Lansing — Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer, who campaigned on her ability to “get things done,” faces a challenge by needing to work with a Republican-controlled Legislature to do so.
While the former state Senate minority leader is confident in the negotiating skills she honed serving 14 years in a legislative minority, divided government will complicate Whitmer’s pledge to “fix the damn roads.” The Republicans' ability to protect their majorities in the state House and Senate likely dooms liberal plans such as repealing the state’s right-to-work law opposed by unions.
The election was a “clear mandate the people want, expect and deserve leaders who can work together to solve problems,” Whitmer said Wednesday morning after defeating Republican Bill Schuette by 9 percentage points.
The East Lansing Democrat is vowing to resume regular “quadrant meetings” with both Republican and Democratic leaders in the state Senate and House. In an olive branch across the aisle, she said she will also consider appointing Republicans to her cabinet or other administration posts.
“Whether I can find common ground on issues with Republican leaders or not, we are going to sit and meet and start to build relationships,” Whitmer said. “I think when you talk, you can find common ground. But if you’re not talking, you don’t have any shot at it.”
Democrats flipped five state Senate seats in Tuesday’s election, but Republicans will return a 22-16 majority. Democrats also picked up five seats in the state House, where the Republicans will hold a 58-52 majority.
“Luckily we have a Legislature that is committed to ‘results not resistance,’” said Whitmer campaign manager Eric Goldman, echoing the Michigan Republican Party’s election mantra.
But certain areas are considered off-limits by incoming Republican leaders, including higher taxes and other legislation that would increase the costs of economic development. Sen. Mike Shirkey of Clarklake made it clear Thursday after his GOP colleagues elected him as as their next majority leader, besides choosing Sen. Jim Stamas of Midland as the appropriations chair and Sen. Peter MacGregor of Rockford as majority floor leader.
“Everything we do is going to be oriented and focused on making sure that we create an environment that is attractive to capital investment, the creation of jobs and maximizing opportunities,” Shirkey said.
Shirkey, who led the successful effort earlier this year to implement Medicaid work requirements opposed by Whitmer, said he was interested in speaking with the governor-elect about her priorities and policies. But he indicated he would oppose tax increases on corporations and any attempt to change the state’s right-to-work law.
The 2012 law, which prohibits worker contracts that require union dues or fees as a condition of employment, was “the single biggest thing we’ve done in the last eight years to make Michigan attractive to capital investment,” Shirkey told reporters. “I would fight with every ounce of my body to make sure that doesn’t get changed."
Incoming House Speaker Lee Chatfield said Thursday said he looked forward to meeting with Whitmer and said it was imperative to work across the aisle to ensure proper funding for roads and education.
“People are upset with Washington because they can’t get things done,” said Chatfield, R-Levering, who was chosen by GOP colleagues on Thursday. “Lansing will not be Washington. We will be working with one another.”
'New dynamic' in Lansing
With a Democrat in the governor’s office for the first time in eight years, it’s “going to be a new dynamic,” said state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint. “The voters sent a pretty strong message that they want results, I think less partisanship, less ideologically driven government, more focused on finding solutions and compromise,."
But the Flint Democrat conceded that Whitmer will have a hard time following through on calls to repeal the right-to-work law or restore a prevailing wage law for construction workers that Republicans scrapped earlier this year over protests from organized labor.
“It’s unlikely, but there’s still plenty of things we can do for working families all across the state,” he said. “A lot of folks feel very tenuous in their economic situation… I think we have to address that, and hopefully (Republicans) will agree with how we get that done.”
Ananich will retain his leadership post next session. Democrats on Thursday also elected Sen.-elect Stephanie Chang of Detroit to serve as caucus floor leader, and Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. of East Lansing is expected to serve as vice chair on the budget appropriations committee. Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II will preside over the Senate and have the power to cast a tie-breaking vote on a bill.
Democratic victories in statewide races “show that people really do want change and are passionate about moving some really important issues, like fixing our roads, like making sure that we have clean drinking water, like making sure that every kid gets a quality education,” Chang said.
Public relations specialist John Truscott, a Republican who served as press secretary to former Gov. John Engler, said Whitmer’s experience working as a state legislator during a period of divided government will be “very beneficial” to her as governor.
“She is a very good communicator,” Truscott said. “She’s a strong but very fair person. I think she’ll do pretty well in this environment.”
Chatfield said his personal goals were lowering car insurance costs, increasing government accountability and improving road infrastructure, though the 30-year-old Levering resident indicated he was not open to increased taxes.
Legislators should honor their promises on the campaign trail, Chatfield said, “and I would say that no one in the House Republican Chamber ran on raising taxes.”
Chatfield's leadership team will include Rep. Jason Wentworth of Clare, who was elected as speaker pro-tem, Chatfield’s current position, and Rep. Triston Cole of Mancelona, who was elected majority floor leader.
Rep. Christine Greig of Farmington Hills was elected to serve as the House Democratic leader over Rep. Brian Elder of Bay City. Greig wouldn’t comment on the contest between her and Elder, saying “what happens in caucus is going to stay in caucus.”
House Democrats will focus on people-centered, progressive policies that encourage clean water, accessible health care, good schools and well-paying jobs, she said. Some of the goals might be easier because of the five House seats Democrats picked up, she said.
“We have not been helping our communities and our kids and our seniors,” Greig said.
Struggles of divided government
Term-limited GOP Gov. Rick Snyder never had to work with a divided government. Most clashes he has had with the Legislature were struggles within his own party.
Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s disagreements with then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, were well documented during budget disputes and two short government shutdowns.
Those clashes were “very frustrating, but I think Whitmer has a different and much better understanding of the legislative process, which will serve her very well,” Truscott said. “I think this will be very different than the Granholm years."
Granholm and Bishop “could not decide on the shape of the table, let alone which way state government should go,” said TJ Bucholz, a Democratic strategist who worked departmental communications jobs under the Engler and Granholm administrations.
Whitmer set a “very bipartisan tone” in her election night victory speech, but Republican leaders could decide to play “spoiler,” he said.
“Historically, divided government has not been great for progress despite the best intention of both parties,” Bucholz said. “Sometimes their goal is the same, but the pathway to get there is the polar opposite of each other.”
Engler occasionally clashed with then-House Speaker Lew Dodak, a Democrat, during his first two years as governor, Truscott recalled, predicting Whitmer and Republicans may also struggle during the annual appropriations process.
“The governor and the Legislature fought like cats and dogs, but in the end, they had to get the job done.”
Budget negotiations next year between Whitmer and legislative leaders will be “critical” to setting the early tone in Lansing, Bucholz said.
Whitmer, who has called for $2 billion a year in new road repair and infrastructure spending, has already said she’ll write new money into her first budget proposal as a starting point for talks with the Legislature.
“Fixing the damn roads is not going to be an easy fix,” Bucholz said. “It’s going to be like untying the Gordian knot, so she’s going to need help.”
Whitmer intends to sit down with legislative leaders next week as she prepares to take office Jan. 1. On the campaign trail, she said she would ask lawmakers to approve new “user fees,” which could include gas taxes or registration fees, to fund road repairs.
“My goal is making sure we have a dedicated funding source, and I need legislative partners to help me get that done,” Whitmer said. “If they’re not strong enough, I’ll go to the voters” and seek approval to borrow money by bonding.
“I know this,” Whitmer added. “Voters really sent a very clear message: They want us to fix the damn roads. Republicans and independents came over and helped me because I’m focused on infrastructure.”