Norm is the Chief of Staff for the Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, Kevin Cotter.
I’d like to start by learning more about your history. How did you get interested in Politics?
Well, it wasn’t an interest in Politics as much as an interest in communication and public policy. It’s that old adage of “get involved with the process or shut up and stay on the sidelines and stop complaining about how someone else is doing their job!” I worked for consumer’s energy for 33 years, most of it in public policies and community affairs. The last 25 years was in governmental affairs, I ran our state office. I was comfortably retired, but this became a second career.
When I was executive director, I was essentially a lobbyist. In the pre term limit days of Michigan legislature, you could develop long-term relationships, and in some cases friendships. I became friends with Jason Allen, who represented the Traverse City area, and I became his chief of staff 8 years ago. And after 20 years of being in the private sector, and then spending three years in the government, I’ve learned that I really have to keep the trains moving. I manage people that do constituent relations, legislative activities, and scheduling. I had some interest that I tried to work with the senator on, but it was more about the overall management. I didn’t come to work every day knowing I was going to be doing one of those things. I came to work knowing that all of those things need to be functioning properly.
Once Jason Allen was out of office, I worked as the Manager of Appointments for Governor Snyder. I came to know a lot of people in my many years in Lansing, so I helped the governor find the subject matter experts in the area. I then served former speaker Bolger as his chief of staff for 15 months. As the chief of staff for the majority party speaker, you also have a responsibility for not only the members of the republican caucus, but also non-partisan boards, such as the clerks office, the sergeants, the fiscal agency, et cetera. I mange staff members from both parties, as well as non-partisan staff members.
You spoke on as how you manage people who do legislation. How would you say you are affecting state legislation and policy?
That’s a great question. I would say that I am affecting state policy and legislation by making sure the system is operating. It starts behind the scenes. Make sure committees are established. Because we are the majority party, we choose the people that are on the committees, so that is all done before any legislation starts. I affect legislation by choosing the people who are making the legislation. The speaker and his elected staff are in charge of the day-to-day legislative activities, but it is very important that his staff is supporting them.
In these days of term limits, there are very few “new issues,” there are a lot of issues that keep coming back. I can speak directly on energy. There was major legislation passed in 2000 related to energy, and it was amended significantly in 2008, and they are working on amending it again. I sit in on the meetings with lobbyists, and I offer a historical perspective because I, and some of the other staff, have been around through the introduction of the bill and all of the amendments. The speaker often doesn’t have enough time to do everything, so I often meet with them.
My office also handles also handles all of the communication, so people of all sides and interests has a chance to be involved. I also work across the hall with Democrats, to convey our concerns and priorities. We also work with the executive office.
There’s a common saying in this town; there’s three numbers you need to know: 56, 20, and 1. You need 56 members of the house, 20 members of the senate, and 1 governor to agree on something in order for it to become a law. I obviously work with house members a lot, but I also maintain good relationships with senators, and ultimately work with the executive office to see if the governor will sign or veto the bill. At each step of the process, someone is the backbone and provides insight, and that’s a lot of what my job is.
Before I touch on your relationship with the Democrats, I’d like to know what legislation your office is currently focused on.
The biggest thing we’re working on right now is the budget. The state’s fiscal year starts on October 1st, and the governor and legislation have made it a priority to have the budget done well in advance of that date. When I was in the senate, we often finished budgets on the day that they became active, and we want to avoid that situation this year. We have a goal date of June 1st, and in Governor Snyder’s first four years, we’ve hit that date each time.
Some of the other pressing issues are energy legislation, and Detroit Schools. There was a recent report detailing the financial issues of the Detroit Schools, and a component of the resolution will come through state legislature. Other education issues, such as core curriculum, teacher evaluations, 3rd grade reading, have bills that are working their way through legislature.
Proposal 1 is a major upcoming ballot. Is your office involved with that in any way?
The reason that the public is voting on Proposal 1 is because it would change the state sales tax, which is constitutional. The bill was passed in December of last year, so until May 5th, there is nothing that this legislature is doing about proposal 1, other than providing information to constituents. A lot of legislators are dealing with questions from their home district. Representatives will often slant their opinions on the bill, but they are not allowed to use state property, such as mail or phones, to tell voters which way they should vote. All of the house republicans and democrats were able to send out a mailer to their districts that provided basic information on the proposal as well as 5 reasons to support the bill, and 5 reasons to be against it. We had lawyers write it to make sure it was fair to both sides. That was a long answer to your question, but essentially the legislature is not actively working on the proposal, just talking to constituents.
I’d like to learn more about some of the issues you face. You spoke about working across the isle with Democrats, would you consider them opponents?
No, I would not consider them opponents at all. We are all Michiganders! Each representative represents about 90,000 people. There are opportunities to work with democrats, and also certain situations where the 63 house republicans have a different perspective than the 47 democrats, so often bills are passed on a partisan vote. But at the beginning, middle, and end of the day, you’re going to come back tomorrow and work together.
So there is a lot of interaction between parties?
There is daily interaction in committees, and sub-caucuses. There’s the sportsman caucus, the women’s caucus, Hispanic caucus, so you find a lot of commonality that’s out there. Often time a republican district will be next to a democratic district, and there really is a lot in common between the two. A great example is the Upper Peninsula. There are four representatives there, and two are democratic and two are republican. They are working together on Upper Peninsula issues.
That being said, every two years the citizens decide who will be making legislature, and the majority party sets the rules. The last 10 speakers, we’ve had 5 republicans and 5 democrats. We’ve also had 55-55 partisan split in the house, and that’s because Michigan is essentially 40% democrat, 40% republican, and 10% independent, so that middle margin really decides which way legislature is going to go. The house minority and majority leaders often meet, so there is a real sense of civility around here, but during an election year things change slightly. The republicans gained 4 seats in the last election, so the democrats are looking to next November to try and reclaim some of the deficit.
Sticking with the subject of parties, how important is your party affiliation, and can you speak on why you chose to become a member of the Republican Party?
I spent 33 years with consumer energy, so I really was a party of the energy party. I’ve worked under democratic governors and republican governors. The senate has mostly been republican, but I’ve experienced both a democratic and republican majority in the house. I’ve always worked for republicans, which pretty much reflects my economic philosophy, but I like to consider myself in the middle of the spectrum, and I know and work with people all over the political spectrum.
Since you’ve become more involved with State Politics, how have your opinions on politics changed?
I think that Michigan is a very diverse state. I was born in Detroit, and grew up in the northern part of the state, so I have a sense of the urban and rural areas of Michigan. But we’re all Michiganders, and it is vital to have a strong sense of community, no matter what part of the state you live in. But things like education, transportation, healthcare, and energy affect all 10 million people in the state. So I’ve learned that legislation really isn’t passed in order to benefit a party, it is really passed to try to help all the residents. Unemployment legislation, for example, is passed in hopes of creating jobs that everyone has access to. Public safety laws are passed so that everyone is protected.
Many people think that because the Republicans have the majority, they can just ram legislation through. That is not the case because we have a spectrum within the party, and a lot of the division that exists is not philosophical, but geographical. For example, during the grand bargain when Detroit was bankrupt, a lot of out-of-district republicans voiced concerns because a lot of people who worked for the city of Detroit had retired and moved out of the city. So they had constituents that were directly affected by the pension cuts. They weren’t living in Detroit, but they were living off funds that have to do with the Detroit budget. So get out of the world of politics, and you realize that there are a ton of statewide issues. We strive to cut across party lines and look at people as Michiganders.
If you had to describe state politics in one word, what would it be?
Reflective. It’s reflective of constituents, it’s reflective of how our state is different from Wisconsin or South Carolina or New York, and it’s reflective of how geographically diverse our state is.
One last question. For students who are trying to become more involved in politics, or even have a career in politics, what advice would you give them?
I think you have to have a passion for public service. A passion for a particular area, such as the environment or education is also necessary. You also need to make sure that you can communicate with others to display your passion and speak about your ideas.
We have a lot of turn over on staff. I’ll give you an example. Most representatives have 2 people that work for them. A “front desk-er” and a “back desk-er.” The person in the front handles scheduling and constituent relations, while the person in the back does committee and policy work. The economics of the entry-level jobs is not great, so a passion is important. How does one get that job? Well often they become involved in a campaign. The entry-level jobs involve a lot of learning, because it is the first experience they have in politics. It is important to well represent and support the representative. You also have to talk to constituents, because when people call they want to talk to a live person. So young people getting involved in politics have to have a commitment to not making a lot of money, dealing with constituents to make sure they are supportive in the upcoming election, and you also have to be able to communicate.
You have to be able to read a bill and know what is says. When an education bill, for example, is under review, you’re going to hear back from teachers, superintendents, parents, the union, et cetera. You can’t tell any of them “I don’t care what you have to say because my mind is made up.” You have to thank them for their point of view,” and learn their perspective because the bills we pass are complex issues that affect a lot of people.
We bring in a lot of interns, some are unpaid. Many of the schools in Michigan have internship programs, and they do a lot of scheduling work and such. But they also sit in on a lot of committee meetings, so they get a good chance to see how the system works. It’s a great way to get experience, because they learn a lot about their own views. They sometimes think, “maybe I’m not a democrat,” or “maybe I’m not a republican,” or “I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life, this isn’t for me.” They often end up looking at political perspectives in a different way.
Entry-level positions are often stepping-stones; there aren’t a lot of cradle-to-grave workers here, because there is so much turnover. I’m an outlier, because I am trying to make sure all of the staff members are working together. There is no permanence to these jobs; there are standards that need to be met such as forming a consistent and personable relationship with constituents. If standards aren’t satisfied, you can be fired at a moments noticed. Also, because of term limits, you could be the best staffer around and be out of a job because your representative is no longer working for the government. So these are not career jobs, but there is great intensity while you’re here, and you can feel like you’re making a difference. Entry-level workers feel a sense of accomplishment.
Thank you very much for your time, you covered everything that I wanted to know!