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Background staff take center role ahead of new Michigan Legislature’s first meeting

Michigan House of Representatives
Wikipedia Media Commons
Michigan House of Representatives

Michigan lawmakers return today under Democratic control of both chambers and the governor's office for the first time in nearly 40 years. The transition has brought new opportunities for legislation and a lot of changes in legislative staffing.

Senate Majority Leader-elect Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) uses the phrase “pent up policy” to describe what Democrats have held onto for decades in the minority.

Priorities like gun control or repealing Michigan’s “right to work” law that bans making union dues a condition for employment have stalled under Republican leadership. Now, that could change.

But policymaking requires an experienced staff to guide those bills. Filling dozens of positions has taken up much of Brinks’ focus since November’s election.

“We brainstorm who we think would be great, who we’re calling and reaching out to. We’re combing through resumes, we’re helping place folks who we think would be great somewhere in the operation,” Brinks said in late December.

She mentioned she spent much of her time in meetings about practical matters like staffing or figuring out the bast way for her caucus members to communicate with one another.

On the other side of the Capitol, House Minority Leader-elect Matt Hall(R-Richland Twp) is also making staff choices. Like Republicans in the Senate, the House GOP is adjusting to losing control of their chamber

Hall said one difference is Republicans are losing more than $1.5 million from their caucus budget, since they’ll have around 20 fewer staffers than they would if they retained the majority.

That’s meant downsizing a staff he had planned to grow before the election.

“They’ve been partners with us along this journey of delivering so many wins for the people of Michigan and making the state what it is today. I think that’s important. It’s not just politicians. It’s our team behind us,” Hall said.

It’s easy to overlook the many jobs around the Legislature that don’t make headlines. But last session’s Secretary of the Senate Margaret O’Brien said non-partisan staff are central to each chamber running well.

“We can step in, and we can take on this task for you so you can stay focused on what you need to be focused on, because if they have to keep jumping around, focused on all the small things that make session run, it will be hard for them to focus on public policy,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien and her House counterpart’s jobs are among several that incoming leadership traditionally gets to staff.

House Clerk Gary Randall is retiring today, along with his decades of institutional knowledge from serving in the chamber. Rich Brown, who previously held the clerkship from 2007-2010 and served as assistant clerk last session, is taking back over.

In the Senate, O’Brien is switching places with last session’s assistant Senate secretary. She says they’ve worked closely together.

“Everyone brings their own style and flare. When I became secretary, I brought cookies. So, obviously, there will be some slight differences. But, if we do our jobs correctly, when it comes to the running of the Senate, there is no difference at all,” she said.

The majority transition means Democrats must fill many more positions than in the recent past, including in the Senate and House Business Offices and the Legislative Service Bureau.

Those staffers, rather than the legislators themselves, are "the first ones who take a swing a drafting a lawmaker’s policy issues,” Josh Hovey, of the public relations firm Martin Waymire, said.

He said Lansing insiders will be watching closely to see who takes on those jobs and backfills vacancies left behind elsewhere.

“The quality of people who are writing those draft bills and the relationship that they have with the leadership, it goes a long way to how fast things move,” he said.

One of the notable hires around the Capitol, Hovey said, is the selection of former SenatorCurtis Hertel Jr. as Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s legislative liaison.

Hovey named House Speaker Joe Tate’s decision to bring veteran communications professional Amber McCannas his press secretary as another choose that stood out. McCann has worked for both Republican and Democratic officials—most recently, Attorney GeneralDana Nessel.

“[Democrats] recognize that the people of this state want a functional government that gets things done for its citizens, and Dem leaders are hiring people who aren't just pure partisans but know how to cross the aisle to move the ball forward,” Hovey said.

With a slim majority in the Senate, Brinks is both eyeing her priorities, like expanding civil rights protections, and acknowledging the path may not be simple.

“We will have to tell some of our friends ‘no’ sometimes. We’ll have to tell some of our friends ‘not yet’ sometimes. We’ll have to tell some folks that we don’t agree with that we’d like them to work with us to get to a yes,” Brinks said.

Brinks pointed to bipartisan economic issues as early goals. Those could include ending tax collection on retirement income or incentivizing new development projects.

Republicans have supported tax cuts, while Democrats will likely need votes from the other side of the aisle to get an incentives package across the finish line.

In the House, Hall said he’s also hoping for bipartisan cooperation. But he also has a warning.

“If the Democrats come out and start leading with hard partisan issues, they’re going to lose the public, and they’re going to lose our caucus,” he said.

Committee assignments haven’t been named yet in either chamber.

Without them, it’s hard to draw conclusions about what’s to come. But with every staffing decision, the theme of this session’s term comes more into focus.

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Colin Jackson is the Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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