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Ruling the House

by Susan J. Demas
January 16, 2011

The job, if we’re being honest, is a meat grinder.

Sure, you’re lavished with an exquisite chandeliered office, a fancy title and a really big gavel. But you also have the headache of managing hundreds of staff, a couple dozen legislative committees, thousands of bills and 109 other lawmakers clamoring for both your attention and the media spotlight.

“Being speaker of the House of Representatives is one of the most challenging jobs in Lansing, if not the most challenging,” said House Clerk Gary Randall, who’s just entered his fifth decade in the institution. “I’m sure the governor or the Senate majority leader would take issue with that. But the speaker has 110 people to keep focused.”

“The Number One thing a speaker needs to know how to do is count votes, no matter if it’s becoming speaker or passing bills,” says Rick Johnson, a lobbyist with Dodak, Johnson & Associates. “…You don’t create a lot of friends, but you do create a lot of enemies.”

The former Republican legislator should know; he served as speaker from 2001 to 2004.

And former Speaker Paul Hillegonds recalls, “You’re in constant motion. It’s a constant demand of your time.”

One of the biggest side effects of legislative term limits is that a speaker now comes armed only with a maximum of four — and often only two — years of legislative experience. Add in a perpetual budget crisis and deep recession for the last decade, and the position can become almost unbearable day in and day out.

“They’re punching bags and take a lot of criticism and abuse,” notes Bill Ballenger, a former House member, former senator and current publisher of Inside Michigan Politics. “They’re lucky to escape with their lives.”

Little wonder that of the 71 men who have run the House — yes, they’ve all been men — only three have gone on to become governor. And it’s been more than a century since the last time that happened.

All three were Republicans who served a single term. The first was Kinsley Bingham, Michigan’s first GOP governor, who served from 1855 to 1858. Then there was Charles Crosswell, who served from 1877 to 1880, and John T. Rich from 1893 to 1896. And the last speaker to land in Congress was Victor Knox — who was in office from 1953 through the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964.

One reason might be the fact that before term limits passed in 1992, most speakers weren’t particularly young. The job was the “grand climax of their careers” after working their way up through the political system, Ballenger notes. Speakers also come out of a local House district that represents a pretty small swatch of the population, about 80,000 to 90,000 citizens in recent decades, so it’s a big leap to Congress, which involves representing 750,000 constituents, or statewide office, with its 10 million residents.

“It’s not exactly a springboard,” Ballenger notes dryly.

Given that, how do you judge if you’ve been a successful speaker? For Democratic Speaker Gary Owen, at least, there was a simple litmus test.

“Nobody went to jail,” declares Owen, who served from 1983 to 1988. “I had control of the caucus. We kept the process honest.”

So who would want the job anyway? Jase Bolger, for one. The new House speaker is an ambitious 39-year-old sophomore from Marshall. And he’s starting his service at an auspicious time, when Republicans control both chambers of the legislature, plus the governor’s office and Supreme Court for good measure.

Owen also served at a time of one-party rule early in Gov. Jim Blanchard’s term. But lack of real competition from the other party can produce greater intra-party conflict. He says many divisions emerged in his ruling caucus, a patchwork of liberals, conservatives, Detroiters, outstaters and minorities. But Owen said Bolger might be more fortunate.

“Republicans may be more homogeneous than Democrats,” says Owen. “Maybe some of the conflict I had will be eliminated.”

So far, all Bolger has had to preside over is committee and seat assignments, but with new Gov. Rick Snyder’s State of the State address on January 19 and a looming fiscal 2012 budget gap of $1.8 billion, the Republican’s cup will soon runneth over.

The eager and energetic Bolger has tapped into the fraternity of former speakers to help guide him (“The smart ones do,” notes Owen). That includes Owen, Johnson, Hillegonds (1993-96), Chuck Perricone (1999-2000), and Andy Dillon (2007-10).

But one thing former speakers agree on is that you don’t really know what you’re in for until you dig into the job.

“I was told by the speakers who preceded me that even as minority leader I would be surprised by the weight of the office and the sense of responsibility of the institution,” recalls Hillegonds. “We all have a stake in the reputation of the institution.”

He pauses and then adds, “That weight, I did feel immediately.”

Term limits
By 1982, Gary Owen had devoted 10 years to the House. He’d even been part of quadrant meetings under Speaker Bobby Crim. But back then, he was still regarded as a young whippersnapper.

“The guy I was running against, Joe Forbes, told me I hadn’t been there long enough to be speaker,” chuckles Owen, who’s mostly retired as a director with the lobbying firm GCSI. “Today it’s one term, get elected [speaker].”

Such is life under term limits. In fact, it’s impossible to talk about the role of speaker without making the distinction between the pre- and post-term limits eras. The first year they kicked in was 1998. Perricone had the distinction of being the first post-term limits speaker in his final House term.

Interestingly, every speaker since has been a sophomore: Johnson, Craig DeRoche, Dillon and Bolger.

“You’d think that in the kingdom of the blind man that the one-eyed man would be king,” Ballenger notes, “but that hasn’t been the case.”

Gary Garbarino is a former chief of staff for two House majority floor leaders. He’s spent 17 of his 25 years in state government working in the House (“With term limits, I can hold a job — I just can’t hold a boss,” he jokes). The Democrat recalls that before term limits, a speaker was typically a former floor leader who understood how to keep the chamber running. Nowadays, lobbyists and staff have a monopoly on institutional knowledge.

“It’s extremely important in the time of term limits, when speakers have a limited amount of experience, to surround themselves with the best people they can,” says Randall, who’s spent 32 years in the House — 18 as a state representative, six as assistant clerk and eight as clerk.

The key is to find advisors who can contribute to the decision-making process, Randall adds, without being self-serving. Garbarino stresses that the power ultimately lies in the speaker and his leadership team.

“When I’m interviewing, I tell them, ‘I will not tell you what to pass and what not to pass. I’ll tell you how to get from A to B. I won’t tell you what A and B are,’” Garbarino says.

In his first term as speaker, Democrat Dillon was thrust into the awkward position of serving with a Republican speaker he had toppled in the last election. While some of those relationships historically have been magnanimous — like that of Hillegonds and Curtis Hertel, who even served as co-speakers for a term — Dillon wasn’t so lucky with DeRoche, who refused to provide any guidance. The Republican became a strident rival, especially around the tax hike issue in 2007. (Since being termed out of office that year, DeRoche has struggled personally and was twice arrested for intoxication, pleading guilty to a misdemeanor in 2010.)

Dillon testifies to the help he received early on from House Business Director Tim Bowlin and House Fiscal Agency Director Mitch Bean. He also relied on Cindy Peruchietti, former chief of staff to former Senate Minority Leader Bob Emerson, first as Dillon’s legislative director and then chief of staff.

Dillon, new state treasurer under Governor Rick Snyder, says Bolger should be in “good shape” in tapping Suzanne Miller Allen as chief of staff, after she filled that role for both former Minority Leader Kevin Elsenheimer and Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema.

Garbarino notes there’s still a steep learning curve, no matter how sharp the staff.

“You’re not going to be here very long, so you better make the time count,” he says. “Pre-term limits, you could sit in the back, be quiet and learn stuff and they’d tell you when you’re ready. You don’t have that option anymore.”

Expectations and surprises
The transition process for a speaker between Election Day and inauguration day is hectic and always flies by. But that was especially the case for Andy Dillon after the Democratic tidal wave in 2006.

“I thought I [would be] running for minority leader,” he recalls. “There wasn’t a lot of time to think too much about speaker and to be concerned about a grand vision.”

After only serving a couple years — and in the minority, to boot — Dillon found himself as speaker neck-deep in the state’s fiscal crisis and charged with overseeing adoption of a new business tax structure within a few months. Not surprisingly, he cites the now-unpopular Michigan Business Tax (MBT) passed in the summer of 2007 as the biggest regret of his speakership. Dillon says he felt a lot of pressure from the Treasury Department and GOP-led Senate to get it done. But something within the CPA told him to slow the process down, as he was deeply uncomfortable with keeping a gross receipts component of the multi-layered tax.

“I knew it in my gut it was a mistake right before,” Dillon grimaces. “…We’re good at missing deadlines. Obviously, with something this important, who cares if we didn’t have forms from a bad tax on time.”

Dillon also fingers his inexperience for all the “round-the-clock stuff” during the budget standoff later that year that eventually culminated in the income tax increase and the MBT surcharge.

In the last two years, House freshmen have made a play for power, forming a bipartisan caucus that’s had some policy success. But Garbarino argues it would be a mistake for a speaker “to listen to the freshman caucus on everything,” given their lack of experience (“The central power is in the speaker,” he reminds leaders).

Speakers have to be prepared for the onslaught of people approaching them.

“One of the things is everyone will want to tell you something, what so-and-so is doing legislatively or who’s having a press conference,” Johnson recalls. “Everyone is trying to get to you first, do you a favor.”

But running the show in the People’s House can be a lonely endeavor. Personal relationships can take a hit.

“I remember walking around the floor, talking to people about what they did last weekend or if they needed help on this or that issue,” Johnson says. “When I became speaker, people became more standoffish, more intimidated, scared to talk to me. That always bothered me…But you can’t be the good guy all the time. You’re the bad guy quite often.”

One pitfall some speakers fall into is putting politics above policy. For Johnson, raising the cigarette tax in 2004 wasn’t an easy policy issue — especially for his GOP caucus — but he said it was the right thing to do. His biggest regret was allowing the 2002 vote to outlaw directional drilling in the Great Lakes, something he says was driven purely by politics.

But there is a political reality for speakers. The Senate and the governor aren’t on the ballot in two years, but the House is. That means that if the GOP’s new agenda starts to tank in the polls — even if it’s being driven by Snyder — Bolger and his caucus could be the ones to pay the price in 2012.

Garbarino recalls taking a job in 1990 with then-Majority Floor Leader Pat Gagliardi (D-Drummond Island). His boss was supposed to succeed Lew Dodak (D-Saginaw) as speaker. But as it turned out, Dodak lost his re-election bid in two years. Democrats subsequently lost their majority and the House was evenly divided the next session, 55-55.

“Another thing speakers forget is they have to get re-elected, too,” Garbarino laughs. “…It didn’t mean anything to the people of his district that he was speaker of the House. That only matters in Lansing.”

Building relationships
From 1993 to 1994, Hillegonds and Hertel ushered in what Ballenger says was the “golden era” of the modern Michigan legislature.

The West Michigan Republican and Detroit Democrat presided over the unlikely scenario of a perfectly divided chamber. As co-speakers they devised a plan in which each party took turns presiding. (For poetic justice, each had a crack in subsequent terms to rule on his own.)

But their relationship didn’t start out quite so rosy. For the first couple months after the ’92 election, Hillegonds recalls each leader was feverishly working to woo the 56th vote that could make him sole speaker. When no one budged, Hillegonds and Hertel were at an impasse. Their paths hadn’t crossed much before — they didn’t serve on any committees together — and they had barely spoken to one another on the floor.

The House might have continued to be an ungovernable mess were it not for then-lobbyist Dennis Muchmore, now Snyder’s chief of staff. As an old hand, Muchmore called them both and pushed for a truce. The pair ended up having a two-hour conversation at a bar in Holt and realized, as odd couples tend to in the movies, that they weren’t so different after all. They both had young families and similar aspirations for the House. And they enjoyed spending time together.

The rest is history. One month, Republicans commanded the agenda, but Democrats controlled the floor. Then they would swap roles the next month. Acknowledging that good ideas can surface from both sides of the aisle led to more collegiality, Hillegonds says. He learned first serving in the minority and then as co-speaker that “you can’t simply say ‘no’ and being negative is not enough. You have to have a political agenda.”

“The fewer surprises, the more trust would develop,” continues Hillegonds, now senior vice president for corporate affairs with DTE Energy. “…We certainly had partisan battles. I don’t want to sugarcoat that. But I wish there were some way to bottle that bipartisan spirit.”

The bipartisan arrangement was put to the ultimate test with the tax overhaul known as Proposal A. On a summer evening in 1993, Hillegonds received a phone call from Gov. John Engler. The GOP-led Senate would be taking Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s challenge to repeal the property tax as the funding mechanism for schools. And Hillegonds happened to be running the agenda that month.

“I didn’t sleep much that night,” he recalls. “It was a huge risk. But at the end, it was a matter of, ‘Do I trust the institution? Do I agree that with shared leadership we can put up as much as the Senate?’ It turned out to be the hardest, but also the most fulfilling experience of my career.”

The legislature hammered away on the issue until Christmas Eve 2003. Ultimately, voters approved a measure that would provide fundamental reform of school financing.

One thing that doesn’t change, even as party control shifts, is that the legislature runs on trust and relationships. And term limits have undoubtedly been a big roadblock to lawmakers getting to know each other. Bolger has only served with Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) for two years and they’ve spent precious little time together at the bargaining table or grabbing a beer at Kelly’s, a downtown Lansing tavern.

“Your word means everything in this town,” Garbarino notes. “Once you go back on it, no one will ever believe you again.”

For the last four years, Lansing has been a model of gridlock, plagued by infighting between Dillon, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and former Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester). But just before Christmas, the four outgoing and incoming legislative leaders had dinner.

“We were like, ‘Jeez, why didn’t we do this more often?’” Dillon recalls. “I think it’s a good thing for the quadrant to get out of the building. Issues come up more from lack of communication.”

Management skills
It was a tragic and all too familiar scene. Three teens died in a car crash in metro Detroit in 2003. Afterwards, a House member wanted to introduce legislation to restrict the number of passengers when a teen is driving. Johnson got wind of the idea and was convinced it was a Democrat’s.

“I said, ‘Who’s introducing that communist legislation?’” recalls Johnson, who was in his final term as speaker. “In my world, that’s up to the parents or whoever.”

Well, it turned out to be Rep. Ed Gaffney (R-Grosse Pointe Farms), who came to talk to the speaker out of concern that his libertarian streak would kill HB 4600. Johnson told him if he could get the bill out of committee, he’d speak to the caucus and it would “get a fair shake.” And he did.

“Then he asked, ‘Can I count on your vote?’” Johnson recalls. “And I said, ‘Yes, you can,’ because I was so impressed by the way he handled it.”

The bill ultimately went on to pass the House, but died in the Senate. Johnson notes that another big change in becoming speaker was that it altered his voting record. In his first House term, the Republican was a very conservative member of the caucus. After winning the speakership he became one of the most moderate — not because his politics shifted, but because he was helping out his members.

“It doesn’t matter who it is that you’re with today on an issue,” Johnson says. “Tomorrow, they’ll be on the other side of an issue. Keep the lines of communication open. Don’t burn bridges. It switches like a light switch on and off, issue to issue.”

There’s also a delicate dance between leading the House and heading up your caucus.

“There are a lot of divisive issues when the minority is going one direction and your caucus is going in another,” Randall says. “It’s awfully tempting to do things in an expedient way. But that might not always be the best for the institution.”

For Owen, it was always a matter of protecting the flock.

“My personal responsibility was to my caucuses,” he says. “The policies developed had to be beneficial for the state, but the deal with the governor would have to protect the caucus…My primary responsibility was to treat every member of the caucus fairly – even though I may not always like them, I may not respect them.”

It’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae. Micromanaging can drive a speaker batty. There are myriad responsibilities – hiring staff, supervising employees, assigning committees, crafting legislation, pulling together an agenda, dealing with the media, working with the Senate and governor, fundraising and recruiting candidates, just to start.

“I don’t think people realize you’re the head of a very, very large organization,” Garbarino says. “Everyone in the House works for the speaker.”

Like many speakers, Owen disliked the day-to-day management of the House, especially internal budget and personnel issues. But even though he delegated responsibilities, that doesn’t mean that he relinquished any power (Randall describes him as a “Do it my way, get it done” type of leader).

“Did I involve myself in every decision? No. But I had final approval as speaker,” Owen says. “Every decision, the final decision would come down to me. It was mine.”

Dillon rarely dabbled in administrative issues and tried to steer clear of policy, with a few exceptions — namely energy reform that passed in 2008 and his health care pooling plan for public employees in 2009 that never came up for a vote on the floor.

“You’re steering a very big ship. You can’t get into the details, the business side of it,” he notes.

The conservative Democrat frequently clashed with more liberal and labor-allied members of his caucus, especially on health care reform. There also were tensions over his gubernatorial run last year, which was ultimately unsuccessful. Dillon notes from experience that you “definitely have to have buy-in from a big chunk of the caucus.”

“It takes a unique person to keep everybody happy, especially in a political setting when people are looking out for themselves and their districts,” Randall says.

But Dillon said it was worth the risk to take on an unpopular idea, especially when the budget deficit topped $1 billion, as it has pretty much every year for the last decade. And he urges future speakers not to shy away from the tough fights, even with their own caucus and party.

“The caucus has to believe you’re honestly trying to do the right thing and they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt,” he says. “…Why be here if you don’t do what you believe?”

Speakers’ success
It’s not that Paul Hillegonds hasn’t thought about it. Every speaker has thought about running for governor.

After being on the shortlist for Engler’s first-term lieutenant governor, Hillegonds has frequently been mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate. But the always civil moderate known as “St. Paul” left politics voluntarily in 1996 “before term limits took me out.”

“Being speaker is so draining. You can’t top it, but it’s a messy process,” he says. “…You’re usually not viewed as a visionary for the state. A governor does have to have vision.”

Few speakers have escaped the Lansing bubble after stepping down. Dillon is a key member of Snyder’s cabinet. And many former speakers in recent history — Owen, Dodak, Perricone, Crim and Johnson — have gone on to successful second acts as lobbyists. (Johnson and Dodak liked the speaker’s office so much that in their partnership offices they incorporated the décor — down to the Michigan coat of arms and the walnut woodwork — in their conference room.)

Being speaker of the Michigan House probably remains the climax of their careers — it’s certainly what the first line of their obituaries will read. But most of the men who have presided over that hallowed chamber wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I got goose bumps every time I walked onto the House floor,” Johnson recalls. “From the last day to when I was elected speaker, I looked at it as an honor to serve. Driving in, looking at the Capitol, especially at night with the lights on, it was unbelievable. I never thought I’d have an office in that building.”

Susan J. Demas, a regular columnist and contributor to Dome, is 2006 Knight Foundation Fellow in nonprofits journalism and a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service.

January 16, 2011 · Filed under Features

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