by Jordyn Hermani, Staff Writer
Digging Into The Electoral Vote By Congressional District Concept
In the wake of the 2020 presidential election, many Republicans have turned to social media to vent that certain Democratic-leaning patches of the country seem to control the outcome of national races, and the current way of allocating Electoral College votes in most states seems to disenfranchise rural voters.
Usually this is accompanied by a map showing the United States as a massive red landmass freckled occasionally with blue-colored areas –the idea being that the country is mostly ruby red, save for clusters of Democratic voters.
At face value, it would seem Democratic votes have more weight than Republican ones and disproportionately control the outcome of major elections.
One of the ideas to come up as a method of combatting this problem? Allocating Electoral College votes on a congressional district-by-district basis, rather than have Michigan use a winner-take-all approach – as is used in 47 other states and the District of Columbia. Maine and Nebraska allocate two votes to the statewide winner and then one vote to the winner of each U.S. House district in the state.
U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland) recently floated that thought in a Facebook post earlier this month as a possible way to better allocate votes so that half the nation, every four years, isn't offput by the outcome of the presidential election.
"If Michigan were to end the winner-take-all system of Electoral College votes and instead break it up by congressional district, it would make campaigning in our state much more balanced," he wrote. "This would remove Detroit's outsized influence and encourage candidates to compete for votes in each congressional district across the entire state, not just the big cities. The end result would make your vote here in West Michigan even more important."
What Mr. Huizenga – and other Republicans, as he certainly isn't the first and probably won't be the last to suggest this – offers seems (like the maps) on its face to be a good idea. It's an answer to the question: How do we make every vote really count?
The problem is every vote already counts.
Michigan's 14 U.S. House districts are, for the most part, already set in partisan stone. There is as much likelihood of a Democratic presidential candidate losing the 9th, 12th, 13th or 14th districts as there is a Republican presidential candidate losing the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 7th and 10th U.S. House districts. Only the 3rd, 5th, 6th, 8th and 11th Districts were decided by less than 5 percentage points.
That means had such a system been in place in the past three presidential elections, instead of 16 electoral votes at stake, there would have been seven (two for the statewide winner, five total for the five competitive U.S. House districts).
In the 2020 election, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump each would have received eight electoral votes. In 2016, Mr. Trump would have had 11 and Hillary Clinton would have had five. In 2012, President Barack Obama would have had seven votes to Mitt Romney's nine with a newly drawn map's Republican leanings having much greater force than once the map aged, considering Mr. Obama won statewide by nearly 10 points.
Even after a designed to be neutral system takes (theoretically) partisan considerations out of reapportionment this year, the clustering of residents by party in parts of the state has led to sharp partisan divides that do not seem likely to change, should the system Mr. Huizenga floats be put in place. Republicans would win traditionally GOP-leaning areas of the state, as Democrats would take traditionally Democratic leaning areas.
Any way that's sliced, it ends up an almost even split for our state's Electoral College votes between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidate, diminishing the importance of Michigan at the national level.
Further, changing Michigan's system it wouldn't force any more statewide campaigning than what already occurs.
In the 2020 election season, former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden did go across the state to get their name out. Mr. Trump, especially, crisscrossed Michigan in his final months on the campaign trail to fire up his voting base, visiting northern and western Michigan in addition to the Detroit area.
And we don't have to theorize whether candidates would or wouldn't spend more time campaigning across all areas of the state, should this be implemented: Look at Nebraska.
Of its three U.S. House districts, the only one to draw any political attention in 2020 was its 2nd U.S. House district due to its tossup status. Former President Barack Obama won this district in 2008, making him the first Democratic president to ever do so, though Mr. Trump won it back in 2016. Mr. Biden, however, became the second Democrat this past November to win it, and it gained him a singular electoral vote for his troubles.
Their system didn't encourage Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump to visit every corner of Nebraska, only focus on the one in play. It's reasonable to assume the same would happen in Michigan, with candidates focusing on the 3rd, 5th, 6th, 8th and 11th.
Mr. Trump spent time in places like Muskegon and Traverse City. Republicans might be disinclined to do so under Mr. Huizenga's proposal because both areas are within solidly Republican U.S. House districts. And what of Wayne County, usually a place Democratic candidates lavish with attention because of its enormous Democratic vote?
Instead of needing to work the whole state, candidates would likely camp out in Berrien, Kalamazoo, Kent, Genesee, Saginaw, Oakland, Ingham and Livingston counties. That's eight of the state's 83 counties.
How is that an improvement?
There will always be a winner and a loser. Those who win today may find themselves losing the next time around.
That's life.Back to top
MDOC Survey Shows Some Want For COVID Vax Among Inmates, Staff
While a coronavirus vaccine has not yet become available to prisoners in Michigan yet, as of Thursday roughly four out of 10 inmates say they will be vaccinated as soon as they are able.
Of the more than 23,000 inmates surveyed by the Department of Corrections regarding if they would be interested in taking a coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available, 63 percent – or roughly 14,190 inmates – indicate they "definitely, or probably will" get it.
Another 18 percent – about 4,140 inmates – said they were unsure if they would be vaccinated, possibly needing more time or information before making the decision.
Even if two-thirds of those who answered they were still mulling vaccination do get inoculated, that would mean exactly half – about 16,950 inmates – of MDOC's prisoner population would be able to better fight off COVID-19 in an environment where social distancing measures are less realistic than outside facility walls.
Staff, too, have mostly been in favor of being vaccinated as soon as they are able. Although survey response numbers were less than that of inmates – only about 4,700 employees responded of the between 12,000 and 13,000 people MDOC employs – initial answers boded well: About 54 percent indicated they would also "definitely, or probably" receive a vaccine.
The survey is also ongoing, meaning a clearer picture of MDOC's vaccine needs could become more apparent as time goes on. But the key will come down to not just the agency being able to vaccinate but that inmates and staff will want the vaccination when the time comes.
MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz said there is a "continuing education piece" among staff to encourage taking the vaccine, but that it will not be mandatory. Still, if the agency hopes to stifle the disease then a hard push on education among prisoners must also be encouraged.
As of January 7, 121 inmates have died from COVID-19 and there are nearly 6,700 active cases of the virus among prisoners across all state facilities with two, the Carson City and Chippewa correctional facilities, seeing positive case counts of more than 1,000 inmates each.
On the staff side, to date, four have died and another 3,125 have been sickened by COVID-19. While some staff – mostly those who are health care providers within MDOC – can and have been vaccinated, it's still a waiting game for prisoners.
Elderly prisoners older than 75 fall under Phase 1B vaccination efforts with all other elderly Michiganders; those 65 to 74-years-old fall into Phase 1C, alongside prisoners of any age with health complications that put them at a highier risk of a negative COVID-19 outcome.
For all otherwise healthy prisoners older than 16, they fall into Phase 2 – just like the rest of the population without health complications seeking a vaccine.
Because a prison is, effectively, a petri dish for any virus at any given time, it is especially pertinent vaccine education for staff and inmates is continued so that those who are inoculated outnumber those who are not – suffocating COVID-19 out of MDOC facilities for the safety of all who work or reside there.Back to top
School Support Staff Retirements Are Trending Up – What That Means Is Unclear
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, a teacher shortage in Michigan was already a topic of concern.
At the start of 2020, the House heard testimony of how a shortage of properly certified educators – or just a lack of people in general – has caused schools to fill K-12 positions with long-term substitutes or teachers that lack the proper certification to teach the course they are instructing.
It was something the state had been warned of as a possibility the year prior, in a report from the Citizens Research Council, and has been talked of for years leading up to this point.
Now in November, nine months into the pandemic, that fear of shortage hasn't changed – though priority may have shifted some.
During the State Board of Education's October meeting, Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice noted Michigan had not seen a drastic uptick in teacher retirements from the onset of the pandemic until then. Year-over-year, he said, retirement rates had continued to trend as normal at the state level.
"There is not … a greater out migration from the profession that we would have expected, based on the last four years of data," Mr. Rice told board members. "Now, with respect to support staff, our retirements are up in the MPSRS system."
Data from the Michigan Education Association – one of the state's largest education unions – obtained Tuesday backs this claim, with the group indicating they are already starting to see a steady year-over-year rise in member retirements.
In September 2017, the MEA reported 421 member retirements. That number dropped to 408 in September 2019 but has leapt to 685 as of September 2020. Similarly, 242 members retired in October 2017, 288 members retired in October of 2019 and 440 members retired as of October 2020.
The organization did not provide specifics as to why these members retired nor who they were; the group allows membership for not just teachers but all education employees. But it's not just teachers we should be concerned with when weighing the possibility of a shortage.
It was a fear many had at the start of the year – that a pivot to distance or virtual learning would cause some educators to retire or simply leave the profession early for several reasons: inability to want to relearn how to teach on new technology, health concerns, added stress and so on.
As of November, it appears that while teaching staff are having their own issues – the number of educators instructing topics they were not endorsed to teach has increased or stayed steady in 14 subject fields, for one – they have not reported a dramatic increase in retirements.
It's not great, Michigan effectively treading water when it comes to net in-migration between out-migration of the teaching profession, but it's a problem the state can continue to address. However, if there is to be an uptick in support staff retirements? That is a different issue.
School support staff are teachers' aides, bus drivers and monitors, janitors, preschool care givers; they're receptionists, security guards, maintenance personnel, line cooks, before or after school care givers, playground monitors and much more to a school.
If teachers are the heart of a child's education, then these individuals are the blood that pumps to make sure things keep running smoothly. And if we're starting to hemorrhage these careers – possibly as a result of the virus, possibly as a result of a historic disenfranchisement of the education profession in its entirety – something has to be done before children pay the price.
The answer to "what," however, is still unclear.Back to top
Numerous Whitmer Recall Efforts Doomed To Fail Sans Unified Movement
In covering Board of State Canvasser meetings over the past few months, one thing has become abundantly clear: people love submitting recall petitions against Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
Whether they're merited is beside the point. People have the right to petition a recall of an elected official whenever they choose and for whatever reason, so long as the language within the document is clear and factual, according to the guidelines the canvassers abide by.
It's not so much that people are attempting to recall the governor – it's the way they're doing it.
There are at least eight active recall petitions circulating against Ms. Whitmer as of September 16, 2020, by Gongwer's best estimates. An official list from the Bureau of Elections was due to be released sometime last week, but an official with the Department of State later amended that the list would be made public either later this week or early next.
Regardless of how many recall petitions are active, however, it stands to reason that any number higher than one is too many as to trigger a recall election against a statewide official organizers would need to collect more than 1 million signatures in 60 days.
If pro-recall individuals were serious about wanting to remove the governor, the only way they could hope to do that is through some sort of coalesced movement.
It's largely the reason why the Unlock Michigan petition is looking to be successful. Besides money, there is a pointed and unified movement behind attempting to rollback Ms. Whitmer's emergency powers through one citizen lead petition initiative. Were there multiple petitions seeking to accomplish the same goal, it's likely they collectively would be able to get the necessary number of signatures to file. Still, those signatures would mean nothing, as they'd be gathered on eight different documents that don't meet the threshold rather than one that does.
There was one known attempt to try and unify under a petition submitted by a Chad Baase, a former Republican candidate in the 62nd House District. That movement, however, fractured when parts of Mr. Baase's team accused him of attempting to embezzle funds from the recall effort for personal use – a charge which Mr. Baase has continued to deny, though has acknowledged money is missing from the campaign's coffers.
That same team has since submitted a new petition to recall the governor without Mr. Baase, submitting an exact copy of a recall petition Mr. Baase's had already approved on June 8 – except this time, without any mention of Mr. Baase's involvement. The petition saw no action, however, given the convoluted nature of trying to submit an already approved petition simply because a group had a falling out.
Clearly, uniting behind one recall effort is a bit more complex than it seems.
And while the signature threshold is significantly less when gathering for a petition initiative rather than a recall, and efforts have more time to collect signatures for a petition initiative, the fact there is no one movement attempting to recall Ms. Whitmer effectively is making it so that the plane has crashed before it ever left the runway.
Without a unified movement, there is no chance Ms. Whitmer – let alone any other elected official whose name has come before the canvassers within the past month for recall – will be removed from office. Whether there will ever be one, too, remains to be seen.Back to top
As Universities Return And COVID Cases Rise, State's Hands Are Tied
What, if anything, can be done regarding the rise in new coronavirus cases at university campuses across Michigan as some opt for a return to in-person, face-to-face learning?
At the state level? Largely nothing.
Despite a letter made public Tuesday from roughly 250 university students, faculty and staff across the state asking Governor Gretchen Whitmer for leadership and guidance regarding a push for virtual instruction, she does not have the ability to do much more than publicly recommend ideas from her position.
That's due to the separation of powers between state government and university boards of control in the Michigan Constitution, otherwise known as the autonomy clause, which grants to university boards "general supervision of the institution and the control and direction of all expenditures from the institution's funds."
Even if Ms. Whitmer wanted to use executive powers to force universities to close or try to use state appropriations to universities as leverage, she would have no power to do so. No executive orders could force these institutions to move to largely online schooling. Nothing, outside of perhaps a public shaming, could be done to force the universities that have opened to mostly in-person schooling to now pivot toward online, remote education.
Looking at the state of Michigan's public universities, it's a hodgepodge regarding approach. The reason being is that each university exists in an environment different from the next – that returning to school in person at Michigan State University, whose campus is basically fused with East Lansing's downtown, is very different than returning to in-person learning at Western Michigan University, which poses less of a risk to quickly infecting a greater population with the virus.
The one thing that has held true, however, is that regardless of if the institution has chosen a fully virtual, fully in-person or a hybrid approach of the two regarding back to school – it's unclear if that will make a difference if students choose to not follow COVID-19 prevention efforts off campus.
It's been a little more than a week since Central Michigan University has opted, largely, to return to on-campus, face-to-face instruction and since then the coronavirus case count of its home county has jumped so drastically that Isabella County has declared a public health emergency. That's because despite its best efforts on-campus, reports from students on social media continue to show widespread parties with little mask use and even smaller amounts of social distancing.
Indeed, the university Monday reported it's already grappling with three separate outbreaks of COVID-19 off-campus, one of which was traced back to a fraternity house which subsequently resulted in the halting of Greek life entirely at CMU.
At University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus – although classes aren't due to start until August 31 – photos of students partying at fraternity houses without masks and with little social distance are already making the rounds on social media. U-M has opted to taking a hybrid approach, though a spokesperson with the institution said roughly 70 percent of undergraduate students chose to take online courses.
And at MSU, which did pivot to largely online instruction a week ago in light of mass outbreaks of COVID-19 at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill – and whose return to school policy was similar to the one MSU intended to employ on its campus – it seems even that has not deterred students from moving into the downtown area, or areas around campus, and completely disregarding any virus-prevention efforts. Living in the area and having a partner who works in downtown East Lansing, it's not out of the ordinary for either of us to see gatherings at house parties in areas of the city known for student housing; and those gatherings rarely feature masks or social distancing.
And yet, because most – if not all – of these instances are occurring off campus, there's nothing these students' respective universities can do about it. Further, while all of the counties in which these universities reside – Isabella, Washtenaw and Ingham counties, respectively – have public health orders in place that limit the amount of people at indoor and outdoor gatherings, as well as mask use, it seems like there's been no effect on any of it.
So, again – what can be done? In talks with public health officials, again and again two topics come up: local police enforcing these orders and people observing them in the first place.
But for that to happen, especially the second topic, that would require people to buy into the idea that not only is the virus real and a threat, but that people may have to be inconvenienced for a little while if it means getting rid of the virus faster – rather than ignoring orders and all but welcoming in a second wave of COVID-19 in communities.
Will that happen? If history is anything to go by, it seems unlikely, whether the governor can intervene or not. Until people, students included, begin taking the virus seriously however – which seems to be the only way we'll all get through this – then the stories of outbreaks and deaths will continue.
And it seems the only people who can prevent that is us, and our choices, as individuals.Back to top
This Is A Wild Lawsuit, Even For Robert Davis
What's the best way to circulate political literature in the Wayne County area that anonymously urges voters not to support the reelection of county prosecutor Kym Worthy, out of fear you might see retaliation if your name is forced to be put on the document?
You file a lawsuit about it, with your full name, in the U.S. District Court in Detroit.
That's not a punchline. That's a fact.
Serial litigator Robert Davis filed suit against Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett Sunday, alleging he feared revenge from high profile county officials should he be forced to put his name on literature encouraging people to vote Ms. Worthy out of office come November.
Mr. Davis, citing Michigan Compiled Law, says the state is forcing him to print his name on any form of campaign-related literature he wishes to distribute anonymously, which puts him at risk of retaliation from members of the Wayne County Election Commission, Ms. Worthy, Ms. Garrett and Wayne County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Kenny.
Mr. Davis states that he has received calls from persons associated with Ms. Worthy, who have "sent word and subtle threats … warning (Mr.) Davis that Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy is 'going to get him.'"
"Due to these threats and Kym Worthy's position of influence as the Wayne County Prosecutor, Plaintiff Davis does not want to have to put his name or be required to form a committee under Michigan's Campaign Finance Act," the suit reads.
But would it not be easier simply to send the literature anonymously, rather than put one's name on a court document, which very explicitly states who you are and what you plan to do?
The point is almost defeated by the sheer action of the lawsuit.
Nevertheless, Mr. Davis says he actively fears that Ms. Worthy and Mr. Kenny would seek to prosecute him under this law as he plans to send fliers regarding them specifically, which could result in a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine or a 93-day jail sentence, at most.
"Because Kym Worthy currently serves as the Wayne County Prosecutor and has a legal duty under Michigan Election Law and Michigan Campaign Finance Act to prosecute violations of either statute, Plaintiff Davis has a legitimate fear of being prosecuted if he chose to exercise his First Amendment right to print, circulate and have distributed anonymous campaign literature that is critical of Kym Worthy, Defendant County Clerk and Chief Judge Kenny," the suit states. "Although Plaintiff Davis is prepared and able to commence printing and distributing the anonymous campaign literature, Plaintiff Davis cannot proceed with printing and distributing the anonymous campaign literature due to the provisions of Mich. Comp. Laws."
What's also bizarre is Mr. Davis could in fact distribute virtually anonymous literature attached to a shell organization – call it "Detroiters for a Better Detroit" or whatever – and publish positive or negative information about a candidate as long as it did not call for their election or defeat without running afoul of Michigan law.
That charge isn't all the suit contains. A second portion of the suit also claims Ms. Benson violated his due process rights when mailing Mr. Davis an "unsolicited absentee voter application," which he claims violated his right to choose if he wanted an absentee ballot.
Whether he'll see merits on either argument, but specifically the first count, remains to be seen. Mr. Davis doesn't exactly have a track record of winning in court.
Again – perhaps just sending out the literature would have been cheaper than a lawsuit.Back to top
School Mask Wearing Enforcement Placing Trust In Good-Faith Actors
A little more than a week ago, Governor Gretchen Whitmer released her return to school roadmap, which emphasized a high level of sanitation and, in some cases, mask wearing for eligible students and teachers throughout the school day.
It's a move everyone saw coming, as parents and educators throughout the state clamored for guidance on how a safe return to in-person learning come fall would be possible. And while some questioned the basis for frequent mask wearing for teachers and older students throughout the entire school day, it's in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which Ms. Whitmer's administration has pointed through throughout the pandemic.
But what's still a matter of question is, possibly, the most important: Enforcement.
While districts must get their return to school plans approved prior to implementation, there's nothing explicitly stated within the guidelines how enforcement is meant to be handled. There are headings marked required and recommended throughout Phase 4 implementation, which then is cut down to just recommended and strongly recommended throughout the return to learning guidelines in Phase 5 and Phase 6.
A difference between a "requirement" and "recommendation," though, is not ever spelled out in terms of enforceability. There is no state law which requires students and teachers to wear masks throughout the day. Students and staff can forgo mask wearing entirely should it be found there's a medical condition in conflict with their ability to wear a face covering.
At this point, if people can get around the "requirement" through use of a doctor's note – which, school groups have noted, would be similar to how a person can receive an exemption for the requirement a student be vaccinated prior to enrolling at a school – and there's no real teeth behind the move: What is stopping anyone from simply not following it? From deciding that, because a parent does not believe masks effective, their child will not be wearing one this fall?
For some educators I've spoken with on the topic, the current answer is good faith and hope.
Faith in that, similar to vaccines, those who participate in mask wearing will far outweigh the risks of those don't. And hope that leading by example and encouraging mask wearing as a model thing to do will almost peer-pressure students into practicing safe social distancing and sanitary practices.
Is that going to be enough, though? For older teachers and substitutes, for children who are immunocompromised, for students who cannot wear a mask due to sensory issues or by virtue of being too young – is good faith and trust in people to do the right thing going to be sufficient?
It is still early in the process of fleshing out plans and getting children back in the classroom. And while returning to in-person learning is much needed, especially in both the rural and urban areas where a lack of broadband infrastructure or poverty makes distance learning difficult (if not impossible), how can the state make sure a return doesn't mean an exacerbation of the virus at the expense of teachers, administrators and staff who are at a higher risk of getting it in the first place?
Obviously, there is no one size fits all answer and schools will need to determine, at their own pace, what enforcement means for them. What works for the Bois Blanc Pines School District might not work in Grand Rapids Public Schools. But it also shouldn't be a question left unanswered.
Let's hope there's an answer by the start of the in-person school year. Or, at least, further clarification on how strict a requirement truly is.Back to top
2nd Civil Rights Director Search Highlights Larger Agency Morale Issue
In June, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights made the decision to – after nearly a year without an executive director leading the agency – start over in its search for the "right" candidate.
This was done despite months of internal meetings and reviews, which had the Civil Rights Commission landing on two candidates – Harvey Hollins, a former aide to then-Governor Rick Snyder during the Flint water crisis, and former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Conrad Mallett.
Both had their own issues, according to agency staff: Mr. Hollins' name was still closely linked with the infrastructure crisis which sickened, and potentially killed, Flint residents; and Mr. Mallett was seen as being more interested as running the department like a for-profit business than as an agency focused on the betterment of civil rights in Michigan.
These characterizations come following a staff survey of MDCR employees, who were only officially brought in on the process after Mr. Mallett had dropped out of the running entirely to take up the position of Detroit deputy mayor (See Gongwer Michigan Report, June 19, 2020).
And even with these responses – many of which called out the commission by name as having unfairly expedited the process at the expense of staff participation – the body still attempted, although failed, to vote Mr. Hollins through to receiving the position.
It's not a stretch to say morale is low at the department. It's also not a stretch to say that low morale is exacerbated by the lack of leadership in the department, which has seen multiple people fill the executive director role in the last decade alone.
This department, especially now, cannot afford a lack of leadership.
An agency tasked with investigating serious civil rights violations across Michigan – and more recently, having been granted a seat on the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards board – cannot afford to be considered by its own employees "a rudderless ship" or having "overall no accountability."
Should the commission have involved staff from the start – listened to the concerns of department employees rather than pushing onwards, convinced they had the best possible candidates based on their own assessment alone – it's possible the MDCR could have already placed an executive director in the role. But they didn't, and it hasn't, so now we must hope the commission lands on the right answer during this subsequent search.
The state could benefit from a strong civil rights voice now perhaps more than ever. Between conversations on police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affecting Black individuals more so than white, there is a need for Michigan to have a strong, unified department that is brought together by a leader who understands the values of the department and can forward the goal of civil rights achievement.
Hopefully, this body can get it right the second time around.Back to top
COVID Tech Shift Allowing For More Accessibility To Gov't Meetings
Since the stay home order has taken effect, government entities of all sorts are turning to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Facebook Live and other forms of livestream so their business can be observed in compliance with the Open Meetings Act.
It's been interesting to watch how different organizations and institutions are making that happen.
For some, especially non-journalists, it's allowing for the observance of things like the Enbridge Line 5 court hearing against Attorney General Dana Nessel, or an inside look into what the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy is doing during its U.P. Energy Task Force meetings.
Suddenly, things that were hundreds of miles away and would take all day to attend have entered into our houses, onto our phones and computers, and given us the ability to stay informed about what our state, the courts and other organizations are doing during the pandemic – not just about the pandemic, but commencing with business as usual.
Even officials are taking notice of how this has opened up access to government proceedings. At one point during the livestream, more than 7,000 people tuned in to watch a May 15 Court of Claims hearing wherein the state Legislature sued Governor Gretchen Whitmer, alleging she is misusing her emergency powers.
No courtroom in the world would be able to house that many attendees.
While there are drawbacks to this sort of function – particularly for individuals with visual or audio disabilities – it shouldn't mean the state wholesale does away with online streaming services as soon as in-person meetings should commence. That goes for the federal courts as well.
Are there issues with conducting meetings this way? Yes. Buffering problems, audio failures, dropped calls – to name a few – abound when trying to use livestreaming services.
But because the state is being forced to use them during the ongoing pandemic, this is a chance to see these services be workshopped so that they can function in a more streamlined way. This is a chance for institutions – like the courts, like various government task forces – to invite the public in and help dispel that mistrust of bureaucracy, by allowing them first-hand to see what's discussed and how decisions are reached.
If anything comes out of the aftermath of this pandemic, it should be a commitment to more and better transparency when it comes to meetings that affect the average citizen. We should see embrace the power of technology and the accessibility it offers, not spurn it as soon as in-person meetings can recommence.Back to top
SOS Asking Gov To Extend Filing Deadline To May 12 For November Ballot
The Department of State is asking Governor Gretchen Whitmer to extend Michigan's April 21 candidate filing deadline to May 12 in light of social distancing concerns stemming from possible spread of the new coronavirus.
Tracy Wimmer, spokesperson for the Department of State, said the department has asked Ms. Whitmer for the three-week extension when asked by Gongwer News Service if the idea was under consideration.
Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown said Thursday the office is reviewing the request and has no timeframe or additional information to share right now.
Filing candidacy paperwork is due to the Bureau of Elections by 4 p.m. April 21 to be eligible for a slew of November ballot positions, including appeals, circuit, district or probate court judgeships for non-incumbent candidates and partisan local, state and federal offices.
The most high-profile candidates potentially facing problems in ballot access are those for U.S. House, where candidates must submit valid signatures from at least 1,000 registered voters with a maximum submission of 2,000 signatures allowed. Signature-gathering requires the kind of person-to-person contact now considered verboten amid calls to socially distance to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Very few of the expected candidates for the state's 14 U.S. House districts have filed their petitions so far. The two major U.S. Senate candidates, Republican John James and U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township), filed their petitions long ago.
Many of the candidates running for Congress interviewed by Gongwer News Service indicated they were either finishing a once-over of the signatures gathered and planned to file well before the deadline, or that they planned to meet the deadline but still needed some additional signatures.
Michael Gerstein, campaign manager for State Board of Education member Nikki Snyder, who is running for Congress in the 8th U.S. House District, said the pandemic will create a struggle for those looking to file regardless of their status as an incumbent or not.
He pointed to judges, with their increased signature requirement rate, and incumbents running in uncontested races as being particularly vulnerable to the lack of face-to-face time with constituents. While the Snyder campaign isn't worried about their ability to file on time, as "we've been collecting signatures for a while," Mr. Gerstein said those who have waited until the last minute are now stuck in a never-before-experienced problem.
"I'm an advocate for the deadline being extended. I know right now, there's a large portion of signature collection that is volunteer base and there's no one right now volunteering to get signatures," he said. "Even your paid guys are basically taking this week off … no one is working because of quarantine, social distancing and everything."
Mr. Gerstein did emphasize that by not officially approving a deadline change, people could be spooked into signature gathering now and thus further exposing people to the COVID-19. By approving an extension, it would "at least put people a little bit at ease."
Candidates who have already filed their petition signatures include U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills), U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), and Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo) who is looking to unseat U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Saint Joseph) in the 6th U.S. House District.
The campaigns of U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton), U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), Grand Rapids business executive Peter Meijer in the 3rd U.S. House district, Rep. Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron) in the 10th U.S. House District and Attorney Eric Esshaki in the 11th U.S. House District all indicated they would be filing according to the April 21 deadline at or above the signatory threshold.
Still, there are some candidates sweating making the deadline should Ms. Whitmer not approve the change.
Kimberly Bizon, a Democratic environmental activist running in the 10th U.S. House district race, has already circulated to her supporters that her campaign has cancelled the rest of its petition signing events for the year but still needed aid in reaching the mandated threshold.
The campaign is turning to email as a means to get paperwork out to interested individuals, who would then have to turn the packet back into Bizon campaign workers via mail.
Paul Junge, a candidate looking to unseat U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) in the 8th U.S. House District, filed his petition signatures Thursday. He said while he could see the need for a deadline extension for the signatures, due to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, candidates who are looking at beginning signature gathering now are behind the curve.
"I think it's important to follow the law … I don't think these legal requirements are something that are about convenience. There's a reason why this law exists," Mr. Junge said. "Any candidate that really has their act together, they don't wait until the last minute."Back to top
Pure Michigan Expands To Audio; Topped At No. 9 On New Age Charts
Michigan has finally found a way to bring the state park experience into your own home.
Or wherever you find yourself listening to music, really.
For the prominent Michigan travel advertisement campaign Pure Michigan, a stream isn't just a body of water anymore – it's a way to drive attention to the state on all platforms available. And it was so successful that the album Pure Michigan produced actually topped at No. 9 for a period of time on the Billboard New Age music charts.
The album Pure Sounds of Michigan, released by Pure Michigan in 2019, combines the ambient sounds of state parks with the musical interpretation of 12 different local musicians. It was completed in partnership with the Department of Natural Resources during its 100th anniversary.
This also makes Michigan the first state tourism office to ever put out an album.
"Sometimes, you really have to break through the clutter," said Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, told the House Commerce and Tourism Committee last week. "We wanted those noises to represent the experience at those state parks."
While it's the only album the campaign has released thus far, the Spotify playlist already boasts 422 followers and has notched more than 14 million impressions since its release, Mr. Lorenz said. Overall, it has around 4 million listens combined on Spotify and Pandora – and counting.
Whether Pure Michigan ends up putting out another album is still unknown; it's still a unique opportunity to take about an hour-long "virtual, sunrise-to-sunset tour of the state from coast to coast" (according to the playlist's description) that other states just don't offer.Back to top
Captain America Includes Michigan Faces In His Political Civility Project
Earlier last month, Captain America/Avengers star Chris Evans told the technology magazine Wired he has embarked on a journey which his on-screen comic book persona would be proud of: trying to get the American people more informed on what's going on with and within their government.
The website – called A Starting Point – allegedly is going to model itself similarly to Wikipedia, but instead of long slogs through texts on complex political terms and ideas, it would comprise video interviews with political leaders alongside easier to understand explanations. The thought, Mr. Evans to told Wired, was to get "a basic understanding, a basic history, and a basic grasp on what the two parties think" of any trending political hot topic. To be a database, not a platform.
While the website's not yet live, Mr. Evans has been gathering politicos to help film interviews for people who might use the site since as early as April 2019.
Who might some of those interviews be with? The film star hasn't said. But turning to Twitter, one might find two prominent Michigan political faces having recently posted photos of themselves with Mr. Evans: Governor Gretchen Whitmer and U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Saint Joseph).
Ms. Whitmer has not confirmed that her meeting with Mr. Evans was for his Starting Point project, though it seems likely, especially with the onslaught of other politicians across the country sharing selfies with Mr. Evans and endorsing his project.
Mr. Upton, however, enthusiastically signed on to the idea in his own post. Upton spokesperson Josh Paciorek confirmed the two talked about climate change, tax cuts and the national debt in their interview.
With Captain America himself, @ChrisEvans. Very excited about his project #AStartingPoint and the bipartisan dialogue it will bring to our politics.— Fred Upton (@RepFredUpton) February 12, 2020
It's about time we unite again as a nation. If not us, who? If not now, when? ???? pic.twitter.com/nM9nN9eOkZ
Whether there'll be other Michigan political faces to join in, who's to say? Even if it's only Ms. Whitmer and Mr. Upton who have participated in A Starting Point, it's important to see our state leaders included in a conversation about bipartisan civility. It's especially important, considering Michigan's voting habits in the last four years – with President Donald Trump having narrowly won the state in 2016, yet Democrats dominating in 2018, sweeping the top of the ticket and flipping some long-time Republican districts in the Legislature.Back to top
Speaking Up About Lucido Comments Was The Proper Response
It's the worst kept secret in the world: If you are a woman, regardless of your age or profession, comments will be made about you – sometimes even to your face.
Comments made by Sen. Pete Lucido (R-Shelby Township) are in the national media spotlight after he told a Capitol reporter that a group of teenage boys he was showing around the building could "have a lot of fun" with her.
"You've heard of De La Salle, right?" Mr. Lucido is quoted by the Michigan Advance as saying. When reporter Allison Donahue said she hadn't, he continued with: "It's an all-boys school … You should hang around. You could have a lot of fun with these boys or they could have a lot of fun with you."
When she told him later the comments were out of line – and kudos to her for doing so – he said he didn't mean anything by it and that he was only joking. When asked later if he thought he owed Ms. Donahue an apology, Mr. Lucido told the Detroit Free Press he thought his comments – while he owned up to saying them – were taken out of context and did not rise to the level of needing an apology.
That was around 8 a.m. By 10:30 a.m. Mr. Lucido had sent out a statement, clarifying that it was a "misunderstanding" and that he apologized "for offending Allison Donahue."
But that's the thing: there is no misunderstanding about what a group of boys "having fun" with a woman could mean. There's no excuse for making that type of comment to a woman, not only in a professional setting, but for any reason at all.
Too often comments like these are made every day to women. They usually they go unaddressed, especially when they're made toward younger women who might occupy lower positions of power than that of the commenter. Further, there's many reasons why a woman might not speak up: fear of retaliation, disbelief from colleagues, getting reprimanded as a response.
By speaking up about her treatment, Ms. Donahue isn't just speaking for herself in her instance, she's giving the ability for other women to speak up too about their experiences in being diminished or demeaned in their line of work.
Today doesn't have to be all bad, however. If anything, it shows the amount of people ready and willing to work toward unlearning unprofessional comments such Mr. Lucido's and educating, both ourselves and others, about the harm our words and actions can have.Back to top
Slotkin's In Demand And Under The Microscope
The rise in visibility of U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin has been impossible to ignore.
She's been featured in The Washington Post and New York Times, even being the focal point of several episodes of NYT's podcast "The Daily." She's submitted op-eds to papers both in Michigan and in the beltway. Most recently, she's taken a key role in criticizing the recent airstrikes in Iran and offered commentary about what this could bode in the international theatre of war.
Regardless of personal party affiliation, Ms. Slotkin (D-Holly) has presented herself as an even-tempered and knowledgeable politician which makes her decisions difficult – though not impossible – to criticize. It's why, more than likely, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has tapped her to help temper President Donald Trump's actions in Iran due to Ms. Slotkin's history as a former CIA operative with Middle East experience.
It's almost easy to forget that back in September she was one of seven freshman Democrats who came out against Mr. Trump's Ukrainian phone call, labeling it as "an impeachable offense" and later that same year ended up voting in favor of impeachment.
Data from Real Clear Politics even indicates that she only sides with the president's position on most bills less than 5 percent of the time. Further, the White House has even put out a statement on Ms. Slotkin's decision to vote to impeach, accusing her of selling out her constituents "for Nancy Pelosi's shame impeachment process" (See Gongwer Michigan Report, December 17, 2019).
For any other Democrat, especially one that flipped a historically red district blue, it would have been a kiss of death. And Ms. Slotkin faces a difficult reelection. But her all-world fundraising, an estimated $3.3 million since beginning her reelection campaign, is a big deterrent to major Republican challenger emerging. So far, a large but unknown cast of Republican candidates has announced.
She's become something of both a media darling and a Democrat superstar on the national political stage. But that doesn't mean she's immune from seeing her seat flip back to a Republican in 2020, and there is a big Republican focus on keeping the heat on Ms. Slotkin.
As of time of publication at least four Republicans have announced their intent to face off against Ms. Slotkin in the general election, including a former immigration official within the Trump administration and a current serving member of Michigan's State Board of Education.
If Ms. Slotkin does win a second term, she faces a new challenge in 2022 assuming she runs again.
Michigan stands to lose a U.S. House seat after the 2020 census when the lines are redrawn in 2021. The lines will change significantly, especially in her home county of Oakland. She could wind up separate from her political base in Ingham County and have to contemplate running in a very different district, moving or both. Even if she keeps a favorable view among her constituents, it could be out of Ms. Slotkin's hands entirely as to whether she keeps her job or not.
The possibilities for Ms. Slotkin are about as wide-ranging as imaginable. In three years, we could be talking about a national Democratic superstar and future candidate for statewide office like U.S. Senate. Or we could be remembering her as a one-term wonder who was not sufficiently in sync with enough of her district to become an enduring political force.Back to top
Why Have Prop G If We're Just Going To Ignore It When Inconvenient?
With so many deer in the state, they tend to end up everywhere and anywhere – even the Legislature, it seems, is no exception.
Bills looking to lift the ban on deer baiting and feeding, enacted in all of the Lower and parts of the Upper Peninsula, advanced through the Senate on Wednesday. Earlier last week, they passed through the House. Each day, these bills creep closer to possibly undoing the work of the Natural Resources Commission, which put the ban in place to help quell the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease in Michigan's deer population.
Reasons cited for needing to lift the ban boil down to two major things. One, the state will lose money from a lack of purchased hunting licenses, of which the Department of Natural Resources does make a decent amount of money that goes back to helping conservation efforts and; two, lawmakers aren't certain if the ban will actually stop the spread of CWD, so why penalize hunters on the off chance it could?
And therein is the problem.
The 1996 Legislature gave the NRC an ability to, in times of ecological need so long as that decision was backed by valid science, create rules that had to be enforced by the state up and until the initial issue passed or was mitigated. It was dubbed Proposal G.
For years, hunters have embraced Proposal G because anytime something arises in the Legislature that brings politics into a decision involving hunting, they can point to 1996's Proposal G that put the NRC in charge with a mandate to let the science rule as voters simultaneously repudiated a ban on bear hunting brought by animal rights groups. Because the NRC gave bear hunting the green light in the 1950s, despite the protestations from environmental groups, open season has remained at the commission's discretion since then.
Proposal G has continued to grant the NRC the power to open and close season as it saw fit.
So, what makes deer baiting so different? If the science is there, as much as it can be, why is it being ignored?
With the information current science provides, the NRC has found (through information gathered by a group of independent scientists) the best route for Michigan to take currently is to crack down on baiting. It's still possible for hunters to bait in the state, they just have to drive a little farther to do it. What's more, while the Lower Peninsula's ban has been enacted in perpetuity currently, it does not mean it will forever be this way.
During the most recent NRC meeting, one commissioner commented that people are angry because of the course it took to prevent CWD spread, yet if they did nothing, people would be angry at the body for its inaction.
To ignore the powers granted to the NRC through Proposal G is a major switcheroo from the position many of those opposing the banning of baiting have long taken since that 1996 vote.Back to top
Mixed Response On Marijuana Reflection Of Uncharted Territory Status
Elections Tuesday across the state sent two major messages to marijuana advocates, whether intentional or not: One, while legal at the state level, voters in individual local governments are hesitant to allow growers or businesses into their communities. Two, let's slow down a minute here.
In 2018, the state approved Proposal 1 – which legalized the possession and use of recreational marijuana for those 21 and older – with about 55.9 percent of the vote. On Tuesday, of the 10 marijuana proposals at bat, four proposals seeking to prohibit recreational marijuana facilities went two and two in Tuesday's elections while only one of the six proposals to allow the facilities won (See Gongwer Michigan Report, November 5, 2019).
As said in our coverage from Tuesday: it was a mostly bad night for marijuana. Yet, despite more than half the state giving an enthusiastic thumbs up to use of marijuana in 2018, at the local level it seems like voters in cities, villages and townships are hesitant to allow businesses to sell it in their jurisdictions.
Is it because of fear? Maybe.
Michigan is ahead of the curve, nationally. It's one of only 11 states that have legalized marijuana. As a result, adopting ordinances that would allow for marijuana facilities to begin building in local governments is largely uncharted territory. What could this open the door for? Would it impact property taxes? How would the business of marijuana affect the community?
There's a lot to still be considered, even a year out from Prop 1. You can't blame people for wanting to be cautious.
Proposal 1 passed during the November general election of 2018 when more than 4 million people voted statewide. Are the marijuana business proposals largely failing because these specific elections took place during low-turnout election days, therefore the people who would go out and vote are the ones who more likely than not felt passionately either for or against the issue?
Odd year election turnout is traditionally low. If voters in a city, village or township are looking to try and pass an ordinance on marijuana, trying in low-turnout elections increasingly looks like a bad bet. Even if there seems to be widespread support, there's always a chance it could fail. And maybe that's what happened in these instances. Or maybe the state just isn't ready to give marijuana businesses a go at the local level.
It could be an education issue. It could be a timing issue. It could even be a case of national stage fright, not wanting to greenlight too much too fast and run the risk of approving things without knowing what's instore for a community.
Whatever the case is – this isn't the last we'll see of marijuana on the ballot, that's for sure. And with next year having major elections in March and November that could truly be the gauge on where the state is at on the marijuana front.
Until then, it's all hazy.Back to top
Benton Harbor Loan Refinancing Saves Money But Can't Buy Time
The fight to keep Benton Harbor Area Schools open marches ever on.
It's an arduous process that seems to have made significant steps this month. But at its core, one question remains: Is any of this actually going to fix the problems the district has, or is this putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole?
On Tuesday, the district was approved to have five of its seven loans refinanced so that it could avoid having to spend more than $1 million in general fund money starting next year.
The restructuring was unanimously approved by the Local Emergency Financial Assistance Loan Board. Benton Harbor officials said the move would "help the district as it continues to recover from a very sizable general fund deficit" acquired by more than a decade of loans which, at its peak, was around $16 million.
At 5:30 p.m. next Wednesday, the first meeting of the Community Engagement and Advisory Committee is scheduled to take place in the Benton Harbor High School Library.
The group – comprising members of the Treasury and Education departments, along with including Benton Harbor area parents and students – plans to put together a financial operating plan to turn into the state next year. During the next six months, the committee will check the district's finances, assess its facilities, take public feedback and more.
The goal is to give the state, effectively, a plan of attack for how to best save the district from financial ruin. Whether this will solve the district's problems or prolong its financial suffering remains to be seen.
It doesn't help the governor's office has remained mum as to what it views as the best way to proceed with the district. The last known signs of life on the subject came in July, when the district submitted a plan to the administration and officials acknowledged it was received.
It came after a ping-pong of plans back and forth between BHAS officials and Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Could this be the plan – the creation of the committee and completion of a financial assessment – that was outlined by the BHAS in July? It's unclear.
What that plan entailed was never made public.
Previous reporting indicates the district could run out of money in the 2020-21 fiscal year. Speaking with Treasury officials earlier this week, they say the district "should be fine" in FY 2020.
Will the district run out of money in 2020-2021? Who knows? The entire timeline of this issue has been punctuated by question marks and ideas rejected by either Ms. Whitmer or the district. There has never been a concrete step forward after months of talks.
So, is this plan that step forward? Is this committee the first stride toward a plan that actually has the ability to save Benton Harbor's schools?
No one seems to know. And maybe that is an answer.Back to top
MDOC Wellness Unit Must Succeed For Officers To Succeed
With tomorrow, October 10, being World Mental Health Day, there's no better time to talk about the need for the Department of Correction's Wellness Unit than now.
Especially considering that as of May, two officers have taken their own lives. It's two too many.
Beginning back earlier this summer, the Wellness Unit was created to help address urgent needs within the department. It came on the back of a study which indicated more than half of Michigan's Corrections officers suffered with anxiety as caused by on the job stressors, one-in-six met the criteria for major depressive disorder and nearly one-in-four met the criteria for PTSD. One-in-five also met the criteria for alcohol abuse, which is almost triple the national average of 7 percent.
On Tuesday, MDOC Employee Wellness Unit Manager Lynn Gorski testified before the Senate Appropriations' Justice and Public Safety subcommittee and Senate Oversite Committee, telling lawmakers the unit has made 300 contacts with Corrections employees and that those connections could be the difference between someone getting help and suffering in silence.
It's a start, and a good one, but with a unit that only estimates itself to be five employees strong at its peak the question then becomes will it be enough to handle the thousands of officers who work with Corrections? Factor in the added stressors of staffing shortages, and it just seems like the problem compounds.
There's an issue within our culture, not just in Corrections, but within most lines of work, that to be upfront with your issues is to somehow be weak. That to seek out either a personal friend to confide in or a licensed therapist is somehow akin to giving up. It's a message that's changing – the American Psychological Association reported in 2004 that the stigma of seeking help was becoming less of a barrier to treatment than in years past – but it's an arduous, uphill climb.
Rome wasn't built in a day, they say, and the stigma around mental health won't be debunked in that timeframe either. This program must be given the resources it needs to succeed as it has a very real cost if it fails: human life.
During Ms. Gorski's testimony Tuesday, Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte) read aloud anonymous responses to the survey issued to Corrections. These notes included men and women saying they had missed out on life events like birthdays or anniversaries, that being overworked was the cause of their spouse divorcing them, that anything – including suicide – would be better than to continue working for the department.
There are root causes to their unhappiness and unwellness, most of which stem back to the Corrections officer shortage plaguing not just Michigan but the country as well, which leads to more mandatory overtime, more days with family missed, more stress.
That, too, is an uphill battle, but it's one that will take time and recruitment efforts to address. But the Wellness Unit offers a short-term solution, a solution now, that could be the difference between life and death for some. While it won't solve the officer shortages, it could aid someone in choosing between self-harm and self-help.
And that could make all the difference.Back to top
As Everything Everywhere Is On Fire, Here's Some Good News
It's been one heck of a week and, reminder, it's only Wednesday.
From budgets here in Michigan to impeachment talks in D.C. (and please, don't get me started on the state of Detroit sports), it's easy to get swept up in the chaos of the 24-hour news cycle. Big item news bogs down our Twitter feed and blows up our phones; it makes it easy to miss the fun, little things that might not get as much attention.
For instance – did you know that Michigan, partly, took home an Emmy for Best Documentary on Sunday? We staked up alongside the likes of "Barry," "Chernobyl" and "Game of Thrones."
The HBO Documentary "I Am Evidence" dives into the reason behind why rape kit backlogs exist and what law enforcement officials are doing to try and pursue justice in these cases. Heavily featured within the piece is Detroit's own Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who accepted the award alongside documentary producer and Law and Order: SVU star Mariska Hargitay.
Or, did you know Miss Michigan was crowned over the weekend? Her name is Chanel Johnson and she works for the Department of Corrections in Troy. Already she's using her Twitter as a platform to raise awareness for voting rights, yesterday shooting out a video featuring Miss USA – who Ms. Johnson is seeking to dethrone come next year – about National Voter Registration Day.
Exciting news!! Our very own Agent Chanel Johnson was crowned Miss Michigan over the weekend! Everyone here is very excited for her and proud of this amazing accomplishment! Next stop is Miss USA!! pic.twitter.com/xMhHMzbfUP— MDOC Troy Probation (@MdocTroy) September 24, 2019
And I know I said I wouldn't talk sports but this, particularly, is heartwarming.
Detroit native Wendell Brown is returning home after three years in a Chinese prison. Mr. Brown originally went abroad to teach football in China when he was caught in a barfight in Chongqing, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Earlier reports indicated Mr. Brown was awaiting trial for nearly two years in China before being sentenced to an additional four years in June 2018. His return home was announced on Instagram Tuesday by documentarian Matt Liston, who had been telling Mr. Brown's story both online and corresponding with him throughout his prison sentence.
Though it's important for us to stay informed on what's going on (especially as it relates to one's job or well-being as tied to whether we go into a state government shutdown) it's also important to not get swept up in the news as it comes out by the minute – ironic, considering the medium this is coming from.
Enjoy the little things, the not-so-life-altering-but-kind-of-make-your-day-better kind of things.
This week has been long. It's been emotionally tense. It's not even done yet and I'm sure Pandora can afford to give one more shake of her box to have something fall out before Friday. Who knows?
But until then try not to get bogged down in the minutia – you could miss other cool, interesting things that are going on around you if you do.Back to top
Civil Rights Department Turmoil Can Stop – If Commission Wants It To
It's been slightly chaotic for the Department of Civil Rights for the last week, to say the least.
Civil Rights Commission Chair Alma Wheeler Smith told Gongwer News Service on August 2 the commission held a special meeting on Monday, July 29, which lasted for several hours and included an almost three-hour, closed door session debating the fate of Civil Rights Director Agustin Arbulu for comments he made in May to a male colleague which objectified a woman.
That same night, the commission determined Mr. Arbulu's remarks in the complaint filed "did not rise to a violation of the law" and that prescribed punishment fit with the severity of his actions, Ms. Smith said. We, as did several other news outlets, only found out about it thanks to an anonymous tipster who alerted Gongwer that the meeting took place and that Mr. Arbulu was going to be disciplined.
Only after media outlets broke the news did the department send out a release, around 9 p.m. August 1, confirming what happened. The following morning, Governor Gretchen Whitmer sent the department a letter outlining the "serious concerns" she had regarding the decision to keep Mr. Arbulu on board and demanded to know the reason why this was (See Gongwer Michigan Report, August 2, 2019).
Her concerns are based off a report completed on what it was Mr. Arbulu said. Details of what's in the report are still unknown. It's is with the Department of Attorney General and is protected by attorney-client privilege, according to Kelly Rossman-McKinney, spokesperson for the attorney general.
Which leaves this situation in a tricky spot: The Department of Civil Rights is one of the few organizations that, due to power enshrined in the Constitution, does not have its leader appointed by the governor to avoid unnecessary politicization. It's worked this way for decades and is extremely unlikely to change – for good reason.
There would be nothing more detrimental than a department which handles issues on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, disability, national origin and more be subject to the changing whims of each administration.
As of Wednesday, a spokesperson for the governor confirmed she still has not received an answer (See Gongwer Michigan Report, August 7, 2019) – and she's not likely to get one until the Civil Rights Commission convenes again, judging by a previous phone call with Ms. Smith who told Gongwer she would not have a response for Ms. Whitmer until then.
But a lack of forward progress on the issue is leading some lawmakers, like House Minority Leader Rep. Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills), to call for Mr. Arbulu to resign. There are murmurs from others in the Legislature that they, too, are inclined to believe the director should resign from his post.
Others around Mr. Arbulu, like department Director of Law and Policy Dan Levy, are stepping away from the situation entirely. In an email, Mr. Levy said that he feels "that I have no other option" than to take an extended leave from the department.
"I am simply not able to properly do my job under the present circumstances," Mr. Levy wrote in a letter, attached to the email. "I can no longer provide neutral counsel to either you or the commission during this period."
There needs to be some level of accountability, because if even the department's law and policy director is demanding to be removed from the situation and saying that he is also "aware of other occasions where (Mr. Arbulu has) been cautioned", then there is something more here than what the public is being led to believe.
It is incumbent on the commission to say why Mr. Arbulu is keeping his post. Mr. Arbulu has told multiple media outlets his comments were about a woman's appearance but would not go into detail as to what they were. He also said he can't recall any type of comments or actions made that would have risen to the level of making a gay staff member at the department feel uncomfortable, allegations of which were outlined in a memo sent to the governor.
So long as the Civil Rights Commission reaffirms its support for Mr. Arbulu, and so long as he does not make the personal decision to resign, then this poking and prodding of the department will continue.
The question isn't if this will continue, but how long? Pressure from other officials can only amount to so much when they aren't making the decision to retain the embattled director.
At this point we only have questions.
It's up to the commission to provide the answers – and the results.Back to top
No GOP Challenge To Upton Despite Frequent Disagreements With Trump
U.S. Rep. Fred Upton hasn't been incredibly vocal about his disagreements with President Donald Trump but sometimes, voting records speak louder than words.
His most recent example being the only Michigan Republican to vote with Democrats on a U.S. House resolution that condemned "President Trump's racist comments directed at members of Congress" – four progressive freshman women of color, including U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit). Mr. Trump had tweeted the four should "go back" to the countries they came from despite all being U.S. citizens and three having been born in the U.S.
When U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (I-Cascade Township), a former Republican, said the Mueller report showed Mr. Trump had committed impeachable offenses, several notable Republicans emerged to challenge him in next year's GOP primary though Mr. Amash then declared he would run as an independent. But since Mr. Upton's vote, there's been crickets about a possible challenge. I reached to most Republican current state legislators in Mr. Upton's district for their thoughts on his vote and to gauge whether they might challenge him and received no response.
Records compiled by the analytics group FiveThirtyEight shows that during the 115th Congress, Mr. Upton sided with Mr. Trump just more than 94 percent of the time on any given issue. This Congress? Mr. Upton, who never endorsed Mr. Trump in 2016, has only sided with Mr. Trump 61 percent of the time.
Granted, we're only about a year into the 116th Congress, but when you compare to every other Republican representative from the state, Mr. Upton has the of the lowest "agreement" ratings among his colleagues – not a single Republican dips under the 95 percent agreement threshold, giving an average of agreeing with the president about 96.2 percent of the time.
Except Mr. Upton. The outlier. If you factor in his 61 percent, that average drops down to just 78.2 percent making it sound like Michigan Republican Representatives aren't very receptive to the president.
Mr. Upton has a long history of sometimes bucking his fellow Republicans. He's drawn the ire of far-right conservatives in his district and the occasional primary challenge, but has always emerged victorious. Unlike Mr. Amash, Mr. Upton has worked hard for decades to elect other Republicans in his area and has the network of support that has kept him in office.
A Republican strategist who spoke to Gongwer News Service on background said the party is in wait-and-see mode, adding that Mr. Upton is a "man of his own convictions." Even though several Republicans have told him in private that they consider Mr. Upton a traitor to the party, they still plan on "holding their nose and voting for Fred" as the alternative might be to get saddled with a more maverick congressman than he.
While it's possible that Mr. Upton could see a challenger from his own party, it's very, very unlikely as many don't have the money or network to properly contend, this source said.
It should be noted that Mr. Upton has not officially declared an intent to run again, but second quarter Federal Election Commission filings show he raised $361,178, hardly the sign of someone planning to retire. He outraised presumptive Democratic nominee Rep. Jon Hoadley of Kalamazoo by roughly $45,300, bringing his overall funds raised since the start of his campaign to $696,082.
Victor Fitz, chair of the 6th Congressional District Republican Party, reaffirmed the party's support for Mr. Upton in an interview earlier in the week saying that "Fred and the president have the same message, they just differ sometimes on the delivery of that message."
"In some ways, there's an effort to make a mountain out of a molehill," Mr. Fitz said. "If you look at the substance, and this is what's really important to us in southwest Michigan, we want a strong economy, we want jobs for all Americans including minorities and women, and I know the president – working with Fred – has worked to deliver that, and that's what we're thrilled about."
For the time being it seems that, in public, Mr. Upton has the support of the party. He's been a pillar for that side of the state since the 1980s.
But the cracks are there. It's just uncertain as to when those cracks might become fissures, sending it all crumbling down.Back to top
Democrat Presidential Candidates Must Remember MI If They Want To Win
This month, before the July 30 and 31 debates take place in Detroit, 10 of the 20-something Democratic presidential candidates will have visited the state in an attempt to reach out to voters and get to know the issues Michiganders are concerned about.
Through various events including two bus tours, a fundraiser and a forum at the annual NAACP Convention in Detroit, we'll hear from former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York).
It's an unusual amount of early attention for Michigan on the Democratic primary/caucus calendar, especially considering almost half the states will have held their primaries or caucuses before Michigan.
A large amount of criticism was levied at former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for this very reason: Not leaving the greater Detroit area in 2016 when she ran for the presidency. She even admits it herself in a memoir published after the election entitled "What Happened."
"If just 40,000 people across Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania had changed their minds, I would have won…some critics have said that everything hinged on me not campaigning in the Midwest," Ms. Clinton wrote. "And I suppose it is possible that a few more trips to Saginaw or a few more ads on the air on Waukesha could have tipped a couple thousand votes here and there."
So far, we have had or will have (pending the post of this blog) Mr. Sanders in Detroit, Mr. Biden in Detroit, Mr. Booker in Detroit, Ms. Warren in Detroit, Ms. Harris in Detroit and Mr. Castro in Detroit. Mr. Buttigieg has a private fundraiser planned for Saugatuck and reports late this afternoon say he will visit the NAACP convention in Detroit as well.
Are we seeing a pattern? The only candidate in the state prior to the debates who emphasized areas other than Detroit was Ms. Gillibrand who made stops in Bloomfield Hills, Flint and Lansing.
Come the end of the month, nearly all 20-plus candidates will pack into the city for what might be their first – and only – joint foray not only into the city, but the state as a whole.
There's a lot of name recognition across the state, and country, for people like Mr. Biden, Mr. Sanders, Ms. Harris, Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren. But there was much, much more for someone like Ms. Clinton, who had been in and around the national and international political limelight since before many of these candidates ever contemplated holding public office.
President Donald Trump eked out a Michigan win by 0.33 percentage points in 2016 because he spoke to the issues that people outside of major metropolitan areas were passionate about. That's only 10,704 votes. If you look at a map dividing his and Ms. Clinton's battle for the state in votes, he won the state by 10 percentage points if you subtract Oakland and Wayne counties.
Michigan was one of the last states to hold out in 2016 and it was because of this state, in part, that Mr. Trump won the election. For Democrats serious about removing Mr. Trump from the office, it would do them well to remember there are other paths to winning the state outside of solely appealing to Wayne and Oakland counties.
Whether that's squeezing more votes from areas won by former President Barack Obama and then won by Mr. Trump – like Saginaw and Bay counties – or trying to reduce Mr. Trump's victory margin in place he won huge like Macomb or outstate counties, the choice is up to them and their campaigns.
But ultimately, it comes down to making their presence, and their policy points, known in those areas. It comes down to encouraging greater voter turnout in other areas that had lesser turn out than in the Obama era. It involves remembering that places outside the metro areas vote too, and their votes count just as much in those cast in Detroit, Flint or Ann Arbor.
It would only take a small shift from the purple areas to make the state blue. Or they could try again to get more blue votes from comfortably Democratic areas like Oakland and Wayne by convincing those who went third-party, or didn't vote at all, that they're the right one for the White House.
However, the candidates plan to do that is up to them – but the message is clear: Michigan took a chance on the candidate who bucked political norms last election because a plurality of voters felt listened to. So if the Dems want to take it back, they have to prove they're ready to listen to Michiganders throughout the state.Back to top
Don't Burn Yourself Out On Election Season Just Yet
This week marked the start of Open Season.
No, not hunting season: Presidential candidate season.
On Wednesday, in Miami, 10 Democratic hopefuls took the stage: New York mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Rep. John Delaney (D-N.J).
They got no opening statements but had a minute to respond to a moderator question and were allowed 30 seconds on a rebuttal a spectacle that, only mildly interrupted by five commercial breaks, began at 9 p.m. but didn't get over until around 11 p.m.
On Thursday – same time, same place – the other 10 candidates had their turn: author/activist Marianne Williamson, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.).
Didn't get a chance to watch it? Don't worry – the same show is coming to Detroit in late July to do it all over again.
Then there's the Republican side to consider. President Donald Trump has technically been running for the Republican nominee since he took office in 2017. Currently, he only faces Bill Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts, but it's more than extremely likely Mr. Trump will take the nomination for the Republicans – though, in politics, anything can happen.
Feeling tired yet? That's my point.
As of Friday, June 28 – the time of writing this – there are 256 days until the Michigan primaries and 494 days until the presidential election. Less than a year until Michiganders must decide for who they want on the Democratic and Republican ticket but more than a year until they have to finalize that decision and pick the 46th President of the United States.
Every day we hurtle closer to needing to make a decision regarding who we want to represent us, as Americans, on a national stage. Right now, it's important to listen to issues candidates are talking about, the policies and proposals they're putting forward and the visions they could possibly have planned for the country.
But, it's also important not to get bogged down with knowing the intricate details of every politician or entrepreneur put in front of you. That's how you end up overwhelmed and unenthusiastic come March. It's what could lead to apathy and disenfranchisement.
There's nothing wrong with looking up people and trying to know your basics. Google searches for some of the candidates jumped more than 2000 percent between Wednesday and Thursday. And that's good! It's good to be informed. However, there's a difference between being informed and being obsessive.
After all, it's a marathon, not a sprint. A lot can happen in 400-plus days.
November 2020 is a long, long way away.Back to top
Hi, I'm The New Reporter, I Cover Agencies, I Like Star Trek Too
I've always found that when people ask you to write about yourself, you conveniently forget everything that makes you an interesting human being and default to talking about basic life facts. That's me right now. Maybe it'll help if I get it out of the way.
If you didn't already read the article sent out earlier this week – Hi! My name is Jordyn Hermani and I'm the reporter at Gongwer tasked with covering the attorney general's office and several state agencies. I'm 23 years old, originally from Troy and graduated with dual degrees in journalism and political science from Central Michigan University in May 2018.
Right now, I live in Grand Blanc with my boyfriend and our pet cat. I love hockey, can play the drums and speak a moderate amount of Russian due to living in Moscow for a short period of time. My favorite movie is "Reservoir Dogs," my favorite author is Victor Hugo and I have an uncanny talent of being able to tell what song is playing on the radio or in a restaurant after only hearing a few seconds of it.
Also, and probably most controversially, I prefer "Star Trek" over "Star Wars."
Prior to being at Gongwer, I covered breaking news and cybersecurity with Politico, state politics with the Indianapolis Star and have reported with The Ann Arbor News, Detroit Free Press, Midland Daily News and Mackinac Island Town Crier. I came to Gongwer not just because I enjoy writing about state politics (which I do, dearly) but because this job gave me the opportunity to come home and serve my community by writing about issues which will affect all Michiganders.
But I can't do that without your help.
It's the end of my first week here, so I've been slowly (but surely) reaching out to different agencies and people to introduce myself, set up a coffee date and talk one-on-one. And even if I'm diligent, which I try to be, I know I'll probably miss a few people due to them changing offices or filling vacancies.
This blog serves as a more informal introduction to who I am, but it also doubles as a sort of PSA: Please, feel free to reach out to me! I love meeting and talking to new people and learning more about the different lives we all lead. I'm most active on Twitter (@JordynHermani) but can also be reached via email at email@example.com. It doesn't matter what for: story tip, introduction, video game or book recommendation – shoot me a line.
I want to cover what goes on around here to the best of my ability. I want to help people stay informed and do that by getting them what they need to know. Help me to help you, so that we can help each other. (I promise, I don't actually sound like a Hallmark card in real life.)
Lansing is an exciting town where a lot is happening, so I appreciate any pushes in the right direction you can give. And – don't be a stranger! Feel free to say hello if you see me buzzing around the Capitol on the days I cover for Alethia or Nick when they're on vacation.
I have bright red, curly hair. You can't miss me.
In the meantime, a simple online hello will have to suffice.
So… Hello!Back to top