Rick Pluta

Reporter / Producer - Michigan Public Radio Network

Rick Pluta has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.

Rick was one of the first Michigan political reporters to write about “pay-to-play” fundraising, and the controversies surrounding recognition of same-sex relationships. He broke the news that Gov. John Engler was planning a huge juvenile justice overhaul that included adult-time-for-adult-crime sentencing, and has continued to report since then on the effects of that policy decision.

He co-hosts the weekly segment “It’s Just Politics” on Michigan Radio with Zoe Clark.

Rick is fascinated by the game of politics, and the grand plans and human foibles that go into policy-making. You will never find him ice-fishing.

Follow him on Twitter at @rickpluta

Michigan had the lowest turnout in a Governor’s race this year since the John Engler-Geoffrey Fieger face-off of 1998. And, while a lot of Republicans sat out this year, it was mostly Democrats who stayed home in droves on Election Day.

So, despite the low turnout, conservatives can rejoice because Republicans will remain in control in Lansing for at least the next two years. But progressives can, perhaps, find some solace in the fact that getting initiatives and challenges on the ballot will be easier than it has been in 16 years.

(Shout-out to the Lansing political consulting firm Sterling Corporation and its attorney Bob LaBrandt for being the first to point this out.)

Proposals are by and large put on the ballot by petition drives. (The Legislature can also put questions on the ballot.)

The number of signatures required to get a petition on the ballot is based on the number of people who voted in the previous election for governor. So, fewer voters in 2014 means fewer signatures needed to get on the ballot in 2016.

(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

A federal judge in Detroit has refused to toss out a legal challenge to Michigan’s emergency manager law. Judge Joseph Caram Steeh will allow a trial on the claim the law violates equal protection rights in the U.S. Constitution.

Michigan Supreme Court
Michigan Supreme Court / court.mi.gov

The Michigan Supreme Court will decide next year whether the state’s right-to-work law applies to unionized civil service employees.

Four unions representing 35,000 state civil service workers filed the challenge. They say the right-to-work law does not apply to them because of the Michigan Constitution and the independent authority it gives the civil service system.

The right-to-work law was adopted two years ago by the Legislature during a contentious “lame duck” session. It says a union cannot compel an employee to pay union dues or fees as a condition of holding a job.  It’s not known how many workers have opted out of union membership since then.

The unions say the law does not trump the independence of Michigan’s Civil Service system because that is part of the Michigan Constitution. They say union membership is a condition to be negotiated with the state Civil Service Commission. The unions lost 16 months ago at the state Court of Appeals in a split decision. The majority opinion said the law applies equally to all employers.

The right-to-work law says a union cannot compel an employee to pay dues or fees as a condition of holding a job. It does not yet apply to state employees because they work under contracts adopted before the law took effect. 

Rick Pluta / MPRN

The legal team for April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse filed its appeal today with the U.S. Supreme Court. They want the court to rule that Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage and others like it across the country are unconstitutional.

This is speedy timing as Supreme Court appeals go. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled less than two weeks ago, upholding same-sex marriage bans in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

The Ohio and Tennessee same-sex marriage appeals were filed last week. Now, Kentucky, and Michigan have filed. The goal is to get the case on the Supreme Court’s calendar in the current term.

“We’re very, very hopeful that the Supreme Court will take one of our cases,”said Dana Nessel, an attorney for DeBoer and Rowse, the lesbian couple from Hazel Park who sued the state of Michigan over its same-sex marriage ban. The two nurses want to get married so they can jointly adopt the children they’re raising together.

 There’s a split in Lansing about how far and how aggressively to push for gay rights in Michigan -- specifically to update the state’s civil rights law.

Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act

This is as much a cultural split between Lansing lobbyists and the LGBT community and how they view their mission as it is a difference of opinion about tactics and priorities. However, it has now jeopardized, if not already doomed, the effort to update Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA).

The ELCRA already has protections against housing and employment discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and weight, among other things.  It’s long been a goal of Michigan’s LGBT advocates to add LGBT protections to the law.

History repeating itself

Thirty years ago, that effort cost state Representative Jim Dressel (R-Holland) his job. He lost his Republican primary in 1984 after he introduced a bill to add the phrase “sexual orientation” to the law.

This past summer, state Representative Frank Foster (R-Petoskey) suffered a similar fate for being the millennial Republican leading the effort on the GOP side of the aisle. His hope was to leave the introduction of the law a part of his political legacy.

Gender identity

But, efforts to accomplish that goal in this year’s “lame duck” session are now hung up on the words “gender identity.” That phrase would ensure that transgender people are also covered under the law.

A business coalition, put together and led by AT&T of Michigan President Jim Murray, was pushing the issue saying it’s not just a question of fairness, but talent - convincing people that Michigan is open, inclusive, and a good place to look for a job. Not only was it a persuasive group on its own but pretty much every multi-client lobbying firm in Lansing was also engaged in the effort.

Wikimedia Commons

A federal judge has struck down a Michigan law that denies employer-sponsored benefits to many public employees in same-sex relationships.

The case was filed by five same-sex couples where one of the partners is employed by a local government or school district in Michigan. They challenged the law, which was adopted in 2011 by the Legislature and signed by Governor Rick Snyder.

US District Court Judge David Lawson issued a preliminary injunction against the law, and, now, has issued an order siding with the five couples. He says the case is not about same-sex marriage, which Michigan voters banned 10 years ago. He says the state adopted an unconstitutionally narrow definition of what makes up a family. And he says the law is rooted in official government hostility against people in same-sex relationships.

user Marlith / Flickr

A debate is shaping up in the Michigan House on whether Michigan’s civil rights law should be expanded to protect gays, lesbians, and bisexuals from discrimination. There’s also a fight brewing on whether those protections should extent to transgender people.

And House Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) said he would only support adding “sexual orientation” (but not “gender identity”) to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act if the Legislature adopts a law to grant exceptions for many people with religious objections.

Joe Gratz / Flickr

The Michigan Supreme Court hosted a training day for judges and others assigned to work in specialty veterans courts. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young says veterans accused and convicted of crimes have unique issues that must be addressed if they’re going to be rehabilitated. 

“They are fraught with the all the difficulties that come with having served in armed warfare, and so these are courts that are tailored to the unique needs of our returning veterans,” says Young.

With the addition of seven new plants and animals, Michigan now bans 40 non-native species. That means they cannot be possessed or transported in Michigan or the rest of the Great Lakes region.

The expanded list is part of a deal reached between the U.S. states and Canadian provinces that border the Great Lakes. Many of the newly banned species are still in Europe and Asia, but the creatures get spread around through ships’ ballast. Tourism, and collectors of exotic plants and animals also contribute to the problem.          

DeBoer Rowse Adoption Legal Fund

Attorney General Bill Schuette and the couple trying to overturn Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage are on opposite sides of the case. But they’ve agreed they will cooperate in trying to get the case on the U.S. Supreme Court docket during the current session.

The state won the most recent legal round, but Schuette says he won’t oppose a motion to appeal that decision to the Supreme Court. Both sides have agreed they’re going to beat filing deadlines so the court can decide soon whether to hear the case next year.

A Republican wave on Tuesday.

Or was it? In Michigan, there is plenty of evidence that it was not, despite being a very good year for Republicans nationally.

More votes, less seats

No doubt there were a lot of Republican victories in the races for governor and the Legislature. But Rick Snyder’s 51 percent can’t be described as a blowout. A lot of the races in swing states were also quite close.

In fact, Democrats actually won more votes in state House races than Republicans. Democrats won more votes but got few seats.

In the 110 state House races, Democrats won 50.9 percent of the total vote. Republicans in aggregate got 48.9. Yes, Republicans won 63 seats but is 48.9 percent of the vote really a “wave”?

Dems win big in education

With one exception, Democrats swept the education boards - the state Board of education and the boards for Michigan State, Wayne State and the University of Michigan. That matters because, even though they are elected positions, almost no one knows who these candidates are.

That makes these board elections some of the most-reliable measures of core party strength - the stalwart yellow dog Democrats, rock-ribbed Republicans straight party ballot voters.

We should note, too, that the one exception is where a Green Party candidate ran a pretty aggressive campaign in the Spartans’ home turf of Lansing and East Lansing. That very well may have siphoned off enough votes from the Democrat to tip the race in the other direction.

 As we head into the last weekend before the election, Rick Snyder and Mark Schauer (and plenty of others) are making their final swings through the state, launching their final push to get out the vote.

These final few days are all about reaching voters, the would-be, possible voters and persuading, inspiring them to get to the polls.

Democrats Need Excitement

There are more registered Democrats in Michigan than Republicans. Michigan is a blue state. But Democrats don’t turn out to the polls the way Republicans do, particularly in midterm elections. That’s why in the past six presidential cycles, Michigan has voted for the Democratic presidential candidate but why, because they’re elected in the midterms, we have a Republican governor, secretary of state, and attorney general.

It’s toward that end that the D’s have a big attraction coming this weekend. President Obama is scheduled to campaign with Schauer and Democratic Senatorial candidate Gary Peters in Detroit on Saturday.

Nationwide, many Democrats are avoiding the president, but not here in Michigan. Instead, they’re betting the upside of the president’s visit will be bigger than the risk.

They’re hoping that the president can convince the legions that stepped out to support him in 2012 that they need to step out once again in 2014, even if his name is not at the top of the ticket.

Update: The state Dept. of Community Health now says it is monitoring nine people who traveled to west Africa, not 10 as it previously reported.  

The state Department of Community Health says it’s monitoring nine people in Michigan to see if they develop Ebola symptoms after they returned to the U.S. from west Africa. But health officials say none of them is  displaying any symptoms to suggest they might have contracted the Ebola virus on their travels.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder (left), and Democratic challenger Mark Schauer (right).
Gov. Snyder's office, and Schauer campaign.

One of the rituals of the political campaign season is the newspaper endorsement. This past weekend, the liberal-leaning editorial page of The Detroit Free Press – also the state’s largest newspaper – caused some head-scratching and tongue-wagging with its endorsement in the governor’s race.

The Free Press editorial page had pretty much stuck with the Democratic ticket in this election cycle. That is until this past Sunday, when it endorsed Republican Governor Rick Snyder for reelection.

Voters will get to weigh in on two laws that allowed gray wolf hunting in the Upper Peninsula.
Anders Illum / flickr.com

Michigan voters will get to weigh in on two laws that allowed wolf hunting in the Upper Peninsula.

The Humane Society just started airing ads aimed at persuading voters in the closing days of the campaign season, but whether people vote “yes” or “no” on wolf hunting, the two ballot questions are not the final word on the issue.

That’s because the ballot campaign on its own will not determine the future of wolf hunting in Michigan.

We are now a week and a half away from Election Day and this is the breakout time in any campaign season. The closing days when candidates and campaigns make their final pitches to try and close the deal with voters.

Although a lot of voters have already voted. As many as a third of the ballots in Election 2014 will be absentee ballots filled out before November 4th actually arrives.

Closing Arguments Coming Earlier

And that means as many as a third of Michigan voters have already made up their minds and won’t wait for November and the campaigns’ closing arguments. The fact that so many voters now use absentee ballots has pushed up the late-campaign attack ads; the ones that are really jarring.

Bobby McKenzie, Democrat running in Michigan’s 11th Congressional district, recently released an ad attacking his Republican opponent David Trott. It’s an ad that The Washington Post called “one of the most brutal attack ads you’ll even see.”

 Welcome to this fundraising edition of It’s Just Politics.

No, we’re not talking about Michigan Radio’s Fall Fundrive that’s underway (although the number is 888-258-98… ah, stop us!).

Instead, we are talking about Election 2014 campaign fundraising.

Endless pleas

If you’re on a campaign or party list you are well aware of the seemingly endless pleas for campaign cash.

“The entire team is still here. There is nothing we’d rather be doing than going home and taking a break. But we know how important this midnight deadline we’re facing is. If we don’t meet it, that means we could lose.”

Or this one from Senate Republicans, “Friend, I’m really disappointed and worried. I’ve been counting on your support to end Harry Reid’s disastrous control of the US Senate on November 4th….”

user FatMandy / flickr

Governor Rick Snyder has approved new laws to make it easier to prosecute pimps and human traffickers. The legislation is supposed to protect victims of human trafficking from criminal charges. One of the new laws shields children who are trafficked from prostitution charges. 

Theresa Flores wrote a book about being trafficked as a teenager in metro Detroit. She says protection for victims will encourage them to cooperate with prosecutors to help send traffickers to prison. 

 We’ve been talking for months now on It’s Just Politics about the fact that Election 2014 is really going to be about which party does a better job of getting out its core voters, especially whether Democrats can get their voters to the polls on November 4th.

Though there are more Democrats in Michigan, Republicans do a better job of turning out in mid-term elections, when a President is not at the top of the ballot.

That’s why, although Michigan is a blue-state, we have a Republican Governor, Secretary of State and Attorney General (all positions that are elected in non-presidential years, when Democrats tend to stay home).

That explains why we’re seeing a competitive race for governor, although some recent polls show Republican Governor Rick Snyder opening a wider lead (some polls, not all).

Meantime, almost every poll shows Democrat Gary Peters opening a wider lead over Republican nominee Terri Lynn Land for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat.

user dbking / Flickr

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear seven same-sex marriage cases. And that leaves the fate of Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban with the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

A decision from the Sixth Circuit could come at any time. The case was argued in August. Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee are also waiting on the ruling. A decision to uphold same-sex marriage bans in those states and Michigan would create a conflict between different circuits that could land the case before the Supreme Court.

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