The Michigan Miracle
Every time I open the news lately, it seems like there’s another great story coming out of Michigan. In recent months, voters there not only enshrined the right to abortion into the state constitution, they also flipped the state legislature to the Democrats and reelected their very competent and hardworking governor, Gretchen Whitmer, giving the Democrats an amazing trifecta of power that can now get serious business done.
Just this week, I saw headlines that brought a broad smile: protections against discrimination for LGBTQ+ (and, especially, trans people), an end to union-busting laws, sensible gun safety regulation moving forward, and abortion rights protected.
Before I get into the specifics of those actions, let’s review what actually accounts for this amazing turn of events. The story starts in a sadder, more undemocratic time some twelve years ago, but it has a very happy ending.
From among the worst maps in the country to the fairest
When Republicans swept to power nationwide in the 2010 midterms, they were determined to cement that power for a generation, just as the Democrats had done with the state’s maps in the 1960s and 70s. Michigan was among the states where Republican-controlled legislatures drew political maps that virtually guaranteed impregnable majorities for them going forward. In a state where they received 50 percent or less of the state Senate, state House and Congressional district votes in 2014, the Republicans still held commanding majorities in each. Gerrymandering was the culprit.
But in 2018 the GOP lost its power to use maps to win elections as a result of a citizen-led initiative in the state to establish an independent commission to draw the lines following the 2020 census. As I wrote about over a year ago, this didn’t happen by magic. It took a lot of hard work by a lot of dedicated people, but it started with just one woman. As I observed back then,
It all began, as many things do these days, with a Facebook post by a woman named Katie Fahey back in 2016. “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan,” Fahey wrote. “If you’re interested in doing this as well, please let me know.” Before long, this became a 5,000 member strong organization called “Voters Not Politicians.” They organized a ballot initiative, mocked gerrymandered districts by dressing up in costumes as them, and despite GOP efforts to block the initiative, prevailed before the state Supreme Court to get their initiative on the ballot, then won a landslide victory in November 2018, with 61 percent in favor.
The new maps approved by the Commission in 2021 had a slight Republican lean, not for any nefarious reason, but because Democrats simply tend to live more tightly packed together around major urban areas, and there are rules around keeping towns and counties together when you can. But the new maps made many races highly competitive and were in place in time for the 2022 midterms.
As we know, in November 2022, the voters in Michigan and other battleground states turned out in force to reject GOP extremism. In Michigan, they handed the Democrats majorities in both chambers of the legislature, along with returning Gretchen Whitmer to the governor’s mansion.
An impressive list of accomplishments already
The new Democratic majority went to work right away in January, and by early March, progressive legislators began to notch some important wins—including some major bipartisan ones.
LGBTQ+ rights. On March 1, 2023, the Michigan Senate passed SB4, which expands the 1976 Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections for LGBTQ+ Michiganders. The Michigan House followed suit yesterday, with a bipartisan vote in favor 64-45, a resounding majority. The assembled crowd of activists and lawmakers, who had worked tirelessly to push for this expansion of civil rights, rejoiced at the news, and the bill is now on its way for signature by Gov. Whitmer.
Repeal of a union-busting law. In 2012, over loud protests from union workers and organizers, the GOP-controlled legislature made Michigan a so-called “right to work” state, which is a rather deceptive name for a type of law that strips unions of their collective bargaining power. The law permitted workers to opt out of union dues, even when the union bargains on their behalf. This predictably and intentionally caused union rolls to shrink over the past decade in the state, and along with them the power of unions to negotiate with management and owners.
But yesterday, along a party line vote, the Michigan House voted to repeal the law, along with approving a bill to restore the state’s prevailing wage law that requires contractors hired for state projects to pay union-level wages. Governor Whitmer applauded the move to put “Michigan workers first,” saying in a statement that “working people should always have basic freedoms in the workplace without interference from the government.” The bill now moves to the Democratic-controlled state Senate for consideration.
Gun safety legislation. New laws that will help protect against the most dangerous armed attacks took center stage following the on-campus shooting deaths of three students from Michigan State University last month. The Michigan House heard testimony from a parent of one of the shooting victims who had survived. “My beautiful 21-year-old son called me right after being shot to tell me he loved me,” said Krista Grettenberger. “He wanted to tell me first that there was a shooter, that he had been shot, and that he loved me. He didn’t want me to hear it from the police, the news, or the hospital.” She continued, “We won’t know if this tragedy could have been prevented by universal background checks, safe storage laws, and extreme risk protection orders, but the reality is any one of these measures might have stopped this man from shooting my son.”
Late Tuesday night, along party lines, the Michigan House approved universal background checks for gun purchases in a 56-53 vote. The bill, if passed by the state Senate and signed into law, will make background checks mandatory on all firearm purchases, with an exception for transfers between family members. This type of legislation had been stalled for over a decade while the Michigan legislature was controlled by the GOP. The background check legislation is the first in the state to pass the House, among other proposed new gun laws.
An abortion bill from 1931 gets the axe
Protections for abortion are now enshrined in the state constitution, but the Democratic legislature made a further point to specifically repeal penalties from a draconian law from 1931 that, in the wake of the Dobbs decision, might otherwise have become operational. The law had made it a felony, punishable by up to four years, to perform abortions in the state. The Democrats repealed it not only to affirm the will of the voters, but to draw a sharp contrast with the extremist GOP senators who still wish to sharply curtail reproductive rights.
The move happened in a series of 20-18 votes, underscoring the importance of a single seat and every vote. Republicans used the moment to bash on abortion, with one saying Democrats wanted to “call what is repugnant and shocking a fundamental right” and another warning of “unlimited abortion” in the state, characterizing the repeal as “yet another attempt to normalize and marginalize the tragic death of an unborn child.”
GOP protestations aside, Democrats are in control, albeit barely and at long last. The state House, where Democrats also hold a two-seat majority, already voted last week to approve the bills repealing criminal penalties for performing abortions, and the legislation is now headed to Gov. Whitmer’s desk for signature.
What lessons can we learn here?
Michigan figured out that to get to what the people really want in their state government, it needed to restore democratic voting rights by eliminating unfair gerrymanders. The independent commission worked successfully in Michigan, but it got tripped up in places like Ohio, and it is harder to implement in next door, heavily-gerrymandered Wisconsin, where a state-wide citizen initiatives aren’t permitted. (In that state, the next best and important hope is a 4-3 liberal majority on the state Supreme Court that can strike down illegal gerrymanders. Watch this space for news on that all-important election.)
Other states are also scoring big wins after achieving a Democratic trifecta, including neighboring Minnesota where the local Democratic Party worked very hard to eke out a state house majority. There are already impressive legislative wins in that state in the very first months of this year: guaranteed abortion rights, new clean energy goals, driver’s licenses for undocumented persons, and restoration of voter eligibility for the formerly incarcerated, to name a few.
It’s all very heartening, and it should serve as a reminder of what is possible once the gears of democracy get unstuck through the hard work of activists. As in Michigan, sometimes it just takes one determined person to get the whole thing going. Just think of how many lives she has changed for the better.
Check out NM!! We’ve got a Dem trifecta too and our state lege is currently knocking ‘em outta the park! Which our guv will cheer and sign! (Helps to have women governors!) We’ve been doing this good work longer than MI!!
I don't just like this post, I love it! It is extremely heartening to see one or more of the northern tier states wrest back power from the right wingers. I live in Maine and we have done the same in the past few years, re-electing our Democratic governor, holding the line on abortion rights, keeping the state house, and other important gains. I know we have one anti-trans law under consideration right now and I am making fighting such laws my primary focus, doing my best to educate others in my sphere about trans rights, as well as all LGBTQ+ issues. People near and dear to me could be hurt by such laws. Thank you for your recent column on this issue!