“It’s important to show that, yeah, we are serious about solving problems,” Whitmer told POLITICO on the sidelines of Democratic Governor Association’s winter meeting earlier this month. “It is the first time in 40 years this opportunity has happened. And we’re mindful of that.”
In the brief interview, Whitmer said she wanted to “stay focused on the fundamentals” over the next two years and build off her first term in office. She ticked off broad principles like focusing on economic development and public education.
State Sen. Mallory McMorrow said Michigan Democrats can “signal to the rest of the country that in a state as important as Michigan — for the next two years, as we head into 2024 — this is what it looks like when Democrats are in charge.” McMorrow, who rose to national prominence after a viral floor speech, added that her party could “make the case not only here, but to the rest of country, that this is why we need to take back Congress and reelect a Democratic president.”
But Whitmer also sounded a note of caution. “I’m also very sober about the fact that it’s a two-seat majority of both chambers,” she noted, adding that the agenda must be “disciplined.”
At a roundtable with a handful of reporters in Washington earlier this month, incoming state Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks and new state House Speaker Joe Tate laid out a slew of policy areas where Democrats would focus. Tate mentioned expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit. Brinks wants to pass new laws to curb gun violence and to “affirm LGBTQ rights.” They also want to enact legislation implementing the recent voter-approved constitutional amendment codifying abortion access in Michigan.
Another major focus will be on labor, from raising the minimum wage to expanding unemployment benefits. (When asked about repealing “right-to-work” laws, which allow workers to opt out of joining unions, Brinks said “it is all on the table.”)
Democrats are also expected to overhaul the state’s elections and ethics laws, which coincides with another voter-approved ballot proposition that codified early voting. The proposition also says that the state canvassing board had a ministerial duty to certify election results — after significant drama surrounding the process after the 2020 election.
“As we approach 2024, nothing could be more important than making sure everyone who shows up to work our elections, between now and then up through the general election, knows they’re protected,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in an interview. Benson said she is preparing to push legislation protecting election workers from threats and overhauling other state voting and ethics laws.
Democrats face a number of obstacles despite enjoying one-party control. Their legislative wish list is long and their majorities are slim, and there will be pressure to keep the party together.
“We’re like a family, we’re going to have our disagreements,” said Tate. “But at the end of the day, I think we’re all going to be able to understand that this is a great opportunity to improve Michigan residents’ lives, and just start chipping away at things as we go along.”
Plus, this is uncharted terrain for the party: It’s been more than a decade since Democrats held the state House and 40 years since they controlled the state Senate.
State term limits have also led to churn among lawmakers (though voters approved a ballot measure loosening those limits this fall). No lawmaker in either state legislative chamber was serving the last time Democrats had control of that body.
“There are so many new members,” Whitmer said. “I think that there’s going to be a lot of important organizational work that’s got to happen, to get the caucuses ready to start driving the agenda, and chairing committees and just even process things.”
Democratic leaders are cautious about trying to take on too much out of the gate, given that both caucuses need to build up the staffing and infrastructure needed to actually run a majority.
There is “40 years of pent-up policy, people are really eager to move,” Brinks said. “And some of what I have to find myself saying all the time is, ‘Yes, but let’s do this right. Let’s be thoughtful, let’s be thorough, let’s do the work ahead of time.’”
Even as the Michigan Republican Party is caught in turmoil following the statewide wipeout, opposition to some of Democrats’ plans is already percolating. And Democratic leaders said they expect conservative-leaning groups to challenge new laws in court down the road.
“We’ve been focused on, ‘Well, what are some of the issues where there really is a lot of partisan disagreement,’ and right-to-work is at the top of that list,” said Jarrett Skorup, the senior director of marketing and communications at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which describes itself as a “pro-free markets” think tank. “I don’t think it’s something that Democratic politicians campaigned on. It certainly wasn’t brought up during the governor’s race.”
Skorup added that he hoped that Democratic majorities would revive talk around criminal justice reform in the state. He also said that the small majorities Democrats have in both chambers mean that Republican legislators will still play a major role in Lansing.
Democrats, too, are acutely aware that they have little room to spare with their slim majorities.
“The day after the election, I addressed both new caucuses. I reinforced the fact that yes, this is historic, but I don’t want to hear anyone talking about a mandate, ” Whitmer said. “We have a two-seat majority in both chambers, and that’s something to keep in the back of our minds, too.”