater number of independent-minded voters.

Most Republicans in the end rallied to Mr. Trump. And enough voters who supported President Barack Obama either stayed home or flipped to Mr. Trump to put him over the top.

CORRECT ABOUT THE REPUBLICANS LIKELY TO KEEP THE STATE HOUSE, WRONG ABOUT DEMOCRATS MAKING GAINS: Everyone got this one wrong. Privately, House Republicans were telling people around town that they expected to win 61 seats in the closing weeks of the election, down from 63. That still would have represented a great performance for them by holding Democrats to less than the five-seat gain they have averaged in the term limits era in presidential election years, especially with all the open seats where term limits deprived the GOP of incumbents to seek re-election.

Michigan Republican Party Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel publicly predicted a 57-53 Republican majority in the House. And given that Republicans were not going on the offense anywhere with their investments, it seemed impossible that Democrats would not gain seats.

That said, it appeared consistent throughout the year that Democrats were going to fall short of the nine seats they needed to gain for majority. Five of the seats that were in play were in Macomb County or north of Clare, and it was clear Mr. Trump was going to dominate in those areas, creating bad dynamics for Democrats. And as I wrote, while Republicans have emerged as the dominant party in once competitive outstate areas, Democrats, while on the rise, have yet to gain sufficient strength in higher-income, higher-educated suburban areas traditionally dominated by the GOP to make seats there truly competitive.

It was easy to come up with how Democrats could gain four or five seats. But nine? No.

What turned the conventional wisdom on its ear and left Democrats with the same 47 seats as they had after the 2014 elections was Mr. Trump swamping the state outside of Oakland and Wayne counties. Subtract those two counties and Mr. Trump won the rest of the state by a whopping 10 percentage points. Promising Democratic candidates were buried.

RIGHT ABOUT WHAT TRUMP WOULD NEED TO DO TO WIN MICHIGAN, WRONG ABOUT WHETHER HE WOULD DO IT: In June, I looked at what Mr. Trump’s roadmap to victory in Michigan would look like. I said he would need to hugely outperform the traditional Republican vote in Macomb County, need a considerably weaker turnout in Detroit, crank up turnout with white voters outstate and need third party candidates to siphon away support from Ms. Clinton.

Every one of those things happened.

But I thought it unlikely that all four of those factors would in fact occur and said then that Mr. Trump was unlikely to win the state (*face flushes, awkwardly loosens tie*).

‘KNOLLENBERGMAN EFFECT’: I didn’t flat-out predict Jack Bergman was going to win the 1st U.S. House District Republican primary, but I feel good about this post.

POLITICAL REALIGNMENT ON STATE HOUSE SEATS: In September, I wrote that Michigan Democrats were facing serious problems in the Michigan House because outstate, mostly white, traditionally competitive districts with relatively low percentages of voters with bachelor’s degrees were moving in large numbers to the Republicans. Additionally, Democrats had not yet built enough momentum in suburban, increasingly diverse, highly educated districts traditionally in the GOP column to flip them to their side. That scenario played out.

MARINO ATTACKS DIDN’T STICK: After the Democrats bombarded Republican Steve Marino of Harrison Township with attacks based off of a series of clandestinely obtained audio recordings in which he made a number of statements he later recanted or were politically problematic, or both, I wrote that it seemed like a great bet for Democrats to win both Macomb County House seats under heavy competition. So massive was the Trump wave in Macomb County that the Republicans won both and neither was close.


RECOGNITION OF TRUMP SURGE, CHANCE TO WIN: On November 1, I wrote that Mr. Trump had stabilized in Michigan and nationally, Republicans were coming home and that had complicated the ability of House Democrats to make big gains in the Michigan House (true). I also wrote that Ms. Clinton remained the favorite (meh). Then on November 3, I wrote about how absentee ballot numbers out of Detroit were way down from 2012, how that could portend big trouble for Ms. Clinton and that several signs suggested Mr. Trump would make the election close.

Better late than never, I suppose.

This year was a reminder of the stock market axiom that past performances are not a guarantee of future results.

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Signs Are There For Trump Making Michigan Close

Posted: November 3, 2016 12:45 PM

Several critical developments are coming together in the final days of the presidential election that clearly have produced serious concern among Michigan Democrats and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign about ensuring she wins the state.

They *should* be concerned.

The biggest development, first reported here at Gongwer News Service for our subscribers, is that absentee ballot returns in overwhelmingly Democratic Detroit are well below where they were in 2012 (See Gongwer Michigan Report, November 2, 2016). I contacted several clerks in Michigan’s large cities Wednesday and most of them reported that they are on pace to match absentee ballot returns from 2012 with the current returns as of Wednesday at about two-thirds to three-quarters of the total absentee vote in 2012.

But Detroit as of Wednesday had seen absentee ballots returns equaling just 46 percent of the total 2012 absentee vote in the city, and the city clerk’s office is forecasting a decline of 10,000 absentee ballots compared to 2012, a fall of 12.5 percent.

Now, it’s possible that Detroit voters are taking more time with their ballots given the more than 60 candidates on the ballot for school board. It’s also possible more voters will decide to vote at precincts on Election Day, meaning while absentee ballots returns falls, total votes do not.

But it’s also possible that the falloff portends reduced voting at the precincts, in which case, according to my back-of-the-napkin math, Ms. Clinton could net something like 32,000 fewer votes out of the city than President Barack Obama did in 2012.

Earlier this year, I went through an exercise when Donald Trump was at a low point, yet putting considerable emphasis on Michigan, to see what it would take for him to win the state. Michigan has gone Democratic in six consecutive elections with the last two being huge wins for Mr. Obama.

One of those factors was the potential for a decline in the vote out of Detroit given the absence of Mr. Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, on the ballot. It does not appear Democrats are staring at as dire a falloff as I estimated would be needed to really