Susan J. Demas: Whitmer, Duggan and the UAW had a hell of a week

Mayor Mike Duggan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at FCA announcement, Feb. 26, 2019 | Ken Coleman

It’s hard to remember a week that saw the resolution of both a blockbuster business deal and a longstanding, key legislative issue in Michigan.

But that’s what happened this week with finalizing the $4.5 billion Fiat Chrysler Automotive (FCA) expansion and the Legislature finally passing a bipartisan plan to overhaul the state’s no-fault auto insurance system.

And it shouldn’t escape notice that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the UAW were at the heart of both deals.

Duggan and the UAW were front and center on the FCA expansion, which will mean 6,500 union jobs, 5,000 in Detroit. The groundwork was laid during former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration and Whitmer help shepherd it through this winter (even declining to share confidential details with President Donald Trump at a state dinner for fear he’d go public).

One of the knocks on Whitmer during both last year’s gubernatorial primary and general elections was that she’s always served in the minority during her 14 years in the Legislature and wasn’t the dealmaker she claimed to be. She did play a big role in some of the rare bipartisan Snyder era achievements like the Medicaid expansion. And many of her bills did become law — albeit with Republicans as lead sponsors, which is typical when the majority party sees someone as an electoral threat (especially for higher office) and doesn’t want to give her a win.

Anyway, Whitmer achieved what previous governors couldn’t for decades on auto insurance reform — even Snyder, who boasted strong GOP legislative majorities for all eight years in office.

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

It’s worth remembering that every time Snyder and the GOP Legislature passed legislation from their conservative agenda, it was hailed in Lansing as an unbelievable triumph instead of, well, basic math.

The math on auto insurance reform was considerably trickier.

Whitmer put together a compromise, along with two Republicans who initially doubted her commitment to doing so, state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake). The opaque process has been rightly criticized, although those of us who have been around for more than a minute know that this is, of course, how big deals are always made, from resolving the government shutdowns in 2007 and 2009 to Right to Work.

Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, May 24, 2019 | Nick Manes

And this one was truly bipartisan, with both Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) and House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) signing on. Fewer than 20 Democrats in both chambers voted “no.”

Will this mean kumbaya over tax hikes for road funding, the budget, changes to onerous Medicaid work requirements and other thorny legislative problems? Almost certainly not. But Whitmer did make good on her “building bridges” inauguration theme on one big issue (and it was transportation-themed, to boot).

You can expect to hear a lot of puns at the upcoming Mackinac Policy Conference which Whitmer and legislative leaders will attend next week (sorry).

Auto insurance reform, of course, a signature issue for Duggan, who tried to hatch a plan with legislative Republicans last term. He recruited, with mixed success, 2018 legislative candidates who backed his proposal.

Not surprisingly, Duggan stressed the issue during his State of the City speech this year. Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Chatfield sat together and pledged to work on a deal together, although it seemed like just another feint at bipartisanship at the time.

Duggan gives his State of the City address, March 5, 2019 | Ken Coleman

It also shouldn’t be overlooked that the UAW was involved in the no-fault overhaul deal, as well. Most political observers figured a final deal would pass thanks to GOP majorities with a few votes from Democrats representing Detroit, home of the state’s highest auto insurance rates. That seemed to be the realistic winning formula, based on previous votes.

Instead, it was a rout, passing 94-15 in the state House and 34-4 in the Senate. There was strong opposition from health care groups and trial lawyers. And this doesn’t just happen by accident or due to blind loyalty to a governor (Democrats don’t get such benefits of the doubt — ask Jennifer Granholm).

Don’t underestimate the fact that the UAW weighed in the legislation’s process and made it clear to lawmakers that the union backed the final plan. The labor giant remains a strong force in the Democratic Party, despite some recent political and electoral setbacks, like Right to Work and the attorney general nominating fight last year.

So will the policy live up to the politics? That’s a completely fair question and remains to be seen. The Advance has already written about the ample criticism about tax incentives sweetening the FCA deal and those concerned about no-fault reform’s consequences for consumers, hospitals and car crash victims. And there’s more to come, no doubt.

In the meantime, you can expect victory laps to be taken up on Mackinac Island next week, although some will be behind the scenes.

Susan J. Demas is a 19-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 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 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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