At Mackinac Policy Conference, Empire Strikes Back in Seersucker Suits • Michigan Advance

At Mackinac Policy Conference, Empire Strikes Back in Seersucker Suits • Michigan Advance

The annual Detroit Regional Chamber confab, held hours away from Lansing on idyllic Mackinac Island, is a posh playground for business executives, lobbyists, legislators, the media and assorted hangers-on.

This year’s Mackinac Policy Conference was busier than ever (so much so that we’ll have stories on energy policy, labor rights, the housing crisis and more well into this week). And maybe it’s just the glow of returning after the pandemic and surgery along with our amazing Michigan Advance team, but even an introverted workaholic like me had fun. (And yes, part of that was petting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s social media secret weapon, her, Kevin and Doug’s dogs.)

But beyond the usual porch chats and drunken receptions for the seersucker-clad crowd, there was definitely a change of mood from the last two conferences with tensions over the impending 2024 election and a palpable desire to see Republicans regain some power in Michigan as well as in the White House. So it was somewhat fitting that the blockbuster guilty verdict in Trump’s hush money trial was announced just minutes after the final panel concluded, a cold conversation between bipartisan legislative leaders (but more on that later).

The 2022 conference took place in that strange and disturbing space between the release of the U.S. Supreme Court’s draft opinion on dobbs The case was leaked and the actual decision overturning the national right to abortion was issued.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer at Mackinac Policy Conference May 29, 2024 | Anna Liz Nichols

During her keynote speech, Whitmer, thought to be facing a tough re-election bid during what was expected to be a red wave year, decided not to play it safe in a room full of CEOs waiting to hear vague development plans. economic and topics about work. Through the hallway.

The Democrat took advantage of that moment to defend the right to abortion.

“As we pursue our collective success, we must also be a state where women have bodily autonomy and equal rights,” Whitmer declared, and the audience unexpectedly dissolved into cheers.

As it turned out, she was ahead of the curve (and most of her party) by betting that reproductive rights would be a decisive issue in the midterm elections and then defeated her Republican opponent by double digits. Her victory also helped push Democrats to flip Michigan’s House and Senate in November 2022, something most conference attendees seemed to think was nearly impossible just a few months earlier.

Democrats wasted no time with a legislative blitz that included banning LGBTQ+ discrimination, formally repealing the state’s 1931 abortion ban, tightening gun laws and, most cruelly for the types of cameras, the elimination of the right to work.

There was visible whiplash for conservatives fighting for Michigan’s first unified Democratic government in about 40 years. This was reflected in the 2023 edition of the Mackinac conference, where civility and bipartisanship are always extolled as the highest virtues (while panelists often give smart advice on how Democrats can bow out gracefully).

But suddenly, business groups were no longer at the top of the lobbying food chain, and Republican cooperation could take a back seat on most bills. To make matters worse, national experts were still hopeful that President Biden would retire in 2024, setting up a Hunger Games-style primary with Whitmer as a leading contender.

Beyond the usual porch chats and drunken receptions for the seersucker-clad crowd, there was a definite change of mood from the last two conferences with tensions over the impending 2024 elections and a palpable desire to see the Republicans regain some power in Michigan as well. like in the White House.

Even corporate speakers couldn’t be counted on to pile on liberal excesses, with billionaire Mark Cuban throwing a memorable tear at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who, at the time, was the 2024 favorite of wealthy Republican donors, proclaiming that his feud with Walt Disney was “nonsense that makes not the slightest difference” and invited critics to “call me awake.”

After Cuban dropped the F-bomb, moderator KC Crain, CEO of the business publishing chain of the same name, jokingly reminded him, “I told you we’re at a political conference.”

“And I told you I don’t care. “I don’t want or need anything from any of you,” Cuban responded, prompting some laughter.

It was almost a Bizarro Mackinac.

The tone of this year’s conference was set early on, when business leaders argued that it was time to put the adults in charge (that is, them) again. They also painted a picture of economic uncertainty and high inflation, even though the Dow Jones just surpassed 40,000 points for the first time, the national unemployment rate is at historic lows and major retailers and restaurant chains are cutting prices.

Another (small) fact would seem to be the multitude of people willing to shell out more than $5,000 each for a three-day conference, which normally does not happen in difficult times.

Scattered throughout the panels were conservatives attacking Democrats (not necessarily by name, out of civility) for ending the right to work, even though there is no real evidence that this Governor Rick Snyder-era policy has ever done so. done a lot to improve the state’s economy.

Last year also saw the largest number of work stoppages since 2000. Needless to say, the formidable union victories against the Detroit Three, Detroit casinos, Kaiser Permanente, UPS and Hollywood studios were just a blip at the event (despite that, stay tuned, the Advance has some big job stories going down).

Members of the UAW picket line in Delta Township, Michigan, on September 29, 2023. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)

U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Suzanne Clark used her Mackinac platform to launch a spirited defense of capitalism, insisting that American free enterprise is “under threat” (which is true if you spend all your time in left-wing social media spaces, but practically nowhere). the rest). She did paraphrase Bono praising the free market, whose name may sound familiar to those who share a Spotify account with their parents.

Clark lamented that business groups are often too kind to populist “extremists” and promised that when “the government starts doing things they have no authority to do when they want to be a jack-of-all-trades, like running their business, the House of Representatives “The US intervenes to stop them.” But with the chamber’s influence in the Republican Party taking a hit (U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) once criticized it as a “front service for woke corporations”), it’s unclear how much power it can wield. really the group in politics. not anymore.

Another blast from the past came from former U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who waxed poetic about Trump’s tax cuts for the rich while rejecting the new isolationist streak in the foreign policy of the Republican Party.

And, knowing his audience, Ryan presented himself as an advocate of pragmatism, saying: “I actually don’t think either of our two parties are capturing what could be a large working majority in this country that is there to achieve victory.” but it is not going to be achieved right now.”

Of course, Ryan, who doesn’t seem to have aged at all since he was first elected president a decade ago, never had a moderate record, but that doesn’t really matter in Mackinac, where style can be enough to carry the day. substance.

Former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. and former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan at the 2024 Mackinac Policy Conference | Davidson

Given the audience’s rapt response (and my unscientific eavesdropping at the hotel and on the ferry), I bet most conference attendees would vote Paul Ryan for president in a heartbeat. The problem for them is that the country club group can no longer win the Republican primary.

The conference concluded with a discussion involving all four legislative leaders, which is usually a pleasant affair, but this one was decidedly frosty.

Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt (R-Porter Twp.) complained that Democrats were essentially ruining the state with policies like restoring prevailing wages, giving the state power to permit battery storage projects , large-scale solar and wind energy and, of course, eliminate right. work.

Nesbitt did not even promise that his group would provide the votes necessary for next year’s budget to take effect on time, which would seem to fly in the face of the economic certainty that business executives spent the entire conference insisting was necessary.

Both he and House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Twp.) confidently predicted that Republicans would take back the House in November with Trump on the ticket (even though he lost Michigan in 2020). . This also came before the former president was found guilty of all 34 felonies at his trial in New York (not that that was expected to change the GOP’s sales pitch).

I suppose if Republicans could somewhat rein in Whitmer’s power during her final two years in office, she would have spectacular results in conference as well. But of course, Michigan Republicans aren’t even looking to recapture a predictable, Paul Ryan-style conservatism. The leaders are campaigning at the same pace as Trump, appearing at his anti-immigration press conference in Grand Rapids and even embarking on an excellent adventure to the southern border.

Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) at the Mackinac Policy Conference, May 30, 2024 | Anna Liz Nichols

Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), who had clearly heard the long list of Republican complaints many, many times before, gave a clear, if a little weary, response.

“You can talk about the culture of grievance. You can try to relitigate everything that has happened in the last decade and you can focus on the negative, or you can sit at the table and work together and try to find answers that work for the people we represent. ,” she said.

That’s what the Mackinac Conference is supposed to be about. But for many regulars, it has been a tough adjustment to the reality that Democrats are no longer junior partners. At the end of the day, that is still the desired outcome of many powerful people, but it will likely come with the volatility and constitutional destruction of another Trump presidency.

Be careful what you wish for.