Harper Woods, Grosse PointesDecember 18, 2012
Life of a Lansing legislator
By K. Michelle Moran
C & G Staff Writer
Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series. Click here for the second installment.
LANSING — For State Rep. Tim Bledsoe, D-Grosse Pointe City, “a typical Wednesday is quiet.
“I might meet with a few lobbyists or constituents who have an interest in one issue or another,” continues Bledsoe from his office on the fifth floor of the Andersen House Office Building. That would be followed by House sessions for the day, which tend to start at around 1:30 and last roughly one and a half to two hours, he says.
But there’s nothing typical about this particular Wednesday in December, with a lame duck Legislature determined to pass bills with a speed that would shame IndyCar racers. On Dec. 5, members of the Republican majority in the state House and Senate are on the verge of approving bills that will make Michigan a right-to-work state, permit the hunting of gray wolves and place new restrictions on abortion providers, among other controversial issues.
“The volume of legislation we’re working on right now is just tremendous, which I think is unfortunate … (because) there’s little accountability,” Bledsoe says.
His schedule includes meetings of the commerce and environmental resources committees, along with House sessions throughout the afternoon during which bills are introduced and passed at lightning speed. Another committee meeting is on the horizon for the evening.
These are the last days in office for the legislator, a veteran political science professor from Wayne State University who in 2008 became the first Democrat to represent a district that included the five Grosse Pointes and Harper Woods. Voters returned Bledsoe to the House for a second term in 2010, but redistricting pitted him against fellow Democratic incumbent Rep. Alberta Tinsley Talabi in the August primary, and Talabi became the Democratic nominee and eventual officeholder for the new House District 2. Bledsoe will return to the college classroom in January, and he said he hopes to teach a course on running for office.
“With a lame duck (Legislature) and a packed agenda, there isn’t anything normal about these days,” a weary Bledsoe says shortly before heading into a committee meeting.
It’s not the amount of activity that bothers Bledsoe — it’s the fact that much of the legislation under consideration is being passed by leaders who are, like him, leaving office in the coming weeks and no longer need to answer to voters. And the pace at which bills are being voted on has left few or no opportunities for the public to weigh in, he says.
Bledsoe’s second committee meeting of the day is with the Natural Resources Committee, which meets in a large conference room that resembles a city council chamber, with a curved table and chairs for committee members in front and rows of seats occupied by state department heads, lobbyists, legislative staffers and interested members of the public. Before proceedings begin, a sea of people in suits mingle on the floor, discussing the legislation on the day’s agenda or just chatting.
“This is my favorite committee,” Bledsoe says before the meeting. “Of all of the committees, this is one I really wanted (to be on), because it has broad jurisdiction over environmental issues, Lake St. Clair — lots of natural resource issues.”
For a legislator who has many constituents who live, work or enjoy recreation on the water, it’s a perfect fit.
Representatives from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Consumers Energy, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Michigan Concrete Association are among those ready to testify on behalf of legislation before the committee, which Bledsoe says includes a bill to invest funds in state property that gives priority to lands that encourage or allow the use of recreational vehicles, such as snowmobiles and ATVs, over hikers, bikers and horseback riders. Bledsoe proposed an amendment that would have stripped out the priority given to motorized vehicles and put hikers and riders on equal footing, but the amendment failed.
This committee meeting takes place on the same floor as Bledsoe’s office, but that’s not always the case. He said there are conference rooms throughout the building just like this one for committee and other meetings. All members of the Michigan House have their offices in the Andersen Building. Bledsoe said the five Detroit districts are on the fifth floor — Talabi’s office is next to his — and they continue through District 110 on the 14th floor.
After the committee session, which covers several pieces of pending legislation, Bledsoe returns briefly to his office for a quick lunch and a check of emails and text messages.
“It’s gotten to the point where the primary means of communication with constituents is email,” he says. “We get relatively few calls and relatively few letters through the post.”
During an average day, legislative aide Paul Dennison said “20-30 (emails) is probably the norm.” But by the early afternoon of Dec. 5, he estimated they’d received “at least 100” emails within the last 24 hours, most of them from constituents worried about education reform bills, including one that would enable people with concealed weapons permits to bring guns into previously forbidden places, including hospitals, daycare centers, schools and sports arenas.
There’s a campaign bumper sticker on Bledsoe’s office door that prominently features the word “integrity.” The occupant of this office in January will be Brian Banks, the controversial Democrat for the new District 1 whose November election bid was dogged by scandals involving Banks’ troubles with the law.
In preparation for Bledsoe’s impending move, stacks of boxes containing brochures about recycling, child safety, tenant and landlord basics, and planning for seniors line half of one wall. They will soon be delivered to city halls, social agencies or the offices of other representatives.
Over the next few days, Bledsoe and Dennison will be removing personal items from the office. That includes a wall at the entrance covered with letters of thanks from officials and constituents, many of them children from Bledsoe’s district who’ve visited the state capitol and want to offer their own thoughts on issues, such as a child concerned about bus safety. Each day, Dennison and, until recently, a second staffer in Bledsoe’s office, field calls and emails from constituents expressing opinions about legislation and seeking help for problems with things like food stamps and driver’s licenses, Dennison explains.
“We act as a sort of (intermediary) between the constituents and the state,” Dennison says.
“That is the biggest job the staff does,” he says.
After lunch, it’s off to the floor of the House inside the state Capitol Building across the street, where Democrats and Republicans meet separately behind closed doors in caucus before taking their seats.
“It can be 10 minutes, it can be two hours,” says Rich Brown, assistant clerk of the House, on the amount of time legislators spend in caucus before coming to the floor. “It depends on what they’re discussing.”
Members of the public aren’t allowed on the House floor; instead, they’re seated in the balcony above. Classes of touring schoolchildren are shuttled in and out and every few minutes, and in most cases, a representative from the students’ district will formally introduce the students, who are then greeted by a hearty round of applause from legislators and House personnel, some of whom also wave to the youths.
The House chambers are aesthetically impressive. The domed building was designed by architect Elijah E. Myers and modeled after the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. Construction began in 1872 and was completed in 1873.
“This was one of his first major buildings,” explains Matt VanAcker, director of capitol tour services. A building that had a construction budget of $1.5 million during the late 1800s was restored to its former glory 20 years ago, at a cost of $58 million, VanAcker says. The ceiling features etched glass panels with seals from all 50 states, and the ornate walls are lined with portraits of early state leaders.
Representatives — Democrats on one side of the room, Republicans on the other — sit at walnut desks that Bledsoe says are the original ones from the 1800s — albeit with risers to accommodate today’s taller people. Each representative has a phone at his station underneath a roll-top panel where the representative can receive urgent calls from staffers and the like; the phones blink instead of ring to discreetly announce an incoming call.
Along with laptop computers and files of paperwork, most legislators’ “stations” on the House floor are marked by personal touches — framed family photos, a decorative miniature University of Michigan football helmet, cookie jars, snacks, action figures, and even a tiny pink parka belonging to a visiting grandchild. Bledsoe’s station, located in the back row, is Spartan by comparison, with a coffee mug and a small box of odds and ends. Inside his main drawer are mints and a personal copy of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, from which Bledsoe said he selects a favorite prayer when he’s called upon to lead the daily prayer — a responsibility that rotates among House members.
A special website for representatives includes notes on each bill prepared by House staffers and the House fiscal agency, and Bledsoe says normally legislators get the agenda in advance so they have time to read up on pending bills. In this accelerated session, however, they often have just minutes to read and digest the information before they press a button at their station to vote for or against legislation. Electronic boards at the front of the room show who has voted and how, with representatives’ names in green for yes, red for no and yellow for anyone who hasn’t voted. Bledsoe said it’s a felony for anyone other than the elected representative to push one of these voting buttons.
In his four years as a legislator, Bledsoe says he has only missed one day on the House floor, and that was because he had to attend the funeral of his daughter’s godfather.
“I take the job seriously,” he says. “I may be a lame duck, but I’ll be here as late as I have to be tonight to cast the votes.”
In part two next week, Bledsoe reflects on his time in Lansing.