Commentary: A tribute to “Master of the State Senate” Jim Ananich

By Michigan State Representative Jasper R. Martus

“Thank God for Michigan,” President Lincoln proclaimed when troops arrived to join Union forces in the early stages of the Civil War.

Pundits and politicians from across the country offered similar sentiments on Nov. 8 when election returns pointed to Democratic wins up and down the ballot in Michigan. The state’s first Democratic trifecta in over 40 years, a woman’s right to choose codified into law, and the bucking of a century of precedents all happened in one night.

State Senator Jim Ananich

While so many Michigan Democrats who won will take office or return to office, one of the main architects of this electoral success will not be returning to Lansing. State Senator Jim Ananich, the Democratic leader in the Michigan Senate, will be leaving office because of term limits at the end of this year. Like Moses nearly reaching the Promised Land, Senator Ananich may not cross into the destination he worked so hard to reach, but every person who flourishes there will be forever indebted to him.

Long before he was a fixture in Michigan politics, Jim Ananich was just a kid from Flint, a description that has never changed. In a political world that was still dominated by who you know, waiting your turn, and often deferring to special interests, rising through the ranks would be difficult. Ananich did not come from a political family or wealth, two of the easiest ways to skip to the front of the line in politics. Instead, he became a student of politics in the abstract, devouring biographies of Lyndon Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, and others.  He became a student of politics at the local level, learning to navigate organized labor, churches, and business. As he methodically rose through the ranks, he brought with him an entire generation of young people who were similarly ambitious but like him lacked the initial tools and resources to make a difference. This created a network of folks thankful for his mentorship and always willing to help him succeed.

While residents of Flint City Hall can often get bogged down in scandals or low approval ratings, Ananich was able to transition successfully from a Flint City councilman to a state representative in 2011. During his time in the state House, he took the lead on rebuilding the state party in the aftermath of the 2010 red wave. Democrats lost control of the State House, which meant it would be incredibly difficult for him to pass legislation. Nonetheless, Ananich was able to achieve a good working relationship with the Republican majority which made for committee hearings and bills reaching the House floor while also strategizing how to bring Democrats back to power.

State Senator Jim Ananich with his son at a 2020 Biden/Harris political event in Flint. (Photo by Tom Travis)

When a state senate seat opened, Jim Ananich made the jump. He took on Woodrow Stanley, a fellow state representative and popular former Mayor of Flint. Stanley had been in politics since Ananich was seven years old and had several prominent supporters. Despite the obstacles, Ananich ran for the senate seat. As soon as the House session was adjourned, he would race back to Genesee County to knock on doors. It was a special election which meant campaigning had to be done in the dead of winter. He would often wear his thermal wear under his suit and tie so that he could make a quick change once he reached the neighborhood where he was knocking doors. The average temperature that winter was a low 20° with some days well below 0°. Ananich kept knocking, making calls, and writing letters, each day dropping more weight. In the end, he was victorious.

Senator Ananich moved chambers but faced a similar problem: a party in disarray. Democrats had been crushed in the Michigan Senate too and the Republican trifecta did little to include them. Ananich knew that they needed a seat at the table to both deliver for their constituents and appear as a united front if they wanted to appear as a legitimate alternative to Republicans. Less than two years into his time in the senate and four years into his total time in Lansing, he was elected Democratic Leader in 2015. With Republicans controlling all levels of government, Jim Ananich became the most important Democrat in the Michigan government.

Ananich instilled party discipline in his caucus, going to great lengths to understand each of his colleagues and the communities they represented. Presenting a unified front, cobbled together through hours of private studies and discussions, his efforts made it harder for Republicans to cut Democrats out of discussions. Ananich would take a lead in dealing with chaos and controversies within the caucus behind closed doors so that the Senate Democrats would always appear disciplined and focused on the people’s work. While Republicans threw up roadblocks, Ananich was able to deliver wins for the people of Michigan. Investments in education and infrastructure, making Michigan more friendly to businesses, and righting the wrong done to his hometown during the Flint Water Crisis all have Ananich’s fingerprints. He demurred headlines and assigned credit to his colleagues and his party.

Senator James Ananich (at podium) speaking with then-State Representatives John Cherry (left), Sheldon Neeley and Sheryl Kennedy (right). (Photo by Paul Rozycki)

Eventually, the strategies Ananich developed early on in his tenure began to bear fruit. In 2018, his friend and former colleague Gretchen Whitmer was elected governor. Democrats in Washington D.C. won control of the U.S. House of Representatives by flipping seats in Michigan with talented candidates like Elissa Slotkin and Hailey Stevens. Perhaps most importantly for Ananich, he elected more Democrats to the Michigan Senate than any Leader had done in decades. While Democrats were still in the minority, they narrowed the partisan divide and gave Democrats their best showing in a generation.

When Governor Whitmer took office, Senator Ananich became a critical governing partner and they worked together to pass major reforms in education, public safety, and infrastructure. While Ananich was able to accomplish more legislatively than he had in his entire career, he continued to keep his eye on his ultimate goal: a Democratic state senate. He started early fundraising, recruiting top-tier candidates, and building a solid ground game that would do the impossible. Democrats could point to victories in a divided government, successes only made possible because of his work, while also making the case to voters that Lansing needed change. A war room full of maps, out-of-state consultants, and complicated computer algorithms could chart a path to the majority, but only Jim Ananich could lead his party there.

On Nov. 8, 2022, the decade-long plan finally came to fruition. Governor Whitmer was reelected by double digits. The Michigan House of Representatives flipped to Democrats. At 5 a.m. the following morning, Jim Ananich watched as news networks called the Michigan Senate for Democrats. A Democratic trifecta, the first in over 40 years and only the 5th in 130 years finally happened. Mr. Ananich went to Lansing as a member of a party on the decline. He will leave Lansing as the longest-serving senate party leader in 30 years, the most electorally successful leader in as much time, and one of the most important state leaders in half a century.

Michigan Democrats have many people to thank for their success, but perhaps no one more than Jim Ananich. He rebuilt the Michigan Democratic Party in the aftermath of a historic Republican wave and laid the foundation for its historic success this past November. During that time, he took part in record investments in infrastructure, historic expansions of health care, guiding a state through a pandemic and multiple recessions, and holding perpetrators of the Flint Water Crisis accountable.

At 47 years old, practically a kid in today’s politics, Jim Ananich will have a bright career wherever he goes next. Whether his path is in the private sector or continued involvement in politics at the state or federal level, he remains one of the most popular and important figures in both Lansing and Genesee County. After 40 years in the wilderness, Democrats will be able to deliver for Michigan because of his tireless work.

Jim Ananich may be entering his own time in the wilderness, but whenever or however he returns, Genesee County will be there to support him.

EVM Guest writer – Jasper R. Martus is state representative for the 69th district which consists of northwest Genesee County. Jasper currently serves as vice chair of the Michigan House Democratic Caucus and is one of the youngest state representatives in Michigan history. Jasper is a graduate of Powers Catholic High School class of 2018 and Michigan State University’s James Madison College with a Bachelor’s in International Relations class of 2021.

Author: Tom Travis

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