It appears so, but we’ll have to wait till the Nov. 8 general election to find out for sure.
For now, however, it’s easy to make a case that the Michigan GOP is more strongly in command of state government than at any time since just after World War II. In 1947-’48, all eight statewide elected constitutional officers, from governor on down to auditor general, were Republicans; so were 14 of the 17 members of Michigan’s U.S. House delegation; both U.S. Senators; 24 of our (then) 28 state senators; and 95 of our (then) 100 state representatives. Of course, the state Supreme Court, ostensibly non-partisan, was Republican, too. So were our state education boards that were elected statewide.
Then Democrat G. Mennen (Soapy) Williams was elected governor in 1948, and everything changed. There was never a time between 1948 and 2011 when there wasn’t some blot on the Michigan GOP’s escutcheon, no matter how successful the party might have been otherwise. Even popular Republican governors George Romney and William G. Milliken had to deal with legislatures that were Democratic most of the time, and the other constitutional officers were Democrats, too. The Congressional delegation became overwhelmingly Democratic, and so did the ed boards and the Supreme Court.
In 1990, though, with the surprise election of Republican John Engler, Michigan embarked on a quarter-century journey that transformed the state in ways nobody could have envisioned back then.
A Republican has now occupied the governor’s office for nearly 18 years since 1990 (and Lieutenant Governor as well). The party finally regained Secretary of State in 1994 and has never given it up. In 2002, Republicans reclaimed the Attorney Generalship and still own that. Republicans have controlled the state Senate since the famous recalls of 1983 after Democratic Gov James Blanchard rammed through a 38% hike in the state income tax. What started as a slim 20-18 GOP majority following the recalls has been at least that large ever since and grew to a mammoth 27-11 supermajority in 2014. The state House was 70-40 Democratic as recently as 1980, but the GOP since Engler’s election has achieved outright control for 16 years and shared power with the Democrats for another two.
The judiciary saw a similar transformation. It took until the 1998 election for Republican-nominated justices to constitute a majority on the state Supreme Court (after nearly four decades in the minority) and that majority was able to elect a chief justice for 16 of the next 18 years. The two years it didn’t was because of a feud between Republican Betty Weaver and the other three GOP justices that led to Democrat Marilyn Jean Kelly as chief justice. When Weaver resigned in 2010, Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed fellow Democrat Alton Davis to her seat, giving the Democrats a 4-3 majority for five months. But Davis lost his re-election bid to incumbent Bob Young and challenger Mary Beth Kelly, both Republicans, in November 2010. Then GOP majority control expanded to 5-2 in 2013 when Democrat Diane Hathaway had to resign after her conviction for mortgage fraud. Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Republican David Viviano as the new justice replacing Hathaway.
For the past two decades, Republicans have exercised complete control over the reapportionment process. Before that, in 1991, with a divided legislature, a three-judge panel, chaired by retired court of appeals chief judge T. John Lesinski, drew a state legislative plan largely similar to the 1982 Supreme Court-ordered redistricting plan created by Bernie Apol, the court’s redistricting special master. The 1982 and ’92 Apol-inspired maps wiped out what had been a Democratic advantage achieved because of two previous Democratic gerrymanders (Austin-Kleiner in 1964 and Hatcher-Kleiner in 1972) that had given Senate Democrats 24 seats throughout the 1970s. House Democrats had between 58 seats in 1972, the year of the President Richard Nixon re-election rout of George McGovern, and their record 70 seats in 1978.
Frustrated during the past quarter-century of Republican dominance, Democrats attempted to rewrite the Michigan Constitution. The state’s wily Democratic Party Chairman, Mark Brewer, focus-grouped and poll-tested various concepts before drafting a 19,503-word constitutional amendment that made 36 specific changes to the state’s basic charter. The effort was kept under wraps and signatures were collected in near-secrecy before a power point surfaced on a UAW website in June 2008 revealing how, why, and who was behind what has become known as the infamous Reform Michigan Government Now (RMGN) ballot proposal, which would have:
* Cut legislative, judicial and executive pay — always a winner with the voters;
* Reduced the size of the state Supreme Court from seven justices to five. Eliminating two justices with the least seniority, both Republicans, would leave the Democrats with a 3-2 majority. This was the real purpose of the petition drive; and
* Reduced the size of the state senate from 38 to 28 and shifted half of the senate to “staggered” elections, half of them in presidential election years; and reduced the size of the state House from 110 to 82. Also required — a new redistricting map before the 2010 elections using new rules replacing the Apol standards as to how districts lines were to be drawn.
But Brewer had overplayed his hand. Editorials denounced his plan as a partisan powerplay. First, the Court of Appeals, then the Supreme Court ruled the proposal ineligible for the 2008 ballot (not just because of the GOP majority, either — even a Democratic justice voted against it).
Organized labor tried the ballot route as well; in 2012, labor unions qualified two proposals for the general election ballot. The first would have enshrined in the Michigan Constitution the right of all public and private employees to bargain collectively through labor unions. The second would have given home health workers “public employee” status, allowing the the SEIU union to “organize” those workers, bargain for them, and, most importantly, collect mandatory union dues or agency fees as a condition of their employment. In addition, there were three other constitutional amendments and a referendum (on the emergency manager law) on the ballot that year. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce led the opposition to all five constitutional amendments (but not the referendum), spending millions of dollars asking voters to “Just Say No.” The voters did, resoundingly, to all six proposals (including, to the Chamber’s and Snyder’s consternation, the emergency manager law).
The House Republican caucus lost four seats in 2012 but kept its majority, 59-51. Then, in the “lame duck” legislative session of December 2012, the GOP majorities, in a blitzkreig move, passed “Right to Work” (RTW) legislation, drawing national attention. It was payback by the GOP to labor leaders who had rebuffed Snyder earlier in the year when he had urged them not to file their petitions and thus avoid an unnecessary confrontation. After Big Labor lost at the ballot box, the governor was able to claim that, although the issue had not been “on his agenda,” it was now before him, and he would sign it.
Today, Michigan, the birthplace of the United Auto Workers, is a Right to Work state. The clout of organized labor has significantly ebbed. On the day John Engler was elected governor in 1990, many knew he might have wished for such an eventuality, but who would have thought it would actually happen? It took a couple of decades, but it did.
In that same 2012 lame duck session, passage of RTW obscured another important new statute — a rewrite of the state’s recall election law. No lawmaker has faced any recall election attempt since, and it will be almost impossible for them to in the future (by the way, Democrats like this, too).
Detroit bankruptcy? Oh, yes, plenty of developments on that front as well, and they had ramifications in unexpected places. In 2013, Ingham Co. Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, a former state senate Democratic staffer, attempted to enjoin Detroit’s Snyder-appointed emergency manager, Kevin Orr, from filing Detroit for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. On her order she penned a note that a copy of her order should be transmitted to President Barack Obama. Her order was too late. Orr had filed minutes earlier. A bankruptcy filing stops all other legal proceedings involving the city, but the Republican-controlled Legislature had had enough of the Ingham Co. bench. Responding to Acquilina’s unsuccessful ploy, majority GOP lawmakers stripped from the Ingham Co. Circuit Court all its duties as Michigan’s Court of Claims by transferring those functions to a special pool of judges on the Michigan Court of Appeals. In addition, this new special pool of judges would also hear cases on important matters involving state departments and officials. Thus ended the near-monopoly the Ingham circuit, dominated by Democratic (albeit “non-partisan”) judges, had held for decades and used against Republican governors and other state officials.
Next, in December 2013, the GOP-controlled Legislature amended the Michigan Campaign Finance Act (MCFA) to raise dollar contribution limits to reflect changes in the consumer price index (CPI) since the law was originally enacted back in 1976. In addition, Department of State rulings on issue advocacy advertising were codified into the MCFA. Since 1974, legislative Republicans had chipped away at the MCFA — they passed laws prohibiting the use of union dues for political contributions; banning political bingo; creating a single caucus committee system with contribution limits; banning political activity by a public body, including a ban on public bodies administering a PAC payroll deduction program; and enacting limits on bundling contributions to candidates for statewide office.
The 2014 election was a near-repeat of 2010. Republicans were re-elected to all four constitutional offices; the 5-2 GOP majority on the Supreme Court was maintained; the Senate expanded from 26-12 to 27-11 R/D; and state House Republicans gained four seats to push their majority back up to 63-47. The U.S. House delegation stayed 9-5, R/D. No state or federal law suit challenging Right to Work legislation succeeded. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mark Schauer chose not to make RTW an issue in his close-but-failed campaign. There were no TV spots blasting RTW from Schauer or the Democratic Governors Association.
In 2014, the Legislature enacted what has been called the “Grand Bargain,” securing a public-private partnership that cleared the way for the City of Detroit to emerge from municipal bankruptcy. Last year, new laws were enacted to repeal straight-ticket voting and to curb corporations from administering or receiving reimbursement for administering PAC payroll deduction plans for PACs not their own, or for the PAC of an association the corporation belonged to as a member.
In other words, Republicans in control of state government have accomplished most of their agenda in the past two and a half decades, much of it out of sight to the mainstream media (MSM), which is clueless about the significance of what politicians really care about.
But the honeymoon may be over. Ominous signs sprouted up last year and continue into this one. Trouble may lie ahead for the GOP. Stay tuned.