In 2018, over half of the Democratic candidates for the state legislature and Congress who won their primary and went on to the general election in Michigan were women. When you talk about women finally getting parity in terms of high elected office (or ANY elected office, for that matter), there’s only one political party who is even close to making that a reality: Democrats. And nowhere were they more profoundly successful in 2018 than in Michigan.
Our new state leaders are all women. Gretchen Whitmer, a veteran leader of the state legislature is now our governor, replacing a man who had never held elected office before becoming governor. Dana Nessel, a household name for anyone who cares about marriage equality in this country, is our Attorney General, replacing one of the most odious homophobes in America. Jocelyn Benson, a woman who literally wrote a book about state Secretaries of State and is a leader in campaign finance and election reform, is now our Secretary of State. These three women could not be a more radical departure from their predecessors.
But more important than the fact that Michigan government is largely run exclusively by women, these women have done something rarely seen in Democrats: after winning an election and retaking power from Republicans, they have hit the ground running in ways many of us never anticipated. Instead of sitting around wondering what to do next once they got elected, something Democrats have an amazing talent for, Whitmer, Nessel, and Benson are getting straight to the business of governing. Though Republicans still control the state legislature, this team is shrewdly using their new power in smart and impressive ways.
Straight out of the chute on her second day in office, Whitmer formally asked Nessel to look at the legality of a tunnel for Enbridge’s Line 5 to be built under the Straits of Mackinac. The decision to create an organization to oversee the tunnel was rushed through with little discussion or debate during the 2018 Lame Duck session. Although Nessel’s legal opinion is still pending, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality went ahead with issuing the required permit last week anyway. Given that this was Whitmer’s first move, it’s unlikely that this is the end of this story.
But that wasn’t all Whitmer did on Day Two. She also signed an executive directive requiring any state employees “who become aware of an imminent threat to public health, safety or welfare [to] immediately report it to their department director or agency head” in a effort to prevent any further disasters like the Flint Water Crisis.
Before a full week had passed, Whitmer went on to sign a whole array of significant executive directives:
- Directing state employees to report “irregularities relating to public money or public property.”
- Setting “standards of ethical conduct for department directors, appointees of the Governor, and employees within the executive branch.”
- Directing department directors and autonomous agency heads to “prohibit the solicitation and receipt of political contributions in all state government facilities under their control.”
- Banning the use of private email to conduct state business.
- Directing the Department of Management, Budget and Technology to give preferences to “geographically-disadvantaged business enterprises” (i.e., low income areas) when awarding state contracts.
- Strengthening prohibitions against discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community in state employment, contracts and delivery of services.
- Prohibiting state employees from inquiring “about a job applicant’s current or previous salaries unless and until the department or agency first makes a conditional offer of employment, including an explanation of proposed compensation.” This move was made to help ensure that female employees are compensated the same as male employees.
In addition to this, when signing another executive directive regarding the involvement of state departments in writing legislation, she made a clear and bold statement about the Republican tactic of adding appropriations to controversial bills to make them democracy-proof (not subject to a citizen referendum): “I intend to veto legislation that circumvents the right to a referendum.”
In addition to eagerly agreeing to review the Line 5 deal struck by Rick Snyder and his Republican allies in the state legislature on their way out the door in 2018, Dana Nessel has also begun exerting her new power:
- Agreed to join a national lawsuit to stop the Trump administration from rolling back Obama-era rules compelling employers to offer health insurance policies that cover contraception.
- Demanded a meeting with outgoing Michigan State University interim president and former Michigan governor John Engler to answer questions about his abysmal handling of the fallout from the Nassar scandal who raped and molested countless athletes while he was employed by the university.
- Announced she was seeking to settle a lawsuit against the state over a law allowing adoption agencies to refuse to adopt to same-sex couples for religious reasons.
- Appointed former Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office lead attorney Fadwa Hammoud to solicitor general and put her in charge of prosecution in the Flint Water Crisis, making her the first Muslim Arab American to achieve that post in the country. The move was made to ensure that the Attorney General “remain[s] ‘above the conflict wall’ by avoiding a direct role in either the criminal or civil cases“.
- Filed motions to remove Michigan from four different lawsuits filed against the Environmental Protection Agency over rules put in place during the Obama administration and designed to improve protections of our air, water, and land.
Although she hasn’t quite as visibly busy as her two colleagues, Jocelyn Benson has been working on an action that has huge ramifications for ending the scourge of gerrymandering in our state. She has announced that she intends to settle a an anti-gerrymandering lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the state by redrawing at least 11 state legislative districts before the 2020 election. The remaining legislative and congressional seats will be redrawn after the 2020 census.
Benson has also asked Nessel to review the legality of a new Republican-passed law that makes it harder than ever to put things on our ballot. Restricting the right of Michiganders to participate in the political process is a serious subject matter,” Nessel said in a statement. “Public Act 608 puts a limit on the people’s voice and that is cause for great concern — something a rushed Lame Duck Legislature failed to regard in passing this law.”
These moves are, of course, not going unchallenged. After Whitmer signed the executive directive to help ensure equal pay for women, Senate Republican Leader Mike Shirkey told Michigan Advance that anyone affected by the directive should just ignore it:
What’s Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey’s message to state contractors regarding Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s new equal pay directive?
“Don’t worry about it,” the Clarklake Republican said in an interview with the Michigan Advance.
During a 20-minute interview last week in the new Senate majority leader’s Capitol office, Shirkey called Whitmer’s new executive directive to halt inquiries into applicants’ past salaries confusing and said current and would-be state contractors should ignore it.
Shirkey also said he does not believe a pay gap exists between men and women in the first place.
“I don’t. I have no evidence of such,” Shirkey said. “I have both a staff here and a staff at home in my for-profit world filled with highly qualified, highly skilled women. And I don’t see any differences in how they’re treated.”
Last week, Republican senators moved to stop Benson from her efforts:
Republican lawmakers on Wednesday continued their effort to slow down Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson from settling a federal lawsuit alleging gerrymandering in several of the state’s congressional and legislative districts.
The GOP-led Senate passed Senate Resolution 6, sponsored by Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth), allowing state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) to seek legal counsel and file a motion on behalf of the legislative body.
The move by the Senate comes just one day after lawyers representing other GOP lawmakers in Michigan filed court documents seeking to halt the settlement in the case, League of Women Voters. V. Benson.
Pushback notwithstanding, Whitmer, Nessel, and Benson are rising to the challenge of statewide elected office and showing the state and the rest of the country how it looks when Democrats don’t waste time after they regain the reins of power in government, even if they aren’t in control of the legislative branch. It’s impressive and largely unprecedented, at least in Michigan.
Finally, it’s worth noting that these three powerful Democratic women aren’t the only ones getting things done. Shortly after Kelly Tebay and Brianna Scott joined the Michigan State University Board of Trustees, they were instrumental in getting John Engler fired as the university’s interim president for his noxious comments about the survivors of Larry Nassar. Add to that Democratic State Supreme Court justice Bridget Mary McCormack was unanimously chosen to be the court’s Chief Justice.
Men have run this state and this country almost exclusively since the beginning and today we find ourselves all too often led by ineffective or at least less-than-effective leaders. As Democrats in Michigan are leading the way in ensuring women are finally and appropriately represented in our government, Gretchen Whitmer, Dana Nessel, and Jocelyn Benson along with all of the women in our State House, State Senate, and in so many other leadership positions are setting an example for the rest of the country.
Gretchen Whitmer photo by Anne C. Savage, courtesy of the United Auto Workers