JACK SPENCER: Making the most of hand you’re dealt

Although the Democrats seem to hold most of the trumps and aces in Michigan politics, the Republicans keep winning most of the tricks.

Think about it – Michigan’s electoral votes haven’t gone for Republican presidential candidate since 1988. Michigan’s two U.S. Senators have been Democrats since 1999, and both continue to win re-election easily. Yet, at the state and congressional level, the GOP is in command.

Republicans hold the offices of governor, attorney general and secretary of state. They have a majority on the state supreme court and control both houses of the legislature.

What’s more, a majority of the U.S. representatives from Michigan are Republican.

All of this is much more than an academic point. It is pertinent to what took place in Detroit over this past weekend. Mark Brewer, a fixture in Michigan politics for nearly two decades, was ousted as chair of the Michigan Democratic Party.

Brewer’s exit was engineered by the United Auto Workers (UAW). Anyone who fails to see the link between the UAW’s move to dump Brewer and the voters’ rejection of Proposal 2 this past November must be lost in the fog.

UAW President Bob King was the face of Proposal 2. He announced it on March 2, 2012 as a proposal, backed by a coalition of unions, to preempt Michigan from ever becoming a Right to Work state. However, it soon became obvious that the unions didn’t believe it could pass if they spelled that out to the voters.

Instead, the unions presented the proposal as a constitutional guarantee of collective bargaining rights. The rest is history. It is difficult to pass any ballot proposal if your opponents are well financed. When voters have a shadow of a doubt or confusion about any proposal, they’ll vote against it. Tossing in elements of deception, as the unions did with Proposal 2, only makes matters worse.

Of course, the defeat of Proposal 2 led to Michigan becoming a Right to Work state. This was the very thing the unions dreaded most. In short, Proposal 2 was a disaster for the unions.

It is unclear exactly what Brewer’s role was regarding Proposal 2. He could have been deeply involved. It might even have been his idea. If this was so, losing his job over the debacle was probably warranted. On the other hand, Brewer’s role might have been a small one. For all we know, he might have even advised against the proposal.

If this was the case, he is now being singled out as the scapegoat for the red-faced union bosses, especially King.

Brewer has always been dedicated to the cause of the Democrats and the unions. His commitment to “the cause” cannot be challenged. Still, in recent years he has pursued some wild, almost disparate, measures. In 2008, with union backing, he tried to get the Reform Michigan Government Now (RMGN) proposal on the ballot. This too, proved to be a miscalculation.

RMGM was almost a rewrite of the Michigan constitution. But RMGN signature gathers told potential signers it was about cutting lawmakers’ salaries. A major part of the plan was to keep RMGN a secret as long as possible. After the scheme came to light, most of the state news media resented the secrecy.

When the state supreme court knocked RMGN off the 2008 ballot, the news media showed little or no sympathy for Brewer.

There’s a hidden story behind RMGN and possibly behind Proposal 2 as well. It revolves around the question – Why have Brewer and the unions felt the need to resort to desperate measures? Arguably, the answer to that goes back to the 1990s.

When Brewer took over the reins of the state Democratic Party in 1995, the Democrats still had a firm grip on state government.

Yes, John Engler was governor, but the Democrats controlled the supreme court, the legislature and the office of attorney general.

It was a situation they’d enjoyed for years. Even back when the Republicans held the governor’s office from 1963 to 1982, the underlying power structure in Michigan politics had long been in the hands of the Democrats. That, however, was about to change – and it happened on Brewer’s watch.

In 1995, Engler had been governor four years – but his influence and power were still on the rise. He was a master at working the legislature and playing the political game in Lansing. More importantly, his conservative economic policies had been enacted just in time to allow Michigan to take full advantage of the booming national economy. As a result, Michigan enjoyed an economic boom. Its unemployment became the lowest in the U.S.

In 1998, Engler won election to his third term as governor by a 62-38 percent margin over Geoffrey Fieger. By 2000, the Republicans controlled both houses of the legislature and the state supreme court.

This meant that for the first time in decades the GOP was in charge of redistricting.

Instead of the Democrats drawing the political map of Michigan to their advantage – as they’d done for decades – (as of 2000) the Republicans had secured that power.

In 2001, the only top post the Democrats controlled in state government was attorney general, where Jennifer Granholm had replaced Frank Kelley. For the Democrats it had been nearly a total reversal of fortune.

From 2000 onward, Brewer’s number one goal became trying to unto what Engler and the Republicans had accomplished. But he and the unions haven’t been able to do it. In fact, from their perspective, things have gotten worse

Granholm won the governorship in 2002, but in the same year Mike Cox became Michigan’s first Republican attorney general in 47 years. The Republicans have held the post ever since, along with the office of secretary of state, which they’ve controlled since Candice Miller defeated Richard Austin in 1994.

For a few months at the end of 2009, the Democrats controlled the supreme court. They also held the house between 2007 and 2010. But overall, during Granholm’s eight years as governor, the Republicans kept a solid grip on the court, the senate, the attorney general’s office and the office of secretary of state.

Then, in the big GOP year of 2010, the Republicans won everything. Once again, they controlled redistricting. In addition, for the first time in Michigan’s modern political history, the Republicans hold both the governor’s office and the attorney general’s office simultaneously.

In other words, Brewer, the Democrats and the unions are now even further back than square one. This is what explains their desperation – and perhaps their desperation explains their mistakes.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.

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Posted by Jack Spencer

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

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