Snyder the wild card in Michigan GOP’s lame-duck power play

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
In spite of the politics, a group of school kids visiting the Capitol, lay on the floor of the Rotunda while Demonstrators make noise and chant as The Michigan Senate and House of Representatives consider bills during "lame duck" session, in Lansing on Dec. 12, 2018. Dosins encourage kids to lay on the floor, which gives them an unparalleled view of the spectacular ceiling of the Rotunda -- and today, an interesting view of the protesters.

Lansing — Michigan Republicans attempting to mimic a lame-duck power grab by their counterparts in Wisconsin may face a road block from their own party: Moderate Gov. Rick Snyder.

Some experts say the GOP power play reflects a new era of political ruthlessness that Snyder has shied away from over his eight years in office. 

The Ann Arbor Republican has signed major conservative reforms, including the right-to-work law in the 2012 lame-duck session. But unlike GOP Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Snyder has given the Legislature no indication he’ll sign measures that would strip power from Democrats set to take over top statewide offices next year.

Snyder and Walker have “very different approaches” to government and politics, said John Weaver, a former campaign adviser who has also worked for moderate conservative GOP presidential hopefuls such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich and the late John McCain.

“Scott Walker is a party apparatchik who cares little about the democratic process and cares only about what’s in it for him in terms of being a party leader,” Weaver said. “Whereas Gov. Snyder is a problem solver who, at least in my experience, always puts good policy and the people first.”

A House-approved bill advanced this week by a Michigan Senate panel would allow the GOP-led Legislature to intervene in legal cases involving any state law, mirroring a power currently reserved for Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel, whose office will represent Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer, both Democrats.

Another bill awaiting action in the state House would strip campaign finance oversight from Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who will be the first Democrat to hold the post in 24 years. Instead, campaign finance would fall to a new bipartisan commission of political appointees, similar to one in Wisconsin, that critics argue could routinely deadlock in enforcement cases.

Sen.  Dave Hildenbrand (R-Lowell) talks with Sen. Tanya Schuitmaker (R-Lawton) as the Michigan Senate considers bills during "lame duck" session in Lansing on Dec. 12, 2018.

Snyder has already signed legislation designed to help complete his deal with Enbridge to move the company's 65-year-old oil and gas pipelines out of the Straits of Mackinac and into a tunnel beneath the lake bed. It's a move Nessel said Friday could "handcuff" her and Whitmer to an agreement they do not support. 

After House Republicans amended the bills at his suggestion, Snyder is also expected to sign controversial measures weakening paid sick leave and minimum wage initiatives sent to the Legislature by petition drives. The measures are likely to face court challenges. But Democrats are optimistic Snyder will reject other measures.

Whitmer has not weighed in on specific policy proposals or followed Democratic Wisconsin Gov.-elect Tony Ever's footsteps by publicly calling on Snyder to veto any bills. But the East Lansing Democrat said this week it is “sad to see the Legislature playing these games.”

“I’ve got an ongoing dialogue with Gov. Snyder, and I’m hopeful that a lot of this stops at his desk,” Whitmer told WWJ-AM radio, suggesting the lame-duck political push could backfire on Republicans.

“They’ve diminished people’s ability to make sure their votes count, and when you do that, people get upset and ultimately come out in droves. That’s what we saw this last election, and it might be what happens in 2020.”

While Walker lost to Evers on Nov. 6 in Wisconsin, Snyder was unable to run and will leave office after serving the maximum two terms allowed under the Michigan Constitution. 

“Snyder very well might decide he doesn’t want his legacy to be torching the landscape on his way out the door in bills that slighted the Democrats and were spiteful,” said Bill Ballenger, a longtime pundit and former GOP state legislator.

“Whether that’s a fair characterization or not, it’s what people would say if he signs the bills. Snyder is the kind of guy who might want to take a restrained posture on at least some of this legislation.”

While Weaver has “no idea” if Snyder will sign the Michigan bills if they reach his desk, the longtime GOP strategist said he is “confident” the governor will focus on good governance and called the legislative power play “shameful.”

“Elections have consequences, and trying to take power away from constitutional offices or trying to deny transparency in the electoral process when it comes to campaign contributions is not where the country is headed.”

Shades of Wisconsin

Wisconsin legislation awaiting Walker’s signature could strip even more authority from incoming Democrats. They include measures that would shield the state’s job-creation agency from Evers’ control until September; limit his ability to enact administrative rules; block his ability to withdraw from a multistate lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act; and weaken powers of incoming Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul.

“We did have an election. Whether everyone here likes it or not, I respect the fact that Tony Evers is the governor and he’s going to be starting on Jan. 7,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos recently said. “But he’s not the governor today, and that’s why we’re going to make sure the powers of each branch are as equal as they can be.”

This combination of file photos shows Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, left, and his Democratic challenger Tony Evers in the 2018 November general election.

Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans have debated institutional power in the past, "but I don't recall anything this broad, comprehensive and systematic before," said Mordecai Lee, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and former Democratic state lawmaker.

“Politicians are not embarrassed to be acting openly with double standards,” he said, linking the power play bills to a larger shift in political norms. “Their situational ethics appear to be what’s good for my party is the only thing that counts,” even if it contradicts past complaints over similar actions by political rivals.  

The Michigan proposals are “not quite as aggressive as Wisconsin,” but Republicans in both states are playing “hardball politics” as they seek to reduce the power of incoming Democrats, said Max Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.  

But some of the national reaction has been "hyperbole" shaped by the liberal concern over Trump's disrespect for democratic norms, he said.

“If you look at state legislatures, they’re nasty places where there’s a lot of hardball played,” Glassman said. “There’s certainly a lot more, in my opinion, than you see in Washington and Congress, where there are norms that keep things more calm.”

Presidential politics is also playing a role in the Republican maneuvers in Michigan and Wisconsin, which were proceeded two years ago by similar GOP moves in North Carolina.

"All three of them are key swing states in the presidential election. And it's not a coincidence," said Barry Burden, political science professor and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

"So part of the reason this is happening is these are just closely contested states, purple states, where Republicans and Democrats share power and alternate being (in power) in government. ... So the stakes are just very high because the nation is looking to these states as bellwethers, and they will be keystones in the Electoral College victory for whoever wins in 2020."

National attention

Another measure in Wisconsin would limit early voting to no more than two weeks before an election, echoing restrictive rules Michigan Republicans are considering that could make it more difficult for petition drive organizers to advance citizen-initiated legislation and ballot measures. 

The legislative maneuvers in both states have garnered national attention, drawing CNN and other networks to the Michigan Capitol. They are also prompting criticism from various circles, including former television news anchor Dan Rather, who said the power grabs “undermine the foundation of our republic.”

“The whole idea of elections is they have consequences,” Rather wrote last week in a Twitter post retweeted more than 22,000 times. “Those who lose live to fight another day. Trying to change the rules on your way out the door is a national shame.”

Republicans will return majorities to the Michigan House and Senate next year despite Democrats winning more collective votes in legislative races, a disparity experts attribute to gerrymandering and shifting dynamics that have helped the GOP grow strength in rural areas like the Upper Peninsula.

Democrats swept the top of the ticket, led by Whitmer’s 10-percentage-point win over Republican Bill Schuette, the term-limited attorney general whom Nessel will replace.

While Whitmer, Nessel and Benson have avoided direct conflict with the Legislature as they prepare to take office, Democrats are raging against the new legislation on their behalf, including Michigan’s two U.S. senators.

“This is a complete insult to the people of Michigan who voted a month ago for change… for a Democratic governor, secretary of state and attorney general to make that change happen,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said last week on MSNBC.

The legislation could limit Benson’s ability to “bring the light of day to dark money” and give the Legislature “equal standing” to Nessel in legal cases involving the state, Stabenow said.

“So when our attorney general brings a lawsuit against polluters to protect our water or health care to protect pre-existing conditions, they want, as Republicans, to be able to have equal standing to bring a lawsuit on the other side,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Whitmer has avoided telling Snyder how to do his job while he remains in office "to her credit," said Dave Dulio, chairman of the political science department at Oakland University. And antagonizing GOP lawmakers she has to work with next year could make it harder for them to find common ground. 

Republicans “are going through a political process to shore up their power, and the political part of that is key,” Dulio said. “Lansing is a political town. Why are we surprised that people are politically maneuvering?”