Wisconsin And Michigan Activists Are Resisting GOP Power Grabs Pretty Much On Their Own

And for the most part, they're OK with that.
Michigan Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer (D) speaks at the Detroit Economic Club on Oct. 31. She is not joining a Wednesday protest against the GOP's lame-duck power grab.
Michigan Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer (D) speaks at the Detroit Economic Club on Oct. 31. She is not joining a Wednesday protest against the GOP's lame-duck power grab.
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Hundreds of progressive Michigan activists plan to mount a rally at the state Capitol in Lansing on Wednesday against efforts to undermine the authority of incoming statewide Democratic elected officials, weaken public-sector unions and do an end-run around popular policies on the minimum wage and paid sick leave.

Among those not expected to attend? Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer, the state’s most prominent Democrat and arguably the person with the most at stake in Republican deliberations.

Whitmer has denounced Republican lawmakers’ attempts at a lame-duck power grab and warned of the political consequences for Republicans.

But as Wednesday’s rally reflects, she and other party leaders have been content to let rank-and-file activists ― from organized labor as well as from Indivisible and other Resistance groups ― do the heavy lifting.

Asked about Whitmer’s plan of action against the lame-duck GOP lawmakers, Whitmer spokeswoman Clare Liening referred HuffPost to Whitmer’s Dec. 4 statement blasting Republican lawmakers’ “incivility and discord.” Whitmer is in regular contact with a “broad array of stakeholders” in the lame-duck fight, Liening added in a follow-up exchange.

Whitmer’s posture mirrors the approach top Democrats have taken in Wisconsin. Gov.-elect Tony Evers has condemned Republican bills undercutting his power that sailed through the Legislature in a special session last week. He expressed openness to legal challenges but has not played a major role in coordinating grassroots pressure, let alone rile up demonstrators from behind a megaphone. A spokeswoman for his campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Whitmer’s and Evers’ approaches have at least some detractors. These critics believe the two chief executives are acting cautiously in the interest of building Republican goodwill that won’t be forthcoming anyway.

“From the point of view of public leadership, it’s a mistake,” said a Michigan Democratic strategist who requested anonymity for professional reasons.

“I know that the transition people are really busy.”

- Larry Lipton, Michigan Indivisible activist

For the most part, though, progressive activists in Michigan and Wisconsin were sympathetic to the difficult choices facing Democratic leaders who have decided against more hands-on involvement.

They see their role as providing boots on the ground so newly elected executive officers have a chance to plan for the transition to governing in January.

“I know that the transition people are really busy,” said Larry Lipton, a retiree from Bloomfield Township, who is active in Indivisible Fighting #9, a group in Michigan’s 9th Congressional District. Lipton has been at two previous anti-Republican protests at the Capitol in recent weeks and plans to return Wednesday.

Mike Browne, the deputy director of One Wisconsin Now, a Madison-based liberal activism group, had a similarly accommodating analysis of Evers’ calculus.

Wisconsin’s incoming governor and attorney general are “moving forward with the mechanics of actually being in a position to take over and govern as effectively as Republicans will let them once the administration changes on Jan. 2,” Browne said.

In Michigan, where organized labor remains formidable, unions are content to play a quieter organizing game. The Michigan AFL-CIO has rallied its members to make calls to lawmakers asking them to vote against the raft of lame-duck bills. It brought about 200 union members to lobby against the bills in person at the state Capitol in Lansing.

Ron Bieber, a former union autoworker who runs the state labor federation, is “optimistic” that the legislation will fail, making an effort to pressure Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to veto it premature at this stage.

Wisconsin and Michigan have mobilized mass civil disobedience to confront Republican assertions of power in the not-so-distant past. When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) gutted public-sector collective bargaining rights in February 2011, Democratic lawmakers initially fled the state to deny the Republican majority a quorum while thousands of protesters occupied the Capitol. And when Republicans tried to pass legislation making Michigan a right-to-work state in December 2012, thousands of protesters also came out in force.

But the Republican victories in both cases, which allowed them to further undermine Democrats by weakening their union backers, have devastated progressive morale in the two states and sapped Democrats’ appetite for similar showdowns.

Wisconsin Gov.-elect Tony Evers (D) speaks at a campaign rally on Oct. 26. Like Whitmer, he has not taken part in public demonstrations against Republican power grabs.
Wisconsin Gov.-elect Tony Evers (D) speaks at a campaign rally on Oct. 26. Like Whitmer, he has not taken part in public demonstrations against Republican power grabs.

To make matters worse, Wisconsin Republicans have argued, somewhat convincingly, that protests just embolden them and give them material for propaganda to rail against “Madison liberals,” according to Dana Schultz, executive director of the Milwaukee-based democracy reform nonprofit Wisconsin Voices.

“We need to stop the bleeding,” she said. “People are so thirsty for some kind of positive direction that it can stifle creativity and courageousness in terms of tactics.”

National groups have taken their leads from state-level activists and Democratic leaders, which is one reason why there have not been high-profile visits from the likes of Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez.

Wisconsin activists, in particular, thought they could have more success pressuring individual Republican state senators without national interference, according to Rebecca Lynch, political director of the Wisconsin Working Families Party, a progressive group that has played a lead role in organizing during the lame-duck legislative session. Their efforts bore at least some fruit: One Republican senator voted against a bill curtailing early voting.

Lynch and other activists believe the defection helped spook Republican leaders out of ramming through a measure that would have moved up the state’s presidential primary from April to March 2020. The date change would have separated the primary from a state Supreme Court election in April, likely depressing Democratic turnout for the court vote when a conservative judge is up for re-election.

The next step in Wisconsin is pressuring Walker to veto the Republicans’ bills, though Walker indicated Tuesday that he planned to sign them.

Once the various bills become law, the legislation restricting early voting would likely be ripe for a challenge in federal court. One Wisconsin Now successfully sued to strike down a previous iteration of the restrictions in 2016.

In Michigan, if the legislation reaches Snyder’s desk, activists are somewhat more optimistic about the chances of prevailing.

Due to terms limits, Snyder, unlike Walker, is leaving the governor’s mansion voluntarily. In the run-up to the midterm election, Snyder declined to endorse his party’s nominee to succeed him, and back in September 2013, in another contrast with Walker, he signed Michigan’s Medicaid expansion into law.

“He has shown that he can be fair and independent-minded when he wants to be,” said Bieber, the Michigan AFL-CIO president.

“State Senate recapture has to start now.”

- Rebecca Lynch, Wisconsin Working Families Party

In an interview last week at the Harvard conference for new members of Congress, Rep.-elect Andy Levin (D-Mich.) called the fight to stop the GOP legislation “an existential question for Gov. Snyder about what his legacy is going to be.”

A Michigan politics watcher familiar with Democratic thinking in the state believes those sorts of appeals are more likely to work on the image-conscious Snyder than will mass protests.

“If that strategy goes bad, they can throw down the gauntlet,” said the politics watcher, who asked to remain anonymous to address sensitive party matters.

Even if Snyder signs the bills repealing minimum wage and paid sick leave laws, Democrats think they have a solid chance of defeating the repeals in the state Supreme Court because of the way Republicans preempted a referendum on the two policies.

A spokesman for Snyder said the governor would not comment on the various bills until they have made their way through both legislative chambers. That is likely to occur in the coming weeks.

Without legislative majorities, however, there are simply limits to what Democrats can do in Republican-dominated states. And given the extreme gerrymandering that protects those Republican majorities, it could take until 2022 to retake both legislative chambers in the two states. Despite winning a solid majority in November’s popular vote, Wisconsin Democrats flipped just one seat in the state Assembly.

Retaking the governor’s mansion in Wisconsin was one step in a multi-year organizing strategy, Lynch said.

Now the WFP is pivoting to turn out progressive voices in Evers’ town halls on the budget, as well as channel the energy provoked by the GOP-controlled Legislature’s power grab into more electoral progress. Democrats have the chance to defend a liberal seat on the state Supreme Court in April and in 2020 flip the state Senate, where Republicans will have a smaller, five-vote advantage.

Lynch credits voter registration during the Democratic gubernatorial primary for helping propel Evers’ victory and hopes to get a similarly early start on state Senate races.

“State Senate recapture has to start now,” she said.

One thing no Democrat who spoke with HuffPost endorsed was inflicting a comparable fate on Republicans if they had the power to do so.

Abdul El-Sayed, a former progressive gubernatorial candidate whose PAC, Southpaw Michigan, has encouraged its members to call Michigan lawmakers and join Capitol protests, said a vindictive approach would feed the cycle of polarization.

“I would hate to see the tit-for-tat game destroy our entire approach to governing,” he said.

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