Commentary

Susan J. Demas: Whitmer could be able to ‘fix the damn roads,’ despite GOP obstruction

August 15, 2021 7:32 am

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talks about her infrastructure plan in Grand Rapids, June 24, 2019 | Nick Manes

If you were around for the before time in 2019, you know that Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s first year in office was dominated by GOP leaders in the Legislature doing everything they could to thwart her attempts to “fix the damn roads” — her signature 2018 campaign promise.

That preceded Republicans doing everything they could to thwart her attempts to keep Michiganders alive during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In winter 2019, Whitmer proposed a 45-cent gas tax increase and a getting rid of a small business tax break as part of her annual state budget plan to help pay for about $2.5 billion in annual road and bridge repairs.

Although most business leaders were on board with the gas tax hike, including the conservative Michigan Chamber of Commerce, that wasn’t enough to convince their usual GOP allies to strike a deal with their Democratic nemesis. Republicans’ calculation was that by torpedoing Whitmer’s biggest issue, they could bash her in the ’22 election as a miserable failure who couldn’t deliver for weary Michiganders.

For good measure, they played a game of budget chicken, almost leading to a shutdown in the fall. Whitmer responded by signing the GOP budget, but axing $1 billion of their pet projects and moving around another $625 million to areas her administration championed. She also authorized bonding for roads that didn’t need legislative sign-off.

That led to another go-around right before COVID hit, with Republicans trying to yank away some of Whitmer’s key powers — a playbook they would deploy over and over again during the pandemic.

So where was the public in all this?

While Michiganders certainly were tired of driving on the worst roads in the nation, many did balk at the idea of having to kick in that much to fix the problem — including many progressives, who proposed non-solutions like a kayak tax. After all, many of them had opposed Whitmer in the hard-fought ’18 Dem primary and figured that if her governorship went down in flames, their favored candidate, Abdul El-Sayed, could beat her in a rematch — basically the same political calculation as Republicans.

The reason why they're in shambles — not just in Michigan, but nationwide — is years of calculated disinvestment by conservatives who want to starve the government beast to pay for more tax breaks for billionaires and corporations. Republicans are on a mission to convince you that government doesn't work, and having roads pocked by potholes that could swallow up your car on the way to work is a pretty visceral way of conveying that message.

– Susan J. Demas

Unfortunately, seemingly smart politics meant that Michigan’s infrastructure has continued to crumble. Every year we don’t do anything, the problem gets bigger and more expensive to fix. While roads and transit aren’t sexy issues, and certainly aren’t as critical as public health during a pandemic, they do touch the lives of 10 million Michiganders almost every day.

And the reason why they’re in shambles — not just in Michigan, but nationwide — is years of calculated disinvestment by conservatives who want to starve the government beast to pay for more tax breaks for billionaires and corporations. Republicans are on a mission to convince you that government doesn’t work, and having roads pocked by potholes that could swallow up your car on the way to work is a pretty visceral way of conveying that message.

When the pandemic slammed Michigan last winter, Whitmer went from trying to fix the roads to begging the Trump administration for masks and other PPE. Naturally, GOP leaders — Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), former House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and new House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) — were content for the GOP president to snub Michigan and idiotically agitated to dismantle basic health rules like mask mandates even when our state was a COVID hotspot.

Again, that was partly being in thrall to a failed right-wing ideology that government shouldn’t do anything and partly trying to unearth a new weapon to wield against Whitmer in ’22. They wanted nothing more than for her to be known as the governor who failed to fight COVID, even as they systematically tried to take away every weapon we had to fight it and keep people safe.

This kind of political nihilism has been extremely difficult to endure, as the sane majority has fought tirelessly to keep our families healthy and alive against an ever-mutating virus.

But we’ve all benefited from new Democratic President Joe Biden — a close Whitmer ally — pushing another robust COVID relief deal and getting Michigan and other states all the vaccines they could possibly need (now we just need Republicans to stop promoting anti-vax conspiracies).

In the meantime, our infrastructure has continued to rot, but Biden has a plan for that, too. His $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal — while not as comprehensive as it needs to be, thanks to Republicans whittling the package down — passed the U.S. Senate last week. (Notably, federal money is a far more palatable solution to voters than a big gas tax hike).

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in Grand Rapids, Oct. 2, 2020 | Andrew Roth

The plan would, without exaggeration, be a godsend for Michigan. We’d see roughly $20 billion for everything from Great Lakes cleanup to improving broadband access to rebuilding roads and bridges. That’s a huge economic shot in the arm that will create jobs, as well as being a key public good.

Of course, a group of nine U.S. House Democratic moderates (none in Michigan) decided to throw a last-minute hissy fit to derail the deal because they aren’t into sweeping legislation that would strengthen the frayed safety net and fight climate change by with universal preschool, free community college, funding to prevent wildfires and more.

Infrastructure is the kind of kitchen table, meat-and-potatoes issue that centrists are always lecturing us Dems should be concentrating on (because social justice is often optional to them). They need this bill more than most Democrats come the ’22 election — as do swing-state governors who need demonstrate results.

So maybe it’s time for us to accept that in spite of endless beltway punditry to the contrary, centrists just really suck at politics.

As long as moderates don’t tank the plan, Whitmer will be able to campaign loudly and proudly next year that she did, in fact, fix the damn roads. (OK, she will have started to, but that’s not how politics works).

The only thing Michigan Republicans could do is hold up funding — which could easily cost them seats in ’22, because there’s no good way to sell that obstruction to the public.

Talk about a pretty big solid from Uncle Joe.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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