Susan J. Demas: A Tale of Two Speakers: What Kevin Cotter Could Have Learned from Curtis Hertel Sr.

This column appeared in Dome Magazine.

“He never bragged a lot about stuff. He just quietly did it.” –– State Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. on his father, legendary former Speaker Curtis Hertel Sr., who passed away on Easter Sunday

Last week, Republican House Speaker Kevin Cotter fired off not one, but two fearmongering press releases about transgender students in Michigan schools.

But when one of his predecessors, Curtis Hertel Sr., unexpectedly passed away at age 63 on Sunday, Cotter could only muster up a trite tweet with his condolences.

This speaks volumes about the current speaker’s priorities.

Hertel wasn’t just any Lansing legislator. He was much more than a Democratic politician. He was a lion.

But Cotter, 38, is a product of today’s climate of hyper-partisanship and term limits. Indeed, he only has 274 days left in the job he just assumed a mere 15 months ago. Under Michigan law, state representatives are unceremoniously broomed out after three terms –– just about when they figure out how to do the job.

Hertel was first elected to his Detroit House District, somewhat ironically, during the Reagan Revolution of 1980. He served nine terms before term limits kicked in, fighting for a minimum wage increase and a bipartisan gas tax hike (which was a calm and orderly process compared to Republican roads plan negotiations last year, stoked by Cotter’s stubbornness).

What Hertel was most known for was brokering the unique “co-speakership” arrangement with Republican Paul Hillegonds when the House was divided 55-55 from 1993 to 1994. It was an uneasy, shotgun wedding at the outset, as the two men had barely spoken before the election.

But their deep regard for the institution helped them forge the kind of trust and mutual respect that’s sorely lacking in Lansing right now. Now Michigan politicos regard that as the golden era of modern legislative politics.

Upon hearing of Hertel’s death, Hillegonds lauded him for “chang[ing] my life for the better.”

The current speaker, of course, doesn’t have to fashion close bonds with Democratic leaders –– Republicans have a 63-46 vice grip on the House. And Cotter seems to have made little attempt, eschewing issues that have bipartisan support, like adding the LGBT community to the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Even his conservative GOP predecessor, Jase Bolger, was willing to entertain that idea, but Cotter quickly nixed it.

Hertel was also known for his help in establishing the Children’s Trust Fund to aid the youngest victims of domestic violence –– which remains a celebrated bipartisan Lansing cause to this day.

It’s worth contrasting that to Cotter, who’s currently using his bully pulpit to pile on another group of vulnerable children, transgender students. He’s livid with the Democratic-controlled state Board of Education for issuing voluntary guidelines –– not mandates –– for treating transgender students with respect and helping them feel safe (the horror!)

The recommendations include allowing students to be called whatever name they choose and use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. That would certainly make several students at my children’s schools –– who are frequently bullied –– feel more accepted.

Perhaps Cotter should have spoken to some of them instead of issuing vicious statements hiding behind the claim that “some parents” feel the guidelines “put their children at risk.”

Curtis Hertel Sr. was a speaker who felt he had to represent all 110 members of the House as best he could, not just his party caucus. He was dedicated to standing up for people, not sowing division and rancor.

We can only hope that Cotter learns from Hertel’s example and begins to approach his role with more humility and less naked partisanship.

But in the end, it probably won’t matter very much. In a few months, he’ll retire from the speakership at the ripe old age of 39. And another green lawmaker will have to learn the ropes all over again.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.