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Voters spoke. Now what?


Voters want women in charge.

Amid the “Blue Wave” and anti-Donald Trump sentiment that marked the 2018 election comes this reality: Michigan enters 2019 with more female state officials than at any time in state history.

Michigan’s incoming governor, secretary of state and attorney general are women. A record 51 women are coming to the state Legislature, topping the previous record of 37 by 46 percent. Michigan’s female U.S. senator was reelected. Both new members of Congress are women. Michigan’s seven-member Supreme Court will include three women.

All three of Ingham County’s state House members are women, as are both of Eaton County’s state House members.

Will state government operate much differently as a result? We asked Kathy Barks Hoffman, who covered the state government for The Associated Press for around 20 years until she took a position with the Lansing-based public relations firm Martin Waymire.

“At least at the start, I believe you’ll see a more collaborative approach,” Hoffman said. “Women tend to be more collaborative, and, for a lot of them, everything doesn’t have to be more partisan.”

Michigan’s next governor, Gretchen Whitmer, sent signals in this direction last week when she called for a return to the regular “quadrant” talks with Michigan’s four legislative leaders.

Hoffman said as long as these meetings prove productive, they’ll likely continue. If not, Hoffman predicted that Whitmer, at least, will take the steps she needs to get her policies in place.

Women, of course, are not monolithic political entities.

Each of them have their own own ideas as they tackle their new positions. Here are four big winners from Nov. 6 and what their elections will mean for their respective positions.

Gretchen Whitmer

Michigan’s 49th governor enters the job experienced. To be effective, Whitmer will need more than that.

If state government experience was the sole prerequisite for the job of governor, 65-year-old Bill Schuette — who has served in all three branchs of state government — would be putting his hand on the bible at noon Jan. 1.

Instead, Michigan voters elected a 47-year-old Democratic governor, a Republican-controlled state Legislature and a Supreme Court with as 50/50 a partisan split as possible with a seven-member body.

These ingredients could mean the same political loggerheads that’s paralyzed Washington into a frustrating level of dysfunction. Political observers don’t see that being the case in 2019 and 2020, at least with Whitmer in charge.

“I think she’s well equipped to work with a Republican Legislature because she’s had the experience of doing it before,” said Rick Weiner, Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s first chief of staff, and former Democratic Party chairman. “Obviously, there will be challenges, but I think she will fare well.”

Gretchen Esther Whitmer, the state’s second female governor and first from the Lansing area in nearly 80 years, doesn’t enter the state government forest as a babe in the woods like Rick Snyder or Jennifer Granholm before him.

Her 14 years of prior legislative experience, including four as a caucus leader, set her up to be more like John Engler in terms of cutting deals and linking seemingly unrelated pieces of legislation. Granholm and Snyder loathed at doing either. Asked last week if was “prepared to do what Engler did from time to time,” Whitmer said:

“Yes. The people elected me governor and to use whatever leverage I have” to get things done. Asked if that she meant she would threaten legislators as three-term Gov. John Engler was notorious for doing, Whitmer deflected by responding, “OK. Next question.”

Whitmer can talk the progressive Democratic game as well as anyone when needed. However, when it’s time to cut deals on issues of public importance, whether it’s Medicaid expansion or infrastructure funding, she’s ready to do it.

In a similar vein, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, is an unabashed conservative, but he’s proven to be a policy wonk at heart, more interested in passing compromises than ideological grandstanding.

Over in the House, incoming Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, is just 30 years of age, but his youth is overshadowed by a strategic vision beyond his years, observers say. It allowed him to maneuver through a Republican caucus to become Tom Leonard’s heir apparent with light resistance.

Shirkey and Chatfield recently worked together to create the Medicaid work requirements legislation that disgusted the political left, but may — in the long-term — save Michigan’s expanded program from either financial or political collapse.

“This is going to be a telling time in Michigan history,” said former Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, Whitmer’s former legislative sparring partner. “The growing pains will be difficult, but these three have been around long enough to know what works and what doesn’t. This could be a special four years if they decide that’s what they want it to be.”

At the Detroit Economic Club last Friday, Snyder recommended that Whitmer not start with contentious issues and avoid the polarization that comes with them.

“I’m going to encourage her and the Legislature to find common-ground issues on how they can work together, get some wins under their belt working together first, if possible,” Snyder said.

What Michigan likely won’t see is sniffs of what is going on in Wisconsin, where lawmakers are looking at ways to weaken the power of the Governor’s Office after Democrat Tony Evers beat incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker, Hoffman said.

“I would think you’ll have people in leadership who will want to move Michigan ahead on such issues as roads, schools, education funding and infrastructure,” she said.

There certainly aren’t a lack of the hotstove issues unlikely to be addressed in Lame Duck and that will await Whitmer & Co.

Fix the Damn Waterpipes? Whitmer made it clear in her first press conference as governor-elect that fixing Michigan’s underground water pipes is more pressing at the moment. Earlier this year, Snyder pitched a $5-a-customer fee on public water systems. It went nowhere.

Snyder’s own infrastructure commission reported there’s an $800 million annual funding gap to “meet our state’s critical water and sewer infrastructure needs.” The Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association pegs the gap at $280 million to $560 million annually. Snyder’s plan raised $110 million annually. It’s why environmental groups called his plan a “literal drop in the bucket.”

During her campaign, Whitmer noted Philadelphia’s “tiered-assistance program,” which generated more than $100 million a year for the city to invest in its aging infrastructure. Whitmer has been careful not to release any numbers beyond that.

OK, Fix the Damn Roads. The centerpiece of Whitmer’s campaign focused on the state’s more visually apparent problem, but not the most pressing because there is a fix — albeit arguably insufficient — in motion.

The Legislature is three years removed from its a roads plan that linked the 26.3- cent gas tax to the rate of inflation starting in 2022. By law, Whitmer needs to put another $175 million of General Fund money into the roads for her Fiscal Year 2020 budget.

With incoming Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson on record opposing higher registration fees, a yet-higher gas tax would be her only alternative to levelling out the projected downward trajectory of Michigan’s road conditions unless she goes the bonding route. Giving the Legislature the choice of bonding, the preferred method of Engler, and tax increases, Snyder’s preferred avenue may be one of the more interesting decisions they’ll make in the coming term.

Restoring Income Tax Exemption On Pension Income. When Snyder steamrolled various state income tax exemptions back in 2011, the most controversial was the exemption on pension income. Whitmer rebranded what had been called the “Pension Tax” into the “Retirement Tax,” even though 401ks, IRA and other retirement income have always been taxed by the state.

The change in pensions only impacted recipients born after 1946 or those who were 64 and younger as of 2011. Still, nobody ever saw a political penalty for easing taxes on fixed-income retirees. If Snyder and legislators don’t spend down the projected $450 million before they leave office, using $350 million of that to give older pension recipients tax relief would be an easy winwin.

Republican legislators, particularly those elected in 2012 and after, don’t tend to like the “pension tax,” anyway.

Rolling back auto insurance rates.

Republicans will make this a top issue if it’s not on Whitmer’s to-do list already. Folks Up North are serious about returning Michigan to a tort system if reforms can’t be made to the no-fault system.

Whitmer is more interested in eliminating insurance company’s ability to grant discounts based on credit scores and a person’s ZIP code, which insurers say will only spread out costs as opposed to taking costs out of the system. Can the sides come to agreements on a hospital fee schedule and caps on attendant care without throwing out mandatory unlimited lifetime coverage?

Implementation of recreational marijuana legalization. Whitmer faces at least a two-prong issue here. First, there’s the administrative implementation of the licensing of a new flock of marijuana growers, testers, processors, transporters and sellers that will take about a year to get off the ground based on early state government estimates.

How will that function alongside an existing medical marijuana board that’s been so excruciatingly slow the courts have got involved to prevent operators from being shut down due to the state’s plodding pace.

Whitmer also wants to release inmates who are doing time for simple marijuana possession, but that’s going to take legislative action.

How much of this and other high priority items will Whitmer get to?

Richardville said Whitmer’s term as governor could resemble the tenure of former President Bill Clinton, where the Democrat treated the congressional Republican majority more as co-equals and managed some significant reforms. Or it can be like Granholm’s term, marked by her uneasy relationship with Mike Bishop, Andy Dillon or Craig DeRoche.

“If she surrounds herself with the right people and sets the right tone, she has the opportunity to be the best governor in a long time,” he said. “The governor’s table has never been set as well as it is right now, but she and the Legislature are going to have to work together or they’re going to fail together.”

Elissa Slotkin

The measured former intelligence official isn’t marching into Washington to salute presumed Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and start to make the case against President Donald Trump. U.S.

Rep.-elect Elissa Slotkin made that clear during her three-stop, post-election tour last week.

Fresh off her 13,074-vote victory over U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, Slotkin said she’s not interested in diving into 18 months of political back-and-forth trying to impeach Trump.

“I’m not looking to start off with this . . . intractable political battle,” she said.

Slotkin reiterated to reporters she also would not back Pelosi as speaker of the House. People are telling her that they want new leaders on both sides of the aisle. If that doesn’t make her friends with the current Democratic leadership, so be it.

She and 100 other candidates wrote a letter a few weeks back to say the first bill of the next Congress should be campaign finance reform. Slotkin specifically said the “role of corporate PACs in our elected officials’ lives needs to change.”

“You cannot take hundreds of thousands of dollars from the pharmaceutical industry and then be an objective… balanced broker when it comes to curbing the cost of prescription drugs,” she said, adding later that she’s “focused on corporate PACs, not nonprofit PACs.”

Another thing she’s going to do? Reopen a Lansing regional office.

The Democrats 2014 nominee, Eric Schertzing, enthusiastically campaigned for Slotkin this go around, telling voters, “Elissa is a much better candidate than I was.”

This humble admission aside, Schertzing said he expects Slotkin to be more accessible than Bishop, whose infrequent and poorly publicized Ingham County visits were among the reasons for Bishop’s 68-to-30 percent defeat in the county.

“What member of Congress who represents a state capital doesn’t have an office in the city of the state capital or in the immediate vicinity?” Schertzing asked. “We started

looking into this and we couldn’t find one.”

Jocelyn Benson

Jocelyn Benson enters the Secretary of State’s Office with about as large of a margin as Whitmer, but with much of her election reform agenda already adopted.

The passage of Proposal 3 constitutionally restores the straight ticket voting bubble. It also creates no-reason absentee voting, same-day voter registration, military voting reforms and other initiatives Benson has pushed for nearly 10 years.

As the state’s chief election official, however, Benson is still charged with appointing the state’s election director. The current director, Sally Williams was the choice of the venerable Chris Thomas, who retired earlier this year. And with Thomas making Benson his only public endorsement of the election year, it’s hard to see Benson throwing Williams overboard.

This leaves election security as Benson’s primary election-related focus and her top focus being on the vehicle registration front. “Jocelyn Benson laid out a very specific agenda during the campaign, which a majority of voters embraced, and when the secretaryelect takes office on Jan. 1 she’ll have a plan for tackling all that she has to do,” said Liz Boyd, her spokeswoman. “But no one should be surprised if customer service and getting to work on honoring a ‘30-Minute Guarantee’ is at the top of her to-do list.”

Benson doesn’t want higher vehicle registration fees being a part of any transportation funding package, but outside of her soap box, she doesn’t really have a say in the matter.

She’s also like to see more government transparency and reporting of campaign contributions, but — again — outside of her soap box, all she can do is lobby the

Legislature like everyone else.

Dana Nessel

State government’s biggest change likely will be seen in the Attorney General’s Office, where residents can expect a full 180-degree spin in priorities. And unlike the Governor’s Office, where certain initiatives require legislative buy-in, Nessel’s power to bring legal action is unchecked outside of the judicial branch.

There’s no nuisance with Nessel. There’s no reading between the lines. During the campaign, she hit voters between the eyes with what she wants to do, leaving behind no mystery as to the ends or the means.

Snyder and Enbridge Energy will attempt to make their Line 5 tunnel under the Mackinac Straits as lock-solid as humanly possible before leaving office. That isn’t going to stop Nessel from trying to unravel it.

In a press conference held with the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action last month, Nessel made shutting down the 65-year-old pipeline a top priority. One of the drivers behind getting the Plymouth attorney to run for AG in the first place was the fear that the aging 5-mile-long line would snap, spilling light crude into the Great Lakes, she said.

Promising to entomb the line won’t stop her efforts, either, because it means seven to 10 years of frigid underwater currents swaying the line around. Whitmer, too, has pledged to shut down Line 5 and she, too, may take action on it.

But with other sticks in the fire, Whitmer may let Nessel take the lead on this and lend assistance when needed.

Calling herself a “People’s Attorney,” also look for Nessel to go after health insurers who try to price people out of health insurance for their pre-existing conditions. She’s pledged to go after big pharmaceutical companies that are make opioids too available. Nessel is pledging to not only prosecute corporate polluters who aren’t cleaning up their messes, but seeking civil damages to make whole any nearby resident sickened or otherwise damaged by the pollution.

When it comes to hate crimes, Michigan likely won’t see a better advocate among people with power. Michigan’s first openly gay statewide official is pledging to go after perpetrators of hate crimes, as she did with her Fair Michigan Justice Project, which she boasts as having a 100 percent conviction rate.

On the Flint Water Crisis, Nessel wants to bring an end to the civil suits by settling up with everyone hurt by the lead-tainted water. On the prosecutions, you can expect Todd Flood to begin packing up his boxes.

Nessel said she’d take a fresh look into what is, in many ways, a “public show trial.” She’d like to go after Snyder, but only time will tell if she can make the case for it.

(Melinn, of the Capitol newsletter MIRS, is at melinnky@gmail.com.)


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