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Shifting regional political power


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The outward shift of population from the city and inner suburbs, Hillegonds said, has been accompanied by a shift from a manufacturing economy to more of a service-based economy.

"With that has been much less unionization. Unions have much less influence in the political process than they once did, and that has been a factor in the growth of Republican influence," Hillegonds said. "The other thing, I think, is that the state has grown more conservative, and that's not just a partisan thing. The state has changed in what government should be, and government has been reduced."

After leaving the legislature, Hillegonds moved to metro Detroit to serve as president of Detroit Renaissance, and now serves as the CEO of the Michigan Health Endowment Fund and chair of the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority.

"My perspective was broadened by working with Detroit Renaissance and working on some of the urban challenges, but serving from out-state, Detroit has challenges on issues in part because of the out-state view, and also because the region had issues," he said. "The regional transit issue was there even when I was in the legislature during my time in Holland, and whether SEMTA (Southeast Michigan Transportation Authority) should come together to get matching federal dollars. In the end, that didn't come together, not because of outstate opposition, but because the suburbs and the city couldn't agree. That has remained a challenge for Detroit and also for southeast Michigan.

"I don't think it's just population. The divisions in southeast Michigan between the urban centers and the outer-ring suburbs have reduced the influence to west Michigan, which has tended to have more commonality of viewpoints. In west Michigan, there is more common ground, while southeast Michigan has been more divided, in terms of city and suburbs."

Former Oakland County Republican legislator Richard Fessler, who represented the Union Lake area in the state House from 1975 to 1982 and in the state Senate from 1983 to 1990, said the loss of population within the city of Detroit diminished the influence of southeast Michigan in the legislature.

"At one time, there was a lot of legislation that referred to cities of 'one million population' for special taxes or funding. When Detroit shrank in population, those became invalid. They lost the ability to get more of the budget pie, and they also lost power," Fessler said. "The Democratic vote was dissipated by going to more rural areas. The Democrats controlled the Senate for 40 years, and the lower House for a couple of decades. When the Republicans took control of the Senate, which they have maintained since that time, that was a real shift, and also a shift in the balance of government.

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