Jacques: Can the bipartisan honeymoon last?

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, and House Speaker Lee Chatfield.

It’s hard to picture two people more politically opposed than new Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Attorney General Dana Nessel.

Despite their differences, Chatfield, a conservative Republican from northern Michigan, and Nessel, a liberal Democrat from southeast Michigan, stood next to each other Wednesday to back legislative reforms to civil asset forfeiture.

This was a positive way to kick off the new legislative session, with bipartisan buy-in for changes that would go a long way to protecting citizens from police overreach -- which is a win for due process and civil liberty.

Now that Michigan has a split government, with Republicans in control of the Legislature, and Democrats heading the top three statewide posts, political leaders need to find agreement where they can.

House Democratic Leader Christine Greig of Farmington Hills said in a statement she hopes the legislation will help set the tone for the next two years, and signal that the Legislature will put partisan politics aside.

“In an era of divided government, I wanted to start the term out on a right foot and get something important done,” says Chatfield, of Levering. He says the legislation is about protecting citizens’ constitutional rights and also about finding bipartisan common ground among lawmakers. 

How long can the honeymoon last?

Revamping Michigan’s forfeiture laws has been years in the making, and the latest bills build off efforts last session that never passed. The new plan would require a criminal conviction before police can take private property, an important distinction that a growing number of states are adding to their laws. Police can keep all the profits associated with asset forfeiture, and that has encouraged abuses of the system and left citizens who are never convicted of wrongdoing with little recourse to recoup their losses.

“It’s a perfect bipartisan issue,” says Jarrett Skorup, the director of marketing and communications at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He says other reforms ripe for collaboration include further changes to occupational licensing and opening up licenses to those with criminal backgrounds.

It’s positive to see this kind of cooperation on important issues. Yet Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Nessel also began their first days in office signaling they’d pursue a partisan agenda that’s likely to rub traditional and religious conservatives in the Legislature the wrong way.

Nessel announced that Michigan will join other states in suing the federal government to rescind religious exemptions to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate that have been expanded under the Trump administration. And Whitmer, with strong support from Nessel, issued a directive to protect state workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

LGBTQ protections are not currently included in the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Law, and legislative attempts to do so in recent years have failed, despite the backing of former Gov. Rick Snyder and many in the business community.

Last year, the state Civil Rights Commission sought to sidestep lawmakers by interpreting the current law to include the LGBTQ community. But Attorney General Bill Schuette ruled the commission was out of line and didn't have that authority.

Chatfield also disagreed with the commission's action and has said he wouldn’t support expanding Elliott-Larsen, in part because he fears doing so could place a burden on religious freedom.

“Every person deserves equal protection under the law, but no one deserves special protection,” Chatfield says. 

Days before Snyder left office, he issued a similar directive to Whitmer’s, but his included an exemption for religious entities. Whitmer’s doesn’t, and it supersedes the former guidance.

As strongly as Nessel and Chatfield feel on opposite sides of this pivotal issue, expect sparks to fly in coming months. In the meantime, it’s commendable they can find room for agreement on property rights.