Friday, August 21, 2009

Michigan State Sentate Overview: Part II

Part II: Michigan Political Background

Prior to the American Civil War, Michigan was a solidly Democratic state. Lewis Cass, a powerful Democratic politician from Michigan, served in a number of Democratic Administrations, as well as in United States Senate from 1845-1857 while also serving as the Democratic Presidential nominee in 1848. Michigan’s Democratic roots broke in the 1850s, as Yankee migrants from upstate New York and New England formed a new political alliance built on free labor, free soil, and free men. In 1854 this growing alliance of ex-Whigs and Democrats met in Jackson, Michigan to create the Republican Party, which promptly began dominating Michigan politics.

By 1860 the Republican Party had gained control of the governor’s mansion, as a long-standing alliance between businesses and ethno-cultural groups throughout the state profoundly shaped the state government for years to come. While Democrats made some inroads in the late 1880s and in 1910s, the Republican Party continued to dominate the state, as Progressive reformers worked within the party. Voter loyalty in Michigan was driven by Civil War era politics well into the early 20th century, and only with the arrival of the New Deal coalition in the 1930s did political identity begin to shift, as millions of new residents hailed for portions of the United States with Democratic allegiances. Republican control of the state legislature remained ironclad, as malapportionment insured that Republicans would have large majorities in both chambers. Such malapportionment did not end until the Supreme Court’s Baker v. Carr decision in 1962 mandated “one person, one vote” that required equally populated legislative districts.

Democratic Labor-Left Coalition and GOP Moderation: 1948-1982

Despite continued Republican malapportionment in the state legislature, a resurgent Democratic Party took over the Governor’s office in 1948. A collection of leading intellectuals and labor figures, including Mennen Williams, Walter Reuther, Gus Scholle, Hick Griffiths, and Neil Staeble developed and formed a new Democratic coalition that was built on the growing strength of labor unions and progressive intellectuals. This new coalition appealed to Democrats outside of the traditional Democratic stronghold in Detroit, and sought to build a state-wide Democratic Party. Mennen Williams was elected Governor in 1948, and remained in office until 1960, building a strong Democratic coalition that passed policies that strongly supported labor unions and progressive social policies. Democratic infighting after Williams retirement in 1962 led to Republican George Romney winning the 1962 gubernatorial race, ushering a twenty year period of GOP control of the executive branch. Romney, and his successor William Milliken, pushed good government reform measures that included a new state constitution that ended malapportionment of state legislative districts. With this reform, the state legislature became hotly contested between the two parties, ending 100 years of GOP dominance (see Figure 1).

Democratic divisions continued after 1962. Tensions between labor and liberal groups within the party boiled over in the late 1960s, as tensions over Vietnam and social issues allowed for Milliken to win close elections in the 1970s. The decline of the American automobile industry in the mid-1970s spelled further trouble for the Democratic Party, and the state’s worsening economic condition in the late 1970s ended a nearly thirty year period of genial political cooperation between the two parties in Lansing.

An Era of Partisan Identity: 1982-Present

With the end of William Milliken’s long tenure as Governor, a new era of partisan politics dawned in the state. By the late 1970s the Republican Party moved sharply to the right, as social conservatives and anti-tax activists succeeded in capturing control of the state party. While labor unions continued to decline, Democrats such as Jim Blanchard moved away from the party’s traditional allies, nurturing economic development while pushing through tax increases and user fees to balance a staggering budget deficit early in his tenure. Such political bravery resulted in sharp partisan divisions in the legislature, as anti-tax groups recalled two Democratic State Senators from Macomb County, long considered a bastion of Democratic strength. The politics of economic recovery and social tensions resulted in partisan divisions in the state legislature well through the 1980s and early 1990s, as partisan loyalties among traditional Democratic groups declined.

The election of John Engler in 1990 began a period of Republican domination of the state legislature. Republicans took control of the State House in 1994, and remained in control of the State Senate after the early 1980s, ensuring a receptive audience for Engler’s policy proposals. Engler was not shy about slashing state social programs, cutting taxes, and promoting GOP political domination through the state. Engler served until 2002, just as the good economic times in the state were ending.

Democrat Jennifer Granholm succeed Engler, and has navigated the state’s severe economic slump by working with a Republican controlled state legislature in her first term to find ways to balance the budget while preserving the state’s social net. The state’s finances were preserved by slashing social services, educational spending, and sharply reducing state aid to local governments. By the 2006 election, a sustained sour voting public responded to the state’s woes by reelecting Granholm and giving the Democrats control of the State House, while allowing the Republicans to hold a narrow margin in the State Senate. Fiscal difficulties have continued for the state, with continued battling between the two chambers over dwindling revenues continued economic troubles.

Michigan's economic misfortunes since 1974 have dominated the state's political culture, as the heated political battles of the past three administrations testify.

(Next week: Part III)

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