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Susan J. Demas: How Michigan became the progressive powerhouse of the Midwest


Susan J. Demas: How Michigan became the progressive powerhouse of the Midwest

Dec 04, 2023 | 3:06 am ET
By Susan J. Demas
Susan J. Demas: How Michigan became the progressive powerhouse of the Midwest
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer | Andrew Roth photo

For years, Michigan was a national laughingstock, as bad news stalked the state like the villain in a bad ‘80s horror film.

There was the one-state recession of the early aughts, thanks to the bruised auto industry that almost collapsed during the Great Recession that followed, and two partial state government shutdowns

Then came Republicans shoving Right to Work through a decade ago in an attempt to reverse Michigan’s economic fortunes (but really to placate rich donors), despite the vocal protest of over 10,000 union members on the Capitol lawn that made international news.

And then there was the Flint water crisis, the crown jewel of GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder’s dismal, eight-year tenure, as the state’s effort to save a few bucks in a city the administration didn’t care about resulted in Flint residents, particularly children, paying the ultimate price with their health.

It’s easy to forget how exactly the bad old days felt in Michigan.

Susan J. Demas: How Michigan became the progressive powerhouse of the Midwest
More than 10,000 people protested Right to Work at the Michigan Capitol, December 2012 | Susan J. Demas

But today, Michigan is known as the anti-Florida (thanks to some savvy marketing from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer), a veritable liberaltopia in the Midwest, which is expected to play a vital role, yet again, in picking the president next year.

This year, Whitmer partnered with the first Democratic legislative majority in roughly 40 years to not only reverse longstanding right-wing policies, but to pass major legislation furthering progressive causes like abortion rights, climate change policy, LGBTQ+ equality, education funding, voting rights, gun reforms and labor rights. All this took place as unions are again on the march thanks to massive victories like the UAW’s “Stand Up Strike” against the domestic automakers headquartered in Michigan. 

For too long, it was easy to feel helpless in Michigan. 

Efforts to protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination started and stalled. Anti-abortion lobbyists successfully kept chipping away at basic health care rights. And a devastating 2021 school shooting in Oxford resulted in thoughts and prayers, but little immediate legislative action. 

But as it turns out, it wasn’t that leaders didn’t care about issues deeply important to most Michiganders. It was just that not enough of them were in a position to do anything about it. 

Voters, who had enough of inaction, bucked history (and shocked the pundit class) last year by voting for total Democratic control of Michigan — even though it was a midterm election where President Joe Biden’s poll numbers weren’t exactly setting the world on fire.

As state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) said during the March signing of landmark LGBTQ+ rights legislation, “This moment is so long overdue, and too many suffered on the journey to get here.

“But … turns out they were waiting for us. They were waiting for a Legislature with the courage to stand up to hate and stand up for equality. They were waiting for members of our own community to tell our story in the chambers of the State Capitol. And they were waiting for a governor like Gretchen Whitmer to sign [this bill].”

Michigan is proof that real progressive victories that change the lives of millions are possible in swing states, not just deep-blue California.

So can this success be duplicated? 

Like almost anything in politics, the answer is: not exactly. A unique set of circumstances, laws and players made this possible in Michigan. But there are still crucial lessons for leaders and advocates across the country.

But as it turns out, it wasn’t that leaders didn’t care about issues deeply important to most Michiganders. It was just that not enough of them were in a position to do anything about it.

– Susan J. Demas

Michigan did have some structural advantages that others don’t that helped prime the state for progressive triumphs this year. 

The Mitten State’s relatively straightforward process for ballot initiatives and constitutional amendments (which many states lack — and Michigan Republicans have unsuccessfully tried to clamp down on) laid the groundwork, with voters approving an independent redistricting process and voting rights amendments in 2018. 

That helped even the playing field after decades of gerrymandering and recent Republican attempts to make it harder to vote. Fairer maps for the 2022 election and policies like same-day voter registration and no-reason absentee voting, definitely helped propel Democratic candidates to victory in key legislative seats last year.

Michigan also had the gift of an eye-popping $9.2 billion budget surplus at the beginning of the year, bolstered by an unexpectedly strong economy for which Biden has yet to get credit and the last GOP-controlled Legislature that sat on billions of federal COVID aid naively hoping that Republican Tudor Dixon would vanquish Whitmer in the election (she lost by 11 points).

After decades of penny-pinching, vast budget cuts and a couple government shutdowns, Michigan finally had some cash to invest in funding schools, fighting climate change, implementing election reforms and instituting tax cuts for seniors and low-income people.

And as for the stereotype that Democrats can’t pull it together, especially when it counts (there’s a reason why #DemsinDisarray trends regularly), Michigan showed that it’s possible to band together on big, systemic change, despite intense lobbying from powerful business and gun rights interests.

Walking into the year, Michigan had the slimmest of Democratic majorities — 20-18 in the Senate and 56-54 in the House. The party hadn’t been in charge of the House since 2010 and the Senate since 1984, so there was a steep learning curve.

But House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) and Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) proved they were able to work with Whitmer to execute a progressive game plan with ruthless efficiency and relatively few hiccups, like scaling back the Reproductive Health Act and parts of the clean energy plan.

Susan J. Demas: How Michigan became the progressive powerhouse of the Midwest
Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids, Speaker of the House Joe Tate (D-Detroit), Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel pose for a photo during the Michigan Inauguration on Jan. 1, 2023. | Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance

Trying to run a caucus with narrow majorities is often compared to herding cats, and with good reason. Both Brinks and Tate showed exceptional mettle in balancing the myriad needs of their members while ensuring that significant policy got done.

Having tested and reliable partners in the judicial and executive branches, like Attorney General Dana Nessel, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Democrats in charge of the Supreme Court, didn’t hurt, either.

But, hands down, the biggest boon to Michigan progress has been having Gretchen Whitmer at the helm.

Voters chose a governor in 2019 who came armed with the most experience since Republican John Engler was elected in 1990. In her more than 14 years in the Legislature, she endured it all in the minority as the state rotted under austerity. As a minority leader, she did thankless work behind the scenes on issues like Medicaid expansion, as Republicans weren’t eager to boost her stature by passing landmark legislation bearing her name.

That helped Whitmer contend with a Republican-controlled Legislature obsessed with curbing her power in her first term — both before and especially during the pandemic. Time and time again, pundits underestimated her as she held the line against budget cuts and attempts to kill public health measures, even while contending with a stream of sexist insults and even a 2020 assassination attempt

And so, when Democrats defied the odds and ran the table in last year’s midterms, Whitmer was exceptionally ready to govern with the majority. 

It’s become unfashionable to say that having experience and a moral compass counts in politics (or much of anything anymore), but one only needs to look at the devastation wrought by our last president, Donald Trump, who had zero government experience and appears to have been born without a conscience.

Whitmer was ready on Day 1 to finally deliver on Democratic priorities. Deftly drawing on institutional knowledge, her team had a clear plan of attack. The governor showed her methodical mastery of the legislative process that requires constantly balancing competing interests and resolving maddening intraparty conflicts.

Susan J. Demas: How Michigan became the progressive powerhouse of the Midwest
Former Vice President Joe Biden links arms with Sen. Kamala Harris and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Detroit, March 9, 2020 | Andrew Roth

Does it hurt that Whitmer’s name was on the vice president shortlist in 2020 and she’s widely considered to be a top 2028 presidential contender? Of course not. 

All politicians are naturally ambitious (if they weren’t, they’d just be eating Cheetos while watching “90 Day Fiance” and grousing about politics on social media like the rest of us). If they harness that ambition to boost democracy, protect human rights, combat climate change and more, that’s the ultimate win-win.

So Whitmer has a pretty good legacy to run on if she chooses to launch a White House bid at some point — the flashy optics of her bill signings last month for reproductive rights and clean energy packages alone told a powerful story (and purposefully so).

Of course, nothing is guaranteed. And Michigan Democrats face their own uncertainty heading into next year, as two House members have resigned, leaving a temporary 54-54 deadlock that will cause any progress to come to a screeching halt.

Nobody ever said rebuilding a major state after decades of doom and gloom would be easy.

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