More than half of Detroit residents weren’t alive the last time Michigan Democrats dominated state government.
Democrats haven’t simultaneously controlled the governor’s office and held majorities in the Michigan House and Senate since 1983. For the first time in nearly 40 years, Democrats can enact a policy agenda without much chance of obstruction from Republicans. The takeover comes with big expectations from Detroiters who bet on blue believing the city was harmed by the era of GOP majorities.
New and returning lawmakers told BridgeDetroit they’re meeting with colleagues, constituents and city officials to hammer out an agenda that maximizes benefits for Detroit, preparing bills aimed at education, infrastructure, housing, economic development and climate resiliency. But residents will be represented by more people who don’t live in the city or know the nuances of its challenges, leaving some doubts about what a new dawn in Lansing means for Detroit.
“Everybody’s a bit skeptical about what’s going to happen in the future,” said Meghan Wilson, a Michigan State University political science professor who previously worked for the city and Detroit Public Schools. “We’re hopeful. But you know, Detroit has been let down so much. Should we even really be able to dream again?”
The Democratic conquest in Lansing comes as Detroit grapples with a loss in representation at the state and federal level. Detroit, a majority-Black city, won’t have a Black representative in Congress for the first time in 70 years. Restoring self-determination for Detroit was a major theme in conversations with current and former lawmakers.
State Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, said the new Legislature has a responsibility to undo damage caused by state-appointed emergency managers. A Michigan law allowing the state to intervene in local financial emergencies was first signed by Democratic Gov. James Blanchard, but its use by Republican governors during Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy and public school financial crisis is a major dimension of the GOP’s legacy. Regardless of Detroit’s financial shape now, the state’s decision to usurp local authority in majority-Black communities left scars.
Santata plans to reintroduce legislation that would release Detroit from a financial review commission charged with keeping an eye on the city’s finances. The commission is a holdover of emergency management, though active state oversight ended in 2018. The city’s budgets still have to be reviewed by the state commission each year. Santana said Detroit has proven it can manage its checkbook and deserves independence.
“We’ve been solvent in the City of Detroit for quite some time now,” Santana said. “The city is flush with cash and able to operate in the black. I think it’s time to allow our City Council and mayor to operate the city as necessary.”
State Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, said it’s time to reinstate a requirement that Detroit’s police officers, firefighters and other municipal workers live in the city. The Michigan Legislature passed a law in 1999 – when Republicans controlled both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office – banning cities from making residency rules, which is attributed to an exodus of public employees from Detroit into the suburbs. Carter was a co-sponsor of a bill to repeal the 1999 law, but it never received a vote in the previous session.
City officials are also lobbying state lawmakers for tax reforms. The Detroit Law Department determined that state law stands in the way of changes proposed by Detroit Council President Mary Sheffield to improve the accuracy of property tax assessments, part of a broader effort to address the overtaxation of residents. Legal changes are also needed to create a “split-rate” tax system sought by the city.
“If we could get tax relief in the city, people would have more disposable income to address (repairs needed) in their homes,” Carter said. “When you’re paying astronomical amounts for car insurance, homeowners insurance, and property taxes, that’s a burden on the population that can least afford it.”
That’s just a snapshot of what lawmakers are pondering. Conversations with BridgeDetroit produced many ideas that could be reflected in new legislation and the upcoming state budget, but it’s clear that a Detroit-specific agenda hasn’t taken shape yet. Reparations and regional transit are gathering interest, but it’s too early to say what forms they could take.
Unified government is good for Detroit, said Esmat Ishag-Osman, a Detroit policy expert at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. But how Democrats will balance the city’s needs with a broader statewide agenda is less clear.
“Whatever is passed by this Democratic Legislature and Democratic administration will disproportionately benefit Detroit,” Ishag-Osman said. “Will it be specific to what residents of Detroit have been wanting to get done throughout the years? Probably not. I have a feeling that this Democratic administration is going to be focused on more big picture issues. That is because this is the first time in decades that we have seen this kind of unified government for the Democratic Party.”
Ishag-Osman said that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Any action Democrats take on issues like education, infrastructure, climate change, gun control and economic development will have a big impact on Detroit too.
“Democrats are going to be coming in with a surplus and are either going to continue being more pro-business in the way (Gov. Gretchen) Whitmer has approached her agenda over the last year or two – or they’re going to focus their legislative agenda on more ideological things that are important to just the Democratic base and the Democratic Party,” Ishag-Osman said. “It’s really hard to tell.”
How is representation changing?
State Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, is among a handful of lawmakers whose districts extend into Detroit for the first time.
Parts of the district were previously represented by outgoing state Sen. Marshall Bullock, D-Detroit, who was chairman of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus. He lost to McMorrow in the August Democratic primary after their districts were redrawn into shared territory.
McMorrow, a white woman, said being forced to run against Bullock was frustrating, but she’s optimistic that a Democratic majority will result in more resources for Detroit. Meanwhile, Bullock was hired as Detroit’s director of government affairs and will lead the city’s government liaisons.
“After the 2010 census, Republicans struck a deal with the Detroit caucus to pack more districts within Detroit city limits in order to swing the entire state Republican, and it set up a situation where we as Democrats have been taking scraps for my entire lifetime on what we’re allowed to get in the budget, what we’re allowed to move legislatively,” McMorrow said. She was not serving in the Legislature at the time, but cited interviews by past Michigan GOP officials.
“So from my perspective, there is just no shortage of potential now that Democrats control the Legislature, because we control the committees, we control what bills move and we control the budget process,” she said.
The new Democratic majority is partly attributed to new political districts created by an independent redistricting committee. Maps used to be drawn by the Legislature, which historically advantaged Republicans. The new maps were meant to balance the playing field, but also resulted in the loss of majority-Black districts and primary contests that knocked out Black lawmakers like Bullock.
Carter is one of 13 Black representatives in the state House, down from 15 in the last session. The Senate dropped from five Black members to three, of which two represent part of Detroit: Santana and Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor. The number of legislative districts serving a majority-Black population across Michigan dropped from 16 to six.
“We have to look at what it cost the City of Detroit, as far as representation, to get the majority,” Carter said. “Those of us who are a part of the core Detroiters who live in the city, we’re going to have to get our colleagues to understand our needs are different.”
Democrats also used their new power to promote people of color to leadership positions. State Rep. Joe Tate, D-Detroit, is Michigan’s first Black speaker of the House. House Democrats elected Rep. Abraham Aiyash, D-Hamtramck, as the first Muslim majority floor leader.
State Sen. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing, is the first Black woman to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee. Whitmer appointed Southfield resident Kyra Bolden Harris to the Michigan Supreme Court, making her the first Black woman to serve on the high court.
Tate’s rise to House Speaker is historic, but political observers say that’s putting it lightly.
“It means a lot to have a Black man at the head of the table for the state,” said Wilson, the MSU professor. “This was a really big deal, as a symbolic thing, as a political thing. As a Detroiter, I’m still a little skeptical. He’s going to do a great job, but he’s going to have a lot of resistance.”
If you ask Adolph Mongo, a longtime political consultant in Detroit, Democrats gained political power by trading away the voting power of Black Detroiters. He wasn’t alone in describing the exchange as a “sacrifice.”
“Who speaks for Detroit?” Mongo said.
Detroit City Council Member Coleman Young II previously served in the state House and Senate and said the new districts undermine the generational work of Black Detroiters, naming lawmakers like his father and namesake, Coleman A. Young as well as Virgil Smith, Basil Brown, Morris Hood and Erma Henderson.
“I was excited that we have the majority; I think we’re going to do great things with it for those who are hurting the most,” Young said. “It hurts that we had to eliminate and eviscerate the legacy of our ancestors of Black representation.”
Democrats who spoke with BridgeDetroit said there’s a silver lining to redistricting. The number of lawmakers whose districts include part of Detroit increased from 15 to 23. That creates more advocates for the city and could result in better regional partnerships.
“This has been a challenging situation for Detroit representation,” said state Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield. “What the redistricting commission did is they didn’t respect municipal boundaries in creating these lines and it hurt a lot of communities, Detroit in an oversized way … The challenges of redistricting also can provide opportunity. There are people who are able to bridge this divide, who are able to atone for the sins of our past and make sure that Oakland County is not succeeding despite Detroit, but that Oakland County is succeeding and including Detroit, and vice versa.”
Before redistricting, no Detroit district crossed Eight Mile. New districts straddle county lines with majority-white suburbs, and Detroiters are represented by fewer lawmakers who live in the city. That includes Democratic State Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, whose new district extended east from her hometown of Livonia into the northwest corner of Detroit.
“I am honored and grateful that I am going to be able to represent Detroit, but I do understand why people thought that a white person from the suburbs would not be the representation that they wanted or needed in Lansing,” Pohutsky said.
“Over the last several decades, the policies have been skewed more to benefit Republican districts – which is not Detroit,” Pohutsky added. “I think we are looking to do good policy that is going to benefit the entire state, and a lot of the things that benefit Detroit do end up benefiting the entire state.”
Still, more lawmakers are tasked with representing the city’s interests, but less exclusively because their districts are split with the suburbs. Does that result in better or worse representation for Detroit?
“We don’t know yet,” Carter said. “That’s one of the things I have to make sure of as a born, bred and raised (Detroiter). We’re going to have to have a robust meeting (with new members) to get them to understand the flavor of Detroit. Let’s be honest, many of my colleagues come to Detroit for events or certain situations but to get the real fabric of the city, that’s incumbent upon those from Detroit to bring them in.”
State Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, said lawmakers less familiar with the city need to do the work to understand how Detroiters feel about issues, particularly in areas where there’s no consensus. But she also said issues felt in Detroit are shared with suburban neighbors.
“For example, Warren has a really high eviction rate, and evictions and housing is a huge issue in Detroit,” she said. “The rising price of housing is such a statewide issue. A lot of the housing stuff we’re working on will be an opportunity to bring people together from different districts.”
McMorrow said she’s ready to push back if colleagues argue that the Legislature should focus on things that benefit the state as a whole instead of specific communities. It shouldn’t be about Detroit versus everybody, she said, despite how often the adage feels true.
Hassan Beydoun, a senior advisor to Mayor Mike Duggan who advocates for Detroit in Lansing, said Tate’s rise to House Speaker creates “unprecedented alignment” between lawmakers and the city.
“This new dynamic allows us to freely pursue innovative public policies and funding opportunities to better address blight, reduce crime, create jobs, improve housing, and significantly enhance the quality of life for our residents,” Beydoun said in an email.
Tate and Beydoun declined interview requests from BridgeDetroit on their specific priorities. Other lawmakers and city officials said the policy platform won’t be surprising for anyone who’s paid attention to Democrats over the last 40 years.
For Chang, that means reintroducing bills aimed at restoring drivers licenses for undocumented residents, creating more transparency in water bills and flexibility for cities to set water service fees and to ensure polluted communities receive a share of fines collected from companies that violate air quality standards, among a host of other issues.
“Being under Republican majorities for so long, there’s just a huge backlog of bills,” Chang said. “Being able to prioritize and being able to figure out what is able to get done more quickly takes some time.”
Moss is eager to start conversations about what he describes as a broken municipal financing model. The state has pinched billions of dollars from local governments over the last two decades through reductions in payments from Michigan’s revenue sharing arrangement.
Detroit lost $161 million in state revenue sharing from 2002 and 2012. Since then, the amounts gradually increased by $41 million, with the city projected to receive $223 million in the 2022-23 fiscal year. That’s around a quarter of Detroit’s overall revenue.
“This is going to be a total shift in investing in our communities and bringing resources back home instead of neglecting them in the name of shrinking state government,” Moss said. “We’ve had this paradigm shift, because for the last several years, we have had a state government that has been led by folks who want to basically dismantle government altogether.”
Moss said an increase in revenue sharing could help Detroit pay for road repairs and make investments in public safety. The Detroit Police Department lost several hundred officers this year while the city faced multiple mass shootings and an uptick in mental health emergencies.
“I will represent a robust African American district in the state Senate and I live in a suburb that is majority African-American, and I rarely hear the phrase in my community ‘defund the police,’” Moss said. “To the contrary, I hear a lot of ‘fund the police. Make the police work for us.’”
Stephanie Washington, chief of staff to Duggan, explained the city’s lobbying strategy to the City Council shortly after the November election. Maximizing Detroit’s share of the state budget dollars is key, she said.
Detroit’s representatives earmark funds for local interests, with Tate playing a vital role on the House appropriations committee. Washington ran numbers from a recent supplemental spending bill:
- $75 million for lead water service line replacements
- $100 million the Joe Louis Greenway urban trail loop
- $15 million for home repair programs
- $12 million for Eastern Market upgrades
- $4 million for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
- $7 million overall increase from state revenue sharing, a 6% bump
As one of their last acts of the last session, state lawmakers passed a bill that would send $85 million to Detroit’s QLine downtown streetcar over the next 17 years. The bill extends the QLine’s annual $5 million subsidy to 2039, if signed by the governor.
Washington highlighted two bills – HB 6416 and HB 6417 – designed to tackle blight. The legislation would increase penalties for repeat offenders of blight ordinances and open funding to repair and demolish fire-damaged properties. She said reintroducing those bills is a priority for the next term.
Detroit hires lobbyists from Governmental Consultant Services Inc. to sway lawmakers toward the city’s policy goals. The Lansing-based firm was recently awarded a $654,000 contract, which expires in June 2023.
GCSI is one of Michigan’s largest lobbying firms, with a broad list of clients. As House Speaker, Tate will be a prime target for organizations looking to influence policy. Tate received at least $276 on food and beverages from GCSI this year, a small part of the $1.15 million in total lobbying expenditures it reported in summer 2022.
Lobbyists with GCSI spent tens of thousands of dollars on food and drinks for Republican former state Rep. Lee Chatfield, according to an investigation by The Detroit News. Chatfield is the subject of a criminal investigation that involves allegations of sexual assault and corruption.
Disillusionment with state government is a major component of the legacy left by Republican control. The new government is “dressed up in blue,” Wilson said, but that doesn’t mean it will automatically rebuild trust.
After two terms, and being disqualified from the 2022 ballot, Cynthia A. Johnson’s time in the Michigan Legislature is up. Reflecting on the experience sparks conflicting emotions.
From a leather chair in her home on Detroit’s westside, Johnson described Lansing as being negligent toward the needs of her constituents. It’s about distribution of resources, Johnson said, and Detroit is in obvious need of better investment. The signs – crumbling roads and houses in disrepair – are right outside her own window.
“Everything else to me means nothing,” Johnson said. “So much money out here is being distributed, but not to Black folks.”
One of her harshest criticisms for Democratic colleagues is the feeling that they’re a “rubber stamp” for powerful corporate interests. She pounded a fist on the soft arm of her chair for emphasis.
“The only things we can do is wait and watch – and be active,” Johnson said.