Howes: Michigan women partially rebuild the 'Blue Wall'

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer answers questions with Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, left, and daughters Sherry, rear, and Sydney, right, after casting her ballot, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, at St. Paul Lutheran Church in East Lansing.

Michigan partially rebuilt the ol’ Blue Wall — and it took a few good women to make it happen.

Eight years after voters painted the heart of the industrial Midwest Republican red and then helped deliver Donald Trump to the White House, seven Democrats who happened to be women swept the top statewide and congressional offices Tuesday.

Theirs is a resounding statement in the #MeToo moment, an electoral pounding of a retiring House speaker and a sitting attorney general who’d lashed his electoral prospects to President Donald Trump’s mast. It's also affirmation that good candidates matter. The Year of the Woman, indeed.

Michigan Attorney General candidate Dana Nessel thanks supporters at the Democrats' election night party in Detroit. At left is her wife,  Alanna Maguire

No, all Trump all the time didn’t work out so well for Bill Schuette, whose campaign evoked 1998 more than 2018, as one seasoned Republican hand noted in a text. Schuette will be off-duty come January, even as neighboring Ohioans elevated yet another Republican to the governor’s office and ensured their state GOP would retain its sizable majorities in Columbus.

Not in Lansing, where Republican majorities on both sides of the Legislature were diminished, Democrats seized the executive branch and Michigan got what it apparently bargained for after two terms of complete GOP control in the state capital: divided government.

Elissa Slotkin, Democratic candidate for Michigan's 8th Congressional District, speaks at an election night watch party in Clarkston, early Wednesday.

This should be interesting. There shouldn't be much debate about what happened here, a reflection of congressional and more than a few gubernatorial races around the country. At last count, a record 96 women won their bids for the U.S. House, 12 won their races for the U.S. Senate and nine claimed governorships, according a continuing tally compiled by The Washington Post.

And in Michigan, five of the arguably top seven offices up for grabs in the statewide election switched to women from men — Whitmer as governor, Dana Nessel as attorney general, Elissa Slotkin in the 8th Congressional District, Rashida Tlaib in the 13th Congressional District, and Haley Stevens in the 11th Congressional District. She beat a Republican woman for the spot, but will be replacing retiring U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham.

Rashida Tlaib, left, Democratic candidate for Congress in Michigan's 13th District, makes phone calls at the Democratic field office in Detroit on Monday.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow survived what for part of election night looked like a serious challenge from Republican John James, a businessman and veteran who still could have a political future should he want one. And Jocelyn Benson will replace Ruth Johnson as secretary of state.

Even if all that isn't actually a referendum on the two years of Trumpism, it sure looks like one — a cautionary tale that quaint things like civility, respect and, yes, capability still matter in more than a few homes around Michigan and the country. Republicans should pay attention, lest more of the same come two years from now. 

"Whitmer ran a centrist campaign that appealed to Michigan's centrist electorate," wrote Bill Nowling, press secretary in Gov. Rick Snyder's first campaign and for former Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr. "In a lot of respects, hers was a campaign similar to Rick Snyder's One Tough Nerd campaign of 2010. Rick eschewed the standard campaign gruel of personal attacks and scorched-earth tactics and focused on a plan to turn around Michigan's moribund economy and jobs climate.

Haley Stevens, candidate for Michigan's 11th Congressional District seat,  greets supporters at an election night party in Birmingham.

"Gretchen ran a similar campaign that rallied people around fixing the damn roads and moving forward together, something I think resonated with voters in this politically divisive climate we are in. Bill Schuette ran a campaign that bespoke of a bygone era and was filled with straw-women arguments voters didn't buy."

Fair enough. But governing is not easy, even when your party controls all the levers of power. Just ask Trump, nearing the end of two years of GOP control in Washington. Or Snyder, whose efforts to "fix the damn roads," as Whitmer frequently quipped, morphed into a sad punt to voters that effectively said: This is too hard; you make the decisions.

And that's when his Republicans controlled Lansing. Now Whitmer, a former state Senate minority leader, will get the chance to prove her self-declared legislative acumen. Snyder, who disdained the politicking of politics, wasn't feared by his own GOP. And his predecessor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm, repeatedly proved herself over-matched by the politics of divided government.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow speaks to the Democratic gathering after being re-elected for another six-year term during a Michigan Democratic Party election night event at the Sound Board Theater at Motor City Casino, in Detroit.

The result: endless battles with whoever happened to be the Republican Senate majority leader at the time; budget brinksmanship that stretched way past the end of the fiscal year and deep into football season; a penchant for tax increases, on people and business, that helped dig Michigan deeper into its "Lost Decade" hole; and an aimless economic development strategy.

On inauguration day, Whitmer will inherit the strongest economy Michigan has seen in decades. Job creation and per capita income are up, unemployment is hovering near record lows, the state's bellwether industries are solidly profitable, and Detroit's reinvention continues to gather momentum and draw billions in private-sector investment.

That's a foundation to build on — not squander with job- and investment-killing policies that would alienate a motivated business community and half the state. A simple truth, much as my Republican buddies may not want to hear it, is that eight years of control did not fix the damn roads, did not reverse the embarrassing decline in the educational performance of public school kids, did not repair enough pipes in Flint.

A Senate Republican power play proposal to shift campaign oversight from Democratic Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson to a new political commission is poised to die in the Michigan House.

Whether divided government can do any better depends on leadership, personality and maybe even a little compromise. It's telling that major state business groups that spent most of the past eight years cheering Snyder's business-friendly policy making are pushing a next-administration agenda that includes user fees to fund road and infrastructure repairs, education funding and job training.

As business people, they understand what too many in Lansing have refused to understand: that failure to invest in gateways to Michigan's future only means it'll fall further behind. How and how much it costs should be a matter of (civil) debate. Refusing to discuss it isn't, which is one message voters delivered Tuesday. 


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.