Michigan Democratic leaders Whitmer, Nessel and Benson working in concert
Feb. 13: AG Dana Nessel may review Michigan minimum wage, sick leave law
Feb. 12: Whitmer changes course, blocks $10M grant that helps former GOP chair
Related: Pro-Whitmer group broke Michigan campaign finance laws, Benson finds
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s recent signal that she will challenge a Republican law on citizen ballot initiatives appears to serve a goal beyond putting the kibosh on the measure. Her pushback may have saved a fellow Democrat, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, from an early skirmish with legislative Republicans.
“It’s a smart strategy by the governor’s team to fly high over the battle zone while it’s fought by her teammates,” John Sellek, who served as spokesperson to two Republican attorneys general, told Bridge in an email. By taking the lead, Nessel is allowing Whitmer to maintain good relations with Republican leaders as they work to find bipartisan consensus early in Whitmer’s first term.
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Nessel’s actions also underscore how Michigan’s three new Democratic leaders ‒ Whitmer, Nessel, and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson ‒ have worked in concert during their first weeks in office to disrupt conservative efforts they oppose, even as Republicans still control the state House and Senate.
It was Benson, after all, who first asked Nessel to render a legal opinion on whether the ballot law, which makes it more difficult to collect signatures for ballot proposals, violates the Michigan Constitution. Republicans passed the measure during a divisive lame-duck session after three citizen proposals popular with progressives ‒ on redistricting, access to voting and recreational marijuana ‒ were passed by voters in November.
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Benson and Nessel also produced same-day statements supporting a proposed settlement of a federal lawsuit that challenges how Michigan legislative and congressional districts were drawn by state Republicans in 2011.
And Nessel cheered on Whitmer earlier in January when the governor announced “equal pay” rules in the executive branch, saying the AG’s office would “immediately comply” with the directive. “I am so proud to be working with Governor Whitmer and I am grateful for her swift action on pay equity,” Nessel’s statement said.
Benson has said the trio meets regularly and calls their early working relationship “a great sisterhood.”
“(T)here is a great deal of synergy in terms of how we are working to lead our respective offices,” Benson told the publication Michigan Advance. “Sometimes we don’t need to communicate. It’s so synergistic because we’re leading with similar principles. It’s been very exciting. I’m extremely fortunate to working with such a great governor.”
The Democratic leaders’ close alliance stands in contrast with the frosty dealings between Gov. Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette, both Republicans.
The men were at odds over a number of issues during their time in Lansing, from butting heads over same-sex marriage in Snyder’s first term to Schuette’s decision to criminally prosecute Snyder appointees for their actions in the Flint water crisis. In September, Snyder took the extraordinary step of declining to endorse Schuette in his bid to succeed Snyder as governor.
Snyder’s alliance with GOP Secretary of State Ruth Johnson was less fraught, though their views were not always in sync. Johnson pushed (unsuccessfully) to place a citizenship question on ballot applications last year, an idea Snyder vetoed through earlier legislation. And back in 2013, Snyder signed legislation that effectively reversed a Johnson administrative rule that would have publicly identified donors behind certain political ads.
The arrival of the Democrats to statewide office marks the first time since at least 1990 three ideologically-aligned leaders were at the helm of the Attorney General, Secretary of State and Governor’s offices. For nearly the last three decades, the offices were split by party (for example, Republican Gov. John Engler and Democratic Attorney General Jennifer Granholm) or ideology (moderate Snyder and conservative Schuette).
The Democrats’ ideological synchronicity can be used to their political advantage, letting each member of the triad throw their weight around at different times. That may be what’s happening in the case of Benson and Nessel’s coordination to review the Republican-backed ballot law.
Among other things, the law requires ballot committees to gather no more than 15 percent of petition signatures from any one of Michigan’s 14 Congressional districts. Rep. James Lower, who sponsored the legislation, and other supporters argued it was necessary to promote geographic diversity and ensure rural communities have a voice in statewide ballot issues.
The law’s critics, mostly Democrats, say it disenfranchises those who want to sign petitions after the 15 percent threshold has been met in their district. They contend the law more heavily burdens residents in large metro areas who tend to support Democratic causes in higher numbers.
Nessel has already indicated she doesn’t approve of the law. Elections lawyers and political consultants from both sides of the aisle told Bridge it’s likely she will find it unconstitutional.
If and when she does so, there will almost certainly be a court challenge, said Peter Ruddell, an attorney at the Honigman law firm who specializes in election law. The court could stay (delay) parts of the law or the Attorney General’s opinion. Whichever part is not stayed would prevail until the final court decision is made — which is likely to be appealed up to the state Supreme Court.
Democrats view the GOP law “as a thumb in their eye by the lame-duck Republicans,” but if Republicans feel Whitmer is helping to coordinate the move and going back on her promise to work collaboratively with Republicans “they could say ‘two can play at that game’ and stall anything that happens,” said John Chamberlin, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan.
Which is why it’s politically useful to Whitmer to have like-minded partners as attorney general and secretary of state, elected offices that are independent of the governor.
“If the governor can use the attorney general or the secretary of state as lightning rods around issues she wants to get done and save some of her political capital for dealing with legislative Republicans, I think that’s a great strategy for her and I think you have seen some of that,” said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist and CEO of consulting firm Grassroots Midwest. “The attorney general and the secretary of state seem willing to play that role at least around certain issues.”
But Sarah Hubbard, principal of Lansing-based lobbying firm Acuitas, noted that the state’s top two Republicans also appear to be strategically simpatico.
New Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield have a close relationship — a marked change from the clear animosity between their GOP predecessors, former Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and Speaker of the House Tom Leonard.
Chatfield has taken early steps to insulate the legislature from coordinated policy efforts pushed by Democratic statewide officeholders. He’s reconfigured the way bills make it to the House floor, requiring most legislation to go through two committees rather than one before the full body can vote on it — a move Hubbard said is “unprecedented.”
That process is “designed specifically to help with not only (Republicans) pushing forward their agenda, but also checking and double checking (Democrats’) agenda as they come through the legislature,” Hubbard said.
Interested parties and experts will have the chance to speak on legislation multiple times, so if Chatfield wants it passed he can point to a thorough vetting process. Conversely, if he wants to block a bill, the two-committee process will act as a check that helps ensure unfavorable legislation doesn’t slip through.
Both Hemond and Hubbard said there are likely to be plenty more opportunities for the Democrats to coordinate on shared policy. Whitmer and Benson vowed during their campaigns to push voting rights and transparency policies. Nessel and Whitmer likely have plans for water and infrastructure initiatives (both oppose Snyder-backed plans to build a tunnel for the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac, for instance), and on LGBTQ rights.
Whitmer’s campaign focus on core issues like roads and water gave Lansing a taste for how she’ll approach policymaking, Hemond said.
“If the way Gov. Whitmer ran her campaign is any indication, I expect some discipline in what issues they’re really going to rally around publicly,” he said. “It’s a matter of picking and choosing some issues that touch the offices in pairs.”
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