Do these protests really make a difference?

By Kyle Melinn

Four protesters were already in police custody inside the Capitol by the time Max Koopsen spoke up.

The question circling over the heads of the 50-some protesters mulling about Michigan’s rotunda after hours was simple: Do we stay or do we go?

It was 6 p.m. last Wednesday. Capitol workers asked them to leave a half hour before. Michigan State Police troopers were lined up at all four rotunda openings.

Do the remaining band of mostly college students stay inside the Capitol? They would be arrested on misdemeanor trespassing charges if they did.

Or do they leave, chant loudly on their way out the door and join the hundreds of other protesters pounding on the large wood doors outside?

Koopsen’s mind was made up.

"Most of us are students. It’s hard to get by with money and everything, but at the end of the day people who have nothing have the right to speak," said the 19-year-old Western Michigan University student. "If this is the way we speak, by being arrested, I’m willing to speak that way. If other people will join me … ."

There was a round of applause and some scattered cheers.

Koopsen and four other young men sat on the Capitol floor. They locked arms and didn’t move until state troopers led them away more than two hours later.

When it was all over on March 16, 14 people were arrested inside and outside the Capitol. They stole the headlines on a day when 5,000 others shouted and chanted and yelled at Michigan’s state capital building.

The dissenters objected to proposed cuts to education, higher education, the poor, the elderly and the disenchanted. They were standing up for organized labor, which is getting fired upon with proposal after proposal to blast away public sector collective bargaining rights.

But the theme of the day was the emergency manager reform bill, which allowed the state-appointed financial guardian of a distressed city or school district to dissolve existing labor contracts.

That’s a big reason UAW President Bob King was there. King said the Republicans’ antics in Michigan are part of a "coordinated national attack" by the GOP to "destroy the middle class." He urged his members to fight back.

It was a big reason filmmaker Michael Moore urged protesters to show up, too.

"I know many of you are filled with a great sense of despair and a justifiable loss of hope these days in Michigan," Moore said in a Web posting urging readers to show up at the protest. "But you must not let things get even worse. You must stand up against these Draconian measures and this outrageous attempt to rip our democratic rights from us by turning our state over to well-paid hacks from Wall Street and corporate America."

Under the Capitol dome, as the Michigan House of Representatives began its session for the day, the room seemed to shake as three floors of protesters rang out in one voice against the EFM bill.

It didn’t matter. The House had sent the bills to Gov. Rick Snyder the day before.

It didn’t matter to Snyder, either. He signed all six bills of the EFM reform legislation at 5:35 p.m. March 16, an hour before Koopsen declared he was willing to get arrested over them.

Do protests matter?

In the last three weeks, at least six significant, news-making protests have taken place on the Capitol grounds. Another is scheduled for Thursday.

Carpenters, plumbers, police officers, firefighters, autoworkers, retirees, teachers, college students, high school students and a rag-tag posse led by former 8th Congressional candidate Lance Enderle have all congregated at the center of Michigan state government to say no to Snyder and the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

Maybe not since the days of Tent Cities in the early 1990s when then-Gov. John Engler called for the elimination of general assistance has Lansing seen such a consistent flow of voices coming to the Capitol dome.

What impact are these voices having on the maker of many of these proposals, Rick Snyder?

Not much. Asked about the protesters he could see out his second-floor Romney Building office window on March 16, Snyder said he hoped they would read the bills. He argued the new laws would prevent cities and school districts from falling into state receivership and were necessary for Michigan’s recovery.

It’s doubtful many took him up on the offer. Instead, they’re taking up signs reading slogans like, "Bring back Engler, I miss the good ol’ days."

Even senior citizens are picketing. Snyder is unmoved. As the Senate considers at least scaling back the so-called "pension tax," Snyder isn’t budging behind closed doors.

Snyder is reportedly pushing back against advisers who are suggesting he throw in the towel on the idea. He said he believes his budget and tax reform package the right thing to do.

"Everyone tends to like the idea of change until is actually arrives," Snyder said. "I hope that as time passes, the budget and tax package is a foundation to reinvent our state."

Even Monday in conservative Grand Rapids, as Snyder was giving his special message on local government reform, protesters with "Recall Rick" signs stood outside City Hall trying to get his attention.

If he saw them, the master of "relentless positive action" never let on … maybe because a recall of the governor, and the more than 800,000 signatures that would require, isn’t realistic.

But what about in the state House, where talk about recall is more realistic? Remember, former Rep. Leon Drolet of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance mustered up a recall election against then-House Speaker Andy Dillon.

It can be done.

Political consultant Joe DiSano of Main Street Strategies told the Capitol Newsletter MIRS this week the idea has been coming up more frequently in Democratic circles since recalls are well under way in Wisconsin.

A possible target for such action, Rep. Anthony Forlini, R-Harrison Twp., said he isn’t concerned about that or the protesters.

"We all have differing opinions. I was out there talking to them," Forlini said. "I’m not intimidated by it. It’s important to listen, hear what their points are. I was saying what I was thinking, too."

What was he thinking?

"I think their cause would be better served if they came up with answers," he said.

In his 20-some years in the Legislature, former Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, R-Wyoming, said four separate major protests stood out.

The Tent Cities were the rage in the early 1990s with Gov. John Engler. Thousands of white-coated doctors bleached the Capitol lawn to object to medical malpractice reform. Local governments rallied police and fire to protest Engler’s veto of statutory revenue sharing. Teachers cried out against education cuts in the mid 2000s.

In every case, the protest had "no material impact on the end product," Sikkema said.

General assistance was eliminated as Engler requested. The medical malpractice reform went through. The Legislature overrode Engler’s veto, as agreed to prior to the protest. And K-12 was cut.

"Maybe, they impacted things in the margins," Sikkema said. "But in every case, the outcome would have been the same regardless of whether the protesters would have been there or not."

Could this year’s protests be any different? It’s possible, he said, if Republican lawmakers truly haven’t made up their mind on the budget and tax reform proposals.

In the Senate, the 26-member supermajority Republican caucus this week is still putting together their Plan B. The leader of the Senate’s Finance Committee doesn’t like the pension tax. The lead of the Senate’s K-12 budget wants to scale back Snyder’s $470-per-pupil cut to $290.

But the entire caucus isn’t running behind any common flag, yet, other than they don’t want a net tax increase.

In the Republican-led House, exhaustive deference is being given to Snyder’s proposals. The chief executive is giving the new GOP majority some political cover. They’re inclined to run behind it for as long as possible, protests or not.

So what makes a difference?

As the buses rolled up and the pre-made signs were pulled out of the bottom of the bus last week, House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, shook his head.

"What’s more effective is a calm conversation with constituents," Bolger said. "That’s certainly more effective than a protest and a demonstration that is arranged."

House Republicans are having those talks locally, Bolger said. But they are doing so with the mindset that "any change is painful" and it will take voters some time to get their arms around that change.

In order to get long-term gain, there will need to be short-term gain, he said.

"I’m seeing a caucus that is really determined to turn this state around," Bolger said. "They’re more interested in a successful Michigan than their own re-election."

That’s all well and good … if your legislator is willing to talk to you. Enderle, the former congressional candidate, said that wasn’t the case when he organized a small group of individuals to meet with lawmakers three weeks ago.

They wanted to talk about Snyder’s $1.4 billion in proposed budget cuts, a tax proposal that cuts business taxes 86 percent when $1.86 billion in individual income tax exemptions are eliminated, the assault on organized labor with 40-some anti-union bills introduced.

Instead, they saw legislators "running out the back door" as they arrived.

During his protest last Tuesday, Enderle got into an impromptu back and forth with Bolger press secretary Ari Adler about this subject.

"Make that commitment, Ari, that your representatives will meet with their people," he said. "They are elected by their people to hear from the people … . Tell them to man up. Just be in their office for us, please. We want to talk. We want to negotiate."

Adler argued that people can let their feelings be known to their legislator in many ways — e-mail, letters, petitions, telephone calls, etc.

That line of communication worked with the indoor smoking ban. Republicans were not going to snuff out smoking in restaurants and bars until a tsunami of constituent complaints convinced them otherwise.

Snyder’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget proposal isn’t a do-it-or-don’t-do-it question, though.

Balancing the budget is akin to squeezing a balloon. To release pressure on one side only puts more pressure on another.

To not cut the Earned Income Tax Credit or the film credits or brownfield credits means budget cuts or tax/fee increases somewhere else.

"Right now, the people who are affected the most are causing the biggest noise about it," said Rep. Jeff Farrington, R-Sterling Heights. "That’s understandable. But if we change something else, we’d have another group yelling about it."

Then why protest at all? Why speak up?

Theoretically, Sikkema said people have the right to address their government and thinks it’s healthy for people to have a visible outlet to share their angst. It’s something Americans should embrace as a part of democracy.

Before last week, the last time the Capitol had seen 5,000 protesters on the Capitol lawn was when a different angry, disenfranchised minority took to the grounds to object to another new administration’s policy.

The organizers — Common Sense in Government and Americans for Prosperity — never dreamed so many people would find their way to Lansing on Tax Day, April 15, 2009.

The successes of the "Tea Party" in the subsequent 2010 election against the policies of President Barack Obama have been well documented.

Rep. Andrew Kandrevas, D-Southgate, said he sees a similar dynamic coming into play.

"(The protests) do make a difference in that it gives a lot of voting Democrats more vigor. I think it focuses in for the rest of the state what is going in in Lansing," he said.

In his prior term, he said a lot of people were not keyed into what the Republican-led Senate was doing in the state Capitol.

Now, it’s not just the average union household that sees the proposal to scrap project labor agreements or eliminate binding arbitration for local police and fire officials. The average person is seeing what’s going on, he said.

There are a lot of proposals impacting a lot of people being considered in Lansing right now. That broadens the number of ticked-off people willing to pick up a sign.

Does that mean Republicans should be politically rattled by what they’re seeing on the Capitol lawn?

"I don’t know. I wasn’t rattled by the Tea Party guys that showed up last time," Kandrevas quipped. "Maybe it just sucks when people notice what you’re doing."

And it’s possible, just possible, all these voices are having some impact.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker got his ban on collective bargaining for public employees passed, but the May 30 deadline by which Snyder wanted his budget and tax reform proposal passes is rapidly approaching without much visible progress.

Republicans won a majority in the House last year by winning in seats they hadn’t won in years — districts like the 23rd House District in the Downriver area. Recalls or not, to keep those seats in 2012 in the "R" column means not burning the voters who put elected new state representatives like Rep. Pat Somerville, R-New Boston, in office.

Somerville said he’s listening to the people who have been coming to his office hours and pledged to use the input to make his decisions later.

"It’s important for me, as a state representative to listen to those views back in the district," he said, "(And) I’m listening to that feedback."