In his role as lieutenant governor, Democrat Garlin Gilchrist has the constitutionally mandated role of serving as president of the state Senate.
In that role, Gilchrist says he’s able to learn the legislative process, something new for the 36-year-old with an engineering background who narrowly lost a 2017 primary for Detroit city clerk.
Speaking on Tuesday night to a group of conservative students at Michigan State University along with GOP former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Gilchrist says presiding over the Republican-controlled upper chamber is a critical role.
“I’m coming at this from a very different perspective and a very different set of life experiences,” Gilchrist told students from MSU’s James Madison College. “For me, it’s really important to be present to demonstrate that is an important part of the job that I take very seriously, so that presence that matters.”
But in a time of divided government, with the first Democratic governor in eight years, Gretchen Whitmer, and Republicans still in charge of both legislative chambers, Gilchrist acknowledges that there’s also a “political side” to presiding over the Senate.
“I’m a Democrat and the Senate is majority Republican, which is a different dynamic [than] during the previous administration,” Gilchrist said. “So I’m kind of there to keep eyes on Republicans.”
As such, Gilchrist gets to wield the gavel and control, at least in part, the action that takes place in the chamber. And sometimes, he gets to bang the gavel hard.
“I was challenged to break a gavel by Brian Calley, and I succeeded in breaking a gavel on my second week,” Gilchrist said, drawing some laughs from the audience.
While Gilchrist’s comments were partially in jest, Senate Democrats are quick to note that having one of their own overseeing the body has numerous advantages.
For starters, in the chance of a 19-19 vote in the 38-member body, Gilchrist can serve as the tie-breaker. That’s actually a position Calley was in on a few key bills, like former Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2011 tax overhaul that included tax hikes on individuals — even though Republicans enjoyed, at the time, a supermajority.
Senate Democratic caucus spokeswoman Rosie Jones says that “it’s good to have the LG in your corner during a contentious vote.”
In an email to the Advance on Wednesday, Jones added that there are other benefits to having a member of the party presiding over the body.
“There’s no doubt having a Democrat on the rostrum contributes to collegiality in the Senate,” wrote Jones. “One of the most important benefits is that he keeps order in the chamber, ensuring that all members can be heard and listened to during the daily business of the Senate.”
A Senate Republican spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on what the party has seen in the more than four months since Gilchrist took office.
To Jones’ point that the lieutenant governor can ensure that minority Democrats have a voice during the legislative process, that’s a sentiment not lost on Gilchrist.
On Tuesday night, Gilchrist shared two pieces of advice he received from former Lt. Gov. John Cherry, who served under Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
“Part of [the lieutenant governor’s] job is to ensure that if the minority chooses, that they have their say,” Gilchrist said. “There needs to be a process for them to be able to register a disagreement on the record before the body just tramples over that. [That’s] part of being the arbiter and ensuring fairness in the body and ensuring that happens, should the minority choose to do that.”
Moreover, according to Gilchrist, Cherry stressed that as the chamber’s presiding officer, he’s able to control the pace of action and ensure that the proper procedure is followed.
“You can go at whatever pace you need to go to make sure you get it right,” Gilchrist said of Cherry’s advice. “No senator can make you go faster if you don’t need to. That was really important.”