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Dems try to leverage minimum wage for maximum political benefit

It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta

Putative Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer rolled out his proposal this week to raise Michigan’s minimum wage to $9.25 over three years; which, as of right now, would make it one of the highest state-mandated minimum wage in the nation.

That’s sparked a debate over the efficacy of the minimum wage – does it encourage prosperity by pushing more money into the economy? Or does it stifle hiring and job creation?

But we’re here to discuss the red meat politics of the minimum wage. Mark Schauer’s announcement sets the stage for a classic class warfare throw down. So, instead of diving too deep into the policy side, let’s take on the political calculation that’s part of choosing that number of $9.25.

Polling shows big support nationally for a minimum wage of $9 an hour. There is some Michigan public opinion research that’s not quite as reliable, but still suggests it’s about the same - about 70 percent favor it.

But that support plummets as the suggested minimum wage goes up, especially above $10 dollars an hour. This shows the risk in using the minimum wage as a political wedge. To a point, it has populist appeal, but people still fear the consequences of setting wage floors. So the key is to find the sweet spot, and Mark Schauer seems to have settled on $9.25. (He says the policy-side reason is that number will make up for the erosion of its buying power over the last four decades.)

Which brings us to the next question: why now? Why not keep beating the Democratic drums - pension tax, school cuts, with a little right-to-work thrown in just to fire up the base.

The answer: Because the baseisn’t fired up. And the most recent polling shows Rick Snyder expanding his lead over Schauer. No matter how much Democrats may dislike what they’re seeing in Lansing, a lot of them are still not warming up to Mark Schauer, who is low-key, to say the least.

The minimum wage is supposed to be a jolt to try to put some electricity into his campaign.

As we’ve talked about before, mid-term, non-presidential elections tend to be low turnout elections - particularly for Democrats. Just last week, Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson said he’s identified 900,000 Democratic voters who sat out the 2010 Governor’s race. If he can inspire get a third of them to the polls in 2014, that could be a game-changer.

The minimum wage helps make the campaign for governor a cause. It’s now bigger than just electing Mark Schauer. And this cause comes ready-equipped with existing infrastructure. A web site, volunteer and mailing lists of people. It fires up the labor base. Detroit, where Mark Schauer is not particularly well-known or loved, just a couple of months ago was one of the cities where fast-food workers staged a walkout to demand higher wages.

There could even be a parallel ballot campaign in the works.

And, raising the minimum wage is also a national question. So, the Schauer campaign also gets to draft on the national news coverage. The issue offers contrast (working people vs. rich people and corporations) and the ability to define their candidate before the Republicans do.

Rick Snyder is running as Michigan’s Mr. Fix-It, cleaning up after Michigan’s double recession. But Democrats’ opinion research shows people are still upset about school funding, and the tax on pension income. Democrats will use that against Rick Snyder. But this isn’t just hammering Snyder and Republicans; this is giving Democrats and independents a reason to be for Mark Schauer.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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