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Primary night successes leave Democratic House majority uncertain

Interior of the state Capitol's rotunda.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

A two-seat Democratic majority in the Michigan House of Representatives is looking a bit more fragile.

That’s after two Democratic members, who are also running for mayor of their home cities, advanced in their primary races Tuesday.

They are Reps. Kevin Coleman (D-Westland) and Lori Stone (D-Warren).

Coleman said he’s confident Democratic priorities will still get done, even if he and Stone leave for another office.

“We’re not going to lose our majority. We’re going to have a slight delay, a slight vacancy. There might be a little bit of a delay with legislation, but Democrats have been hitting, ticking all of the important boxes in Lansing since the beginning of this year,” Coleman said Wednesday, alluding to the idea both he and Stone come from safe Democratic districts.

But their absences could still provide a headache for the state’s rare Democratic House majority.

If Stone wins her election, she would be sworn into mayoral office in November, according to Warren city ordinances. Westland swears in their mayor on New Year’s Day.

Meanwhile, special elections take time to hold. State statute doesn’t lay out a specific timeline for putting one on, though it’s likely Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, wouldn’t drag her feet.

John Sellek is the founder of the public relations firm, Harbor Strategic. He said the possibility of a 54-54 split with Republicans still puts extra pressure on Democrats.

“Their issue list is not close to being done. They had a huge rush on the front end of the year, they got bogged down and worked on the budget with a few other issues that were key to their caucus in the meantime but there’s a lot of stuff left on the table. And that’s where there’s a lot of consternation,” Sellek said.

Coleman said he believes he could effect more direct change for his community as mayor while Democrats can still move quickly on priorities like housing and economic development before the November election.

For its part, Democratic leadership is projecting calm over the situation.

“House Democrats have been working hard to advance those issues that matter most to Michiganders. The outcome of yesterday’s primary does not change that focus,” a statement from Speaker Joe Tate’s (D-Detroit) spokesperson Amber McCann read.

McCann said the Speaker is “prepared for potential outcomes in November.”

House rules would leave Democrats in control of the gavel and setting the agenda should their majority come down to a 54-54 split.

But how they respond to needing a Republican vote to pass anything could vary, Sellek said.

“You could see a scenario where Democrats would bring up tough votes for Republicans like additional gun safety laws, additional abortion laws, or even some forms of tax cuts that Republicans wouldn’t necessarily support. They might want to get those votes on the record,” Sellek said.

He pointed out Democrats and Republicans are likely already looking ahead to the 2024 elections, meaning the Legislature could also see both sides dig their heels in during the coming months.

Sellek said House Republican strategies would involve continuing strong fundraising and unify the caucus against Democratic-led policies, like high spending in the state’s next budget.

A flurry of press releases criticizing Democratic priorities in recent weeks seems to reflect that strategy.