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Paul Hillegonds remembers life, work of friend and colleague Curtis Hertel Sr.

Mar 31, 2016

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

A funeral service is set for today for Curtis Hertel Sr. The former state Speaker of the House died suddenly this week of natural causes in his home.

The Democrat served in the state House for nearly two decades. Remarkably, during that time he wound up sharing the role of House Speaker with Republican Paul Hillegonds.

Following the 1992 vote, the House was divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Hillegonds tells us he didn’t really know Hertel until Gov. Rick Snyder's former Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore set the two up on a “blind date.”

“At the time, [Muchmore] said to us individually, ‘You don’t know each other that well, you haven’t served on the same committees, but you have a lot in common and you should really sit down and talk,’” Hillegonds says.

“We got to know each other over a couple of hours just talking about our families, about our love of the House of Representatives as an institution, and our desire to do problem solving, starting with figuring out how we would put together a 55-55 gridlock in the House,” he says. “We learned from each other how deeply we cared about the institution of the House, and wanted the House to succeed even though it was divided.”

Hillegonds tells us they looked to other states that had experienced a tie in the House to try to figure out how best to approach the situation, but didn’t hear many success stories. So they invented their own system.

“We decided that we would alternate serving as Speaker every other month … and essentially each party had a two-month cycle to put forward their ideas, control the agenda, and then it would switch over,” Hillegonds says.

"We learned from each other how deeply we cared about the institution of the House, and wanted the House to succeed even though it was divided."

Given what they had learned from other states’ experiences, Hillegonds tells us there was some initial concern over whether any plan could work and whether they would be able to adhere to the principles of the plan “without playing games.”

But according to Hillegonds, that fear turned into “just a wonderful two-year experience where committee chairs, co-committee chairs and co-speakers started talking to each other every week about what should be on the agenda.”

Hillegonds tells us it quickly became apparent that if the House was to get anything done, it had to be done in a bipartisan way.

He looks back at a House Fiscal Agency scandal that erupted early on in their years sharing power that “could have been an opportunity for either side to do some political posturing.” Instead, Hillegonds and Hertel decided that the institution should come first and worked together to resolve the issue.

“There were other points along the way where the system could have collapsed, but instead we built trust and respect for each other,” he says. “It’s not that we didn’t have partisan battles, that we didn’t have our own ideas about what should be done, but in the end, on the big issues we worked together.”

It’s been said by veteran political reporters that the days of butting heads in committees or in the legislative chambers and then going out for a drink or dinner together afterwards are pretty much gone.

Those interactions played a big role in getting things done, Hillegonds says, but lawmakers today often fear they’ll wind up with a target on their backs for fraternizing with the other party.

"Legislators first and foremost need to be not Republicans or Democrats, but problem solvers."

Along with an evenly split House, 1992 also saw the institution of term limits for state representatives, which Hillegonds tells us has in some ways made their job harder.

“While that isn’t the sole reason for the challenges that I think the institution of representative government has in this state today, term limits has really cut short the ability of representatives and senators to build relationships over time not only with each other, but also … with their own constituencies.”

Hillegonds tells us that legislators today could learn a lot from Hertel’s time in office.

“He wanted to talk about how we solve [a] problem, and that is the lesson I think that was true then and is true today,” Hillegonds says. “Legislators first and foremost need to be not Republicans or Democrats, but problem solvers. Curtis certainly was a strong partisan, he cared about his party, but he mainly saw the House as a place to sit down, learn from the other side, work through or differences, compromise and do problem solving. That was his career throughout. It’s nothing revolutionary, it’s what we all should hope our legislators will be when we elect them to office.”