The Recall Recoil

Michigan recall election reforms may help sustain right-to-work law

December 18, 2012

Republicans in Michigan capped off a prolific lame duck session that included turning the home of the United Auto Workers into a right-to-work state by passing recall reforms.

The Michigan legislature on Friday pushed through a bill that will limit the ability of interest groups and residents to recall elected officials. Challengers now have 60 days to file recall petitions, down from 90, and recall votes now require opposition candidates rather than up-or-down votes.

Liberal activists have campaigned to recall Republican Gov. Rick Snyder since May 2011. That chorus has gained a few key labor voices since Dec. 11 when Snyder made Michigan the 24th right-to-work state in the nation and the second in the industrial Midwest.

At 17 percent, Michigan has one of the most heavily unionized workforces in the nation. That figure goes a long way to meeting the 25 percent of voters needed to hold a recall election.

However, unions have failed to elect Democrats even in successful recalls.

Michigan became the recall capital of the nation in 2011, representing nearly 20 percent of recall efforts nationwide.

"There are legitimate reasons for recall but there was never any basis for the 2011 recalls other than retaliation from both political parties," said Bob McCann, spokesman for Michigan Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer.

Dozens of requests were filed, including the successful ouster of state Rep. Paul H. Scott, once considered rising GOP star.

Scott, 30, chaired the House Education Committee. His support for teaching and pension reforms sparked the ire of the Michigan Education Association, one of the state’s largest unions.

"I was totally unprepared for the assault from the MEA," Scott, now a labor law attorney in his native Grand Blanc, said in an interview with the Washington Free Beacon. "They had unlimited resources and bussed out members; my town had always been quiet, so once they came people figured I must have done something awful."

The union’s clout was not enough to help a union candidate replace him, however. Republican Joe Graves beat union candidate Steven Losey by 10 points.

"That was a union election all the way but their main problem was the time it took between the recall and the race to replace me," Scott said. "Once the people saw how disingenuous the union was during the campaign—that my actions did not shut down schools or lay teachers off by the thousands—they turned against the union."

Timing is everything in these labor-driven referenda, according to Sean Lansing, spokesman for the MacIver Institute, a conservative Wisconsin think tank.

Wisconsin unions angered by Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 labor reforms successfully forced a recall election in June of this year. Walker won by a wider margin than in his 2010 election. Walker’s success stood in stark contrast to the situation in Ohio where labor reforms championed by Republican Gov. John Kasich were defeated in a November 2011 referendum.

"The timeline plays a major factor," Lansing said. "Ohio lost because the reforms did not have the chance to work. In Wisconsin, people were able to see the benefits before they went to the ballot box."

Michigan Republicans avoided the referendum dilemma by classifying the law as an appropriation’s bill—$1 million has been set aside to implement the right-to-work reform of ending forced unionism. Appropriations bills cannot be overturned via referendum.

Labor groups are more likely to focus on the recall route as a result, according to Scott. But the former representative likes the governor’s odds in such a race.

"He’s got time on his side and he has the advantage of the bully pulpit to highlight the benefits," he said. "If he can force a debate on the intellectual merits of worker freedom, he’ll win."

The Michigan bill provoked outrage from Democrats.

"We’ve been pushing for recall reform for years but the whole process was offensive," McCann said. "Instead of owning up to their votes, they shielded themselves. The timelines are so stringent it’s nearly impossible to get through the steps."

However, residents and interest groups in other states have been able to hold recalls under similar restrictions. A 60-day framework did not stop Wisconsin’s unions from forcing a recall election.

Snyder has yet to sign the legislation but is expected to do so.