A liberal Democrat goes to Lansing. His principles are quickly put to the test
- Six months into controlling Lansing for the first time in decades, Democrats need every vote
- They rely on folks like state Rep. Dylan Wegela, a self-described democratic socialist opposed to corporate handout
- The Garden City Democrat said the pressure in Lansing is ‘more intense’ than he’d imagined
GARDEN CITY — Barely a month into his first term in elected office, Rep. Dylan Wegela had a choice: vote against fellow Democrats in a legislative term where one vote makes all the difference, or backtrack on vows to never send taxpayer money to corporations.
As the hours dragged on during a Feb. 9 session, the former teacher and union leader was repeatedly summoned from the House floor to back rooms to negotiate with legislative leaders and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s aides. Negotiators called local officials, community leaders and political supporters in his district, who in turn called Wegela.
At one point, they promised Wegela one of his top priorities — erasing $13 million in debt from the City of Inkster — in exchange for his vote. The pressure didn’t change the former teacher and union leader’s mind to vote against a Democratic tax deal that committed up to $1.5 billion for business incentives.
It’s the hard line he vowed he’d never cross — and the onetime strike organizer takes his lines seriously.
“The pressures and the way that people try to get you to vote yes on stuff — that was more intense than I had imagined,” Wegela told Bridge Michigan.
So it goes this year for Wegela, one of 58 first-term legislators currently serving who are juggling their principles and pragmatism as Democrats control state government for the first time in nearly 40 years.
Political leaders always have their work cut out for them to hold their caucus together on controversial votes. With Democrats controlling the House 56-54, that’s meant calling lawmakers in from the hospital, letting legislators with COVID-19 vote from the gallery, and political horsetrading.
In one sense, the dynamic gives new Democratic lawmakers a chance to play an outsize role in the process, since leaders often need every vote they can muster.
But hard lines become murkier during late-night deal-making, and have far-reaching consequences, at home and in Lansing.
The squeaky wheel
Wegela, 30, grew up in Livonia and moved to Westland for high school, then graduated from Eastern Michigan University before working as a history teacher in South Korea and Arizona before moving to Garden City in Wayne County.
His political activism took off on the picket lines — he was a key player in a 2018 Arizona teachers’ strike and served as a local union chapter president before moving back to Michigan after the pandemic hit.
“I came back with this imaginary picture in my head that Michigan schools were going to be light years better than Arizona schools…we're facing the same issues,” he said.
In 2022, he ran for office because he was “fed up” with the political status quo. He emerged from a four-way Democratic primary and won Michigan’s 26th House District, which covers Garden City, Inkster, Romulus and part of Westland, with 67.8 percent of the vote to Republican James Townsend’s 32.2 percent.
Like U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of his biggest political influences, Wegela identifies as a democratic socialist and eschews corporate campaign donations. He supports raising taxes on the wealthy and universal health care, and on the campaign trail promised he’d never support taxpayer-funded business incentives.
He suspected his left-leaning stances might be put to the test at some point. Wegela didn’t anticipate incentives being tied to Democrats’ first big legislative push of the year — a tax relief plan rolling back taxes on retirement income and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers, two policies he strongly supported.
“It's hard to stand with people that you would agree with 95 percent of things on and say, ‘Hey, I think we got this one wrong,’” he said. “To have it be the first couple of votes and be the only Democrat on both sides of the aisle to make that stand, that was tough.”
It was even tougher when he had to go back to his district after word got out that Wegela had turned down a deal from leadership that they thought he couldn’t refuse — a guarantee that the state would retire about $13 million of remaining debt from the now-dissolved Inkster school district.
Crystal Linton, an Inkster community organizer, said residents were “fighting mad” at Wegela. Now, many are more upset that their community was used as political leverage during negotiations on unrelated bills, Linton said.
“It upset me and several people because we thought, if it’s that easy, if you can just throw Inkster into a deal to get something done…why haven’t you been diligently working?” she said.
“This has been a sore point in Inkster since that happened, and the thought that…it’s so little that it can be dangled as part of another deal. Do you understand how that makes us feel? How devastated?” Linton added.
The Inkster school district was dissolved in 2013 after the state determined it was no longer financially viable. Although the districts were divided up and Inkster youth now attend one of four neighboring school districts, the Inkster district is set to exist for tax purposes until the outstanding debt is cleared.
Inkster City Councilmember Steven Chisholm, who ran for the House seat Wegela now holds, said he understands Wegela’s standpoint on corporate handouts, but noted a full absolution of the debt would be more dollars than Inkster was getting before.
“It’s like you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, because yes, you’re taking a vote for your district, but still it’s a vote that impacts the state overall,” he said. “I know it’s a tough position he’s in right now…it just looks bad.”
One of Wegela’s first proposed bills, introduced in April, would eliminate Inkster school debt. He said he’s sore that “historical injustice” was used as a political “bargaining chip.”
Other Democrats representing the region are advocating for an Inkster school debt resolution to be included in the state budget.
Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a Livonia Democrat whose district includes Wegela’s, told Bridge she is working closely with fellow Sen. Darrin Camilleri, D-Trenton, to get $52.5 million for school debt forgiveness funding in the final state budget, more than what was recommended by the House.
Polehanki declined to comment directly on Wegela’s decisions in the Legislature, noting only that she plans to “do what's right for the district we share.”
“In my mind, this debt forgiveness will have the biggest impact on Inkster, and I intend to deliver for my constituents,” Polehanki said.
Dissent on incentives
Democrats thus far have made do without Wegela on votes involving business incentives. But his refusal to budge on spending taxpayer dollars to lure businesses to Michigan could be a harbinger for future economic development efforts.
Michigan’s main vehicle for economic development programs, the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve (SOAR) fund, was initially passed in late 2021 with bipartisan support, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has continued to pursue economic development through the SOAR model. Opposition to the plan was also bipartisan, with several progressives joining a handful of conservatives leery of sending state funds to profitable corporations.
Since Democrats took control of the Legislature last fall, billions of dollars have been committed to attracting big development projects, as well as ongoing tax breaks for projects like the planned Ford battery plant in Marshall.
Supporters believe SOAR, which frees funds for attracting companies and preparing properties around the state for possible development, sets the state up for long-term economic success and prompts greater investment in communities.
Wegela doesn’t agree, arguing that his district wouldn’t see any of that money, and that they’d be better served if the funding was spent on social services, education or infrastructure.
He’s spent a lot of time in his district defending the “no” votes he cast, noting he plans to continue being “honest to a fault” with the voters who elected him to office about why he takes a hard-line stance on the issue.
Wegela predicted that more Democrats will balk if leadership continues to aggressively push business incentives. Those are votes legislative leaders can’t afford to lose, as Republican interest in supporting Whitmer-backed economic development incentives has largely dropped off.
Republican Rep. Mike Mueller, R-Linden, helped House Democrats eke out a majority on the tax relief bill containing SOAR funding in February.
But he caught flack from many Republicans for letting the bill go through, and more recent state economic development efforts, such as the Gotion battery plant near Big Rapids, have Republican lawmakers fuming. Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, in an April statement likened Democrats’ economic development strategy to “squandering our state’s historic budget surplus on bad business deals.”
In recent months, some Democratic lawmakers have expressed openness to reforming how and when incentives are doled out.
Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, recently told Bridge that there has been some “heartburn” in conversations around recent votes on funding incentives. In the long term, she said she would like stronger clawback provisions and other community investments that leave residents “better off than if we hadn’t gone after the project” even if a company’s promises don’t pan out.
‘A higher standard’
Wegela stressed he isn’t out to sabotage Democratic priorities, noting that he more often than not joins his colleagues in supporting Democratic initiatives and is proud of what the caucus has accomplished — especially labor-backed efforts like repealing Right to Work.
Wegela pointed to changes made to distracted driving legislation recently signed by Whitmer as an example of how moderates and more progressive members of the Democratic caucus worked together on changes amid initial concerns that the penalties were too punitive.
“I feel like some people have this misrepresentation of me where I won't change my mind or I'm too stubborn,” he said, noting that on that legislation, “I started as a no, and I actually got to a yes, because the bill changed.”
Beth Bowen, a Democratic strategist and president of Glasswing Public Affairs, noted Wegela’s key “no” votes have occasionally threatened longtime Democratic priorities, like providing tax relief to seniors and low-income workers.
On the economic development front, Michigan opting out of incentives entirely in an environment where states are pitted against each other for big investments could put the state at a disadvantage, Bowen added.
“Until we fix the system that allows that kind of competition, we're going to have to play by those rules,” Bowen said. “I agree with him that we shouldn't be giving huge handouts of public money to private entities. But I disagree in not trying to use that system to our best advantage.”
But many progressives have cheered Wegela.
“Though it didn’t have any effect on the outcome, I appreciate seeing an elected leader standing up for the evidence on this one and being willing to defy his own party while doing so,” Pat Garofalo, director of state and local policy at the American Economic Liberties Project, wrote after Wegela’s initial “no” votes over business incentives.
“More of this, please.”
In addition to incentives, Wegela also stands apart from caucus leadership on a bill package that would shift oversight of sand and gravel mines from local communities to the state, siding with environmentalists and local government groups who fear relinquishing local control over land use would result in loud construction and hazardous dust near communities.
Wegela isn’t holding his breath waiting for leadership to take up his personal top priorities, which include universal health care, quickly shifting to renewable energy resources and raising taxes on the wealthy.
He believes raising revenue via a corporate income tax hike or wealth tax is the best answer to fixing Michigan’s long-standing issues with crumbling infrastructure, keeping schools fully funded long term and incentivizing people to move to or stay in the state.
“I don’t think there's an appetite in Lansing for that at all,” he said. “There’s this big debate that if we go too far, and we’re too progressive, we are going to lose the majority. But I think that the opposite is actually true...the more policies that we enact that help people in Michigan, the more people are going to vote for us.”
Moving forward, Wegela said he plans to keep holding his party “to a higher standard,” because he believes lawmakers should be able to vote their conscience. If that means he continues to stand apart from the rest of his caucus, so be it.
“At the end of the day, the real change in this society isn't going to come from places like Lansing, it's going to come when people start to demand more of Lansing,” he said. “I want to try to assist in that.”
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