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Michigan once served as a national bastion for organized labor, economic prosperity and moderate Republicans. Not anymore.
This week in Lansing, a Republican governor who ran as a business-minded moderate rammed a right-to-work bill through in a lame-duck session. Democrats and unions revolted, threatening the second coming of the Wisconsin recall.
But the law’s passage is symbolic of the kind of changes that continue to hit the economically distressed state: demographic, political and personal. And nowhere are these changes more imminent than the congressional delegation, where the average age of a Michigan Democrat is 73.
“I do think people feel this way in my home district,” said Rep.-elect Dan Kildee, a Democrat who will succeed his 83-year-old uncle, 18-term Rep. Dale E. Kildee, in January. “Dale has served this district for a long, long while. It’s a generational shift.”
On Monday, almost all the Democrats in the Michigan delegation huddled with Gov. Rick Snyder at the state capitol. Sen. Carl Levin, a six-term Democrat, led what would become a fruitless and frustrating conversation.
One by one, members said their piece, imploring Snyder not to sign the bill. They pleaded with him to pursue the law next year instead. They asked him to line-item veto the appropriations attached to the final bill — a maneuver that makes the consequential law referendum-proof.
The senator’s older brother, Rep. Sander M. Levin, delivered a particularly passionate argument by recalling negotiations on a 1965 landmark law for state organized labor, the Public Employment Relations Act, while he was a state lawmaker. His adversary? Republican Gov. George Romney.
None of it worked. The most senior members of Congress were powerlessly in awe of the state of their state. Democrats left the meeting more frustrated than when they arrived.
“We made our case as strongly as we could, hoping he would veto it,” said Rep. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who said the governor didn’t engage much in the discussion. “It seemed he didn’t really understand what right-to-work was about, or these issues. It really was stunning.”
Michigan Democrats have reason to be frustrated — but not because of Snyder. Despite their seniority on Capitol Hill, the Democrats’ clout has declined in the past decade.
Much of this is because of gerrymandering of the state’s congressional and legislative districts. Democrats dominated statewide politics for most of the past decade but held legislative minorities after two devastating cycles: 2000 and 2010. Republicans redrew the map in their favor in 2001 and perfected their gains last year.
When Congress returns in January, Republicans will control nine of the state’s 14 House seats. Democrats made minimal gains in the state legislature last month, but Republicans will continue to control both chambers next year.