Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, middle, holds the bill signed to legalize recreational marijuana for people over the age of 21, making Minnesota the 23rd state to do so, May 30, 2023, in St. Paul, Minn. Former Gov. Jesse Ventura stands at center. Fueled by election gains, Democrats in Minnesota and Michigan this year enacted far-reaching policy changes that party leaders aspire to replicate on the national stage and in other states. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr, File)
ST. PAUL — Fueled by election gains, Democrats in Minnesota and Michigan this year enacted far-reaching policy changes that party leaders in other states are looking to as a potential roadmap for what they could swiftly achieve with similar control.
Gun safety packages, expanded voting rights, free meals for all students, and increased protections for abortion rights and LGTBQ+ people were just some of pent-up policy proposals that Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law within months under the new legislative majorities.
“We’ve definitely paid attention to what they’ve done,” Pennsylvania state Sen. Sharif Street, chair of the state Democratic party, said about the two states. “I’ve offered to Pennsylvanians that if we could flip the Senate, we could pass similar legislation.”
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Democrats in four states, including Massachusetts and Maryland, scored victories in the 2022 midterms to gain a “trifecta” — control of the state House, state Senate and the governor’s office. Republicans, who held trifectas in 19 more states than Democrats just six years ago, now hold an advantage of 22 states to the Democrats’ 17.
Ahead of the 2024 election, Democratic leaders in Pennsylvania, Arizona and New Hampshire are hoping similar election gains can help them achieve trifectas. They’re looking to Michigan and Minnesota, where leaders have been unapologetic about quickly rolling back years of Republican measures and implementing their own liberal agendas.
“This is the first time in 40 years that we’ve had this opportunity,” Whitmer said of Michigan Democrats, who last held a trifecta in 1983. “This is a huge step forward that we’ve taken.”
Michigan Democrats were able to flip both chambers with the help of new districts redrawn by a citizens commission instead of ones crafted by Republican lawmakers and a ballot proposal enshrining abortion rights into the state constitution that led to record midterm turnout.
The power shift in Michigan and Minnesota comes as statehouses nationwide have grown even more polarized. In GOP-led states, leaders have focused this year on rolling back LGBTQ+ rights, tightening abortion access, protecting gun rights and waging a war on what some have called “woke” agendas.
Whitmer, who spoke with The Associated Press last week, said she hopes voters in other states see that “you can lead with your brain and also be a kind person in the process.” She added an oft-repeated phrase of her second-term that “bigotry is bad for business.”
The quick work by Democrats in the two states was due in part to uncertainty over how long the full control will last considering voters could decide to flip state House majorities back to Republican control as soon as next year. Michigan and Minnesota Republicans are already strategizing to regain some power in the 2024 elections by calling out what they say have been overly partisan sessions.
In Michigan, Republican legislators in the House and Senate out-raised Democrats in the first part of 2023, led by the efforts of former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. Minnesota Republicans, who lost a majority when Democrats won a decisive Senate district by only 321 votes, have criticized Democrats for excluding them from a legislative session that ended in May.
“The issues, I think, are still on the table. It’s public safety, it’s education, it’s tax relief. And the Democrats did not deliver on any of those promises or expectations,” said Minnesota GOP Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson.
The key Democratic leaders in Minnesota — Walz, House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic — decided to act swiftly, knowing they might not get another chance for a long time if they hesitated. Their last trifecta, in 2012-13, lasted only two years, but they’re betting that this year’s successes will prove popular with voters come 2024.
House Democrats, who have a six-seat majority, kept a big checklist on the wall of their caucus room of their top 30 priorities for the session. They started checking them off in January, including a big abortion rights bill. By the end of the session in May, all 30 had been checked off, including the legalization of recreational marijuana for adults; drivers’ licenses for all regardless of immigration status, tax cuts aimed at lower-income workers and spending increases for education, transportation and other infrastructure, affordable housing, child care, and public safety.
Leaders in the state were among those invited to the White House to brief the president’s advisers on legislation, including a paid family and medical leave program, that the Biden administration would like to enact nationally if not for a divided government.
“If you need a reminder that elections have consequences, check out what’s happening in Minnesota,” former President Barack Obama tweeted earlier this year.
National leaders are hoping that the liberal swing in the Midwest continues in 2024. The party is hosting the Democratic convention next year in Chicago and voter sentiment after two years of unchecked liberal policy in Michigan and Minnesota could have an enormous impact on national politics; recent presidential races have hinged on the critical Midwestern “blue wall,” which also includes Wisconsin.
President Joe Biden applauded Michigan for “leading” on labor rights after the state became the first in nearly 60 years to repeal a union-restricting law known as “right-to-work” that was passed over a decade ago by a Republican-controlled Legislature.
Major legislation, such as the right-to-work repeal, has only been possible in Michigan due to strong party discipline with Democrats only holding a two-seat majority in each chamber.
State Rep. Joe Tate, who is Michigan’s first Black speaker of the House, said the Democratic caucus began the year by finding legislation all members could agree on with.
“This is legislation that we’ve been talking about for, if not years, decades. So it helped to prioritize where we needed to go at the beginning of this session,” said Tate.
Michigan Democrats have already passed many of their top priorities only halfway through this year’s legislative session, including a 11-bill gun safety package that had stalled in the Legislature for years.
Winnie Brinks, the first female Senate majority leader in Michigan history, called said it was an “intense six months” and that Democrats don’t plan to ease up the rest of the year. Future legislation, Brinks said, will include a focus on climate and the environment in addition to more work on reproductive rights.