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Michigan Democrats will control Lansing. What will they do with it?

capitol lansing
Michigan Democrats haven’t had control of both chambers of the state Legislature since the mid-1980s. (Shutterstock)
  • Michigan Democrats will hold the governor’s office and majorities in the state House and Senate for the first time in decades
  • More money for education, local governments, more regulations on corporations and charters a possibility
  • A former Republican leader warns that Democrats shouldn’t try to do too much to soon

For the first time since the 1980s, Michigan Democrats have won the governor’s office and majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature. 

Michigan Democrats are poised to win a majority of the House and Senate while maintaining control of the executive branch, marking a dramatic shift in political power in Lansing. 

It’s been nearly 40 years since Democrats have had this type of control over the political agenda. Now, the question becomes how they’ll wield it.

Per unofficial results, Democrats are poised to hold a 20-18 majority in the Senate and 56-54 majority in the House. Those totals didn’t come without some nail-biters — in the 12th Senate District, Rep, Kevin Hertel, D-St. Clair Shores, led over Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield, by just a few hundred votes. 

But even a slim majority is a major win for Democrats, who haven’t held a majority in the state House since 2010 or the Senate since 1984.

“It's a whole new reality,” said Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids. “It's a seismic shift.”

For Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, it marks the first time as governor where she won’t be working with a Republican-majority Legislature.

During a victory speech in Detroit Wednesday morning, Whitmer said she’s committed to having a “productive” end of the year with the current GOP-led Legislature, but noted Tuesday’s results show voters are interested in “focusing on the fundamentals.” 

When fellow Democrats take control of the Legislature, her priorities include competing for additional automotive and clean energy projects, fighting to repeal the retirement tax and working to protect the Great Lakes and improving public education. 

"We will make Michigan a place where you can envision your future state where anyone — no matter who they are, where they come from, how much money they have in their pocket, who they love or how they identify — can thrive right here," she said. 

 

Legislative Democrats were quick to suggest a laundry list of causes. 

Both Brinks and Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Okemos, said they want to codify the constitutional amendments approved by voters and repealing a 1931 law on the books that criminalizes abortion. The law was set to take effect this summer when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, but implementation of it has been blocked by a court order.

Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, listed possible policy priorities on social media, suggesting repeals of several Republican measures, including Right to Work laws that prohibit union membership as a condition of employment, laws mandating third-graders repeat the grade if they are more than one grade level behind and restrictions on reproductive rights.

She and other Democratic lawmakers also advocated for stronger anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ residents, more money for schools and local governments, more regulation of corporations and charter schools and changes to the state’s gun laws.

Current House Democratic Leader Donna Lasinksi, D-Scio Township, said in a statement that House Democrats are eager to open an investigation into former House Speaker Lee Chatfield, a Levering Republican who has been accused of sexual assault and is being investigated for other crimes related to his fundraising and spending while in office. 

Although legislative Republicans conceded they came up short on the majority, they promised to stick to their principles. 

"We have a diverse, talented Republican caucus that will seek ways to work with the majority wherever possible, but who will also stand firm to defend our values and our constituents whenever necessary,” Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, said in a statement. 

 

Democrats hoping to hit the ground running could face a reality check when leaders are forced to grapple with the unique dynamics of slim majorities, said former Sen. Ken Sikkema, who served as majority floor leader in 1995 after Republicans took a one-seat majority in the House and also controlled the Senate and governor's office.

"It's been so long they don't really have a lot of people they could go to and say, how did you do it?' Sikkema said. "Whoever the New Democratic Senate majority leader is can't very well ask the previous one — that was Bill Faust in '83, and he's deceased. Before that it was Bill Fitzgerland, and he's also deceased."

After Republicans won both chambers in 1994, former Gov. John Engler convened a series of policy work groups with members of his administration and incoming lawmakers, Sikkema recalled.

That positioned Engler and the Legislature to act quickly and decisively, passing a series of significant reforms, including controversial environmental cleanup legislation. 

But the narrow one-seat edge in the House occasionally posed challenges.

"When you have slim majorities, every day is a constant balance," Sikkema said. "You've got to be a little cautious in terms of exactly what the agenda is, because invariably you've got members in competitive seats" who may be wary of controversial votes.

But legislative Democrats note the stark role reversal in the aftermath of Election Day suggests Michigan residents are interested in bold, decisive actions.

“It means we’ve got to get to work,” said Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, who added the election “was just such a powerful rebuke of ugly politics…Michiganders said overwhelmingly, 'It's not what we're looking for.'”

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