Runaway senators: the fight over MI’s first state-level primary

Mar 8, 2016

This year’s presidential primary has turned out to be pretty interesting, but the origin story of Michigan’s state level primaries could give the hoopla of 2016 a run for its money. We learn more about Michigan’s first state primary from Maria Taylor, Assistant Editor of Michigan History Magazine.

The presidential primary is front and center as voters line up to cast their vote for who they want to see on the ballot in November.

But presidential candidates aren’t the only ones that have to face the primary before getting a shot at office. 

Starting in the early 1900s, Michigan began holding primaries for state-level officials like the Governor and Lieutenant Governor.

And that first primary got off to a very interesting start.

The story involves the World Series, heated arguments, and Senators being dragged to their chamber by Lansing police.

It was featured in an article from the most recent issue of Michigan History Magazine.

The magazine’s Assistant Editor, Maria Taylor, joined Current State to discuss the strange history behind state primaries in Michigan.

Taylor says before the state’s first primary in 1908, the process of nominating a candidate for Governor or Lieutenant Governor were very different.

“Candidates were nominated by party bosses, and regular voters had little to do with the actual process.”

But Michigan Governor Fred Warner thought the caucus and convention system didn’t accurately reflected the wishes of the Michigan people.

And so, Taylor says, he set out to change that system.

His first attempt at reform was thwarted in 1905.

In 1907, Warner tried again and proposed eliminating a controversial rule called “the 40% clause”.

“In order to be nominated, the Governor and Lt. Governor had to get at least 40% of the vote,” says Taylor.

Many in the State Senate saw Warner’s interest in reforming the primary process as a ploy to get re-elected.

There were 16 senators that fiercely opposed Warner’s bill. Inspired by China’s Boxer Rebellion in 1900, the group called themselves “The Boxers”.

A frustrated Warner called a special session to discuss the impasse – but there were other priorities first.

“They agreed to take a few days off so they could make it to Detroit for the World Series,” says Taylor. “The Tigers lost, but the senators still had a great time.”

Eventually, the Boxers got together to write a response to the Governor’s proposal. The only problem was that there was no one left in the Senate to listen to it.

“The Governor’s supporters fanned out over the city while they were writing it,” says Taylor. “There weren’t enough senators for a quorum.”

That’s when the Boxers called for Lansing police to round up and arrest the fleeing senators. The escaped legislators hid all over the city,  including in a local opera house and aboard a moving train.

“Four of the senators ‘tweaked their fingers’ at the arresting officers and walked off,” says Taylor. In other words, they flipped them the bird.

The Boxers locked the doors to the Senate chamber so nobody else could escape.

They presented their speech opposing the bill to the two of Warner’s supporters who remained. But by then, it was too late.

“The compromise bill passed 28-2. Governor Warner won a third term, and became the first Michigan governor to be elected under the primary system,” says Taylor.

Article by Ethan Merrill, Current State intern