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Senator, aide switch jobs in Michigan Legislature

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Sen. Rick Outman, R-Six Lakes, and former Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan

Lansing — It’s musical chairs this year in the Michigan Senate, where state Sen. Rick Outman won election to replace his term-limited boss and then hired her on staff.

Then-Sen. Judy Emmons had hired Outman as a district liaison aide after he was termed out of the state House at the end of 2016. The Six Lakes Republican would have earned a $69,500 annual taxpayer-funded salary in 2018 but resigned part way through the year to run for the 33rd District seat out of which Emmons was being term-limited.

Back in the Legislature and now making $71,685 a year as a state senator, Outman turned to Emmons, hiring the Sheridan Republican to his old job as a district liaison. She'll earn $50,000 this year in her new role as an aide, according to Senate Business Office records. 

Adding Emmons to his office was a no-brainer, Outman said, citing the "tremendous amount of experience that she brings to the table and the kind of common-sense approach she has on issues," both in Lansing and in Montcalm County. 

Emmons is not the only former lawmaker serving as an aide to her successor. As The Detroit News reported last month, term-limited state Sen. Tom Casperson will earn $55,000 this year as an aide to fellow Upper Peninsula Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan.

Senate rules give lawmakers wide berth to hire their own staff and determine pay rates based on an office-wide budget allocation, said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake.

The only restriction on staff employment is that senators cannot hire direct family and must obtain permission from the majority leader to hire other relatives.

"There is not a rule regarding a former member,” McCann said. Emmons and Casperson are the only recently term-limited lawmakers now working as Senate staffers that she is aware of, “but it has happened before previous terms as well.”

Former state Rep. Lamar Lemmons, D-Detroit, is chief of staff to Sen. Betty Jean Alexander, D-Detroit.

Senate rules also require employees to resign or take an unpaid leave of absence if they become a candidate for a full-time elective office, as defined by filing a nominating petition, paying a fee for ballot access or filing an affidavit of candidacy.

Outman paid a $100 ballot access fee on April 19, 2018, according to Secretary of State records. He won the Aug. 7 GOP primary with 72 percent of the vote and won the general election over Democrat Mark Bignell by more than 20 percentage points.

While the district is reliably Republican, Bignell said he thinks that working for Emmons allowed Outman to “stay relevant” in the district. He suggested there should be an ethics law or rule against someone “hiring on as a staff member for the job they’re hoping to be elected for.”

“Obviously working for Judy Emmons, he had access to political connections and insider knowledge,” said Bignell, who returned to work as a truck driver following the election. “He had all of these intrinsic advantages over an outsider, non-establishment campaign like mine.”

Outman did not dispute that his role in Emmons office helped elevate his profile with voters in the district.

"People became more familiar with me because I spent a lot of time in district meetings with township officials and constituents," he said. "It made me familiar to people in the part of the district that wasn't part of my former House district. So, you know, certainly helped."

Outman is the third-generation owner of a family-run excavating company. But he said he is considering whether to dissolve it or sell it to other family members because he's been "way busier" than he thought he would be in the Senate.

Outman ran the company while working for Emmons, but said "it was really taking its toll on our business because I just didn't have the time to devote to it because I was spending all my time as her district liaison."

Democrats in the Legislature did not object to either hire. Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich of Flint “doesn’t have a problem” with Outman's hiring of Emmons after she previously hired him, said spokeswoman Rosie Jones.

Former lawmakers “have a unique level of experience” that many new staffers may not have,” McCann noted. “They’re certainly going to know the districts very well, and you’ll see they’re often used as a district representative.”