New legislators face a significant knowledge hurdle during the early stages of their public service. They may have been motivated to run by one or two issues and built their campaign platform to speak knowledgeably about four or five. But once they are sworn in, they are quickly thrown into the deep end and forced to cast career-defining votes on matters that they may have known nothing about. Family law? Pension assumptions? Sex offender registration? Data system management?
Such challenges are compounded in a state with term limits as aggressive as Michigan’s. Some issues take several years to master, and our constitution turns over the entire Michigan House every six years — assuming voters haven’t done it sooner.
But this frequent turnover also presents a special opportunity. I observed while working in a state with no term limits that long-tenured legislators tend to become more invested in Capitol networks than in their constituents. They are also more likely to resist comprehensive reforms. New blood, on the other hand, can mean new energy, fresh mindsets and a convert’s desire to take on heavy lifts.
Right-to-work, asset forfeiture reform and auto insurance reform are examples of recent changes that came about because an influx of new legislators said, “That makes sense, why not?” before the old-timers could convince them, “Because it’s damned hard and you’ll make some big groups mad!”
As a 501(c)(3) organization, the Mackinac Center may not engage in political activity, which includes endorsing candidates in a partisan election. We can’t write campaign checks like unions, trade associations, and lobbying firms can. Nevertheless, we are able to offer candidates our expertise on the issues you care about, and we do so within our broad mission to educate Michiganders on the issues facing our state.
In June, we launched the first edition of MCPP Candidate University. We invited all nonincumbent candidates for the Michigan House — regardless of party affiliation — to a briefing series led by our experts, introducing them to our key areas of research. This was built off a program I built and managed in Texas, starting in 2010; by the time I came here two years ago, almost two-thirds of Texas House Republicans had gone through that training.
Our original plan for candidates in Michigan was to have four identical day-long programs in different regions of the state, but COVID-19 forced us into six hour-long webinars spaced over three weeks in June. Each webinar provided an introduction to two or three topics, with slides containing key statistics and illustrations. Candidates had the opportunity to direct questions to our experts. All of the presentations and background articles were compiled on a private web portal for the participants.
Out of 300 nonincumbent House candidates, 68 registered for the program and portal access. Forty-four of these (including 10 Democrats) joined at least one session. And those who win their November elections will be invited to another briefing in December that will expand on these topics and provide more specific recommendations for the 101st Michigan Legislature.
A growing number of our sister think tanks are adopting candidate education as a government affairs tactic, but MCPP Candidate University appears to be the first comprehensive program conducted online. The enthusiastic reception it received from the participants, our experts, and our peers guarantees that it will become a core even-year activity of ours from now on.