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Michigan Democrats make historic choices for new legislative leadership

Inside the dome of the Michigan Capitol in Lansing.
Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio
Inside the dome of the Michigan Capitol in Lansing.

On their first day back at the state Capitol after the election, Michigan lawmakers picked their leadership team for the next legislative session.

Democrats, who took the majority in both chambers of the Legislature for the first time since 1984, will come into power under the leadership of Senator Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) and Representative Joe Tate (D-Detroit).

Republicans chose Sen. Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) and Rep. Matt Hall (R-Comstock Twp.) for their top posts in the minority.

Tate will serve as the first Black House Speaker in Michigan history while Brinks will become the first woman to serve as Senate majority leader in state history. She said Democrats have a lot of “pent-up policy” after being in the minority for nearly four decades.

They'll take over those roles when the new Legislature convenes in January.

“We’re going to pull up our list, we’re going to compare, we’re going to talk to the House and we’re going to talk to the governor’s office and we’re going to put together a list of things that puts the people of Michigan first. You’ll see a continued focus on making sure that our economy is strong, making that sure our education systems are strong,” Brinks told reporters Thursday morning.

Those priorities also include social issues like abortion, equity, and fairness.

Current Senate Democratic leadership is pouring cold water on the idea of passing any major changes before the new Legislature takes over next year.

“I have a number of things I’d still like to get finished but I don’t know how long we’re going to be here. The Majority Leader and I have been talking about a probably a very short lame duck. … There’s no major policy things we need to get done. I think we’ve done most of those or we can wait until January,” Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich said.

On the other side, Nesbitt said he’d like to work with Democrats on economic issues, tax cuts, and balancing the budget.

“But if there’s ways of raising taxes and trying to push businesses out of the state, overregulate them, then they’re not going to have a partner,” Nesbitt said.

Next year, Senate Democrats will be working with a 20-18 majority, meaning they’ll be reluctant to lose votes from their own members. It might spell trouble for some more controversial issues that could potentially be on the table.

Among those is a repeal of “Right to Work” legislation passed under Gov. Rick Snyder in 2012. That law bans a requirement for workers to financially support union membership.

“I think the important thing to remember is we value workers, and they deserve their fair share for the economic productivity that they help create," Brinks said.

Senate Republicans are panning that idea. Nesbitt said it would go against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s priorities about building the economy up and attracting outside investment.

“If she’s serious about developing our economy, then it’s about preserving some of these labor reforms that Governor Snyder and the Republican Legislature passed,” Nesbitt said.

Still, there seems to be openness for the idea in the House, where Tate emerged as the incoming speaker after more than two and a half hours of discussion.

Like Brinks, Tate framed the discussion over a potential repeal as a matter of workers’ rights.

“We know what ‘Right to Work’ did to this state and obviously that has something that we’ve been talking about for the last decade so we’re going to be taking a long hard look at it,” Tate told reporters.

As Michigan’s first Black Speaker, Tate said serving in the role is a historic moment. He said he wants to bring his experiences as a Detroit resident to the position while still serving constituents statewide.

He promised to use his time as speaker working closely with the governor and Senate to make sure priorities move quickly.

“We’re going to look at consensus building from the get-go but also we are going to make sure that we are … understanding our constituents’ values,” Tate said.

He added that Democrats will find agreement with Republicans when they can, but he said the election shows voters want progressive policies.

Meanwhile, Republicans are focusing their hopes for next year on the economy. In a press release, Hall said voters care about inflation, job growth and action from their representatives.

“Those are issues we’ve been working on since we came to Lansing, and they are going to stay priorities for this Republican caucus next year,” Hall said.

Arjun Thakkar is joining WKAR as a new politics and civics reporter after stints at the Detroit Free Press and Bridge Michigan. He’s also a recent graduate of the University of Michigan.
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