For Michigan lawmakers, 'hunting break' is a decades-old tradition
In Republican state Rep. Sarah Lightner’s family, the start of hunting season always goes off with a bang.
She pulls her kids out of school, so they can shoot deer on their family farm in Jackson County on the first day it’s allowed under Michigan law.
Lightner’s colleagues recognize hunting season, too. State representatives and senators typically take a brief recess to coincide with Thanksgiving and Michigan’s firearm deer season. Lawmakers call it their hunting break and this year it spans just over two weeks.
In some ways, the break may be a relic of a bygone era, said John Lindstrom, a retired journalist who spent four decades covering Michigan politics.
“At one time, hunting was far more predominant in the population," Lindstrom said. "Far more people per capita hunted than maybe do today. Especially when the state was still more rural.”
Before the 1960s, Michigan’s part-time lawmakers didn’t typically schedule votes at the tail end of fall. So conflicts with deer season were a non-issue.
Now, Michigan is one of ten states with full-time lawmakers meeting year round, although legislative leaders can still schedule recesses like hunting break.
Over the years, it's generated a smattering of controversy.
In 2013, Ann Arbor Democrat Rebekah Warren blasted the practice as “proof the male-dominated culture is alive and well” at the capital. Two of her female Republican colleagues responded by inviting the state senator on a hunting trip.
Only 20 state lawmakers— less than 14% of the Legislature — have current licenses to hunt deer, according to data from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources as of Nov. 17.
But state Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, says even non-hunters like him can benefit from spending more time with their constituents during breaks from voting.
“Listen, there's a ton of work that the Legislature, that we need to get done," Hertel said. "But I don't know if hunting break is a major thing that's holding it up.”
Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Christopher Dingell is an avid hunter and former state lawmaker. The Detroit-area Democrat used to mark the open or close of deer season on the Senate floor by reciting an altered version of a John Voelker poem about fishing.
Dingell's rendition went something like this: “I hunt because I love to. Because I love the environs that deer are found which are invariably beautiful, and hate the environs where crowds of people are found which are invariably ugly.”
Back on her farm in mid-Michigan, Rep. Lightner likes to get up before dawn to hunt whenever she can. She wears camo and packs extra bullets.
“This is my gun," she explained. "It’s a shotgun, 12-gauge, because down here, in this part of Michigan, you can’t use a rifle.”
Lightner whispered as she set up a camping chair in the shelter built for hunting known as a deer blind. She sprayed her surroundings with doe urine to attract bucks.
"It stinks," she said. "Deer have a really good sense of smell."
Lightner co-chairs Michigan's Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus and she sees hunting and fishing expeditions as a way to foster bipartisan bonding.
"There's always big hunting and fishing tales that they’ll tell," she said. "And they'll be like, you know, ‘Oh, my fish was 17 inches.’ And you're like, ‘Yeah, I don't think so. You don't know how to use a ruler.'”
Lightner added, “When you have that friendly camaraderie, you earn the respect of your colleagues."
Lightner says hunting break promotes an industry that brings billions of dollars to Michigan’s economy annually.
And perhaps former state Sen. Dingell says it best in his variation on Voelker’s poem: "Because, mercifully, there are no telephones in deer blinds. Because only in the woods can I find solitude without loneliness.”
Sometimes it’s just nice to spend time among the trees.