Susan J. Demas: Whoa, there, little ladies. GOP men will show you who’s boss.
Gretchen Whitmer (top), Jocelyn Benson (left) and Dana Nessel (right)
The pink wave crashed in Michigan on Nov. 6, with the female-dominated Democratic ticket sweeping every statewide office.
Gretchen Whitmer, who staved off constant early maneuvering from old-school Democrats who determined that only a white guy could capture the governor’s mansion after Donald Trump took Michigan in 2016, pulled off a 9-point win. Her running mate, Garlin Gilchrist, represented the only man near the top of the Dem ticket.
Jocelyn Benson* coasted to victory in the secretary of state race and Dana Nessel busted through the GOP’s purported firewall with a hard-fought win for attorney general. And U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) earned a fourth term.
You have to go back to 1938 for the last time a party flipped the top three offices in Michigan, as Gongwer Editor Zach Gorchow pointed out.
So naturally, Republicans lost their minds.
The male-dominated, GOP-led Legislature quickly dreamt up a slew of bills to limit the powers of the incoming governor, SOS and AG.
New bills permit the Legislature to intervene in any lawsuit, a right currently given to the attorney general. But if Whitmer and Nessel drop the state’s defense of a despicable law that allows adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ people, the House or Senate could still support it.
Even more bizarrely, another bill would yank campaign finance oversight away from the SOS, essentially allowing legislators to police themselves. The GOP Legislature has been not-so-mysteriously fine with current Republican statewide officeholders enjoying these powers.
My first reaction, as I tweeted on Thursday, was: “Looks like our male-dominated GOP Legislature has plans to tell the little ladies who won the election what they can do.” My friend, Nancy Kaffer, had a similar reaction in a sharp Detroit Free Press column.
Needless to say, Michigan has never had a female governor, secretary of state and attorney general at the same time. But in looking at the Legislature, the contrast is even more striking.
Men are in charge, with House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) — who lost to Nessel for AG and seems to have a bad case of sour grapes — and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive). Even both Dem leaders are currently men, although Rep. Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) will serve as minority leader next term.
Women make up less than one-third of the 110-member House. That will rise to 42 members next year, with 25 of them Democrats. The 38-member Senate currently has four women. Come January, that number will grow to 11, eight of whom are Democrats, making them half of the caucus.
After the election, I was interviewed by Gongwer about how Whitmer won, especially Macomb County, which had swung hard for Trump in ‘16:
“Ms. Demas said Ms. Whitmer’s ‘fix the damn roads’ message connected with people and said it deserved some credit for her surprise win in Macomb County. The mini-backlash to her using the word ‘damn’ — [GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill] Schuette and one of her primary opponents, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, used the word ‘darn’ instead, verbiage seen as trying to undermine her use of the more colorful word — also did not sit well with women, Ms. Demas said. ‘Regular people talk that way,’ she said.”
I also added, “Women don’t like being told what to say — or do. And I think Whitmer tapped into that feeling.”
Whenever I note the role of gender in politics, especially when it’s an unspoken dynamic and no one is yelling for women to get back to the kitchen, there’s pushback, particularly from men (yes, even progressives). Some possess the noble belief that there’s been so much progress that sexism doesn’t taint politics very much anymore (which I wish were the case). Others just aren’t particularly woke about women’s issues.
It’s true that the GOP North Carolina GOP legislature already successfully enacted a similar power grab when Democrat Roy Cooper won the governorship in 2016. Wisconsin Republicans are trying similar tactics now that Democrat Tony Evers is set to be the state’s CEO.
There’s also a history of Michigan Republicans throwing a full-blown legislative tantrum in our lame duck session, like after President Obama won re-election in 2012. Six years ago, I was one of the reporters temporarily locked outside of the Capitol while GOP lawmakers feverishly rammed through Right to Work. They also resurrected the emergency manager law voters killed weeks earlier, moved forward on wolf hunting and shoved through anti-abortion legislation.
But as I noted after Whitmer won a straight-up majority in the three-way Dem primary in August, the glaring headline of 2018 was “pissed-off women are voting Democratic.” This included some independent and even GOP women, in part, as a backlash to Trump’s near-endless misogyny. It’s taken awhile for plenty of political observers to come around to that idea, but the general election results last month have erased any doubt.
It’s also been striking that many women I’ve talked with after the election, particularly those active in Indivisible groups, have had a visceral reaction about Republican men trying to limit the power of newly elected female state leaders.
The GOP Legislature has the votes for their power grab, although it’s not so clear if Gov. Rick Snyder will sign on, as he’s in legacy-building mode.
But Republicans gambled on putting women in their place last election — and they lost big. Seems like a pretty big risk for a badly wounded party to keep poking mama bears now.
*Full Disclosure: Demas worked this year for Farough & Associates, which helped manage Benson’s campaign.
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Susan J. Demas