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Top Michigan Democrats steer clear of contentious lame duck

Democrats who will take over Michigan's top elected posts next year are laying low as a contentious lame duc...

Posted: Dec 13, 2018 5:42 AM
Updated: Dec 13, 2018 5:42 AM

Democrats who will take over Michigan's top elected posts next year are laying low as a contentious lame duck session unfolds in the state Capitol, drawing criticism among some party officials and activists who believe they should be leading the pressure campaign against Republicans.

Republicans in the state's legislature have moved to curb the powers of incoming Democratic elected officials, while watering down some voter-approved measures. Their actions have sparked an outcry among Democrats locally and across the country.

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But incoming Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel and incoming Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson have been conspicuously silent, puzzling some within their party.

"They haven't really said anything. I've been sort of wondering, why?" one Michigan progressive activist told CNN. "If I were them, I'd be addressing the protesters. I'd be all over this."

Art Reyes, a key progressive grassroots organizer in Michigan, also noted the absence of Democratic leaders from the fray, telling CNN: "We need leadership willing to step up and fight. Grassroots organizations are the ones stepping up to lead."

A spokesperson for Whitmer declined to comment. A spokesperson for Nessel declined to comment on the record. A spokesperson for Benson declined to comment.

There have been some examples of the slate of top officials making public statements. Incoming Attorney General-elect Nessel released a press release Wednesday stating her opposition to two pieces of lame duck legislation that would affect the way the government regulates water and public health standards. Incoming Secretary of State-elect Benson released a public statement about a piece of lame duck legislation that aims to change campaign finance law and curtail her power. And Whitmer has occasionally made comments to the media.

But overall, these three top Democrats have kept to written statements and remained out of the spotlight.

The developments in Michigan have also drawn comparisons to Republican efforts in neighboring Wisconsin. Democrats there also won big in November, and Republican state lawmakers have passed controversial bills during the lame duck that either curb the incoming administration's power or take action on issues that directly contradict the incoming administration's priorities.

Incoming Gov. Tony Evers and a slew of state lawmakers have been outspoken in their opposition to the Republican-backed bills, blanketing local and national airwaves with interviews, in contrast to Michigan Democrats.

A source close to the incoming Democratic officials in Michigan told CNN they have strategically decided to remain on the sidelines, believing an aggressive posture could backfire.

"We don't need to poke the bear," the source added. "And lame duck session is something where they could still do more damage than they're already trying to do."

The insider acknowledged that the decision to go dark has come with some criticism from within the party, but "we're willing to take that criticism."

"The satisfaction of being able to send a big F-U verbal bomb to the Republicans when they're still in office when we are not, it's tempting," the source added, but "we're playing the long game" and "being very deliberate" because "it's too darn easy to make a misstep."

At the heart of Democratic concerns are measures that would water down initiatives approved last month by voters concerning sick pay and the minimum wage and proposals to weaken some executive powers under the Attorney General and Secretary of State.

The three incoming statewide Democrats "are concerned about this, of course," said State Senate Democratic leader Jim Anancich, "and I think they are working behind the scenes to see if they can find some reasonable balance here."

House Democratic Leader Sam Singh echoed that, saying it's incumbent on statehouse Democrats to lead the fight in the lame duck.

"For us to stop things, it really has to come from the people in this building," Singh told CNN.

Previous state Democratic leaders have taken a more aggressive tack in earlier power struggles. In 1999, when Republican state lawmakers sought to curb the powers of state Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, she fought fire with fire - testifying in person against the measure to a state committee, even likening the Republicans' proposal to King Henry VIII's execution of Sir Thomas More. (Granholm later went on to become governor of the state and is now a CNN contributor.)

"I recall I didn't have much choice," Granholm told CNN. "I didn't have other mechanisms to be able to regain that power once it would've been taken away, so I tried to do what I could to elevate the importance of the issue."

Democrats have more options in their current fight, said Granholm, including challenging legislation in the courts and using executive power when Gov.-elect Whitmer takes office.

Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder could still decide to go against his party on some of the most controversial changes - giving the Democratic leadership-in-waiting another reason to stay quiet for now.

"I'm certain they're doing it for strategic reasons," said Granholm. "...Believe me, these three women are fierce fighters. It's not like they wouldn't want to wade into the battle. But they want to do what's right for the state."

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