State aid to Detroit gets overwhelming support from Republicans (yes, you read that correctly)

May 23, 2014

It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta
It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta

In Lansing yesterday with the state House approving that $195 million for Detroit, a lot of us were anticipating a close vote. A very close vote.

There was a lot of back and forth about how many votes the Republicans would have to put up and how many the Democrats would have to put up. But, in the end, it wasn’t even close.

Other than the dust-up over the Detroit Institute of Arts millage the package passed by big lopsided margins and overwhelming Republican support. Which, when you think about it, is a very interesting dynamic: overwhelming GOP support for the state coming to the aid of a city run by Democrats.

In fact, if you were watching closely, in many respects, this was a tougher vote for a lot of Democrats than Republicans.

Many Republicans believed this was a better financial deal - $195 million up front to avoid paying much more potentially in pension liabilities, litigation costs, and future welfare payments for pensioners who lose their benefits.

Even the Republicans who voted against portions of the deal did not stand up to speak against it. Some Democrats, however, did. “Imposing this legislation on the city of Detroit is not right,” said Detroit Democratic Representative David Nathan.

It’s safe to say there was some election campaign politics in play here. Rep. Nathan is one of three House Democrats running for the same open state Senate seat. Another one of them is Representative Thomas Stallworth, a key player in putting together this deal. (Footnote: Rep. David Knezek of Dearborn Heights is another currently serving lawmaker in that six-way primary.)

Anyway, Stallworth forged a working partnership with Rep. John Walsh of Livonia, the Republican chair of the committee that crafted these bills, working the compromises that allowed for those large majorities. For example, the DIA bills gave cover to some Macomb County Republicans to support it. The oversight and financial controls in the bills gave other Republicans some political clearance.

But those same controls also gave some Democrats (especially in Detroit) fits. Also, and this is a big deal -- while Detroit may be too big to fail, we have 16 other cities and school districts that are in some stage of state financial oversight -- including six emergency managers. Even more are on the bubble. And most of those are in House districts represented by Democrats, whose local officials are asking: Where’s our bailout? That put those Democrats in a bind.

Which is contrary to the narrative that was hyped over the past few weeks that it was Republicans - particularly those facing re-election and primary-challenges - who, politically speaking, wouldn’t be able to vote for a Detroit bailout.

And, just this week, the Koch Brothers, the Tea Party darlings who have spent millions and millions of dollars on political races across the country, came out and said they’d put money into races to try and unseat Republicans who voted for these bills.

But if there was a political loser yesterday, it was Americans for Prosperity, who was not able to stoke fear in the hearts of House Republicans facing reelection. “They are just enabling bad behavior and this has to stop. We can’t keep writing these huge checks to Detroit,” said Scott Hagerstrom of Americans for Prosperity. And that was really just a messaging failure -- in part because the AFP’s alternative was so far off on the other end that it was really, unthinkable, for a lot of Republicans. And that is sell off everything the city owns or partially owns and divide it among the creditors.

We’ll see how that message sells in the state Senate, where it looks like fewer than 10 Republicans are for it. (We’re not sure how many Democrats yet.)

A couple of those Republicans do have Tea Party primary challengers. Also, two Detroit senators are facing Democratic primary challenges from House members.

Certainly, what cleared the House yesterday is not the final version of the Detroit package. There will have to be compromises to get it through the Senate and then to pull together a package that’s acceptable to both the House and the Senate.

And sometimes inter-chamber rivalries in the Legislature can be every bit as fierce as inter-party rivalries.