Using the power of personalizing issues to make change when you’re in the minority
The final days of the lame duck session (or what I’ve called the “inflamed duck session”) in the Michigan legislature showed exactly what “Republicans controlling everything” really means. The level of regressive action they took in that short couple of weeks was breathtaking.
- They made the birthplace of the modern labor movement a Right to Work for Less/Freedom to Freeload state and included an appropriation to make it citizen referendum-proof.
- They pushed through anti-abortion legislation that will place Michigan at or near the top of the “worst states for women’s reproductive freedom” list.
- They passed a law that would allow concealed weapons to carried in schools, daycare center, churches, and stadiums.
- They passed voter restriction legislation.
- They repealed the Personal Property Tax that will, for many municipalities, shrink their revenues from this tax by up to 20%.
- They changed the rules for recalls to ensure that they are essentially immune from being recalled.
- They replaced the anti-democratic Emergency Manager Law — repealed in November by a plurality of Michigan voters — with one that looks pretty much the same and included an appropriation to be sure they wouldn’t have to contend with the pesky “will of the people” on this issue again.
- They passed legislation passed a bill that will take money from the education fund to pay for a new Red Wings hockey arena.
And that’s just a partial list.
One of the most outspoken and eloquent Democrats in the legislature for the past two years is Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer from East Lansing. Whenever there was a major issue making the headlines that Republicans were on the wrong side of, Senator Whitmer was there to be sure that they were not only held accountable but that their actions would not go unnoticed.
Whitmer during a post-State of the State press conference
One of her clearest victories, despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered in the State Senate by Republicans, was the so-called “License to Bully” bill. Pitched as anti-bullying legislation, it was in fact, a bill that would have codified some justifications for bullying. It was an egregious move, one that would have harmed many of Michigan’s young people, and Gretchen Whitmer was on the front lines, calling out the Republicans on their hypocrisy. I spoke with her at the time and she told me that the YouTube video of her floor speech had gone viral (it has had almost 200,000 views):
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.”
Given the Republicans’ recent flurry of ideologically-driven activity and the fact that Republicans still control both houses of the state legislature, control the state Supreme Court, and that the Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State are all Republicans, I wanted to see how the top Democratic leader of the state Senate (and longest serving sitting Senator) was feeling about the road ahead. I sat down with her in a coffee shop in East Lansing this week for an interview.
I started by saying that, for me, 2012 was “The Year of the Democratic Women” in Michigan, politically speaking. Although the House Democratic leader is a man and men hold many of the leadership positions, it was the women in both the House and the Senate that were the most outspoken and visible. Representatives Lisa Brown, Barb Byrum, Rashida Tlaib and others along with Senators Whitmer and Rebekah Warren all stepped up and made their voices heard.
“It’s ironic, isn’t it?” Whitmer asked. “We were the most vocal and yet our numbers have never been lower. When I came to the Senate, there were 12 women. Then it dropped to eight and now there are only four women.”
“And some of those are Republican women that side with their male Republican colleagues, right?” I said. “They seem to vote against their own self interest on some of these issues.”
“That’s right,” Whitmer said. “With all that’s going on that harms women, we couldn’t even get bipartisan support from the women in the legislature on simple things like equal pay. Even on equal pay!”
I asked her if that’s demoralizing to her and her colleagues or if it makes her more fired up and ready to push back.
“Oh, we’re definitely fired up. We have to keep fighting for what we believe and for what our constituents want. What the Republicans have done is shameful. Last week [during the Right to Work rally], the Capitol looked like armed camp. They locked people — LEGISLATORS! — out of the Capitol. They had police in riot gear and wouldn’t let anyone in the building. They passed the Right to Work bills with no hearings, no debate, just rushed it through with no discussion. We had to sneak reporters in through a back doorway because they weren’t letting them in to report on what they were doing. All along, they did whatever they wanted without communicating with us or letting us participate. Governor Snyder wouldn’t return my phone calls. I had to crash his press conference when he announced he would be supporting Right to Work because it was the only way I could find out what was going on.”
“How can you have a voice or an impact when the Republicans run everything?” I asked.
Whitmer pointed to the License to Bully legislation as an example of how Democrats, even when they are in the minority, can change the conversation.
“By personalizing the issue, we made people see how it impacted them, their kids and people that they know,” she said. “It’s not that my speech was anything special. It just got people’s attention and then it went viral. Pretty soon the whole country was talking about what the Michigan Republicans were doing. I got a call from a newspaper in France. Then one of my staff came in and said there was a journalist from Tunisia that wanted to talk to me. With all of that attention, the Republicans realized that they were losing and had to change the bill. It’s probably the only time I and Jase Bolger will ever work together on something!
“We did the same thing when we performed the Vagina Monologues on the steps of the Capitol Building. After the Republicans silenced female legislators, we had this huge, peaceful, event to draw attention to it. It got national coverage and everyone was talking about the Michigan Republicans’ ‘War on Women’.”
Whitmer during the Vagina Monologues at the State Capitol Building
“That was a nearly perfectly executed event,” I said.
“I think so, too, and we put it together in just 72 hours,” Whitmer noted. “[Vagina Monologues creator] Eve Ensler is still watching what’s going on in Michigan. We just got a call from her this week asking what was happening. People are still paying attention.”
Whitmer’s national attention has her on many people’s short list for the Democratic gubernatorial candidacy in 2014 and she recently launched a new website, gretchenwhitmer.com that looks very much like the website of someone contemplating a run for Governor. I asked her about this.
“This week, a PPP poll showed that, since the lame duck session, Governor Snyder’s poll numbers have completely tanked,” I said. “They compared him against several Democrats, including you, and he would lose by 7-9 points to all of you. Are you running for Governor?”
Whitmer laughed. “Ha! I don’t know what I’m going to do yet,” she said. “But it’s very flattering that people are even talking about me that way. I have two grade school daughters at home. In fact, I just spent the last few days home with one of them with strep throat. I really like being able to do that. So, right now, I’m not sure what I’ll do.”
“Having daughters must be somewhat motivating for you when you look at some of the things that Republicans are doing,” I said.
“Absolutely,” she replied. “I want them to live in a state where they can make decision about their own lives, their own bodies, and where they have equal opportunities to men. That’s why I talked about the Right to Work issue in terms of a women’s issue.”
Senator Whitmer raised this issue during a floor speech at the end of the lame duck session:
“I talked about how for every dollar a man makes in the private sector a woman only make 77¢,” she said. “In union shops, women make a dollar. So this is an equal pay issue. It is very much a women’s issue.”
I asked her to talk more about the Right to Work bills that passed in such a rushed way during the lame duck session.
“What happened with Right to Work?” I asked. “It seems like it was simmering along for a long time with Republicans not really pushing for it and not wanting to have that fight. Then, suddenly and without any warning, the Governor announced he would support it and they passed the bills in just a couple of days. What happened that made that happen? Did Dick DeVos sit down with the Republicans and say ‘this is the way it’s going to be’?”
“I’m not sure,” Whitmer said. “I don’t know exactly what happened. I have heard from some Republicans that they were threatened with primary challenges by Dick DeVos and they weren’t at all happy about it.”
“What about Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville,” I asked. “What happened with him? He’s been saying he didn’t want to pursue this. He’s from Monroe, a very blue collar area with lots of union members. Then suddenly he’s supporting it?”
Senator Whitmer shook her head. “Randy Richardville is the biggest disappointment in all of this. He was someone that I have been able to work with. We didn’t generally agree on things but we could have the debate and, at the end of the day, we knew where the votes would be. But at least we could talk. But now…”
“You can’t trust him,” I said. “Is there a different mood in Capitol now? When you pass each other in the hallways, are things between the Republicans and Democrats awkward?”
“Oh, yes, there’s been a big change,” she said. “Since the lame duck session it’s been very awkward. Because it’s hard to get into small talk with someone when you feel like you don’t trust them.”
One of the big criticisms about the rushed nature of the lame duck session and the number of bills that got passed in only two weeks was that the process was sloppy and that mistakes were made. I asked Senator Whitmer about this.
“It’s true. For example, exempting police and firefighters from the Right to Work bill treats different groups of union members differently and that may be illegal. They also put in place some things that take place retroactively that may violate some contracts.”
“So there may be lawsuits challenging some of these new laws?” I asked.
“Definitely,” Whitmer responded. “Typically you work out these things in the normal debate that happens in the legislature. That’s why we have hearings in the first place.”
“But the Republicans changed their own rules to rush this through, right?” I asked.
“Exactly,” she replied. “They suspended the rules to discharge the bills without hearings so that they could vote on them right away.”
As we finished our conversation, I asked Senator Whitmer if she thought Democrats in Michigan are feeling demoralized by all that’s happened in the past two years and especially the past two weeks or if they were as fired up as she is.
“I think they’re fired up,” she said. “This has gotten a lot of people angry about what they’ve done. It’s extreme.”
“What should people in Michigan do to have an impact when these debates are happening?” I asked. “Is calling and writing letters helpful?”
“Absolutely, keep reaching out to your representatives,” Whitmer said. “If enough people contact them, it makes a big difference. But also share it with your friends and family. Talk to them. Send them information in emails and on Facebook. Make it personal. Help them see how Right to Work affects them. Show them how the ‘War on Women’ hurts everyone. The more we share it, the more people get involved and the bigger our voice can be. We can’t let people forget what they have done and we have make sure they don’t have short memories when the 2014 election comes along.”
The PPP poll this week showed that if Gretchen Whitmer ran for Governor against Rick Snyder today, she would win by eight points. With Rick Snyder’s sinking popularity and Whitmer’s ascendant popularity, she seems like a natural candidate and that she would have a real shot at winning the seat. Stay tuned.
[All photos by Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog]