Where are the Democrats?
That’s a question some party activists and strategists are asking as lame-duck Republicans in the Michigan Legislature ram through bills that would restrict the authority of Democrats poised to take over the state’s top political offices, while crimping ballot initiatives favored by progressives and in some cases overwhelmingly passed by voters in November.
Incoming Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson have generally confined their opposition to low-key press releases. They have largely declined interviews, television appearances or other high-profile acts of political resistance, though Whitmer told The New York Times in a story published Monday that she’s had “broad” discussions with outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder about Republican bills to limit incoming Democrats’ authority.
What incoming Democratic leaders are saying
Democrats will supplant Republicans in the top three statewide offices come January. Here’s what they’ve said about GOP efforts to rein in their authority and curb progressive laws during lame duck:
Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer: In a statement to Bridge, Whitmer said she “reject(s) this incivility and discord,” adding that “supporters of this legislation seek to bind our hands, preventing us from using tools used by our predecessors to improve the lives of the people of Michigan.”
Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel: A spokeswoman for Nessel said in a statement she is “deeply concerned and troubled” by the legislation that would give the legislature the power to intervene in lawsuits, which Democrats view as an effort to undercut Nessel’s authority to represent state interests.
Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson: Told Detroit radio station WJR in November that efforts to take oversight of campaign finance away from her office are “such an affront to democracy in this state that every voter, regardless of how they voted in November’s election, should be outraged.”
“It’s my hope that he lives up to his rhetoric in regards to civility and respect for the institution,” she told the Times.
The Democrats’ reticence to seize the bully pulpit has led to frustration among the troops. One prominent Democrat from southeast Michigan lamented to Bridge that Michigan Democrats are becoming known as the “party that gets shit done to us.”
But what might appear as an exercise in post-election surrender is, according to party insiders, a disciplined effort to minimize damage during lame duck even as Democrats quietly attempt to lobby Snyder to veto the harshest GOP measures.
It’s a high-risk strategy with undetermined rewards for a party that is, and will remain, in the minority in the Michigan House and Senate in January even after Democratic candidates scored more statewide votes in the November midterm.
“Maybe the strategy is, ‘Let’s not turn this into a circus if we think we can get a deal,’” speculated Joe DiSano, a Lansing-area Democratic consultant who counts himself among the frustrated. “If you can bend someone’s ear, that’s better than hitting them with a hammer.”
In Democrats’ eyes, they are spectators to a four-week-long car crash in lame duck. Thanks in part to legislative districts drawn to favor Republicans, there aren’t enough Democrats in the Legislature to block the GOP from passing bills that go after liberal priorities such as campaign finance transparency, labor unions and elections reforms.
Those within the party preaching patience argue that kicking and screaming may help incoming Democrats in the eyes of supporters, but would likely prove useless on the House and Senate floors, where the GOP is rushing to pass pet legislation for Snyder to sign before the two-year legislative term ends this month.
TJ Bucholz, a Democratic political consultant and president and managing partner of Lansing-based Vanguard Public Affairs, said Whitmer may not want to spend her political capital before she takes office: “She has to be careful because she needs these people down the road, and how she chooses to wield that power early on is important.”
Grumbling within the ranks
The measured, behind-the-scenes tactics in Michigan contrast with how things are unfolding in neighboring Wisconsin, where legislation is also being passed to rein in the authority of incoming Democrats.
Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s Democratic governor-elect, appeared Sunday on “Meet the Press,” where he threatened to sue if outgoing Republican Gov. Scott Walker doesn’t veto the legislation and labeled that state’s lame-duck session “a hot mess.”
Of course, there is no telling if Evers’ threats will have any impact on Walker’s decision. But the lack of any organized public resistance on the left in Michigan has some in the party wondering what, if anything, Democrats are doing to block Republicans.
“Where the hell is Gretchen? Where is the Democratic Party?” asked Al Williams, a Detroit political consultant and former membership director of the Michigan Democratic Party.
He said he organized 60 progressives to travel to the Capitol last week from southeast Michigan to protest rollbacks to the minimum wage — and was surprised by the lack of support from Democrats and their allies such as unions.
“How are we going to win this fight?” he said. “There was no real opposition in Lansing, and the Republicans know that.”
DiSano, the Lansing-area Democratic consultant, said he was stunned by the party’s outward passivity.
“This is the kind of stuff where you shut down the chamber, you walk out, you don’t give people quorums,” he said. “There seems to be a series of tactics that (Democrats) feel are beneath them. Effective or not, it’s better than just letting (Republicans) back the truck over you again and again.”
Democrats’ muted public response even baffled a prominent Republican consultant.
“I’d be out doing at least the remaining editorial boards and I’d be very active on social media, probably with more of a campaign approach,” said John Truscott, CEO of Lansing-based public relations firm Truscott Rossman and longtime press secretary to former Republican Gov. John Engler.
“In the old days, you certainly wouldn’t see people roll over. It would be a really aggressive fight.”
Don’t poke the elephant
But insiders insist there is a rationale for the restraint.
Incoming Democrats are keeping a low profile because, with two weeks remaining in lame duck, they don’t want to provoke Republicans into introducing and passing additional bills before it’s over. Gongwer News Service, also citing sources, reported last week that one reason Whitmer has not yet released the names of potential appointees may be to prevent Republicans from hampering their offices with preemptive bills.
Political consultants, current and former legislative leaders, Democratic activists and academic experts also said the approach may be part of a broader plan to brand Dems as the party of reason and compromise.
They contend that Democrats are striking the right tone in staying above the fray, giving consideration to their political capital and the fact that Democrats’ protests may not resonate with term-limited Republicans trying to leave Lansing on good terms with the GOP.
“I’m sure (Whitmer’s) finding it distasteful,” said Ken Sikkema, a Republican former Senate majority leader, who said he sympathizes with the challenges now faced by Democrats. (Disclosure: Sikkema has served as a consultant to The Center for Michigan, which includes Bridge Magazine.)
“But for her to take a different path, to have a press conference every day protesting, I’m not sure it helps her in any way, shape or form,” Sikkema said. “It might make her look ineffective.”
Howard Schweber, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Democrats’ strategy could be part of a nationwide Democratic plan to market themselves to voters as “the grownup in the room.”
“Let the Republican Party become the side associated with shrill, conspiratorial, rabble-rousing politics,” Schweber said. “I think it might be a very smart strategy.”
“The best way to respond to the accusation of being a mob is not to show up with torches screaming,” he said.
No doubt, Democrats are poised to file legal challenges to the most controversial bills going through the Legislature. If that’s the case, Schweber said, they may not want to reveal their legal arguments when there’s little hope of defeating the bills legislatively.
The almighty veto
Play polite, work behind the scenes, fight for a veto. These strategies suggest that in the short term, Democrats may be pinning their hopes on the one man who can determine whether these bills live or die.
Gov. Snyder, a Republican, has vetoed some aggressive Republican measures in the past, while signing others, including controversial right-to-work legislation during his first term in office. Snyder has not definitively said which bills, if any, he will veto as he exits office.
Leading Democrats are eager to cast Snyder’s choices as legacy-defining.
“If he lives by what he says he is, this person who just wants to do things for Michigan, it’s not about partisan politics, then he will … veto these bills if they get to his desk,” Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, told Bridge. “He should be telling them, ‘I don’t want these bills on my desk. If they are, I will veto them.’
“He’s shown no courage over the last eight years,” Ananich said, “but if he shows some now, that’s what his legacy can be part of. If it’s not, it’ll be the guy that poisoned my town.”
Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said the governor will weigh bills that affect the authority of different branches of government as if he were still going to be in office come January.
“He won’t look at the bills based on who is in the Governor’s Office or which party they represent,” Adler wrote via email. “He will look at them in terms of what the policy will mean for Michigan and its residents as a whole.”
None of which is giving Michigan’s minority party much room for optimism.
“It’s sad to me that this, it’s all coming down to Democrats counting on a Republican governor,” Bucholz said. “I certainly wouldn’t be counting on a veto from this guy.”
Bridge managing editor Joel Kurth, senior writer Ron French and reporter Jim Malewitz contributed to this report.
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