Meet the New Leaders
by Susan J. Demas
November 16, 2010
The good news for Randy Richardville, Gretchen Whitmer, Jase Bolger and Rich Hammel is that after the last four years, the bar is set so low that it would be hard to fail.
The last legislative leadership quadrant was born in the bowels of 2007’s deep budget crisis and never recovered. In the Senate, tensions over tax policy left Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) and then-Minority Leader Mark Schauer (D-Battle Creek) barely speaking to each other.
In the House, relations between Speaker Andy Dillon and then-Minority Leader Craig DeRoche were even worse. With only two years in the legislature, Dillon (D-Redford Township) struggled to lead a caucus still badly divided after his upset win in the leadership fight against then-Rep. Andy Meisner, Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s chosen candidate. And DeRoche (R-Novi), still reeling from losing the majority in 2006, was determined that a Democratic-led tax increase would vindicate his party in the ’08 elections. (It didn’t.)
We know how the rest of the story goes: a tax increase, budget cuts and a brief government shutdown in ’07.
Though the players changed in 2009 with Mike Prusi (D-Ishpeming) taking over as Senate minority leader and Kevin Elsenheimer (R-Kewadin) assuming that role in the House, the result was fairly similar: another short government shutdown, although big budget cuts instead of a tax increase.
“We didn’t work well together,” acknowledges Prusi. “We started out with fairly regular quadrant meetings, but that fell apart pretty quickly.”
So when Granholm — who began her governorship saying she wanted to work with the quadrant as successfully as had Governor William Milliken — dissolved those meetings this year, no one missed them very much. Relations between the four legislative leaders and her administration had deteriorated to the point that the state’s $44 billion budget was, even at critical times, being negotiated via text message.
Thanks to term limits, both Granholm and the current quadrant will be swept out of office on December 31 — and all of Lansing (and the rest of the state) is hoping they take the dysfunction with them. In their place will be Republican Rick Snyder as governor, Richardville (R-Monroe) as Senate majority leader, Whitmer (D-East Lansing) as Senate minority leader, Bolger (R-Marshall) as speaker of the House and Hammel (D-Mt. Morris Township) as House minority leader.
“They do have to get along better,” says Craig Ruff, senior policy fellow at Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants and a Dome columnist. “They have to restore some level of confidence.”
Indeed, Snyder and all four leaders are singing the bipartisan tune right now (if not Kumbaya, because they all know they’re facing a $1.6 billion budget deficit right out of the gate). Of course, with Republicans riding in with control of the governor’s office, a supermajority in the Senate and firm control of the House, there may not be a lot of negotiating needed. But that all depends what the new governor will do, which remains a question mark.
“Republicans hold all the levers,” notes Democrat Prusi. “But I’m hopeful at the tone Rick Snyder has set.”
Inexperience is another wild card. Like Granholm, Snyder will take office with no legislative experience to speak of. The new quadrant will come armed with 26 years at the state level between them (their predecessors had 24).
Sens. Richardville and Whitmer are fairly well known in Lansing (if not statewide) after spending a decade apiece in office, but the House leadership is pretty green. On the surface, the new quadrant has a lawyer, an executive, a small businessman and an autoworker. They’re all native Michiganders and parents and have college degrees. Two are Baby Boomers and two were born into Generation X.
But the questions for many remain: just who are these leaders and how will they work together? Here’s a primer.
Position: Senate Majority Leader
Family: Wife, Sarah; two kids, 29 and 27
Education: B.S., finance, Albion; M.S., management, Aquinas
Previous Occupation: Monroe economic development director
Political Experience: House, 1999-2005; Majority floor leader, 2003-05; Senate, 2007-present
Almost every day when the Senate is in session, citizens are treated to the smooth vocal stylings of one Randy Richardville.
As president pro-tempore, he fills in when Lt. Gov. John Cherry isn’t presiding over the upper chamber, which is to say quite often. With his velvety radio DJ voice, Richardville makes listening to descriptions of bills and senatorial rules downright pleasant, even on the longest session days.
“I try to make it fun,” he laughs.
Come January, he’ll be off the podium announcing legislation and in back rooms negotiating it as the Senate’s new majority leader. The mirthful Richardville will corral a caucus of 26 – the biggest in modern history. He’s the only member of the new quadrant with leadership experience, having served as majority floor leader in the House under Speaker Rick Johnson. And he also represented the most Democratic district in the lower chamber, proving his appeal to more than just the GOP base.
Though several lawmakers emerged as rivals for the top post — Sen. Mark Jansen (R-Cutlerville), Sen. Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek) and, most recently, Sen.-Elect John Proos (R-St. Joseph) — Richardville racked up early support and was considered the odds-on favorite by the lobbying corps. He ended up running unopposed.
A natural dealmaker, Richardville hails from the “We can disagree without being disagreeable” school of thought. He and Whitmer have been friends since their House days, something that should buoy hopes for a less contentious Senate.
Sen. Roger Kahn (R-Saginaw), the newly minted Senate Appropriations chair, is Richardville’s uncle who used to babysit him in his boyhood. Kahn describes his nephew, a former manager at both Cargill and Herman Miller, as “very even-tempered and thoughtful” and “very well-liked.”
“He’ll bring a team-building characteristic to the majority leader’s office,” Kahn says. “The state of Michigan should be grateful to have him as majority leader.”
Richardville’s top priorities are improving the business environment, reducing regulation and improving the tax structure. And he seems content to carry on Mike Bishop’s tradition of setting a distinct agenda. While Senate Republicans share many of the tenants of Rick Snyder’s 10-point turnaround plan, Richardville said his caucus’ priorities will “parallel those of the governor, not replicate them.”
Still boyish with a heart-shaped face, Richardville admits the long days (and nights) in Lansing over the last 12 years have caused his social life to take a hit. One of the ways he relaxes is by taking the long way home to Monroe through the back roads.
“It takes an extra half-hour, but it’s kind of peaceful,” he says.
Position: Senate Minority Leader
Hometown: East Lansing
Family: Divorced, two daughters, 8 and 7
Education: B.A., communications; J.D., both from MSU
Previous Occupation: Attorney, Dickinson Wright
Political Experience: House, 2001-06; Senate, 2006-present
If there’s a Democrat who could have enjoyed statewide success in the Year of the Great Shellacking, it’s Gretchen Whitmer.
For the last couple years, the dynamic senator and top fundraiser looked to be a lock as the Democratic nominee for attorney general. But traversing the state started to take a real toll on her two young daughters, 8 and 7, who took to following her around the house around the holidays because “we didn’t know if you were coming back, Mommy.” So Whitmer bowed out in January to put them first.
As it turns out, her help is sorely needed in the legislature. The dean of the Senate, Whitmer ended up running unopposed for minority leader, as her chief rival, Sen. Glenn Anderson (D-Westland), dropped out the eve of the election. (He saw the writing on the wall, having led the caucus’ disastrous re-election campaign.)
For the next four years, the Senate Democrats will be a tight-knit group of 12, meaning that they can’t even procedurally block legislation by withholding immediate effect. And after dwelling in the minority for 26 straight years (and counting), the Dems desperately need some kind of a spark.
“She’ll raise the profile a lot,” says longtime friend Deb Cherry, who just resigned from the Senate to take over as Genesee County treasurer. “That’s her nature. She has charisma. …I don’t believe the Republican caucus will be in lockstep and Snyder will need the Dems.”
A striking figure with raven hair and almost mischievous brown eyes, Whitmer has naturally attracted the kind of attention that Sarah Palin has (and from Maxim magazine, no less). But Whitmer, who graduated magna cum laude with a J.D. from Michigan State University, isn’t really the type to waste her time with reality shows like Dancing with the Stars.
“I walk at 5:30 every morning with a friend…so I go to bed by 9 p.m. I have no idea what’s going on with any reality show,” she laughs.
She’s proven to be a skilled politician, winning competitive primaries and general elections in the House. And Whitmer is focused on policy, as well, crediting both her father, Dick, who was Commerce director under Bill Milliken, and her late mother, Sherry, an assistant attorney general under Frank Kelley. The former House Appropriations ranking member plans to fight for a long-term approach to the budget, quality education and a tax code “that makes sense.”
“Politics has gotten more personal and more partisan,” Whitmer says. “Back in the Milliken and Kelley years, it was about working together and doing the right thing for people, as opposed to winning an argument. But that’s not the case with a 24-hour news cycle and term limits.”
In spite of the Democrats’ minority status, she’s feeling optimistic about the 2011-12 term, largely because of her relationship with Richardville. And although she’s well aware of the long hours in store for her in Lansing, the mother of two feels “very lucky” to live only eight miles away.
Position: House Speaker
Family: Wife, Molly, two kids, 16 and 14
Education: B.B.A., finance and political science, WMU
Previous Occupation: Owner, Summit Credit Services
Political Experience: House, 2009-present; Calhoun County Commission, 2005-09
If Jase Bolger wasn’t getting ready to become the next speaker of the Michigan House, he’d probably be opening another business in Marshall, the somewhat sleepy south central Michigan hamlet he calls home.
Fourteen years ago, he founded Summit Credit Services, which updates customer data for Fortune 100 companies. His experience as a small businessman inspired him to run in 2004 for a spot on the Calhoun County Commission, where he served with soon-to-be House Minority Floor Leader Kate Segal (D-Battle Creek). But Bolger had to hand over the reins of managing his company when he joined the House in 2009.
“It requires personal sacrifice,” he says.
That goes for his golf game and hunting schedule, both of which “really have had to go on the shelf with this job.” But Bolger decided to take the leap after getting slammed with a higher tax bill from the new Michigan Business Tax (MBT), which he says is “driving jobs out of state.”
Accordingly, jobs will be his top priority when he takes the helm in the House. The affable Bolger, who sports wavy chestnut hair and an easy smile, plans to work “very closely” with Snyder and is hoping to move forward with a GOP agenda, despite partisan politics.
“We don’t necessarily believe the government creates jobs; individuals do,” Bolger says. “But we’ll do three things: reform spending, taxes and regulation.”
After helping lead the GOP’s expectation-busting 20-seat gain in the House this fall, Bolger’s place as the next speaker was sealed. Sensing the coming wave, his only competition, Rep. Paul Opsommer (R-DeWitt), dropped out before Election Day.
Like Andy Dillon, Bolger will only have two years under his belt serving in the minority when he takes the gavel. Adding to the pressure is the fact that 61 of the 110 House members are freshmen and 31 more have only been there for a term.
But Rep. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), who is term-limited and just won election to the Senate, always thought Bolger had promise.
“He’s bright, energetic and has the will to take on the tough issues,” says Jones, who worked with him to fight, unsuccessfully, the new Michigan State Police headquarters downtown. “I’ve had the chance to observe him for two years and I’d say he’s a bright leader of the future.”
Position: House Minority Leader
Hometown: Mt. Morris Township
Family: Wife, Debra; four daughters, 26, 28, 29 and 34
Education: B.S., applied science, UM-Flint
Previous Occupation: Skilled tradesman at Delphi
Political Experience: Mt. Morris Township Trustee, 1993-97; Genesee County Commission, 1997-2006; House, 2007-present.
Sometimes biology is destiny. That might explain how Rich Hammel ended up in politics, after growing up the son of Richard Hammel, a longtime Genesee County commissioner, and Joyce Hammel, Mt. Morris Township’s treasurer.
Like many of his Beecher High School classmates, Hammel took a job at General Motors after graduation. He worked 30 years as a pipefitter and production worker as the company was spun off into Delphi, also earning his bachelor’s in applied science from the University of Michigan-Flint.
And Hammel soon found himself following in his parents’ footsteps. First, he joined the Mt. Morris Township Board as a trustee in 1993, followed by nine years on the County Commission. The UAW member headed up the board for seven of those years, making him the county’s longest-serving chair. In 2006, Hammel won election to the House.
“He’s pretty respected locally,” says Rep. Lee Gonzales (D-Flint). “People know him; he has deep roots in the community with his family. …He respects people of all backgrounds; he’s genuine about it. He grows on you as you know him and it’s in his nature to act civilly, thoughtfully.”
Known for his no-nonsense tone, the bespectacled Hammel is a worker bee in the House. This term, he ascended to House Appropriations vice chair and often was the one in the room cutting deals with leaders from both chambers.
Hammel entered Election Night as the favorite to win the House speaker race, but had that hope dashed as the chamber flipped from a Democratic majority of 67-43 to a Republican-dominated 63-47.
“It was a pretty big surprise for me and many of us, but the wave was pretty big,” he admits. “The mood was very sour for Democrats, though we had great candidates and a great message.”
Not surprisingly, the House Democrats were the only caucus to hold competitive leadership elections, with Hammel squaring off against another Genesee County leader, Rep. Woodrow Stanley (D-Flint). It was a close vote, with Stanley winning over the Detroit delegation, but Hammel pulled through.
The caucus will “definitely regroup,” he says, but will be focused on the budget and making sure there’s “fairness for working people.”
He’s served two years with Bolger and is looking forward to working closely with him and the other members of the quadrant. The pair share similar interests, so perhaps they can hammer out budget details either at the firing range or on the back nine.