This profile is a part of our Legislators of the Year series. To read more, click here.
The only thing better than securing a new majority in a state legislature is securing that majority at a moment of unprecedented budget surpluses.
For Democrats in Minnesota and Michigan, unexpected gains in last year’s midterm elections handed them total control of two swing states. Party leaders used their newfound powers to pass a wave of blue state priorities that had languished during Republican rule.
In Minnesota, House Majority Leader Jamie Long (D) put up a poster in the Democratic caucus room listing the party’s 25 priorities — among them abortion rights, paid family and medical leave, restoring voting rights for those released from prison, tax rebates, legal marijuana and affordable housing.
Every one of them got done.
“We did kind of clear the decks,” Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hartman (D) said at an end-of-session press conference in May.
In Michigan, Democrats used their majorities to roll back an abortion ban dating from 1931, create new civil rights protections for LGBTQ people, eliminate right-to-work legislation approved a decade ago under then-Gov. Rick Snyder (R), and pass gun control measures after a mass shooting at Michigan State University in February.
“We’ve had 40 years of pent-up policy priorities that we’re finally able to get to,” Michigan Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D) said on MSNBC in March. “We’ve got a strong start and we’re very excited about being able to keep doing the work that people sent us to do.”
In both states, Republicans predicted the Democrats’ glee would be short-lived, and that the policies they have championed would be rejected by voters in next year’s presidential election.
“This is the beginning of the Democrat overreach that’s going to lead to their demise and the Republicans taking back the House,” Michigan House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R) told reporters in March.
But Republicans have their own problems in two states that will be at the heart of the battle for the presidency next year. In Michigan, party leaders are battling each other, and the state party’s bank account has less than $100,000. In Minnesota, the state GOP is more than $360,000 in debt to vendors who worked on the midterm elections.
Democrats enjoy only narrow majorities in both Michigan and Minnesota, and party leaders say they are conscious that they have to avoid overreach. But those narrow majorities contributed to what governors in both states called the most successful legislative sessions in recent history.
“We have to govern in a way that considers the needs of people in districts that are both Democrat and Republican, in communities that are 50-50,” Brinks told Pluribus News in an interview this year. “We are hoping that we will benefit from the need to pay attention to voters on both sides of the aisle.”
Humberto Sanchez and Sophie Quinton contributed reporting.