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The Lowdown

Rep Dem

Senate Scoring: Liberal vs. Conservative

Using 34 roll call votes, and technical help from the Web site, the MIRS Capitol Capsule newsletter ( - subscription required) ranked the 38 members of the Michigan Senate on the basis of what MIRS characterizes as "most conservative" to "most liberal." Claiming the top conservative slot for 2008 was Sen. Alan Sanborn, R-Richmond. This marked the fourth time in six years that the Macomb County lawmaker finished first. His overall score for the 34 votes was just 6.06 percent liberal.

The most liberal member, voting that way 97.06 percent of the time on the MIRS scale, was Sen. Irma Clark-Coleman, D-Detroit. Clark-Coleman also finished as the chamber's top liberal in 2007. She narrowly edged out Sen. Liz Brater, D-Ann Arbor, who was a back-to-back "most liberal" member for 2004 and 2005.

A wide variety of votes were selected, covering subjects as diverse as state spending, environmental regulations, energy policy, gun control, partial birth abortion, charter schools, taxes and more.

No Republican voted more liberal than any Democrat, and vice versa. 

Sen. Jim Barcia, D-Bay City, ranked as MIRS' most conservative Democratic senator, voting the liberal line only 61.76 percent of the time. The highest liberal score for a Republican was 32.35 percent, shared by three lawmakers: Sen. Michelle McManus, R-Lake Leelanau; Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw; and Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R- Rochester.

Are Socialists Deciding Close State House Races?

The Greater Detroit Democratic Socialists of America believes it has a proven formula for elevating its candidates to the state Legislature. In the last election, the DSA claims to have targeted its manpower and resources on four suburban "swing" districts in the state House and won them all.

The Web site of the national DSA ( asserts that it is the "largest socialist organization in the United States, and the principal U.S. affiliate of the Socialist International." It traces its organizational roots and "radical" agenda to the socialist movement led by early 20th century presidential candidate Eugene Debs. Its statement of purpose notes that it believes the "international economic order" is "sustained by private profit, alienated labor, race and gender discrimination, environmental destruction, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo."

"The Detroit DSA has a simple but effective strategy," proclaims their Detroit newsletter, explaining recent political activism. "We endorse progressive candidates in competitive races where the focused efforts of a small group such as ours can tip the balance in favor of the progressive candidate." That strategy begins with interviews to determine which candidates have views that "run parallel" to the DSA. Then the Detroit-area membership — which the DSA numbers as less than 250 people — votes on which candidates to endorse. Those with endorsements may have volunteer manpower and donations directed their way.

Current state lawmakers that the DSA claims to have propelled to victory include Sen. Hansen Clarke, D-Detroit; Sen. Gilda Jacobs, D- Huntington Woods; Rep. Fred Miller, D-Mount Clemens; Rep. Alma Wheeler- Smith, D-Ypsilanti; and Rep. John Espinoza, D-Croswell. Former state Reps. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, and Aldo Vagnozzi, D-Farmington Hills, were also DSA-endorsed candidates; each left the Legislature due to term limits at the end of 2008.

Stating that they "traditionally" endorse just two candidates for each election cycle, the DSA branched out to four targeted races for the fall of 2008. The approved candidates were: Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores; Vickie Barnett, D-Farmington Hills; Jon Switalski, D-Warren; and Lisa Brown, D-West Bloomfield. All four were running in open seats. Switalski and Barnett were seeking to replace Bieda and Vagnozzi, while Brown and Roberts were running in seats that were held by outgoing Republicans.

All four DSA candidates won and became members of the Michigan House of Representatives at the beginning of 2009. Brown and Roberts won what the DSA characterized as "razor-thin" victories, each taking less than 52 percent of the votes cast.

On Sept. 6, 2008, the DSA held a fundraiser in Farmington Hills for all four candidates. Outgoing DSA favorite Aldo Vagnozzi was listed as the guest of honor. A total of $6,500 was reportedly raised and donated to the candidates as a result of this event. Additionally, the DSA reports that "almost every weekend from late summer through the election, DSA volunteers canvassed, prepared literature, or phone banked" in support of one of the chosen four candidates. At least 17 specific members are listed as having participated in at least one "and usually several" of these events.

The DSA reports that during the campaign, Brown's opponents accused her of being "largely funded by outside radical organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America," while Barnett's "opposition commissioned robo calls to undecided voters" accusing the Democrat of being a socialist.

Neither tactic succeeded, either because these charges were not believed by an otherwise socialist-wary electorate or because — in the words of the DSA — perhaps "the McCarthy-era tactic of red- baiting" had been put to rest.

Minority Report

As the Michigan Legislature approached the April 2 spring break, displays of partisanship were markedly different in each chamber.

In the Senate, where Republicans are in the majority, Democrats demanded a recorded roll call vote aimed at forcing the chamber to begin consideration of Senate Resolution 15, a proposal that would reduce the larger caucus budget provided to the senate's majority (i.e., Republican) party to the same level as that given to the minority. SR 15 would also require that "all information regarding the Senate's compensation and expenses shall be made available to the public on the Senate's Website."

Both the Republican majority in the Michigan Senate and the Democratic majority in the Michigan House of Representatives receive larger budgets than their respective minority parties. This disparate treatment has been the norm in the Michigan Legislature for several decades. The sponsor of SR 15, state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, estimates that funding both Senate caucuses at the level now paid to the minority would save taxpayers $3 million per year.

The vote to discharge SR 15 from committee and bring it to the Senate floor for consideration was defeated when all 21 Republicans voted against, and all 16 Democrats voted for, the resolution.

On the other side of the Capitol building, the House of Representatives was working on budget bills.

The Republicans introduced amendments that proposed to reduce spending across the board by five percent. However, according to what the MIRS Capitol Capsule newsletter called a "pre-arrangement" with the Democratic majority, the GOP did not demand recorded votes that would have forced all lawmakers to go on record. As a result, the amendments were defeated by the Democratic majority in a series of unrecorded "voice votes."

When asked why the Republicans did not push for recorded votes on the budget amendments, a spokesman for GOP House Minority Leader Kevin Elsenheimer, R-Bellaire, said the House GOP would ask for recorded votes "when they knew they could get them," according to the Gongwer News Service.

In the same article, MIRS reported that House Speaker Andy Dillon, D- Redford Township, praised Elsenheimer and the Republican minority caucus for their bipartisan approach to working with the majority this year. According to MIRS, Dillon said he hoped for more of the same following the spring break. 

For additional information and an opportunity to comment on these issues, please see