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Wednesday, November 7,2012

House D's avoid bloody battle

by Kyle Melinn

The rise of Tim Greimel, who is expected to be named the Democrats’ new leader in the state House of Representatives, has been nothing less than fascinating.

Greimel, of Pontiac, a former Oakland County commissioner who only joined the legislature in March, sealed the deal behind the scenes Saturday.

In a selection process that was unprecedented in many ways, Lansing-area Reps.-elect Sam Singh and Andy Schor helped settle the matter as part of a previously uncommitted coalition of nine members that voted to back Greimel.

The decision gave the 38-year-old labor attorney well over the likely 25 to 27 votes he’ll need with the 2013-‘14 caucus, making Thursday’s official vote at the Capitol more of a formality.

Greimel’s rise from the lowest rung on the seniority scale to leader (replacing term-limited House Democratic Leader Richard Hammel) speaks to the Democrats’ desire to start afresh with a new leadership team and their desire to have consistent leadership going forward.

Greimel was elected eight months ago in a special election in the 29th District. Then-Rep. Tim Melton left the body in late 2011 to take a job with the California-based education reform group StudentsFirst.

A University of Michigan grad, Greimel has been practicing law for 12 years with a focus on labor and civil rights law in recent years.

A former Rochester School Board member and president, he served five terms on the Oakland County Commission and worked in the UAW’s legal department. After graduating from law school, he volunteered free legal services in low-income neighborhoods.

Three months ago, Greimel’s name was not in the leadership mix. The discussion centered around House Minority Floor Leader Kate Segal, D-Battle Creek, Rep. Rudy Hobbs, D-Lathrup Village, and Rep. Jim Townsend, D-Royal Oak.

Segal would seem to have been the favorite, given her current leadership position and her access to giving caucus campaign money to candidates in competitive districts. But wounds within the Democratic caucus never really healed after the election two years ago when Hammel and Rep. Woodrow Stanley, D-Flint, split the caucus in a very public battle for votes.

Members privately grumbled that the Hammel/Segal leadership team was too moderate and wasn’t doing enough to either a) cause trouble for the majority Republicans or b) work out deals that would get Democratic-sponsored amendments or bills passed. And this wasn’t just the old Stanley crew that was frustrated.

Also, there was some carried-over discontent from former Speaker Andy Dillon’s 2010 campaign effort, where his failed gubernatorial run and absentee House leadership helped set the stage for a monumental collapse in which the Democrats lost 20 seats, including nine incumbents.

Hammel was a Dillon guy. The caucus knew it and privately held some resentment against him for it.

The stage was set for a new face. A coalition of freshmen that included Townsend and Hobbs emerged as an alternative. They began raising money and doing campaign-related activities on their own.

However, the chiefs never found enough Indians to follow them. Townsend had one other supporter. Hobbs had about six. Segal had about three votes. The rest of the caucus was not eager to jump to one side or the other as Election Day neared.

So when Greimel was approached with the idea of leadership, the veteran of Oakland County government put together a caucus plan that apparently blew away the Detroit caucus, which was the first to put out a joint endorsement.

The plan was based on a concrete direction for public policy and on winning back seats. It included a more inclusive atmosphere, which is extremely difficult to achieve with the diverse Democratic caucus.

Maybe more important, Greimel was new. He was not in anyone’s camp. He was a fresh face with big ideas and a friendly attitude, who was welcoming input from everybody. He truly was the right candidate at the right time.

Hobbs and Townsend went to Greimel shortly after the Detroit caucus made its endorsement.

Schor, of Lansing, who was elected Tuesday to replace Joan Bauer in the 68th District, and Singh, of East Lansing, who was picked Tuesday to replace Mark Meadows in the 69th, were part of a coalition with seven other current and future House members committed to staying neutral until closer to Election Day in the hopes a leadership battle wouldn’t take the caucus’ eye off the prize of a majority.

But with the momentum clearly going Greimel’s way, they voted early Saturday to back the new frontrunner, giving him the expected number of votes needed to win.

The selection is unique in that the House Democrats are avoiding a bloody internal caucus battle for leadership. They will be, for awhile anyway, united after the election. And they have a leader who can serve six years, a truly unprecedented opportunity for continuous leadership in a term-limited world.

Taking advantage of the opportunity will be their next big challenge.

(Kyle Melinn is the editor of MIRS News. He’s at melinn@lansingcitypulse.com.)

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