Youngest lawmaker in a century prepares to lead Michigan House

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
The next Speaker of the House, Lee Chatfield, R-Levering talks with Rep. Brett LaFave, R-Iron Mountain on the floor of the chamber.

A 30-year-old northern Michigan lawmaker will be the youngest House speaker in more than a century when he assumes the role in January, becoming one of the state's key leaders in a time of divided government.

Rep. Lee Chatfield is a former school teacher, coach and father of five who will take the reins of the Michigan House’s 58-52 Republican majority Jan. 1 as Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer starts her four-year term in Lansing. GOP Sen. Mike Shirkey of Clarklake will become the Senate majority leader. 

From tax cuts to gun laws to gay rights, Chatfield has left his mark on controversial legislative debates over the past four years. But he promises to work with the incoming Democratic administration to advance Michigan’s prospects.

Chatfield's priorities include expanding the state’s open records laws to include the governor and lawmakers, increasing road funding and decreasing car insurance costs — all challenges in a period of polarized politics. 

“Though there will be differences, the differences won’t be what define us,” he recently told The Detroit News. “It will be our ability to come up with solutions that drive our state forward.”

Chatfield seemed to be the heir apparent when he was elected speaker tempore two years ago under House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt. He was the second in command for House Republicans, presiding over the chamber when Leonard was absent.

In his four years in office, the Levering Republican has had his share of bumps and bruises alongside legislative victories — including an arrest in July for bringing an unregistered, loaded handgun through security at a northern Michigan airport. Chatfield apologized for the "inexcusable mistake," which did not result in criminal charges.


But supporters say Chatfield has the youth and enthusiasm to lead the House and deal with Whitmer.

“He’s somebody who’s willing to come to the table. He’s somebody who’s going to compromise if it’s in the best interest of the state,” Leonard said. “But he won’t be pushed around either.”

Challenges ahead

The road ahead won’t be an easy one as Chatfield becomes a legislative leader in a divided government, said David Dulio, chairman of the political science department at Oakland University. Twenty-four of the 110 House members will be forced out by term limits at year's end, a turnover rate of 22 percent.

With fewer seasoned lawmakers and a divided electorate, reaching across the aisle to avoid gridlock will be challenging, Dulio added.

“The nation, and the state even, is pretty polarized in the electorate, and it may not be very politically advantageous for either side to look like they’re giving in to the other on key policy areas,” Dulio said.

A raucous lame-duck session during which Republicans unsuccessfully sought to curb or reassign the powers of the incoming Democratic administration also could “poison the well,” he said.

The next Speaker of the House, Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, talks with Rep Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, on the floor of the chamber on Tuesday, Nov 27, 2018.

“Anything that the governor views as limiting her power, that’s not going to make her want to work with Republicans on anything else,” Dulio said.

Chatfield said he’s willing to work with Whitmer and plans to participate in a weekly quadrant meeting with the governor.

Chatfield’s work ethic and leadership should take him far, Leonard said, but he’s likely to encounter even more challenges than the sitting speaker because of the loss of four seats. Any GOP bill can afford to lose only two Republican votes if Democrats are unified in opposition, giving the lawmaker a small margin for error.  

“The biggest challenge that I had and it’s going to be an even bigger challenge for Lee is simply finding the 56 votes you need to get something done,” Leonard said.

Chatfield has expressed interest in passing an expansion of the Freedom of Information Act that would remove exemptions from the governor’s office and Legislature after the effort failed in the Senate in 2017.

Like Whitmer, Chatfield has made road funding a priority. But unlike the East Lansing Democrat, he wants to explore the possibility of freeing up part of the gas sales tax that currently goes toward state school aid and divert it to roads — so that all revenue that is supposed to be dedicated for road and bridge repairs does so.

His plan would hold schools harmless by pulling the same amount of money for school aid from another pot of state money.

“Whenever you have three taxes paid at the pump and only two of those are going to the roads, you’re going to have a road funding problem,” Chatfield said.

He also wants to focus on lowering auto insurance costs, a task he may be well-positioned to complete, Leonard said, because of his relationship with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a staunch advocate of lowered car insurance rates.

But auto insurance reform stalled during all eight years of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder's tenure despite having majorities in the House and Senate. 

On Thursday, Chatfield announced a new legislative review process that would require potential laws curry favor from two separate House committees before proceeding to a vote on the House floor. 

Similar to processes used in Congress and other states, the new rule would send bills for secondary review to the Appropriations Committee if they have a spending element, to the House Judiciary Committee if they result in a change in criminal penalties, and to the House Ways and Means Committee for any subject matter falling outside spending or criminal penalties. The Government Operations Committee also could send bills directly to the floor. 

The dual oversight will "encourage more debate and give our bills a much stronger look," Chatfield said in a statement.  

The next Speaker of the House, Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, works the floor of the chamber during a recent lame duck session.

Four years in House

In his four years in the House, Chatfield’s pet projects have run the gamut, from legislation that would allow permit-less concealed weapons, to attempts to expand the state’s open records law to an unsuccessful bid to eliminate the state income tax, a plan scolded by Snyder.

Chatfield said he stands by the repeal of the prevailing wage law approved this summer by legislators. In remarks on the House floor in June, Chatfield said the law dictating the highest or prevailing wage — usually the union rate — in a region on government projects only benefits some workers.

“While not all of us and not all of our families are part of a union, I will tell you this: All of our families certainly are taxpayers,” he said.

In 2017, Chatfield opposed the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s investigation of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” complaints under the umbrella of “sex” discrimination already prohibited under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976.

The commission decided in May that the act permitted the investigation of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” When Attorney General Bill Schutte issued a binding opinion that the commission had overstepped its bounds, the commission ignored the ruling.

Chatfield stood by Schuette’s position, arguing the commission essentially was “legislating from the panel.” He said he also opposes an expansion of Elliott-Larsen to include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual individuals.

“I will never support legislation that infringes on religious freedom,” he said.

Chatfield's personal life also shaped his reputation in Lansing.

In 2016, Chatfield’s father, Rusty Chatfield, a pastor of the Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church in Burt Lake, spoke out against voluntary guidelines that encouraged schools to develop an LGBT-inclusive environment for students, most notably by allowing transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their chosen gender identity. Rusty Chatfield also is the superintendent for Northern Michigan Christian Academy, where his son taught.

In July, while rushing from his daughter’s birthday party to the Pellston Regional Airport, Lee Chatfield attempted to go through airport security with a loaded, unregistered handgun in his bag.

He apologized for the incident but faced no state charges because of a loophole in the law. He is likely to still face fines from TSA amounting to up to $9,800. Chatfield said he will pay the fine in full once he receives it and is supportive of closing the legal loophole that allowed him to avoid charges.

“I learned that no one’s above the law and the rights and privileges that we have that people have fought to secure are important and need to be respected,” Chatfield said. “And, sometimes, slowing down is very important.”

The next Speaker of the House, Lee Chatfield, R-Levering talks with Rep Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, on the floor of the chamber on Tuesday, Nov 27, 2018.

Unlikely friendship

Despite his opposition to expanding gay rights, Chatfield has struck up a friendship with Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, one of Michigan's first openly gay representatives who is moving to the Senate in January.

Chatfield won his House seat in 2014 by upsetting incumbent Republican Rep. Frank Foster, who had advocated for expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

At the same time, Moss was running to become the second openly gay representative elected to the Michigan House alongside Rep. Jon Hoadley of Kalamazoo.   

“Our reputations preceded us,” Moss said of himself and Chatfield, but when they met at freshman orientation “we really had a lot more in common to talk about than campaign rhetoric.”

Chatfield and Moss were appointed chair and vice chair, respectively, of the House local government committee. At one point, Chatfield allowed Moss to chair the committee, a rarity for a minority representative.

Moss compares their professional relationship to Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner that “clock in and fight” over divergent views on policy, but he said he’s also learned to trust Chatfield.

“Lee has never misled me; he has never lied to me,” Moss said. Nonetheless, “I don’t like his politics and don’t like his policies, and I will work very diligently to disrupt them in the Senate.”

Though Chatfield indicated no changes in his conservative views, he indicated a broader vision than partisan squabbles.

“This is not about being a Republican caucus; this is not about being a Democratic caucus,” Chatfield said. “This is about being a representative to what I consider to be the greatest state in the country.”

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