Michigan: Now for some good news

                A year ago, the prospects for political reform in this state looked pretty dismal.  Michigan was ranked dead last when it came to ethics and transparency, and that was just fine with people like State Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and Senate Elections Chair Dave Robertson.

                Governor Rick Snyder had failed repeatedly to make something happen that would really fix the roads, and he and his administration had clearly failed, politically and otherwise, in just about every aspect of the lead poisoning and Legionnaires’ disease disasters in Flint.

                Gerrymandering seemed to ensure Republicans an iron grip on the legislature, especially the state senate, for, well, something like forever.  Michigan was stuck on stall, shifting into reverse, with the worst roads in the nation, a political culture both ineffective and poisonous, and a population and per capita income that weren’t keeping pace with the rest of the country.

And when it came to governing, bipartisanship was mostly just a word in the dictionary.

Well, what a difference a year can make.  Michigan now has a nearly all-female leadership team.  The governor, secretary of state and attorney general took office New Year’s Day.

Yesterday, in a stunner, Bridget McCormack was elected chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. That was mildly surprising only because she is nominally a Democrat, and Republicans still have a 4 to 3 majority on the court.   But McCormack, probably the most brilliant legal scholar among the justices, has helped lead the court away from the bitter, and frankly disgraceful, partisanship that prevailed on Michigan’s highest court a decade ago.

She, together with two Republican justices, David Viviano and Beth Clement, have formed something of an influential swing group that often surprises partisans on both sides with their rulings, as when they voted to put the anti-gerrymandering amendment on the ballot.

 That decision, which in itself transcended partisanship, will have far-reaching consequences.  The amendment to end gerrymandering not only got on the ballot, it won by a landslide.  An independent body of citizens will be drawing the lines for new congressional and legislative districts two years from now, and they are virtually certain to make more sense and be more fair.  Last year, Democratic candidates for both houses of the legislature got more total votes than Republicans, but Republicans still ended up with majorities.

But when the new boundaries are in place and people vote three years from now, we are likely to have a whole lot more competitive districts.  Other things are happening too. The legislature cynically passed bills giving workers more pay and sick time last year, to prevent referenda on those issues from going before the people.

Then, after we voted, lawmakers did the special interests’ bidding and stripped out the voter protections.  Well, that may not stand. If citizens collect enough signatures before March 28, the minimum wage hike and sick leave will be restored.

Even if that doesn’t happen, the courts may overturn what the legislature did.  There are other hopeful signs, too.  Former Attorney General Bill Schuette strongly opposed anyone interpreting Michigan’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act as something that protected gay and transgender people as well as other minorities.

New Attorney General Dana Nessel has fought for the rights of such citizens for years – and she happens to be gay.  Regardless of what’s happening in Washington, or the lies tumbling from certain mouths and cable channels, in Michigan, democracy and equality seem to be making a comeback. And if that doesn’t make you a little optimistic, even in January – it should.

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