Newly Empowered Michigan Democrats Move on Labor, Gay Rights and Guns

LANSING, Mich. — Democrats in Michigan pressed ahead with a torrent of liberal measures on Wednesday, the boldest assertion yet of their new political power since taking full control of state government this year for the first time in four decades.

In the course of a single afternoon and evening, and despite loud objections from many Republicans, the Michigan House of Representatives voted to repeal a right-to-work law loathed by labor unions, expand background checks for gun purchases and enshrine civil rights protections for L.G.B.T.Q. people in state law. On the other side of the Capitol, the State Senate voted to repeal an abortion ban that is unenforceable but still on the books. Some of the legislation must still be voted on in the other chamber, and all of it would have to be signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, to take effect.

The rapid-fire votes were possible only because Michigan Democrats narrowly won a trifecta — control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office — in last year’s election after spending much of the prior decade on the lawmaking sidelines.

Republicans swept into power in Michigan in the 2010s and quickly remade the state in their image, just as they did in Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and beyond. By 2018, Republicans had full control of 26 statehouses. But Democrats have steadily rebuilt their state-level strength in the last few years, with full control now in 17 capitals — their most since 2009 and up from only six in 2017. Republicans control 22 states, including Nebraska, where the unicameral Legislature is officially nonpartisan.

In Minnesota, one of four states where Democrats have a new trifecta this year, lawmakers have already codified abortion rights, set ambitious clean energy goals, allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses and restored the voting rights of an estimated 55,000 former prisoners.

To press their agenda, Democrats have used some of the same act-fast tactics honed by Republicans when they came into power. But it remains unclear how far Democrats will be able to go. Though buoyed by budget surpluses and, at least so far, minimal intraparty dissent, Democrats in Minnesota and Michigan are constrained by slim majorities and legislative sessions that are rapidly ticking away.

“I didn’t realize how valuable the time we have here is,” Joe Tate, the speaker of the Michigan House, said in an interview just after his chamber approved an expansion of the state civil rights law and hours before it was scheduled to take up bills on unions and guns. “There’s only a finite amount of time for us to get things done,” he said.

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Not that long ago, the Michigan Capitol was a laboratory of conservative policymaking. In 2012, with Republicans holding full control of state government, legislators passed a right-to-work law that allowed employees in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying union dues or their equivalent. The law has helped the state, said former officials who supported it back then.

“All the fallout and all the problems that were predicted by some of the labor leaders did not happen,” said Randy Richardville, a Republican who served as majority leader in the Senate when the bill passed. “It was a good thing for the workers of Michigan to decide whether they wanted to join a union or not, whether it gave them benefits or not.”

The Michigan House of Representatives voted to repeal a right-to-work law opposed by labor unions. Credit…Emily Elconin for The New York Times

But that law, passed amid chaotic protests, infuriated Democrats and union leaders in a state that had historically been a center of the labor movement. Lisa Canada, a longtime union official in Michigan, said the law gradually eroded the clout of organized labor as contracts expired and had to be renegotiated.

Still, organized labor remained a political force in the state. Though the percentage of Michigan workers in unions has declined to about 14 percent from about 17 percent since 2012, it remains above the national average.

“You’ve got this climate where companies that you might have been negotiating with for decades now see unions as weaker,” said Ms. Canada, who until recently served as the political director of the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights. “So they go into negotiations with a whole different attitude.”

When Democrats came to power this year, they quickly pledged to undo right-to-work. And on Wednesday, workers in union apparel testified in support of the repeal and filled the balcony of the House chamber as Democrats invoked their two-seat majority to do what they said was the will of the people.

“Back in November, voters sent a clear message when they elected a pro-worker and pro-working families majority,” Representative Regina Weiss, a Democrat, said when presenting the right-to-work repeal to a committee.

But Jase Bolger, a Republican who served as speaker of the Michigan House from 2011 to 2014, predicted Democrats would pay a price if they completed the repeal of right-to-work, which he credited with helping boost the state’s economy a decade ago. The repeal must still clear the State Senate.

“I think they’re going to damage Michigan’s economy and therefore hurt Michigan’s families,” Mr. Bolger said. “I think that’s what’s going to cause the political fallout that they’re not seeing yet.”

But in both Michigan and Minnesota, Democrats say they are merely doing what they were elected to do.

Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota signed an executive order this week to protect access to medical care for transgender people. Credit…Andrea Ellen Reed for The New York Times

Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota, who signed an executive order on Wednesday to protect access to medical care for transgender people, said Democrats with new trifectas had moved swiftly to expand rights and make good on campaign promises.

“This isn’t about saving political capital and trying to figure out how long you get to stay,” Mr. Walz said in a recent interview. “If we’re doing these things, and we’re representing the people, they will vote accordingly.”

And even as Michigan Democrats advanced bills on some of the country’s most contentious topics — abortion, guns, L.G.B.T.Q. rights — Mr. Tate, the House speaker, said they were addressing widely known, long-held priorities.

“There’s certainly no secrets or surprises for what we want to do,” he said. “So we want to make sure that it’s getting done. And getting done in a timely manner.”

Mitch Smith reported from Lansing, Mich., and Ernesto Londoño from St. Paul, Minn.

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