The last time Democrats controlled both chambers of the Michigan Legislature as well as the executive offices of governor, secretary of state and attorney general was 1983-‘84, near the end of which, James Blanchard won his first term as governor.
On Sunday, Blanchard sat behind Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as she was sworn in for a second term — the first in 40 years when Democrats control both the executive and legislative branches, albeit narrowly.
And local Democratic legislators will play an important leadership role in the course led by Whitmer, herself an East Lansing resident. Moreover, she has tapped former state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., another East Lansing resident, as her legislative director.
Here is a look at the makeup of the local delegation, followed by their goals for the 102nd session of the Michigan Legislature, which began officially on New Year’s Day and ends on Dec. 31, 2024.
— East Lansing resident Sam Singh will be floor leader, with control of the agenda, timing and flow of all legislative business. Singh, 51, who graduated from Michigan State University, was mayor of East Lansing and a state representative. Elected in November to his first Senate term, he represents a portion of his former House district in Ingham County but also an area north into Shiawassee County. The son of immigrants from India, he has worked in the nonprofit world.
— Joining Singh in the Senate is Sarah Anthony, of Lansing. She’s the first Black woman tapped to chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. That committee — and the companion House panel — chisel, hammer and wrench the annual budget before it goes to the floor. Anthony, 39, is a graduate of Central Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s from Western Michigan University in public administration. She served on the Ingham County Board of Commissioners. A former state House member, she was elected in November to her first Senate term to represent part of Ingham County and much of Eaton County.
— Angela Witwer, of Delta Township, returns to represent much of Eaton County and take over chairing the Appropriations Committee. Witwer, 60, is the co-founder of Edge Partnership, a public relations firm. Before that, she worked for 22 years at Sparrow Health System. She also served on the Waverly School Board of Education. This will be her third House term in the House, although the first in a new district covering the majority of Eaton County.
— Rejoining Witwer is Julie Brixie. The Meridian Township Democrat replaced Singh when he was term-limited out of the House in 2019. She will serve a new district that stretches farther south in Ingham County. The 56-year-old lawmaker is a Chicago native who graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor of science degree in physical geography. She came here to work for Michigan State University, where she ran a mobile soil toxicology lab. She served on the Meridian Township Board of Trustees, then as township treasurer.
— Kara Hope, of Delta Township, who is serving her second term, rounds out the returning House lawmakers. Hope’s district covers much of south Lansing and stretches into rural southwestern Ingham County. Hope, 48, was an Ingham County commissioner. She is a native of Ionia, where she was a reporter for the local paper after graduating from MSU and before earning a Cooley Law School degree. She was editor of the Cooley Law Review and interned with the Innocence Project. She was an attorney with the Michigan Court of Appeals and then a defense attorney before turning to family law. She also taught at Cooley.
— Also joining the area delegation representing northwestern Lansing, portions of Clinton County and the city of Grand Ledge is Emily Dievendorf, of Lansing. Dievendorf has been an advocate for the LGBTQ community who has also worked on racial justice issues. A graduate of Michigan State University’s James Madison College, Dievendorf was the executive director of Equality Michigan from 2012 to 2015. After departing the nonprofit, she unsuccessfully ran for the Lansing City Council. Her 25-vote primary win over Jon Horford, a Grand Ledge basketball hero, surprised the political establishment in the August primary election. The 44-year-old identifies as bisexual and nonbinary, meaning not exclusively as a man or woman. She uses she and they pronouns. They are the first openly nonbinary member of the state Legislature.
Whitmer starts her second term with just a one-vote House majority and two in the Senate. With the governor and Hertel pushing an agenda and a mid-Michigan team of leaders in position to influence what will land on Whitmer’s desk for a signature or veto, what does our legislation delegation hope to accomplish?
In interviews, the incoming lawmakers listed a host of issues, from gun control measures to violence prevention to improving the environment. Their Zoom interviews will be available online Thursday.
Tsernoglou conducted her interview from the parking lot of a local ice arena where her daughter was at hockey practice. Brixie was in Chicago, spending the days helping with her father, who was in hospice. He died two days after her interview. The rest joined from home offices.
Whitmer wants to ax an unpopular tax on pensions passed over a decade ago by her predecessor, Gov. Rick Snyder. Until 2011, Michigan seniors could take home modest pensions or cash in on their 401(k)s with minimal tax liabilities. But Snyder had campaigned on gutting the even more unpopular Michigan Business Tax, signed into law by his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. He had to find a way to plug the $1.7 billion hole that eliminating that tax would cause in the state budget. He defended the pension tax as a matter of “fairness.”
Whitmer has the mid-Michigan delegation in her corner.
“There was a lot of the tax burden that was really shifted during the Snyder Administration away from businesses and corporations and onto individuals, including retirees, and that needs to be fixed,” Brixie said.
But as a former township treasurer, Brixie is familiar with the holes produced in tax revenues when lawmakers fiddle with cash generators like taxes.
“I would favor a solution such as a graduated income tax where people who earn less money are taxed at a lower rate and people who earn more money are taxed at a higher rate,” she said, noting her previous introduction of such a measure. “This is a mechanism that would allow equity and would probably result in a tax cut for folks on the lower income scale.”
She said she is “eager” to work with Whitmer’s team in bringing a graduated income tax to a vote.
Besides eliminating the pension tax, Whitmer wants to expand the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which the delegation supports.
Inflation has clobbered the average American’s bank accounts for the last year. Anthony said she heard voters’ concerns loudly and clearly while knocking doors during the campaign.
“They wanted relief,” Anthony said. “I mean, my goodness, every time I go to the grocery store, I’m shocked that — even just carrying out two bags — I’m almost spending a hundred dollars.”
Witwer said she plans to focus on the economy and jobs, a familiar refrain from the 2022 election from all the candidates. To do that, she said she wants to focus on “kitchen table issues.” One of them is adjusting the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit.
The EITC allows Michiganders to write off 6% of their federal EITC on their state taxes. Before Snyder’s tax plans became law in 2011, Michiganders could write off as much as 20%.
Thanks to an influx of federal COVID relief dollars, Michigan’s general fund has a surplus of $7 billion.
Witwer said she supported plans to “adjust the EITC so that there’s more money in people’s pockets in Michigan.”
Singh, like his Democratic colleagues, supports a revision to the EITC as well as a fix of the pension tax.
“Since we do have a significant surplus, we want to make sure that those are targeted to people who need relief,” he said. “Especially in this economy that not everyone is gaining at the same level and so we have proposed putting back the Earned Income Tax Credit back to levels that were pre-governor Snyder that would put money back into working families pockets.”
The U.S. Supreme Court and the Michigan Supreme Court have both endorsed the legal theory that discrimination against transgender people or lesbian, gay and bisexual people is discrimination on the basis of sex.
But the 2022 election season saw local and statewide candidates using LGBTQ people as a cudgel in the culture wars, accusing educators of being “groomers.”
“I think that Michigan residents spoke out pretty loud and clear that they weren’t interested in a lot of the hateful social issues that the Republicans were touting,” Anthony said.
Brixie said there’s a sea change afoot that will result in the passage of long-sought amendments to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to cover the LGBTQ community. She said that GOP leaders prevented hearings and a vote on the issue last session — because, she maintained, not only would it have passed, it would have received GOP support.
“It would have gotten done,” she said.
Brixie cited amending the act as one of her key goals this year, as did Singh. Witwer said amending Elliott-Larsen and repealing the 1931 law making it a crime for a person to perform an abortion in the state “are extremely important to people in Michigan and corporations.” She said Michiganders could expect to see movement on both “in the first part of the year.”
Dievendorf said they found out during the last few years of political scandals around sexual harassment that survivors were continuing to be “victimized” through loopholes in the laws. Those loopholes have to be addressed in what she called “transformative justice.”
“There are very basic changes that can be made to protect everyone,” she said.
Passage of Proposal 3, which enshrined abortions rights in the Michigan Constitution, bolstered her argument that eliminating the 92-year-old law is what the majority wants.
“It’s important to get old laws off the books, because things change,” Hope said. “A one-term president can appoint three Supreme Court Justices and change things.”
Every few years a kerfuffle occurs in government causing partisans from both parties to make loud proclamations about transparency. But they never seem to get around to amending the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). FOIA allows most residents of Michigan to access documents in the files of local and state governments within certain constraints. Michigan’s FOIA does not apply to the Legislature or the Governor’s Office. It does apply to the Secretary of State’s Office, the Office of the Attorney General and all the government departments under the governor.
Dievendorf said she favors removing the “double standard in the Legislature and the Governor’s Office” by eliminating their exemptions from the law “as people’s personal information can be protected.”
“It’s sunshine,” Brixie said. “Sunshine is always good in transparency.”
On the way out of power in 2022, Republicans did move legislation to expand FOIA, but their bill would only add the Governor’s Office while continuing to exempt the Legislature. It died.
Simmering under the debate about expanding FOIA to the Legislature is the slow-boiling campaign finance scandal of former Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who has been accused of pilfering dollars for lavish parties in Detroit and purchasing controlled substances for lobbyists. The allegations grew out of a police complaint filed by Chatfield’s sister-in-law Rebekkah Chatfield, who accused him of sexually assaulting her while she was a teenager.
Dievendorf said the incoming freshman class of lawmakers is driven by a “wave of discontent with politics as usual.”
“If we do not function more ethically, more transparently and really hone in” on their priorities, “then we’re out of there. That includes being open with what is happening at the Capitol.”
Brixie said she too supports an investigation to determine how and why Chatfield could have committed so many alleged violations of campaign finance and officeholder accounts.
“I would certainly like to see the emails from former Speaker Chatfield’s office,’ Brixie said. All of the lawmakers agreed that expanding the law to cover both the governor and the Legislature was necessary.
Each of the lawmakers also indicated it was important to “revisit” state campaign finance laws, as Tsernoglou said, in light of the Chatfield scandal. Each also understands such revisions will require an in-depth understanding of how Chatfield allegedly got away with all the cash issues that the media has reported.
All the lawmakers agreed that the razor-thin majorities that Democrats gained in November will make governance difficult. One need only look at the first two years of the administration of President Joe Biden. Despite having a slim majority in the House and a 50-50 split in the Senate, with Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote, Biden’s agenda found itself hung up over and over by the machinations of just two U.S. senators.
That’s why Singh and other lawmakers are cautioning their colleagues to move with care as the session gets rolling. There will be holdouts in the Democratic caucus in both chambers. That will require Democrats to look across the aisles for partners to pass laws.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Hope said of building bridges of cooperation with Republicans.
She noted that while she has served in the House for four years, “it seems like it’s harder to negotiate with someone who doesn’t believe you are a human being, or a peer, or their equal. Maybe you can’t build a bridge with that person.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom, Hope said. She points to the fact that the ballot initiatives all passed with significant majorities. That, Hope opined, means the majority of Michigan residents agree on what is right, and it’s the Legislature’s job to do what the majority of residents want and agree with.
“A minority has done well and been served well by the Republicans for the last 10 years,” Hope said. “What the minority wants — and by that I mean the rich — and what the majority of Michiganders want are not necessarily the same thing.”
“This is the first Legislature after the independent redistricting commission,” Hope said. “I think this is a chance to show people that democracy really does work.”
Given the slim majorities in both chambers, getting things done will likely mean getting support from mid-Michigan GOP legislators, such as Graham Filler, who represents northern Clinton County, including Dewitt, in the House. Singh said he’d “love to see” the bipartisan Capitol Caucus, which comprised nine area legislators last term, continue, including Republicans. He said a meeting is likely next month.
The delegation’s two newcomers see the need for bipartisanship.
“In many ways, most things are going to get done in a bipartisan effort,” Tsernoglou said.
Said Dievendorf: “We can’t count on having this majority in two years. The issue we are facing right now is that we really do have a very, very, very small majority. Which means that either we keep all of our folks together, on the Democratic side in solidarity; or we need to ensure we are building relationships with Republicans on the other side. And ensuring that we are creating a cultural shift.”
To create the shift in culture is a heavy lift, Dievendorf said — but vital.
“If Republicans ever took control without those cultural shifts, they could flip those right back the opposite way again. That’s happened time and time again.”
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