It's not unreasonable to suppose that voters would also like Lansing to fix the damn schools, keep the damn water drinkable, and, damn it, get along.
But the last time political power in the state capital was divided between a Democratic governor and a Republican Legislature, the two parties fought each other to a virtual draw. Can a different cast of characters make the same arrangement more successful this time around?
Michigan's last Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, had no legislative experience to draw on when she succeeded John Engler in 2002. By contrast, Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer spent 14 years in the state Legislature, earning a reputation as pragmatic and low-key.
"Fix the damn roads" was Whitmer's campaign mantra, and she says her legislative experience means she's well positioned to work with GOP House and Senate leaders to get it done. She says she'll restore "quadrant" meetings among the governor and majority and minority leaders of each chamber.
But with a Republican-controlled Legislature, there's only so much even the most experienced governor can do. Whether we're headed for progress, or paralysis, is largely in the hands of the state's new GOP legislative leaders.
Right now, we're at kumbaya.
Incoming House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, says Michiganders expect progress.
"What frustrates people about Washington is that they can’t work together," Chatfield said. "Michigan can’t be like Washington. We will work through the process, and Gov.-elect Whitmer is someone who knows the process."
Chatfield says he looks forward to building healthy relationships with Democrats. Newly elected state Sen. Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake told the Lansing newsletter Gongwer that he's also eager to find areas of policy agreement with Whitmer.
But former Republican state Rep. Paul Hillegonds, who served as co-speaker with Democrat Curtis Hertel after an election that left the House divided equally between the parties, says impatience can foil a new legislative class's best intentions.
"Too often legislators start with solutions, instead of better understanding and defining the problems," he said. "I think the temptation to begin working on driving policy through the process right away should be avoided, and more time spent defining and understanding the problems, defining what solutions are out there together, instead of 'Here’s my solution.'"
But how GOP leaders choose to engage with Whitmer is likely the most important decison Shirkey and Chatfield have to make, said former state Sen. Ken Sikkema, who served as leader of the state Senate's Republican majority during Gov. Jennifer Granholm's second term. "What is their operating philosophy with the new governor?"
One option, Sikkema said is confrontation: "They're going to stop whatever she tries to do." Think U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's pledge to make Barack Obama a one-term president, or former U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, whose term as state Senate majority leader was marked by two government shutdowns and a publicly contentious relationship with Granholm.
"The other option is far more nuanced," Sikkema said. "To say, we believe we’ve made a lot of gains in Michigan during last eight years of Republican control, we're going to insist we maintain those gains, we're going to continue to fight for the principles we believe underlie those gains, but at the same time we will find ways to work with the new governor to solve the problems the state faces."
Uncertainty about Michigan's future political landscape may encourage both parties to be more cautious, and less confrontational. The passage of Proposal 2 means that redistricting, previously the purview of the majority party in the Legislature, will be overseen by a nonpartisan citizens' commission after the next census.
"Even before Prop 2," Sikkema noted, lawmakers didn't know exactly how their districts would look after 2020. "Now they really don’t know," he added, "and they have no control,"
Sikkema also says it's best to have a thick skin. "If I’m Mike Shirkey. I go to the governor and say, 'Governor, you've got to understand sometimes I have to throw some red meat to the caucus.' And the governor has to say the same thing to majority leader and speaker: 'Occasionally I have to say things that are more politically motivated than anything but — wink wink — I don’t really mean it. But you have to say that, so when you do it, no one takes it seriously," he said. "When you have split government, you can’t be too prickly."
"The media has never been helpful on this," he noted.
And regardless of which party holds the majority, Hillegonds says, the majority can't run roughshod over the minority.
"If the other party is in the minority and you control everything, it's still important to sit down with the other side . . . Tell them, here’s the agenda we want to move, we don’t want to surprise you. Ask what they think should be on the agenda.
"Expect the minority party will have some good ideas. Your party doesn't have a monopoly on good ideas. Let the minority party feel they have influence over the process."
A Democratic governor and a Republican Legislature offer an opportunity for not just progress, but balance, Sikkema says.
"It will be a question of how they (Shirkey and Chatfield) decide, collectively, to govern with a split government," Sikkema said.
"There’s potential for progress," he said, but also potential for paralysis. "If that happens," he added, "that’s because they made the decision that that’s what they want."
About the writer: Nancy Kaffer is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press (distributed by TNS). You may contact her at [email protected]