Are Michigan’s Republican legislators patriots protecting their gains? Or sore losers shackling incoming Democrats?
To Democrats, the answer is emphatically the latter.
But Michigan’s grassroots Republicans say they’re mostly glad Lansing legislators are taking action in a frenetic lame duck session. They say the measures will protect the economy and safeguard against radical changes from newly elected Democratic officials.
Throughout Michigan, Republican leaders dismiss characterizations from the national media that the legislation amounts to a power grab and instead view the proceedings as part of a bigger, more aggressive political game that both parties would play.
“This is the way of politics right now these days. Right or wrong this is the way it is,” said Judi Schwalbach, a state GOP committeewoman from Escanaba, where she’s a former mayor.
Legislation under consideration in Michigan and Wisconsin has been in the national news as GOP lawmakers in both states adopt changes that could constrain incoming Democrats. It’s put an unflattering spotlight on the two Midwest states’ Republican leadership.
That’s rankled Democrats in Michigan and nationwide, with a spokesman of the Democratic Governors Association calling the GOP “banana republic dictators” for their actions in both states.
But Republican grassroots activists said GOP leaders are simply doing their job and making sure the laws they’ve adopted in the last eight years are not undone, even if voters chose Democrats to lead all three statewide offices beginning Jan. 1.
“It makes some sense to protect their philosophy going forward,” said Jeannie Burchfield, chairman of the Calhoun County (Battle Creek) Republican Party.
“Whether it’s overreach is debatable,” she said. “It’s not a power grab.”
Some pending legislation, like altering laws on the minimum wage and paid sick leave, are finding rock-solid GOP support across the state. Both bills weakened the impact of ballot proposals that legislators adopted last summer, protecting small businesses from having to offer paid sick time and slowing the growth of the minimum wage.
Ottawa County GOP chairwoman Janessa Smit said the economy is booming and she attributes some of that good news to the changes made in Lansing, where the tax structure was changed to become more business-friendly.
The GOP was right, she said, to alter the sick leave and minimum wage laws to keep the economy going.
“We’ve seen the results that the policies that have been enacted have produced and protecting those outcomes is the responsible thing to do,” Smit said.
Not everyone in the GOP is happy with the proposed changes.
J.R. Roth, chairman of the Grand Traverse County GOP in northwestern Michigan, said a number of Republicans he knows are uncomfortable with some of the legislation, like a proposal to change the recreational marijuana law just passed by voters and bills that would limit Democrats coming into office.
“We look like sore losers,” Roth said.
He fears that if the GOP goes too far that it will give Democrats more strength in 2020 just after they already rolled up their biggest gains in more than a decade.
“If they (the GOP) go too far it’s not going to be a good thing. I think politically it could be hurtful to us in the future,” he said. “They (Democrats) could come out heavier next time.”
Roth said a lot of the legislation could have been addressed months ago – when Republicans still had all the power but before voters changed direction. To do it now, he said, “looks political. It looks bad to a lot of our folks.”
But almost every Republican who spoke to Bridge said the GOP leaders are only doing what Democrats would do if the tables were reversed. (Even though it’s been decades since Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature and governor’s office in Michigan.)
“I’m not really shocked one way or another,” said Steve Yoder of Leelanau County, where he’s a state GOP committeeman. “If the Democrats were in power, they’d be doing it.”
Amid all the clamor about taking power away from incoming Democrats, a number of people said those candidates themselves share some of the blame because of what they said during the campaign.
Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel said she probably wouldn’t defend a state law that allows faith-based groups to reject gay couples who want to adopt children. And she told supporters this year she would sue President Trump “all day, every day.”
“Those kinds of comments create the kind of activity you’re seeing in Lansing,” Schwalbach said.
Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, called Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson a “radical” because he said that she had said she’d use campaign finance laws against Republicans.
During the campaign Benson did tout campaign finance reform but most changes would require legislation and Republicans will retain control of House and Senate next year.
Still, Republicans are pushing bills to protect nonprofits, including political ones, from disclosing donors and are seeking to create a campaign finance commision and take that role away form the secretary of state.
Stay calm, don’t worry
Schwalbach, who worked for outgoing Attorney General Bill Schuette, said she’s largely supportive of Republican efforts and trusts outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder will sign the best bills.
Not that she’d sign them all. But she said she believes Snyder will make the right choices.
“I wouldn’t sign them all,” she said, though she declined to say which ones were problematic. “I would look at them and see what I agree with and what makes no sense.”
“They’re going to get weeded out by the governor,” she said.
She blamed term limits for some of the craziness. Nearly three-quarters of state senators are retiring because of term limits and many representatives too.
Some are proposing bills that they’ll never have to defend to voters, she said.
“Those people don’t have to worry about the next election,” she said.
But as heated as the current legislative season is, few are worried about Democrats using lame duck as a rallying cry in 2020. Memories fade, and Yoder pointed to passage of a Michigan right-to-work law in 2012 even as tens of thousands of protesters descended on Lansing. The GOP still won big in 2014 and 2016.
“Democrats said it’d come back and bite them and it never did,” Yoder said.