Print Friendly and PDF

Bringing Civility Back to Michigan: House Speaker Tom Leonard and Democratic Leader Sam Singh Practice Respect and Compromise to Bridge Party Lines

By Dawson Bell

Politics is war without bloodshed — an aphorism popularized by China’s Mao Zedong — is often cited as a hopeful statement about the potential to resolve political differences without violence. Less often noted, however, is that its author followed up by saying that war is politics with bloodshed, and that the communist dictator was responsible for the violent deaths of millions of his own countrymen.

American politics have been largely waged on the hopeful side, but the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath have strained that optimism. And there is no mistaking the war-like atmosphere that permeates contemporary American political discourse.

Fortunately for Michigan, state House Speaker Tom Leonard, a Republican, and House Democratic Leader Sam Singh have a shared commitment to open and respectful  dialogue during the legislative process. Through the first half of 2017, it seems to be holding.

Though separated by a vast gulf of policy disagreement, Leonard and Singh remain civil and respectful toward one another. Their colleagues have largely followed suit. And in a year marked by assassination attempts targeting Republican members of Congress, and a crazed white supremacist mowing down leftist protestors with his car in Charlottesville, Va., the Michigan House has been an island of notable calm.

It did not happen by accident. As Leonard told Michigan Public Radio before he took office in January, one of his top priorities was the restoration of civility following “one of the most incivil elections in American history.”

He and Singh met shortly after the election to talk about their respective agendas and discuss how they would handle House rules  and procedures, an often overlooked but critical element in maintaining comity in a large, diverse organization.

Singh said he asked the Republican leader, who heads a 63-45 majority, to keep open lines of communication and be mindful that neither party holds a monopoly on wisdom. Leonard agreed, and has so far upheld that commitment, Singh said.

“I believe I have a good and honest partner (in Singh),” Leonard said.

Both say their relations were eased by the fact that they got to know one another as members of the same House class, 2013, and are members of the Capitol Caucus, which promotes the interests of the mid-Michigan region and Michigan State University.

Leonard said he is relying on three principles to nurture the relationship with Singh and foster respectful lawmaking more broadly:

• Civil relations with political opponents

makes it possible “to get more accomplished.”

• Regular and open communications are vital to maintain civility.

• It is important to “pick your battles.” In other words, every policy disagreement does not have to be a nuclear conflagration.

Leonard said he relied on the latter in his early dealings with Singh, choosing not to veto — as is the prerogative of the speaker — any of the Democrat’s choices for committee assignments, including those he knew were objectionable to members of his own party.

Not surprisingly, their joint commitment was tested in some of the legislative battles that ensued over the first half of 2017.

Debates over teacher pension reform, the authorization of a Right to Life license plate, and the right to carry a concealed firearm without a permit all stoked what Leonard and Singh both described as “very spirited debate.”

Singh viewed each issue as a distraction — and unabashedly said so during fl oor debate — but none of these distractions deterred the legislators from finding common ground in other areas.

Leonard said heartfelt disagreement about some of the issues addressed by the Legislature are inevitable across party lines and between factions within parties. Leonard himself ended up at odds with members of his own party and Gov. Rick Snyder over the passage of tax break legislation aimed at securing major investments.

The “Good Jobs” package was approved in July by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, which did not include Leonard. As the ultimate arbiter of the House calendar, Leonard said he could have blocked it, but did not.

“I’m the speaker of the House, not the dictator of the House,” Leonard said.

Singh and Leonard also stressed the importance of not focusing their respective agendas entirely on divisive, partisan issues. Within a week of the passage of the teacher pension legislation, for instance, the two leaders joined in the appointment of a bipartisan commission to examine the state’s role in the mental health system, an area both agree is in need of reform.

Singh said he is encouraged that Leonard continues to support greater transparency in state government.

“We’re dealing with big issues,” Singh said. “There are times when the passion comes out. That’s okay, but I believe we’re committed to working together.”

Leonard agreed.

“Going forward, I will still be an unapologetic conservative, but I’m going to treat everyone with respect,” he said. “I hope we can all do that.”

Dawson Bell is a metro Detroit freelance writer.