Michigan had already been pummeled by four big snowstorms since Thanksgiving, and four more inches had fallen in Lansing overnight. It wasn’t exactly the most auspicious start to 2019.
But the state’s 49th governor seemed unfazed on inauguration day. It had been an unexpectedly bruising primary, but she had prevailed. And even after being badly outspent in the general (the last-minute Republican Governors Association hit comparing her to Queen Cersei was a nice touch), she had still posted a respectable five-point win.
As Gretchen Whitmer gazed out into the winter wonderland from the Capitol steps, she knew her term would be challenging. There was the ongoing crisis in Flint (the Trump administration’s EPA cuts had been devastating) and the huge hole in the state budget thanks to Trump’s Medicaid cuts and the state losing a string of lawsuits regarding Flint and the Unemployment Insurance Agency.
But then her eyes fell on the man who had inadvertently made her job a little easier: Brian Calley.
The youngest lieutenant governor in the nation had long dreamed of being up on that dais himself. Soon-to-be former Gov. Rick Snyder had tasked him with a number of big projects, from slashing business taxes to the new bridge to Canada to cleaning up the mess the administration had made in Flint.
Like most LGs, however, Calley was essentially unknown outside the six-square blocks surrounding the Capitol. He knew he would have to face the smoothest of rivals in the GOP primary, Attorney General Bill Schuette, who seemed to have started plotting his gubernatorial run during his exit from his mother’s womb.
To make matters worse, Calley’s boss was one of the most unpopular governors in the country. And Democrats were fired up after Trump’s election, just as Republicans were during the 2010 backlash to Barack Obama’s historic win.
Calley knew he’d have to do something big. So he turned to the wise counsel of his long-time consultant John Yob, back from his self-imposed exile in the Virgin Islands after surviving the world’s most comical slapfight with another GOP consultant at a ‘15 Mackinac conference.
And so it was decided. The LG would head up a renewed effort for the lost cause of the conservative anti-establishment crowd, a part-time legislature.
There was only one way to tease the announcement, with a gritty 30-second spot featuring Calley on a rowing machine, grunting about “Frank Underwolf” in a botched “House of Cards” reference.
It was as bad as the policy itself. Thanks to having one of the most restrictive term-limits laws in the nation, Michigan had languished for decades with inexperienced lawmakers who routinely outsourced legislating to lobbyists. This new constitutional amendment would cede a great deal of the Legislature’s power to the executive branch.
Calley suggested businesses would line up to grant their employees a leave of absence to serve in the Legislature, which could only meet a maximum of 90 days annually. That prompted GOP former Rep. Mark Ouimet to laud the proposal for giving businesses “inroads into government that they can’t get now,” which a cynic might interpret as an endorsement of lawmakers representing the interests of their employers over those of their constituents.
The part-time legislature proposal also slashed legislative salaries to roughly $30,000 a year, virtually guaranteeing that the best and the brightest would take a hard pass on running.
Naturally, it passed by a landslide in 2018. But Calley didn’t fare quite as well.
So as Whitmer contemplated the next four (or with any luck, eight) years, she knew she would have to contend with a Republican-controlled Legislature. They were going to despise her business tax hike (“It’s time for everyone to pay their fair share!”) or her budget calling for a 10-percent across-the-board increase to education (pre-K to post-grad).
But Republicans only had 90 days this year to fight her about it. And if they went into extra innings, lawmakers would have to work for free (and hope their super-altruistic employers granted them even more time off).
Talk about leverage.
As a lawyer, Whitmer had already delved into the question of how much the executive branch could do when the Legislature wasn’t in session and how far she could push her de facto powers (her team concluded she had a wide berth, even with a Republican-majority state Supreme Court, which would be hesitant to hamstring a future GOP governor).
And she was really looking forward to the 2021 redistricting battle royale during an abbreviated session, even if Republicans maintained a vice grip on the Legislature in the ‘20 election. Her longtime friend, former Michigan Democratic Party Chair and Stanford-trained attorney Mark Brewer, already had maps drafted carving out a bevy of new blue seats in Kent and Oakland counties that were going to make Republicans retch.
As Calley made his way up to congratulate her, Whitmer graciously thanked him — for everything. But as he turned to leave, she couldn’t help herself and whispered three more words: “Winter is coming.”
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.