The challenge ahead for Whitmer’s new legislative liaison

It was the morning after the night Gretchen Whitmer was elected governor, and former Gov. Jim Blanchard could not have been happier.

He was one of the first influential Democrats to embrace her candidacy. During a post-election interview, he drew upon his personal experience of putting together a new administration after 14 years of a GOP governor. Whitmer was coming in as the first Democratic governor after eight years of GOP dominance.

Blanchard predicted during the exchange that, within the first year, the new governor would face one of the facts of political life in this town: “In the first year, you will see some turnover in the persons around her.”

This week he was proven spot on.

It was an announcement that did not draw a lot of attention, as it was timed to come smack-dab in the middle of a holiday break, when most eyes were focused on Turkey Day and not on the churn in the Whitmer administration.

The news release, on the surface, appeared pretty benign. The governor was transferring her legislative lobbyist, Greg Bird, to a new top management slot at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Mr. Bird got praise from the governor’s chief of staff, who noted how wonderful he was. There were no comments from the governor.

However, it didn’t take long for some to ask, “If he was so wonderful, why was he transferred?”

Insiders saw through the smoke-and-mirror release. They knew that the governor’s scorecard with the GOP-controlled Legislature was a mixed bag, at best. Everyone knew from the opening bell this new, divided government would be a challenge for the governor, but it turned out to be bumpier than expected. And, while the affable Mr. Bird was not a disaster, the word on the street was that he was not the magic Whitmer needed to score more points.

Hence, he’s out.

But the bigger question: Is this a one-off departure, or is there more to come?

If Mr. Blanchard is right, it’s probably the latter and not the former.

Replacing Mr. Bird is a former Democratic member of the Michigan House, where he was chair of the Legislative Black Caucus and earned a reputation for having the political savvy to work with both sides of the aisle. Plus, former state Rep. Tom Stallworth has politics in his blood, thanks to his mom and other relatives who also served in the Legislature.

The governor’s lobbyist is key player in advancing the governor’s agenda, and, while Stallworth’s hands-on experience is way above the curve, as is his demeanor and personality, he lacks one thing that Whitmer needs the most: someone who has a working relationship with lawmakers.

The harsh reality is all of the folks Mr. Stallworth had a relationship with — starting in 2010 — are long gone.

He has no relationship with Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield.

He has no relationship with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey.

And, of the 148 lawmakers on the field (let’s give him the benefit of the doubt), he might know a couple dozen.

Plus, he is coming on board in the middle of a budget stalemate that has turned personal between the governor and Mr. Shirkey. Shirkey doesn’t trust Whitmer, and the feeling may be mutual, although she has never articulated that for media consumption. Mr. Shirkey has told reporters he wants future agreements from her in writing. The inference was painful: A handshake with her would not cut it.

So, against that backdrop, lawmakers are back in town with about nine days to work out a budget solution.

The good news for Mr. Stallworth is he will not be held responsible if the impasse is not resolved.

But the same can not be said for the governor, the speaker, and the Senate leader.


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