Meekhof lashes out at Leonard on way out of Lansing

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof

Lansing — Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof capped a 22-hour marathon session — and his legislative career — by lobbing a verbal bomb across the state Capitol.

Speaking with reporters last week after wrapping up lame-duck voting, the Grand Haven Township Republican blasted GOP House Speaker Tom Leonard of DeWitt, offering a critical assessment of his legislative counterpart as they both prepare to leave office at the end of the year.

Meekhof worked with two House speakers during his four-year run as Senate majority leader: “one who couldn’t and one who wouldn’t,” he said.

House Speaker Tom Leonard.

Leonard “wouldn’t do anything because he was running for attorney general,” said Meekhof, referencing Leonard’s campaign that ended with a loss in the Nov. 6 general election. “And I think he did a huge disservice to his caucus and to the state. He should have gotten out of the way so his caucus could be more successful.”

Meekhof was more forgiving in his assessment of former House Speaker Kevin Cotter, a Mount Pleasant Republican who he said “just couldn’t get stuff done” because of a sex scandal involving former tea party Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat that “just sucked all of the air out of his caucus.”

Leonard declined to respond directly to Meekhof’s criticism but defended his two-year run as speaker, touting passage of teacher retirement reform legislation, mental health reforms and skilled trades training that he had identified as his top priorities.

“If those are the types of comments he wants to make on his way out, that’s on him,” Leonard said of Meekhof. “I’m proud of the accomplishments … over the past two years.”

State Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Williams Township, defended Leonard this week, calling him “not only one of the most conservative speakers in the modern era, but also one of the most ethical and courageous.”

Glenn touted Leonard’s decision to hold a vote on a tax cut plan that ultimately failed in the state House in 2017, a move that Meekhof criticized at the time.  

“I consider Majority Leader Meekhof’s comments to be reflective of his own sense of pettiness and vindictiveness,” said Glenn, suggesting Meekhof delayed action on House bills for reasons that had little do with policy. “I’m offended by it.”

Republicans controlled all three branches of state government the past eight years and will return majorities in the state House and Senate, but Democrats swept the top of the ticket on Nov. 6, including Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel and Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson.

Leonard, 37, served six years in the state House and said last week he is not yet sure what the future holds for him professionally. Meekhof, 59, served 12 years in the state Legislature after initially winning election to the House in 2007.

Meekhof did not offer many specifics as he chided Leonard, but blamed inexperience as he noted the lower chamber did not take up a Senate plan to reform the state’s no-fault auto insurance system after the House could not pass its own more aggressive plan backed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

He suggested Leonard did not act on some Senate proposals because he was “afraid of what the delegates would think” at the August Michigan GOP convention, where Leonard won the attorney general nomination over Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker of Lawton.

The House “put the fun in dysfunctional,” Meekhof added. “The full effect of term limits is on display right there with folks who have little or no experience running anything, and they’re in charge of a $55 billion budget, and they really don’t do well.”

Asked to describe his relationship with Meekhof, Leonard said they “worked very well together to accomplish some very big things for the state.”

As for no-fault auto insurance, Leonard chalked up failed reform efforts to powerful special interest groups – including trial attorneys and the hospital lobby — that have swayed both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

“I believe ultimately this is something that’s probably going to have to go to the ballot for the citizens to decide because I have just not seen the political will here to really attack this issue,” Leonard said.

Meekhof had criticized Leonard in the past — but never so publicly.

“It was relatively known around town that they didn’t get along,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, who noted he has positive relationships with both men.

“I think it was detrimental as far as us coming together to find common ground on things because they just weren’t in the room together much,” he said.

But Ananich did little to intervene in the relationship between Meekhof and Leonard, which he described as “beyond repair.”

“If somebody’s shooting at each other, you don’t step in the middle. You get out of the way,” he said.