Calley emerges as Whitmer’s favorite Republican

SBAM President Brian Calley
Former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley speaking at Lansing Community College at a press conference with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 18, 2019 | Gov. Whitmer photo

In the four months since leaving his job as Michigan’s lieutenant governor, Brian Calley views Sunday mornings as perhaps the biggest change.

Calley, who was plucked from the Legislature to run alongside Republican gubernatorial nominee Rick Snyder in 2010, has now been president of the Lansing-based Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM) since Jan. 1. He joined the business services and advocacy group on the day he left office.

Rick Snyder (left) and Brian Calley (right) at their year-end press conference, Dec. 11, 2018 | Ken Coleman

During his eight years in the Snyder administration, Calley said Sundays generally turned into busy workdays because that was when newspapers frequently broke their biggest stories of the week, often requiring a response of some sort from the administration.

“Sunday mornings tended to be a very tense time in my life for the last eight years,” Calley said. “And it’s not like that anymore … Sundays are completely different now. I would say Sundays are the exact opposite. I’ll go out and leave my phone at home.”

The new job has given Calley a bit more time to spend with his family, which includes his wife, state Rep. Julie Calley (R-Portland), and their three school-aged children, Collin, Reagan and Kara.

That shift has allowed Calley to “rediscover some balance” in his life, he told a group of college students this week.

Michigan Chief Justice Bridget McCormack swearing in Rep. Julie Calley, as former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and their daughter, Kara, watch, Jan. 10, 2019 | Facebook

During a wide-ranging interview at his downtown Lansing office this month, Calley recalled the intensity of last year’s Lame Duck session, discussed the extent to which the Flint water crisis will define the Snyder administration and admitted that he still has the political bug.

Calley acknowledges that serving in a gubernatorial administration is somewhat all-consuming, while leading a business advocacy group with 26,000 members in all of Michigan’s 83 counties is only relaxing by comparison.

Former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley in his SBAM office | Nick Manes

That rings somewhat true to Calley’s wife, who now occupies the seat her husband once had before becoming lieutenant governor.

“I’m not sure most of us would define it as ‘relaxed,’” Julie Calley said with a laugh during an interview on the House floor. “I think Brian would.”

Shortly after leaving office, Brian Calley said he went through a period where he thought his iPhone was broken simply because he wasn’t getting the volume of texts and emails he was accustomed to receiving.

The job as a lobbyist and executive for one of the state’s major small business advocacy groups does make sense for Calley, a key player in one the most business-friendly administrations in Michigan history.

Prior to being elected to the state Legislature in 2006, he also worked as a commercial banker primarily focused on small business lending. In 2008, SBAM named him its “legislator of the year.” 

Julie Calley said that her husband joining the organization makes for “kind of a coming home for him … and he is able to take the skills he acquired in the executive office and I think create an excellent bridge back to the new executive.”

Julie Calley | Facebook

While Brian Calley is a registered lobbyist with the state, he has previously told the Advance that he doesn’t expect conflicts of interest, despite the fact that he’s married to an elected official.

“Anyone who thinks for one minute that how she does her job would be modified [due to his job] … is sorely mistaken,” Calley said at the time his new position was announced.

Calley admits to another notion espoused by his wife: He’s a bit of an action junky. Recalling last year’s final, somewhat chaotic Lame Duck legislative session, Calley said he needed to stay plugged in to work even after leaving the governor’s office.

“I know myself and the reason I decided not to take any time off [is] I couldn’t see myself going from 100 miles per hour to nothing,” Calley said. “With the intensity of Lame Duck, to go from that to nothing; I didn’t want that.”

Making connections

Lame Duck protest, Dec. 12, 2018 | Ken Coleman

Last year’s Lame Duck session stood out as one of the most contentious legislative periods in recent memory, with hundreds of bills introduced and passed. That included legislation that Snyder ultimately vetoed which would have stripped power from incoming Democrats in the executive branch.

He signed other pieces of contested legislation, however, including bills weakening environmental standards and those gutting citizen initiatives to raise the state’s minimum wage and require employers to offer more paid sick time.

Calley, for his part, largely declined to share his personal thoughts on Lame Duck legislation, saying he still views himself as part of the Snyder administration and declined to separate himself from decisions made by his former boss.

During the transition to current Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s tenure, however, and immediately following the start of his time at SBAM, Calley stood out as a conciliatory figure at a highly partisan time.

Gretchen Whitmer at her State of the State address, Feb. 12, 2019 | Casey Hull

The Advance labeled it a “charm offensive.”

As lieutenant governor, Calley had the responsibility of presiding over the state Senate and gave a farewell address during Lame Duck. He used part of that time to offer his services to his successor.

“Gretchen Whitmer, you are now trusted with the state. You have an awesome responsibility. Congratulations. I wish you all the best success. That’s not a throwaway line,” Calley said. “… Please call me anytime if there’s any way that I can help you advance the interests of the people in this state.”

That sense of goodwill has, at least in part, carried over to the now-past 100-day mark of Whitmer’s administration, as they’ve appeared at events together. The two even carpooled to one back in January, as Whitmer noted.

“Brian Calley exemplifies professionalism and kindness. Those are traits that extend across party lines,” Whitmer said, adding that they recently took part in a press conference on skills training and increased college access. “We’ve even carpooled together! I look forward to continuing working with Brian on a variety of initiatives, like the MI Opportunity and Reconnect.”

Likewise, in his outgoing letter to now-Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Calley wrote that while the office can feel “anonymous” at times, the position of lieutenant governor offers a unique opportunity to help people.

Former state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) led the upper chamber from 2011 to 2015 during Snyder’s first term and worked with Calley on autism insurance reform. Calley told the Advance at the end of his tenure that it was the legislation he was proudest to see signed.

Richardville said that Whitmer utilizing a seasoned Republican like Calley as an informal adviser could boost her governorship.

Randy Richardville | Michigan Municipal League, Flickr

“One of the things I would caution this governor about is surrounding herself with too many people that think like she does,” Richardville said. “She is pretty far left on the spectrum. … Brian can bring that sensibility and I think she does look to him to be kind of a semi-adviser.”

Richardville floated the idea in 2015 of a bipartisan gubernatorial ticket with he and Whitmer in 2015, something she obviously rejected.

There are, of course, limits to the Whitmer-Calley relationship.

The former lieutenant governor slammed a major part of the governor’s proposed fiscal year 2020 budget that would increase taxes on certain small businesses. That’s not surprising. The 2011 business tax cut stands as a major policy achievement for the Snyder administration and Calley was the plan’s architect.

He said changing the tax rate for small businesses would bring back unneeded complexity to the state’s tax code.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley at the 2011 inauguration | Jeff Ross, Flickr

Calley said SBAM has not yet taken a formal position on the governor’s road-funding proposal that would raise the gas tax by 45 cents in three increments to raise $2.5 billion. He said the organization, in concept, supports increased investment into roads and bridges.

His advice to Whitmer as negotiations heat up over the spring budget season? Avoid drawing lines in the sand.

“I would say to communicate and respect all the parties that are at the table,” Calley said. “Everything is a negotiation and try and understand different perspectives.”

Of course, Calley was part of an administration that had one big advantage that Whitmer lacks: a Legislature controlled by the same party that (usually) shared in its goals.

Calley does credit Whitmer, who was state Senate minority leader during Snyder’s first term, with making him an “excellent parliamentarian,” referring to the somewhat arcane processes used in the Legislature.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley speak to MSU students, April 23, 2019 | Nick Manes

As a lieutenant governor, Calley had the duty of presiding over the state’s GOP-controlled upper chamber. Whitmer, an attorney and former legislative aide, would try to slow down the process. That’s something Gilchrist noted earlier this week during a joint event with Calley at Michigan State University.

“If you walked into the chair unprepared, [Whitmer] would make you pay for it,” Calley said during that MSU event, adding that the now-governor was always able to “lob” obscure procedural maneuvers at her rival Republicans.

“I would go into session really preparing and thinking ahead,” Calley said.

‘The president’s party’

Calley isn’t exactly shy about the fact that he wishes he were the one negotiating next year’s budget.

Brian Calley | Facebook

The Republican mounted a 2018 campaign to replace Snyder, who was term-limited. But Calley came in second place to Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette, who ultimately lost to Whitmer in the general election by almost 10 percentage points.

The GOP rivals had a particularly bitter primary, driven in part by Schuette’s prosecutions of Snyder administration officials over the lingering Flint water crisis. Snyder never endorsed Schuette to be his successor in the general election. And Schuette reportedly snubbed an endorsement from Calley following the primary.

The biggest boost to Schuette’s campaign was President Donald Trump’s early endorsement, something the former LG acknowledges.

“It’s the president’s party,” he said. “When a president weighs in on a primary, it’s going to have a massive impact.”

Donald Trump | Creative Commons

Calley had previously endorsed Trump, but renounced that support after a tape leaked in 2016 ahead of the presidential election in which Trump bragged about engaging in sexual assault.

He said he ended up voting for Trump as part of a straight-party GOP ticket, but that didn’t seem enough for Republican primary voters last year.

Flint still looms large

By and large, Calley said he believes it’s still “too close” to the end of the Snyder administration to really define what the governor’s legacy will be, aside from some of Detroit’s success following its bankruptcy process and the ongoing Flint water crisis.

Residents held a rally drawing attention to the Flint water crisis starting five years ago | Nick Manes

The crisis resulted from Snyder’s emergency manager approved switching the city’s water supply in 2014 from the Detroit River to the Flint River, leading to lead poisoning in residents, particularly children. But Calley says he doesn’t dwell on critics.

He believes the administration’s response, as well as the Legislature’s financial help for the city, were “robust.” He added that he spent most days in 2016 on the ground in Flint working out of a state office, trying to find solutions.

Brian Calley, Flickr

“Regardless of how people feel about it, there’s work that needs to be done, so go do the work,” Calley said. “I tend to gravitate toward problems and I want to try and help solve problems.”

He said that his work in Flint during the water crisis made for a “very positive force in my life.”

Calley acknowledges that, in hindsight, the Snyder administration could have done some things differently. And as the Advance reported last week amid the five-year mark of the start of the Flint water crisis, the wounds are still very raw.

State legislators from Flint are blunt in their assessment of the Snyder legacy.

“I think we’re going to look back at the tenure of Gov. Snyder as one of the worst things to happen to Michigan,” state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) recently told the Advance.

Next governor?

Brian Calley and Rick Snyder, Jan. 25, 2019 | Facebook

Back in December, just before leaving office, Calley told the Advance that he wouldn’t rule out running for governor again. While serving as Snyder’s No. 2, he earned a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard, an impressive résumé-builder.

He added that there was “zero question” he would have been a stronger general election candidate against Whitmer than Schuette.

Now approaching five months as a private citizen, Calley is still closely connected to the world of Michigan politics, working in downtown Lansing, as he has since 2007. It’s a stark contrast to Snyder, who has largely kept out of the public eye since his term ended on Jan. 1.

And Calley still sees a place for himself in the political realm.

“First of all, I never say ‘never,’” Calley said. “But I’m not pursuing it … but I might do it again some day. I can’t think of any other political job I’d be interested in other than governor of Michigan.”

Former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley in his SBAM office | Nick Manes

Calley’s wife, Julie, now in her second term as a state representative, is even more emphatic that her husband is likely to make a return to electoral politics.

“I had to be very much encouraged to run for this office and I’ve been blessed and privileged to represent [people],” she told the Advance. “I would never claim to have the gift that he has. He has a gift for public service and I would not be surprised if at some point in time, he pursued that again.”

Nick Manes
Nick Manes covers West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels. His byline also has appeared in Route Fifty and The Daily Beast. When not reporting around the state or furiously tweeting, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Krista, biking around his hometown of Grand Rapids and torturing himself rooting for the Detroit Lions.

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