Michigan Dems in the minority: finding new ways to have a voice & an impact

I have a piece up at A2Politico this week that talks about how Democrats in the Michigan legislature are finding ways to have a voice in our state despite their minority status. Using the example of the “anti”-bullying bill passed by Senate Republicans earler this month, I show how they managed to impact a similar bill that was passed by the House last week.

The change in this bill when it went from the Senate to the House caught my attention. For the past year, Democrats have been essentially without power in our state. They control the Governor’s & Lt. Governor’s offices, the Attorney General’s office, the State Supreme Court and, of course, both houses of the Legislature. How, then, could they have forced such capitulation on the Republicans? And make no mistake: this is a capitulation. The language in the original bill was clearly put there to allow those who push others around using religious reasons a pass to continue to do so. Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan has long decried anti-bullying laws that spell out specific classes of protected individuals as “a Trojan horse for the homosexual agenda.”

So, how did the Democrats managed to win a fight when they essentially have no power? And what can Democratic lawmakers and activists in Michigan learn from this?

I spoke with [Democratic Senate Leader Gretchen] Whitmer not long after she gave her fiery admonition yesterday to ask her these questions. She told me that the biggest lesson that this has taught is that, despite setbacks, “Democrats can still make forward motion. If they pay attention and weigh in on issues, they can change things,” she told me.

She described the Senate’s version of the bill using phrases like “ludicrous”, “indefensible” and “huge overreach”. Because they went too far, she said, “Speaker [Jase] Bolger saw the backlash. He realized that this legislation was so offensive that they had to change.”

The thing that made the difference this time, she said, was social media. “The video of my speech went totally viral,” she said. It was being reposted all over Facebook and retweeted on Twitter. It was everywhere and that’s when it made the national news. It’s an issue that struck a chord.”

State Representative Jeff Irwin also weighed in:

“It’s not much different than usual,” he said. They have money on their side. What we have is that we’re right on the issues.” He went to say, “Republicans have the ‘Money Truck’ that they back up into their districts during elections.” But being right on the issues can win elections just like we saw on Tuesday [with the recall of Republican Paul Scott of Grand Blanc.]”

“The Republicans get themselves into trouble when they do something so patently absurd as this anti-bullying bill. We have been working on this type of legislation for years and this bill made a mockery of it. It was overreach and now they are trying to get another bill into the public discourse to get the Senate’s feet out of the fire.

Irwin says there are two components to winning in politics. The first is what he refers to as the “inside game” or the legislative victories. For the inside game, he said, “You need to build relationships. There are times when one-on-one conversations with people on the other side of the aisle can change minds.” When I asked what Democratic activists can do in this time of minority status, he said citizen contact is critical. “Getting a lot of calls on an issue can make a big difference,” he said. “We listen to that. The fight over No-Fault insurance that is happening right now is a good example of that. Most of the Republicans were ready to pass the bill [to remove the requirement for lifetime health benefits in auto insurance policies.] But they got so many calls from constituents saying, ‘Hey, we like it the way it is’ that now a lot of them are running away from it as fast as they can.”

The second part of winning is what Irwin calls “the outside game” or winning elections. What’s critical for Democrats here, he says, is that they actually act like Democrats. Too many Democrats across the country are trying to lay low, take middle-of-the-road positions and try not to offend anyone so that they can be reelected. “What people want to see is them being real progressives,” he said. “They need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, and tell folks what they’re really about.” If they do that, he said, “it will get people fired up and active at election time.

As Democrats across the country move into the 2012 election season and as they continue to contend with the dramatic Republican overreach of 2011, these examples can inform us about our path ahead. I have been rather negative about our ability to impact the political events happening in our country at the moment. Watching the Democrats in Michigan, I’m becoming more optimistic.

Read the whole piece HERE.

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