It's Just Politics

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This week, it’s another shenanigans edition of It’s Just Politics. Thanks to Jack Lessenberry for his explainer on the latest political mischief coming out of Detroit. It’s important to note this kind of political behavior is nothing new: Very crowded primary ballots with names that are very similar; recruited by opposing campaigns. Efforts to divide the vote can also take into account ethnicity, gender when one side recruits candidates with no hope of winning but, can maybe split the vote to sink another campaign come Election Day. No matter what you think of political games, they’re pretty normal.

Mike Duggan, former hospital CEO, prosecutor and problem-solver for the late Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara launched his Detroit mayoral write-in campaign after he was booted from the ballot after one his opponents challenged him for filing his nomination petitions before he was a city resident for a full-year. But a lot of experts were giving his write-in effort a pretty good shot at getting him into the two-person runoff this coming fall. He’s topping the polls and appeared to have a good shot at winning a spot on the November runoff.

The Detroit bankruptcy filing is Michigan’s biggest news story of the year, with effects that will ripple out in all kinds of ways; many that are unpredictable.  It would be naïve to suggest that politics will not be a big part of how this plays out – if it hasn’t already.

So let’s run the bases on this, starting with Governor Rick Snyder. Snyder approved the bankruptcy filing, the largest in U.S. history, and it is now part of his legacy and his resume (whether he likes it or not) as he prepares to seek reelection next year. Every painful and controversial decision by a federal bankruptcy judge will be laid upon Rick Snyder by Democrats. Snyder may not own Detroit, but he sure owns its problems.

This is an awkward place for any leader to be, although not an unusual one. This is a governor being controlled by events, not controlling them. A couple years ago Snyder relentlessly, positively insisted that bankruptcy for Detroit was not an option; almost unthinkable. Now, he says there was really no other choice.   “This is a difficult situation – but the answer is, by not doing this path, where would we be? And, so, this is an opportunity to say ‘let’s get that fresh start’ and show the rest of the country why Detroit can be an exciting place that can grow into the future,” Snyder said yesterday evening, about two hours after the Chapter 9 filing.

Welcome to our post-Independence Day edition of It’s Just Politics and, today, we’re talking Independents.

This week, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel let it be known he wants the “D,” for Democrat, stripped from the column alongside his name in the Macomb County directory. Hackel told The Macomb Daily that he doesn’t think being a Democrat, or a Republican for that matter, really makes a difference in his job as county executive. And, that he doesn’t really consider himself a party person.

This certainly isn’t the only incarnation of Hackel’s independent streak. He has refused to endorse the presumptive Democratic candidate for governor, Mark Schauer. Nor, will he utter an unkind word about Governor Rick Snyder; and he’s been silent on the controversial right-to-work law.

But this latest episode did prompt a statement from Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson, who embraced Hackel and praised his service to the Democratic Party.

We should be clear: Hackel is not making noises about leaving the Democratic Party. But there is a history in fickle Macomb County – Michigan’s hotbed of political disharmony – of Democrats bailing.

The Legislature’s off on its summer recess and Governor Rick Snyder is on a Pure Michigan tour of Republican senators’ districts to hammer them for leaving Lansing without voting on his top policy priority, the Medicaid expansion.

We are now at another point in this administration where Governor Snyder is trying to grab hold of the Lansing agenda and shape it to his liking. This is the Nerd’s version of offense: hitting members’ districts, trying to engage the public to compel recalcitrant Republicans to interrupt their summer recess to approve the Medicaid expansion, something that is fiercely opposed by the Tea Party.

And, that’s a good reason why state Senate Republicans, out of principle, political expediency or both, have not been able to get a majority of the GOP caucus to support the expansion – or, at least, putting the question up for a vote. Which is what’s so frustrating to Governor Snyder, who thinks there are enough votes in the state Senate to support the Medicaid expansion. It’s just that most of the votes are Democrats. Twelve of them; we’re pretty sure they’d all vote for it. Which means it would only take eight Republican senators to pass it or, seven Republican senators with Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley casting the tie-breaking vote.

This week on It’s Just Politics, we break down the breakdown over the Medicaid expansion. We’re thinking a bit about Mick Jagger right now (something along the lines of, “You can’t always get what you want") and Jagger might just have been singing that tune for Governor Snyder, who, yesterday, was once again denied by the Michigan Legislature. This time, by the state Senate, they left town, out-of-dodge for the summer apparently, without voting on an expansion of Medicaid.

The Medicaid expansion is the governor’s top policy objective at the moment and, so, Mr. Relentless Positive Action ain’t too happy. “I wouldn’t use the word ‘angry,’ but, obviously this is not my normal demeanor. What word you’d like to put on it, I’ll leave it to you.”

Peeved? Vexed? Splenetic. We’ll step away from the thesaurus, now, and breakdown this breakdown. First of all, Rick Snyder played a big part in creating this problem for himself. He and Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley were both missing during some critical days of these negotiations. This was the final week of session before the Legislature’s summer break and, yet, face-to-face Medicaid negotiations were delegated while the governor went on a trade trip to Israel and the lieutenant governor was on a tour of the U.P.

Both of those trips were cut short as things melted down in Lansing, but precious time was lost. There are things only a governor can promise and he has to be in the room to do it. But, the governor may have set the stage for this impasse two summers ago when he signed into law the new legislative district maps; a lot of very safe Republican seats. When you do that, you also give outsize influence to the more extreme elements of your party. No wonder you can’t get Republicans to support you, governor. That’s how you set it up.

This week on It's Just Politics, it's all about the art of the campaign announcement.

This morning Congressman Mike Rogers surprised no one when he told the world, or, at least, the state of Michigan, that he will not be a candidate to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy created by the retirement of Carl Levin in 2014. Rogers says he has too much on his plate as the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. And, there’s truth to that: Syria, Iran, and North Korea, not to mention the renewed scrutiny over how the U.S. gathers intelligence.  A very competitive U.S. doesn’t fit well with those big responsibilities.

We should point out Mike Rogers could not do that job if he didn’t live in the safely Republican 8th Congressional District, nicely drawn for him courtesy of the Michigan Legislature’s GOP majorities. Rogers hasn’t had a tough race since his first congressional race in 2000. That race against Democrat Dianne Byrum a dozen years ago was one of the closest in the country. But that’s not a problem for Rogers anymore. He probably has this seat for as long as he wants it.

Rogers let us know his plans via e-mail, which is how it’s done these days. Earlier this month, Republican Terri Lynn Land announced her U.S. Senate plans (she’s in) on Twitter. And, former-Michigan Congressman Mark Schauer did the same thing; filed his papers to run for Governor as a Democrat and, then, Tweeted it.

This week on "It’s Just Politics," it’s all about ch-ch-changes (cue your best David Bowie impersonation here). Changes are afoot vis-a-vis lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Michigan.

Democrats in the Legislature made news this week by introducing a package of bills to reverse Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage and to recognize same-sex marriages that are legal in other states. All of this is occurring, of course, as we wait for the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings on gay marriage, due sometime this month. There is also a federal case in Michigan that could be affected by the decision.

The big question is: How significant is this new legislation when all of the sponsors are Democrats? We all know Republicans run the show in Lansing; controlling the state House, state Senate and the Governor’s office. And the Republican leadership has shown no signs of wanting to make this issue a priority. When Gov. Snyder is asked about it, he tends to tap dance around the issue, won’t say "no," won’t say "yes." “I’m staying focused on jobs and kids and seniors at this point,” the governor said this week.

This week we are taping It's Just Politics at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Policy Conference on Mackinac Island. This is an annual statewide event where business people and politicians come to plot the future of Michigan. Big shots. Serious stuff. Except, of course, for the iced-vodka luge.

Really this is Rick Snyder’s party. Most of the people that attend the conference are his people: Moderate, but right-of-center business folks, impressed by cutting taxes and balanced budgets.

Two years ago at this conference, the Governor had only been in office for six months and, in his words, “working in dog years."  One Tough Nerd came to the conference with a state budget done in record time; nothing like the budget gridlock we saw in a couple showdowns in the Granholm years (2007 and 2009 were doozies). Also, in that six months, Snyder had gotten a couple big wins on tax policy and it sure seemed like he was simpatico with the Legislature’s Republican majority.

Basically, the 2011 Mackinac Policy Conference was Rick Snyder’s jam.

This week on "It’s Just Politics," we’re talking scandals, or at least, perceived scandals. In D.C., at the White House, the Obama administration is dealing with the Benghazi emails, the IRS alleged targeting of certain Tea Party groups and the Department of Justice investigating the phone records of journalists.

Scandals: They have the ability to alter the political landscape. Watergate, a national scandal so profound that all subsequent national scandals of any note get “-gate” attached to them.

Back in 1993, here in Michigan, there was the House Fiscal Agency scandal. Some agency employees were caught using what was kind of a petty cash account for all kinds of things that had nothing to do with their jobs. The long-time chairman of the House Appropriations Committee lost his job and people went to prison. It gave Republicans a bump in the next election; winning control of the state House after two years of evenly shared power with the Democrats.

Sufficient to say, scandals can change elections. We are in an era where elections are nationalized. So here we are, going into a presidential mid-term race in 2014 and, as we've talked about before on "It’s Just Politics," mid-term elections are seldom kind to the party in the White House. Here in Michigan, that puts Democrats on defense as they’re hoping to notch some major victories come November 2014.

Democrats are being given the edge in keeping the U.S. Senate seat that Carl Levin is vacating. And in the gubernatorial race, former Democratic Congressmen Mark Schauer, who's hasn't officially announced he’s in the race yet, is running even with Governor Snyder, according to some very early polling from EPIC MRA.

This week’s It’s Just Politics deserves a little running music (we’re thinking the theme to Chariots of Fire would fit well) because we’re looking at who’s in, who’s out, who’s thinking of getting in and who’s thinking about who’s thinking about getting in when it comes to Election 2014.

This week Detroit Mayor Dave Bing announced he’s out; won’t seek another term as Mayor. He delivered this lengthy apologia that seemed about as long as the entire Bing administration to the people who had to sit through it before he made the big announcement. In journalism, we call that burying the lead. There was some question as to whether Mayor Bing could actually win reelection, but clearly this breaks open that race. Twenty two people running, the biggest slate in almost two decades.

The candidates getting the most attention are Mike Duggan, former Detroit Medical Center CEO and Wayne County problem-solver, and Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon. The other candidates are in a race right now to make themselves the top alternative should one or both of them falter. Kind of like what we saw last year in the Republican presidential primary as it seemed like a different candidate every month became the alternative to Mitt Romney.

So, we have this big race for Detroit mayor, while the filing deadline for Michigan’s big statewide races – governor and U.S. senator – is still a year away. We’re at that weird stage of the gubernatorial race. Let’s start with Rick Snyder, who says he’s not ready to announce that he’s running but, really, he’s running. “I’m not formally announcing anything. I’m honored to be governor. And I’ve got a lot of things I’d like to do over the next few years,” Snyder said this week.

Welcome to our “Anatomy of a Kerfuffle” edition of "It’s Just Politics." This week: a throw-down between Republican state House Speaker Jase Bolger and state House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel. It culminated in the speaker yanking eight Democrats off their legislative committees. This was a big deal, a really unprecedented move and a classic example of the principle: it is better to be feared than loved.

This week on It’s Just Politics, we delve into a secret project dubbed “skunk works.” The name means a project done in secret, usually to get something complex or controversial done quickly, without getting mucked up in organizational bureaucracy.

Skunkworks: A History

The name is actually trademarked by the Lockheed Martin Corporation. Lockheed’s Skunk Works was created to handle aircraft projects that needed to be wrapped up quickly during World War II. Now, jump ahead almost 70 years, and it was revealed last week by The Detroit News that Michigan has recently had its own skunk works project. But this time: education rather than aircrafts.

Skunkworks Closer to Home

The group involved members of Governor Rick Snyder’s administration and was led by Richard McLellan, a well-known attorney in Lansing known as a Republican deal-maker and conjurer of political plots.

Governor Snyder had already asked McLellan to devise a plan to revamp Michigan’s school funding system. But Skunkworks was a separate operation. This plan was to create a string of low-cost charter schools authorized by a tribal community college with statewide reach. The group involved in the plan did not include the education lobby – teachers’ unions, administrators and school boards.

McLellan was the one who tagged the project “skunk works" (a name we’re pretty sure he has come to regret) and in an email that was leaked to The Detroit News, he details what the project was about. Education lobbyists saw this as a plot to undercut them and create a new pipeline of charters competing for school funding. These schools would be middle and high schools, something that would be ground-breaking as charter operators typically don’t run middle and high schools. That’s because they tend to be more expensive than elementary schools (they have to pay for things like chemistry labs and big gyms).

Education Lobby None Too Pleased

When the Lansing education lobby found about this – they cried foul at not being part of the discussions, especially ones involving people so close to the governor. One of Governor Snyder’s political brands has always been the ‘hands-on CEO” so, it’s interesting to note that the governor distanced himself from the group pretty quickly after it was made public.

This week's It's Just Politics is all about the politics of gas taxes; there’s a turbo-charged effort this week at the state Capitol to pull together a transportation funding package that will most likely include some kind of increase in the gas tax. Governor Snyder continues to say that he wants at least $1.2 billion dollars more in annual transportation funding. And, even though everyone seems to agree that Michigan’s roads are in dire condition… not everyone can agree on how to pay for the repairs.

It is a complicated state of affairs. Everybody hates the disease. But no one likes the cure: more money for infrastructure. That’s a good reason why the gas tax hasn’t been increased in Michigan since 1996, under then-Governor John Engler.

It’s not as simple as just raising the state gas tax (which is currently 19 cents per gallon). As we know, raising taxes is not typically part of the recipe for reelection, and every House member and state Senator who is not term-limited is up for reelection in November 2014, along with Governor Snyder.

Dealing with this road funding conundrum is complicated by the fact that we pay a lot of different taxes at the pump. There’s the state gas tax and the federal gas tax. We also pay the state sales tax, which goes to schools and local governments. It doesn’t pay for roads. That’s why a lot of people want to either exempt fuel sales from the sales tax or turn a portion of it over to road funding. But that’s a problem because then you’re taking a billion dollars from schools and local governments, both of which are not feeling a lot of love from Lansing lately. So, cut the sales tax from the cost of buying fuel and you’ve suddenly got yourself a new (billion-dollar) problem.

Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta

We really hadn’t heard much about referendum-proofing since back in December and the Legislature’s now-infamous “lame duck” session. But the wait is over. We now have a new controversy and a new referendum-proofed bill before the state Senate which could be voted on as early as next week.

We’ve talked about referendum-proofing before on It’s Just Politics, it’s when the Legislature wants to make sure a controversial bit of business can’t be reversed by voters using the referendum, lawmakers put a little spending in it. That makes the legislation an appropriation, and to protect the full faith and credit of the state, the Michigan Constitution says that’s the only kind of law that can’t be challenged by a referendum.

Referendum-proofing has been going on for a long time but, it’s really picked up steam in the last three years. The Republican-majority ruled state Legislature now regularly makes its controversial work immune to referendums – the repeal of the item pricing law, the income tax on pensions, and the controversial right to work law, just to name a few.

Strangely, the Legislature did not referendum-proof the first emergency manager law it passed in the last session, and after voters rejected it last November, turned around and passed a new emergency manager law with a referendum-proofing appropriation in it.

We’re more than a year away from the next statewide election – November 2014 – but, we’re already seeing plenty of hand-wringing among Republicans and Democrats over who will run for statewide offices.

Success for Democrats will depend a lot on voters in an off-presidential year. They need to hit or come close to hitting the 62 percent turnout – about 7.5 million voters across the state - that was part of the Democrats’ winning formula last year.

Republicans meanwhile, want to – need to – alter their message to capture a bigger share of whoever turns out without adulterating their values on gay marriage, affirmative action.

So that’s the backdrop as both parties try to sort out who will run. There’s no shortage of Republicans interested in that Senate seat that’s open because Carl Levin is retiring. There’s a sense that Congressman Mike Rogers could clear the field if he decides to run. We're not totally convinced that’s the case. An open Senate seat in Michigan is pretty rare. There’s some early, somewhat conflicting polling on this.

Republicans in Michigan, at least some of them, are trying to reposition their  party vis a vis gay rights, and especially gay marriage. It’s one of the issues that has been killing Republicans among younger voters.

This week, Michigan Republican National Committeeman David Agema put that dilemma front and center with a post on his Facebook page. It was an old and pretty much discredited piece that outlines “facts” about homosexuality; like gay people are responsible for half the murders in large cities.

As a national committeeman from Michigan, Agema helps set the direction at the Republican National Committee. He was elected last year by a Republican state convention; swept in by a Tea Party insurgency. This Facebook post took the simmering conundrum facing Republicans and turned up the heat. The rest of the public is watching as Republicans try to resolve this question: Is it possible to simultaneously be against gay marriage and against discrimination that targets gay people?

Some Michigan Republicans are calling on Agema to resign. But Agema and his position certainly still have plenty of supporters in the Republican Party.

The path of emergency management in Detroit is packed with political peril and promise (we decided to be quite alliterative this week). As Joe Biden once said, “This is a big deal.”

An Emergency Manager for the state’s largest city: It’s big. It’s complicated. Success would be sweet, but it’s certainly not guaranteed.

You could say Governor Rick Snyder now owns the city of Detroit, or at least its problems. And yet, his fate -  his political fate, the fate of his aspiration to be the governor who finally fixes Detroit - is now in the hands of someone else: Kevyn Orr. Orr was named Emergency Manager yesterday afternoon in Detroit. Orr’s success or failure will be Rick Snyder’s success or failure.

There’s already been a lot of talk about what this means for Rick Snyder’s future as he gets ready to run for reelection next year. And opinions are mixed. One take: The governor looks assertive and he’s taking action, which helps him regardless of the result. The other side: He’s taking a big risk and can be tagged as a failure if Detroit isn’t showing some real improvement by next spring or summer.

Here’s what’s difficult about any analysis of this situation: Ceteris paribus. It’s a common Latin phrase that economists use. It means “all things being equal.” And any analysis of any individual situation has to assume there’s some stability in the circumstances surrounding it. And in politics that’s not the case. Ever. There are always moving parts that are forcing other moving parts into new directions.

The political chattering class is busy today in Michigan talking about Senator Carl Levin – retiring after three decades in the US Senate. Politicos are remembering a long and distinguished career – a career, we should mention, that is certainly not yet over. Senator Levin still has another 20 months before the end of his term. But if we’re honest – really honest – this announcement kicks off the insider talk about who will run to replace him. Right now, that’s a delicate subject: sort of like talking about what’s in the will while you’re still at the funeral. But, the plotting has already begun… this is politics, after all.

It would be somewhat uncouth - slightly tacky - for anyone to publicly express interest in the seat this soon. But, let’s just say, anyone who has not taken themselves out is either in or thinking about it. On the Democratic side, we’ve got Congressman Gary Peters and Democratic National Committeewoman and southeast Michigan power broker Debbie Dingell. On the Republican side we’ve got Congressman Justin Amash, former Sectary of State Terri Lynn Land and Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley.

Calley, however, is in a bit of an awkward position if his name keeps getting mentioned.  Attorney General Bill Schuette made sure he took his own name out of consideration very quickly. For his office, like lieutenant governor and secretary of state, the nomination is made at a party convention. If Schuette, Calley or Secretary of State Ruth Johnson keep popping up on people’s lists of possible Senate candidates, that invites an effort for other contenders for their jobs to organize a convention challenge – which is just a couple thousand people; something that’s do-able for a lot of people who might not have the wherewithal to organizer a primary campaign. So, some possible contenders really have to decide quickly: fish or cut bait. It may be an honor to be mentioned… but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing.

Matthileo / Flickr

Anyone in need of a biscuit? A lump of sugar? Grab a cuppa, because it’s time for a Tea Party edition of It’s Just Politics. And we think this classic quote from Maxwell Smart kind of sums up this past week for the Tea Party in Michigan: “Missed it by this much…”

A Tea Party insurgency at last weekend’s state Republican convention came very close to unseating incumbent Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak.

“Missed it by this much…”

For whatever reasons, Schostak has never been able to convince a wide swath of the Tea Party that he’s one of them. Also, Governor Rick Snyder – once again – bucked the Tea Party to back the Medicaid expansion (an option part of Obamacare). The state would get federal money to add hundreds of thousands of people to Medicaid. It’s part of the Governor’s budget. He’s still trying to sell that. But this week, the state House Republican leadership did something that for the last two years was unthinkable – it passed legislation with a majority made up of more Democrats than Republicans.

Twenty-nine House Republicans nervously brushed off a full-throttled Tea Party effort to reject federal funds to set up a partnership online exchange – between the state and the federal government –to sell health insurance. Another big part of Obamacare.

This week’s It’s Just Politics is all about the dineros, somolians, greenbacks, dead presidents. In other words, it’s the budget-rollout edition… so, we’re talking moolah.

Governor Snyder delivered his budget proposal for the next fiscal year this week and the headline seems to be: Tough calls have been made; good times are head, but we’ve got to pay for it.

In his third budget proposal since taking office, Governor Snyder proposed more money for roads, harbors, schools, colleges and universities. And, more funds for early childhood education and law enforcement. This budget is all about investment: spend now to save later.

And, it’s interesting to take a look back and see what a difference a couple years can make. When Governor Snyder first took office he talked about how surprising it was to see folks in Lansing constantly asking for money for their departments, projects and programs; now the Governor is the one asking for some bread, coinage, clams. He might be asking nicely for more money but he’s going to also have to do some convincing. He’s got to sell his spending plan to fellow Republicans, the party that’s typically averse to so-called “revenue enhancements.”

What a week in Michigan politics! The litigating has begun on the state’s new right-to-work law, keeping the controversy alive, in the media, and in the public eye. There’s a right-to-work case in a lower court as well, but Governor Snyder asked the Michigan Supreme Court to make some key rulings so state employees can start dropping out of their unions as soon as the end of March.

Electoral College Changes?

Today on It’s Just Politics, it’s all about the politics of wildlife. Or, wildlife management that is. Okay, might sound slightly boring so, how about this: “shooting wolves.” That tends to get people worked up.

In fact, groups are worked up. So worked up that they're gathering signatures right now to put a referendum on next year’s ballot to try and reverse the new state law that could clear the way for a wolf hunting season in the Upper Peninsula. We should point out this does not create a wolf-hunting season. Instead, it makes the wolf a game mammal, and allows the Michigan Natural Resources Commission to declare a wolf-hunting season if it sees a need.

Opponents say it’s too soon for a wolf-hunt, that the gray wolf just came off the endangered species list last year. But there have been some problems with wolves moving into "people territory," chasing pets, getting into trash… you know, being all wolfish. Eight wolves were shot last year in Iron Mountain by wildlife officials.

Photo courtesy of the Snyder administration

Governor Rick Snyder delivered his third State of the State address this past Wednesday; the annual ritual when governors defend what they’ve done over the past 12 months and lay out their vision for the coming year. It’s a night for official Lansing to step out. Some people actually buy new clothes for it. There are receptions and parties afterward, which goes largely unseen by the public, who just tune in for the speech and opposition response. That is, of course, if they tune it at all.

The State of the State speech – and, nationally, the State of the Union address – is a challenge: it’s long. It’s a laundry list of policy and wonky, political-speak. It’s hard to keep people’s attention. And, we’re not just talking the TV or radio audience. It’s hard to sometimes even keep the attention of the people in the House chamber where the Governor delivers the speech.

In order to try and spice things up a bit this year, Governor Snyder literally took it down a level. He delivered his address from the clerk’s perch on the dais of the state House of Representatives instead of from higher-up where the state House Speaker presides over the session. Snyder wanted to do it standing on the floor of the House, walking around with a wireless headset. No notes. Very Silicon Valley, tech company, CEO style.

The 97th Legislature of the state of Michigan began this week, having still not shaken off the hangover of last year, as Republicans forced through controversial issues like right-to-work during last month’s lame duck session. And, it’s probably fair to say that this is more than a double-aspirin hangover.

There are however, some efforts toward mending some of the very hard feelings leftover. “This past year has strained relationships,” state House Speaker Jase Bolger said on the House floor, “however, we can and should leave that past behind us.” Of course, that’s easy to say when you’re not the one still spitting the sand out of your mouth. But, Democrats and Republicans did negotiate for a peaceful opening day.

Yet, Democrats and unions have made it plain that forgive and forget is not in the cards.  They want the last two years, especially everything that happened in December, to be the main topic of conversation in Michigan politics for the next two years. And it certainly seemed like another thumb in their eye when the Michigan Economic Development Corporation paid for an ad in the Wall Street Journal touting Michigan as the nation’s newest right-to-work state under the banner of the very successful and super popular Pure Michigan brand. Democrats say it’s politicizing the brand and some marketing experts are even saying it might not have been the wisest choice.

Matthileo / Flickr

It’s the first It’s Just Politics of the new year and we took advantage of our sabbatical to ponder what might be the big political news in 2013. We say “might” because, well, really, who would have thought at the beginning of 2012 that our biggest political story would be Michigan becoming a right-to-work state? The biggest story out of a year already filled with intrigue, political gossip and bombshells.

Right-to-work consequences

Certainly, there’s already intrigue afoot over how Democrats and labor are going to respond to the passage of right-to-work. It can be argued that the escalation really began in 2011. That’s when the Michigan Education Association, in particular, responded to some Republican anti-union legislation by launching a recall effort. They succeeded in recalling state Representative Paul Scott, then-chair of the state House Education Committee.

Skip ahead to November 2012 and Proposal Two. Prop Two failed, and, then, voila!, Michigan the country’s 24th right-to-work state. Now, that’s just a simple version of what’s a much more complex tale. But, it does give one a sense of how politics is played here in Michigan… kinda reminds us of Sean Connery’s line in “The Untouchables."

Connery: He pulls a knife. You pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital. You send one of his to the morgue.

When talking about Michigan politics, Newton had it right, “to every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.”

Retaliation

Unions and progressives could try to challenge what happened in the lame duck session on the November 2014 ballot; not just challenging right-to-work but the new emergency manager law, too. The new EM law is a rewrite of the 2011 law that voters rejected via referendum in November. The organizers of that ballot drive are now crying foul, saying the new EM law is similar to the one that voters already said "no" to.

Meanwhile, Governor Snyder and legislative Republicans made it impossible for voters to repeal this new EM law. We’ve talked about this often on It’s Just Politics: lawmakers can make it impossible for voters to repeal a law by adding money – appropriations – into the measure. Voters cannot repeal legislation with money in it. So, lawmakers added appropriations to the emergency manager and the right-to-work laws.

But, that doesn’t mean opponents still can’t go to the ballot.

Snyder Administration

Governor Rick Snyder held a year-end roundtable with reporters today.  That’s on top of the public bill-signings and one-on-one interviews and meet-ups he’s held with various reporters and editorial boards in the past few weeks. These meetings are a December staple of the Lansing political-journalism culture. But, today’s additional roundtable with reporters raises the question: after hours and hours already spent being interviewed, why is the Governor holding yet another meeting with the press?

A likely answer: The governor wants to reset the conversation, at least a little, and shift some attention from controversies like Michigan’s new right-to-work law and his veto of concealed weapons legislation to some good news stories – or, at least, what he calls good news stories.

Stateside: It's just a year of politics

Dec 20, 2012
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It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta

As the year concludes, we're looking back at the momentous events that made 2012’s headlines.

Here are the following stories Michigan Radio's Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta of Michigan Public Radio Network discussed today:

Right-to-work

Speaker of the House Jase Bolger

Matthileo / Flickr

This week we saw the wrap-up of the Legislature’s lame duck session. It was big and messy and there’s still a lot to sort out.  But clearly the biggest news, history-making, really, was that Michigan will become the nation’s 24th right-to-work state. Right-to-work is a loaded issue with passionate supporters and
opponents. Thousands and thousands of protesters turned out to try and make their voices heard. This will be an issue that resonates for a long time. It has huge cultural consequences. But, as always, on It’s Just Politics, we want to focus on the inside mechanics, the down-and-dirty politics.

And, some of the politics during lame-duck sure was down and dirty. One of the final actions of the Republican-controlled Legislature was to make it much harder to recall elected officials. Recalls are among the retributions being plotted by labor in the face of right-to-work. This could be a bit of a game changer before that’s even started. That should have state Senator Partrick Colbeck, a Republican from a swing district in western Wayne County, breathing a little easier. Colbeck was a big backer of right-to-work and is now considering a top recall target by Democrats.

Republicans also made sure their work won’t be the target of a referendum campaign by putting an expenditure in it. GOP lawmakers also did this when they passed a new emergency manager law this week. We’ve talked about this before on It’s Just Politics: how Republicans in this session have used this provision in the Michigan Constitution that’s meant to protect the state’s ability to pay its bills. But, it’s being used, time and again, to shield laws from the threat of voter-reversal through a referendum.

This week, after months – years, really – of saying right-to-work wasn’t something he wanted, that it was too divisive of an issue, Governor Snyder signed the legislation into law. To many, it seemed almost like it was forced on him. Particularly after One Tough Nerd had been a Hamlet on the question, “to be right-to-work or not to be right-to-work…?” This has many political observers wondering: was this just a Kabuki  dance all along? Was there always a plan to “do” right-to-work?

Meanwhile, compare the Governor’s apprehension with Republican Speaker of the House Jase Bolger. Bolger, who just might be Lansing’s most-powerful politician right now, was *never* coy about the issue. No doubt about it: he wanted, pushed for, worked for right-to-work. And, how interesting it is that it was just a little over a month ago that Bolger was teetering on the edge of humiliation. House Republicans had mismanaged a couple of controversies (think the Roy Schmidt party-changing episode and “Vagina-gate”) and Bolger came close to becoming the first House Speaker in 20 years to lose his seat. But, he came back to Lansing after the election, seemingly unharmed,  and waged the battle over right-to-work.

What a week it was.

Shouting and chanting filled the halls and rotunda of the State Capitol building on Thursday as Right to Work bills made their way into the state House and Senate. And, more protests are likely this week as the Legislature will take what are likely the final votes to send this so-called “right to work”-  or “freedom to work” bills as they’re known to some supporters and “right to work for less” if you’re on the union side – to the governor’s desk.

And Snyder will almost certainly sign them. This week, within the space of 72 hours, right-to-work went from “not on my agenda” to “on THE agenda” to Governor Snyder embracing the issue… even after months – years, really – of saying he didn’t want to take up such a divisive issue.

Here at It’s Just Politics, we’re wondering if it’s about time that the phrase “not on my agenda” has to be retired. The Governor has used the “not on my agenda” phrase before – over the issue of repealing the motorcycle helmet law and domestic partner benefits – and, yet, when these issues actually reach his desk: he signs them.

So, the question this week is: what changed in the Governor’s mind? What made him give-in? Was it simply a matter of inevitability? Right-to-work had just kind of taken on a life of its own after voters knocked down Proposal Two and a lot of interest groups were arguing that that could be interpreted as a referendum on “right-to-work” by Michigan voters; some Republican lawmakers took it as a sign that now was the time to try and introduce the issue. Maybe the governor just had to make the best deal he could once it became clear he was getting a right-to-work bill no matter what.

It certainly makes his life less complicated vis a vis a potential Republican primary in 2014. But it does complicate his general election prospects when this will almost certainly be used against him.

Michigan Municipal League / Flickr

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Well, for political junkies, the best time is still Election Day. But, the lame duck legislative season sure ain’t that bad either for Capitol-watchers. And, this year’s lame duck sure is serving up plenty of plots and intrigue; almost all of it revolving around right to work, an issue that’s not even officially on the agenda. In fact, there’s no bill yet. Nothing in writing. But just the prospect, the very possibility of right to work, is sapping up Lansing’s energy; every lobbyist, every legislator is paying attention to it.

And that’s become a problem for Governor Rick Snyder. “It’s a divisive issue. And you just look at all the activity and there are a lot of things we are talking about otherwise and it just kind of takes the oxygen out of the room, so hopefully this is something that can get some closure relatively quickly,” Snyder said this week at the state Capitol.

The issue is hanging over and holding up school reforms, a tax rollback for manufacturers and other businesses, overhauling Blue Cross-Blue Shield… the list goes on and on. There’s a small subset of issues where Democrats in their minority wilderness in Lansing can try to pull a power play – and they’re threatening to without some assurances that right to work is off the table in the lame duck session. The tension is palpable. A platoon of State Police troopers was called to the Capitol as a preemptive measure on Thursday against a Wisconsin-style state Capitol takeover in case right to work does come up.

It would seem that Governor Rick Snyder could settle the uncertainty. But, instead, he says “On any of this, I’ve been very clear for the past 2 or 3 years – right to work is not on my agenda and that’s what I’m going to say on this topic and that’s it.” So, it raises the question: why won’t Governor Snyder put this to rest? Why doesn’t he make it go away by saying, “I will veto this if it reaches my desk”? Well, there’s a bunch of reasons. First and foremost, it wouldn’t make his troubles go away. It would only trade one set of problems for another. That’s because debating and certainly signing right to work would launch a war with labor. Recalls are already being threatened. Governor Snyder has aspirations to be a two-term governor. Vetoing or promising to veto right to work pretty much guarantees him a credible Republican primary challenge.

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