Legislature's GOP majority short on Detroit area leadership

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Members of the State House of Representatives are sworn in.

Metro Detroit Republicans have continued to lose influence in Michigan's House and Senate entering the 100th Legislature, experts say, putting the region at a disadvantage in helping shape the majority party’s initiatives.

There are no Wayne County Republican lawmakers in the House or Senate, and a reduced number of legislators from the traditional GOP stronghold of Oakland County. The number of Republican seats from Macomb County has remained stable in the era of President Donald Trump.

The trend is important for Metro Detroit because Republicans control both chambers and decide what legislation emerges and heads to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for potential signing into law. 

The decline of GOP seats held in Metro Detroit should concern the party, said Bill Ballenger, a former Republican lawmaker who has written about state government politics for more than three decades.

“This is literally the first time in history that there are no Republicans in the state Senate for Wayne County,” Ballenger said. “There’s none left.”

Rep. Joe Bellino, R-Monroe, represents the Wayne County communities of Rockwood and Flat Rock, but most of his 17th District covers Monroe County south of the Detroit area. In the 2018 election, Republicans lost two House seats and their sole Senate seat from the state's most populous county.

GOP strategists say the lack of Metro Detroit Republican lawmakers is a symptom of a 2018 election that saw record Democratic turnout, some close races and changing demographics in Southeast Michigan.

While Republican leaders from northern and mid-Michigan expect Detroit will remain an important part of policy decisions, lawmakers would likely weigh whether the Detroit region-minded policy would help them gain seats in the metro area before proposing it or supporting it, Ballenger said.

Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering and his Mancelona floor leader, Rep. Triston Cole, are “about as far away from Metro Detroit as you can get,” he said. And Shirkey’s Clarklake address isn’t exactly urban, he added.

But state Republican leaders counter that fewer Metro Detroit lawmakers do not necessarily translate into low legislative interest in policies that help the region.  Three GOP lawmakers from Oakland and Macomb counties will chair key Senate committees. Three representatives from those counties are on the House leadership team, and Oakland County Sen. Jim Runestead will serve as the Senate's assistant majority caucus chairperson.

New Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield R-Levering, right, accepts the gavel from Clerk Gary Randall, left.

"I would expect those Metro Detroit area members will be strong advocates for their constituents," said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey from Clarklake.

Likewise, the House action plan is based on input from Republican caucus members across the state, said Gideon D'Assandro, Chatfield's spokesman. 

"The speaker is taking his cues on priorities from members, which include members from every corner of the state," D'Assandro said. 

History of Detroit influence

Metro Detroit has periodically had lawmakers who have led the Senate or House. Mike Bishop of Rochester is the only Detroit area Republican who has been the Senate majority leader since the position was officially created by Senate rules in 1959. Bishop led the Senate from 2007 to 2010.  

By contrast, three different Metro Detroit Democrats were Senate majority leader during the 20-year period from 1965 to 1984. The GOP has controlled the Senate in the following 35 years.  

Detroit area Republicans have led the House for a total of four years in the past half-century. Craig DeRoche of Novi was House speaker in 2005-2006, while Robert Waldron from Grosse Pointe was speaker in 1967-68.

By contrast, three Democrats from the Detroit area controlled the speaker's gavel for almost 13 years during the same period. Rep. Andy Dillon from Redford Township held the top spot in 2007-10, while Curtis Hertel Sr. of Detroit was speaker twice during the 1990s, including a shared speakership with Republican Paul Hillegonds. William Ryan of Wayne County was speaker from 1969-74.

While anti-Trump sentiment may have factored into GOP losses in Oakland County in November, county-to-county migration also played a role, said Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, a longtime Republican.

Detroiters “moved to Oakland County and brought their politics with them,” Patterson said, noting their preference for Democrats. “They’re replacing the Republicans.”

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson promotes the SMART millage and service expansion on Tuesday outside an Amazon distribution center in Shelby Twp.

The changing makeup of the Legislature’s GOP majority may curb some of the support Detroit received from former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, he added, referring to the 2014 bankruptcy aid package for the city and 2016 debt bailout legislation for the city's school system.

“I don’t think they’ll be anti-Detroit, but I don’t think they’ll be bleeding hearts either,” Patterson said. When it comes to Metro Detroit, he said, “we’re going to look at a more stingy Legislature than we had under Snyder.”

But House GOP leaders say they recognize the the region's importance by appointing three of the area's lawmakers to its leadership team. They are Rep. Pam Hornberger of Chesterfield Township as associate speaker pro-tempore, Rep. Michael Webber of Rochester Hills as assistant majority floor leader and Diana Farrington of Utica as deputy whip.

And the yet-to-be-announced committee chairmanships could give Metro Detroit representatives even more of a voice in policy making, said former state Rep. Laura Cox, a Livonia Republican who last year chaired the House Appropriations Committee.

"The story isn’t done being told yet," Cox said. "Once those committee assignments come out, we’ll see some wins for southeast Michigan.”

State Sen Peter Lucido, R-36th District,  is sworn in.

Metro Detroit Senate committee chairs include Sen. Peter Lucido of Shelby Township leading several committees, including the Judiciary and Public Safety; Sen. Jim Runestad of White Lake chairing the Finance panel; and Sen. Ruth Johnson of Holly heading the Elections Committee. 

Second-term lawmakers nearly always hold the roles of Senate majority leader, floor leader and appropriations chair, McCann said, "so term limits may be more to blame than geography in the case of this term’s leaders."

Some of the out-state GOP representation among the leadership isn’t surprising, Ballenger said. Republican strongholds have never been as prevalent in urban areas as in rural, but the 2018 election showed “the Republicans are more of an out-state party than ever before," he said. 

About a half century ago, nearly the entire delegation from Washtenaw County was Republican, but the county has been considered a reliable Democratic stronghold for a long time, Ballenger said.

“There’s nobody left in Washtenaw County,” he said. “Now it’s getting that Wayne is just like that and, increasingly, Oakland County.”

Looking toward 2020

A favorite to replace Michigan Republican Party chairman Ron Weiser, Cox said the decrease in Republican election victories in Metro Detroit reflects "a tough mid-term election cycle," not a pattern. Nonetheless, Cox said she's determined to gain a firmer footing in the region in 2020. 

"I recognize the importance of maintaining representation from the Republican Party in Wayne and Oakland counties," she said. 

Her opponent in the race for chair, Gina Barr, said the lack of Republican lawmakers form Metro Detroit “definitely is an issue.” Out-state GOP legislators come from a “different vantage point,” she said, but should still understand the key role Detroit-minded policy plays in Michigan.

“Michigan can’t have a comeback without Detroit,” said Barr, who hails from Oakland County.

A GOP field organizer and head of the Republican National Committee’s Urban Engagement and Women’s Engagement, Barr said efforts to energize the base were not enough to win Detroit area seats in 2018.

“Republicans as a whole just have to do a better job of expanding our base and taking our message to people and groups we wouldn’t have taken it to in the past,” she said.

While Republican legislative representation may have seen a shift outstate in 2018, the 100th Legislature also experienced an increase in female legislators. This two-year session will feature 53 women lawmakers, 33 of whom are Democrats, a result of the pink wave that swept Michigan’s 2018 elections.

Nearly half of the House Democratic caucus members are women. The 42 women in the 110-member House mean the chamber is edging closer to gender parity, said House Minority Leader Christine Greig of Farmington Hills, who is the second woman to lead a House caucus.

“Getting beyond gender though, looking at the backgrounds and experiences, the diversity and the breadth of all these members coming in, it’s so exciting,” Greig said.


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