DETROIT – One year ago, a new generation of leaders took power in Michigan following a Democratic statewide near-sweep in the 2018 elections. For the first time since 1995 the state’s three top elected officials were all Democrats.
So in their first year — how did the new “kids” do?
As a longtime watcher of state government and politics, here’s my attempt at a year-in-review scorecard:
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer: Her campaign theme largely revolved around a single slogan: “Just fix the damn roads.” It was highly effective; the state that put the world on wheels now is widely recognized as having the worst roads in the state.
That slogan carried the former state senate minority leader to a surprisingly easy victory over Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette in November 2018.
The new governor vowed that she would veto any budget that did not include money for road repairs. But then she went back on her pledge, announcing in September that she wouldn’t hold Republicans’ feet to the fire, and said that her and the legislators’ “number one priority was getting a budget passed.”
“We have all agreed to continue conversations about road funding in a meaningful way,” she said.
Since then, nothing has happened, and Michigan roads are as bad – or worse – than ever. Interestingly, Whitmer’s solution for the roads was to raise the gas tax, which is what her predecessor, GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, wanted to do.
Legislative Republicans wouldn’t go along with that either. It should be noted that Republican leaders promised to come up with a realistic road repair plan of their own by the end of summer – but never did. It remains to be seen who the voters will blame.
Apart from that, the governor could claim some successes, including successfully getting Fiat-Chrysler (FCA) to invest billions in Southeast Michigan and build a new assembly plant and create nearly 5,000 new jobs in the city of Detroit.
She also worked with Republican leaders to finally pass and sign a bill reforming Michigan’s no-fault car insurance law, a bill which its supporters hope will lower rates in Detroit, where insurance costs more than anywhere else in the nation.
But others, including House Minority Floor Leader Yusef Rabhi, also a Democrat, think it will make all residents less safe and think any cost reduction will be temporary at best.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson: Great things were widely expected of Benson, who was elected Michigan Secretary of State by a landslide in November 2018. Her resume is eye-popping: Degrees from Wellesley, Oxford University, and Harvard.
She was the youngest female dean of a top U.S. law school in history, taking charge at Wayne State University in 2012, when she was only 35. Additionally, she ran and completed the Boston Marathon when she was more than eight months pregnant.
On top of that, she is the author of a book about people who have held her job across the country: State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process.
But her first year in office was at times rocky. She campaigned on a promise to swiftly implement a “30 minute guarantee” that would mean no one would have to wait longer than that to be served at a branch office. But she soon had to back off.
After a few months, she announced that the system was more flawed than she had been led to believe, and said she hoped to be able to live up to that guarantee by the end of her term in 2022.
Later, she said that her office should be able to honor that promise by later this year – for patrons who call up and make an appointment for a specific time.
The Secretary of State’s office was plagued by other glitches as well. Benson herself reported that many of the self-service kiosks installed by her predecessor do not work.
Additionally, there were problems with a new computer system – one of which happened to me. When I went to renew my license tabs at a branch office in April, I was told there was no record that I had my car or the plate the same office had given me in 2017.
What’s more, that plate had been reassigned to someone else, and their rules prevented them from giving me a new plate.
I finally got the manager to call Lansing, and a supervisor agreed that was crazy, and had them issue me a new license plate.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel: Democrats weren’t at all sure that Nessel would be elected. She was seen as more left-wing than most and upset an establishment candidate to win the nomination.
Additionally, Nessel is openly gay and is married to another woman, and there were worries that would alienate some voters. But she still won by 115,000 votes. Since she took office, she has been a ball of energy, and has won widespread respect.
From the start, she has declared that she would do everything possible to force Enbridge Energy to shut down Line 5, the oil-carrying pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac. That is tied up in the courts, and is likely to be for some time.
But apart from that, she started an Elder Abuse Task Force and a new auto insurance fraud unit. Openly modeling herself after Frank Kelley, the “eternal general” who held the office for 37 years, she established another new unit to attack payroll fraud and began other initiatives to protect consumers. She also has aggressively gone after pedophile priests, charging seven and pledging to find more.
So far, she has been perhaps the most successful of the state’s new “big three.” But all have nearly three more years before they have to run again. Soon, I’ll take a look at the newly elected Michigan members of Congress who have to face the voters this year.