Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and current Democratic Party rising star, has a message for the leaders of Michigan’s newly-divided government: Keep working together.
Abrams, who narrowly lost her gubernatorial contest last year and delivered the Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in February, was a keynote speaker Wednesday at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island.
Frequently discussed as a possible entrant into the Democratic presidential primary, Abrams declined to say whether she would put her hat in the ring when asked twice by interviewer Devin Scillian of WDIV-TV in Detroit.
Instead, she was one of several speakers who took the opportunity to beat the familiar drum in favor of “civility” at the annual conference, a popular theme for the confab attended by many of Michigan’s business and political elite. She shared stories about her six years as minority leader of Georgia’s House of Representatives, and how she worked closely with Georgia’s conservative Republicans.
The best strategy, according to Abrams? Talk in private.
“We went behind closed doors, not to make decisions, but to create a pathway for conversation,” Abrams said. “Because the reality is, civics is who we are, being citizens. And civility is how we behave. And for so long, we have compressed those two things into one idea, and we’ve diminished and dismissed the responsibility of either.”
Abrams was introduced by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who called her “the real deal” and someone “who speaks truth to power.”
Abrams’ message to conference-goers about bipartisan cooperation had immediate relevance to the strategy used in recent weeks by Whitmer and Republican legislative leaders in passing the state’s long-awaited auto insurance reform bill.
After state House and Senate Republicans passed their own bills that Whitmer threatened to veto, the governor and the Legislature’s four caucus leaders began meeting behind closed doors ahead of Friday’s special legislative session.
Whitmer is widely expected to sign the bill on Mackinac Island on Thursday morning.
Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) told the Advance on Wednesday that the closed-door strategy developed trust among the two parties’ leaders, and could help in other big-ticket items later this year such as the state budget and funding for road repairs.
Grading the “clunky” process of reaching an auto insurance reform deal, Ananich gave it a ‘C-,’ and the final bill a ‘B.’ But he said that the first major effort from Democratic leaders to work with their Republican counterparts had a gratifying conclusion.
“I think it did develop — the hard way — a level of trust,” Ananich said of the process. “In politics, if you can’t trust somebody with a handshake, there’s no point in doing it.”
Abrams shared a similar message.
By shaking hands and disagreeing without fighting, Abrams said that she and her Republican colleagues were able to pass several bipartisan bills during her tenure in Georgia’s legislature.
“You can get less and less done when the fight becomes a fight of what happened. People would get angry,” Abrams said.
“And at the end of the day, if the [political] theater works to get the good accomplished, I don’t think that’s bad,” Abrams said. “I just think we have to remember that it is theater. And we have to remember that what has to actually matter at the end of the day is the work, and not the process.”