Imagine that you got into politics, won a few local elections, and before you knew it were your party’s leader in the Michigan Senate.
That’s how things worked out for State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, a former high school social studies teacher who, at age 39, got that job a little over two years ago.
That was the good news for Ananich, who has wanted to change the world for the better since he was a boy.
The bad news is that he heads a delegation so small you could pack them all into a couple full-size cars. Republicans hold a staggering 27 to 11 majority. Democrats don’t even have the one-third of the votes needed to prevent a bill from taking effect immediately.
When you find yourself in that position, there are really only two options. You can indulge in shrill symbolic criticism of your enemies, knowing they have the votes to trample over you.
Or, you do the best you can to nibble at the margins and get the best deal you can for your delegation and your district.
Jim Ananich, a heavy-set man with a neatly trimmed beard, believes in the art of compromise.
“I have an enormous amount of patience,” he told me over lunch in Grand Blanc the other day, adding, “I do suffer fools when I need to.”
Even if that wasn’t his normal way, he feels as if he has no choice. His native Flint is still reeling from one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in Michigan history. There is still vast need. Most of the pipes still need to be replaced.
Children will need monitoring for years to assess the effects of the lead poisoning.
“I have to persuade people we need to move from a Flint disaster plan to a Flint recovery plan,” he said.
He worries that our national short attention span is already leading people to want to forget about Flint. He intends not to let that happen.
But how do you get anything done when you have so few troops and there is such an ideological gulf between the parties? For one thing, by working hard to build relationships and sometimes take advantage of splits in the majority.
He told me that when he can, he’ll go to the Republican leadership and say, “this is what it would take to get votes from us,” and often, after a battle, he gets something.
Not everything he wants, but something.
“If someone is honest and smart and keeps their word, I don’t always look at their political leanings,” he told me.
Democrats haven’t had a majority in the Senate since Ananich was eight years old, and thanks to extreme gerrymandering, may never get one again. If he chooses, Ananich could run for another term and stay in the Senate through 2022. But he may have another option.
If, as expected, Dan Kildee runs for governor next year, Ananich would be the favorite to succeed him in Congress. He’s tempted, but hesitant; the thing that matters to him most isn’t politics, but his wife Andrea and Jacob, his 18-month-old son, and he wants to make sure he has the time to see him grow up.
Maybe you can be in politics and still be a normal human being.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.