Livengood: New senator hopes to avoid becoming Michigan Senate's Joe Manchin

Kristen McDonald Rivet won a seat in the Michigan Senate earlier this month after campaigning on an agenda of securing "economic freedom" for a Tri-Cities region where three in four jobs are lower wage and prosperity is an increasingly distant Rust Belt memory.

She'll be the first Democrat to represent the longtime Republican stronghold of Midland County in the state Senate in decades. Her win over Republican state Rep. Annette Glenn helped Democrats retake control of the Senate for the first time since 1984.

McDonald Rivet is on board with fellow Democrats in trying to boost the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor, eliminating the income tax on pensions and increasing state tax credits for children — anti-poverty measures that could ease the hardship of inflation on working families and some retirees.

She also said lawmakers should "revisit" Michigan's 10-year-old right-to-work law, though not right out of the gate next year as some of her fellow Democrats are itching to do when they get the gavel.

McDonald Rivet, whose twin sister is Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald, said a hard-left agenda in the new Legislature with narrow Democratic majorities of 20-18 in the Senate and 56-54 in the House won't work for her.

The new majority party's thin margin doesn't give Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer a lot of room in her second term to let Democrats from swing districts like McDonald Rivet's 35th District in Bay, Midland and Saginaw counties vote no on controversial bills that Republicans can use against them in the next election.

“One of the things that's really important for both caucuses to really understand is there’s not this overwhelming progressive mandate,” McDonald Rivet said in an interview. “... If we end up too far on the left that’s out of touch with my district, I can’t follow. That's for sure. And I think there's an understanding of that."

That said, McDonald Rivet also is trying to avoid becoming a political pariah.

“The last thing I want to be is the Joe Manchin of the Michigan State Senate,” McDonald Rivet said, referring to the Democratic U.S. senator from West Virginia, who has been a centrist thorn in the side of liberal Senate Democratic leaders for years. "I don't think anyone wants to be in that position — and I honestly don't expect to be put in that spot."

McDonald Rivet's center-left positioning could make her a legislator to watch in Lansing next year because of both the Senate Democrats' narrow majority and her background in public policy, Bay County Executive Jim Barcia said.

Barcia was the last Democrat to represent Bay County in the state Senate, serving two stints from 2003 to 2011 and 1983 to 1993, when he was elected to Congress. In his 45-year political career, Barcia has always been a conservative to moderate Democrat, opposing abortion and gun control. He praised McDonald Rivet for staking out a middle ground before she arrives in Lansing.

"I think it's a good approach," Barcia said. "People have put their confidence in the Democratic Party — they won the House and the Senate and the governorship, secretary of state, attorney general — and I think the last thing they'd want to do is go off on embracing a huge liberal agenda because if they lose (in 2026) it could be another 40 years in the wilderness."

Though she is a current city commissioner in Bay City, McDonald Rivet knows her way around the capital city. That will likely make her an immediate power player under the dome with a voter-reformed term limits law in place that lets senators serve for 12 total years instead of eight.

In the 1990s, McDonald Rivet was an aide to the late House Speaker Curtis Hertel Sr. She has worked as a lobbyist for Head Start preschools in Michigan, an education adviser to former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and was chief of staff to former State School Superintendent Mike Flanagan. Her husband is Joseph Rivet, a former state representative for Bay County from 1999-2004.

She's worked in public policy for a handful of nonprofits, including the Skillman Foundation, where she was an executive when the Detroit-based foundation laid the groundwork for a state rescue of Detroit Public Schools.

McDonald Rivet was one of the architects of Michigan's publicly funded preschool program, Great Start Readiness, which started under Granholm and was greatly expanded by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

“It’s a pretty broad spectrum of work,” Flanagan said. “And she knows how to do this stuff.”

Flanagan described McDonald Rivet as someone who "didn’t need to be liked." That's a good quality to have for a senator in the majority whose vote could be crucial at times for Democrats to pass their agenda.

“I think she will be thoughtful, not just because she’s in a swing district,” Flanagan said.

McDonald Rivet has been thinking a lot about how to change the state's approach to economic development and quality of life issues, such as access to child care.

On child care, McDonald Rivet said a "snow globe approach" is needed where policymakers pick up the current system and shake it like a snow globe on a shelf at Bronner's.

On the campaign trail this summer and fall, McDonald Rivet said she found blue-collar voters in Saginaw and Bay City, in particular, who have a "deep cynicism for both Democrats and Republicans that anything will ever change or that anyone is advocating for them."

“What people in my district, like everybody else, they want to own a home, they want to be able to raise kids and they want to every once in a while pop down to Disney World," McDonald Rivet said. "And have not been economically able to do that for a couple of decades — and that's what they expect me to work on."

McDonald Rivet is joining the Legislature after a stint as a vice president of Michigan Future Inc., the Ann Arbor-based think tank run by Lou Glazer who's been preaching for years that Michigan's economic development policy is stuck in a 20th century model centered around manufacturing jobs that don't provide the economic prosperity they did 50 years ago.

"We're still so grounded in this space that we're still trying to produce factory workers," McDonald Rivet said.

There's ample evidence of this from the past year alone: Whitmer and a Republican-controlled Legislature have poured $1.6 billion into a job creation fund that's mostly aimed at luring investment for assembly plants for electric vehicles, their batteries and semiconductors.

For Democrats, repealing the right-to-work law is rooted in union jobs in automotive manufacturing.

McDonald Rivet argued that policy focus misses the fact that manufacturing jobs are still in decline, while other states are prospering from a more educated workforce for jobs in the knowledge economy.

"I can't imagine a world where we don't tackle right to work, but it's just not the most important thing for us to talk about," McDonald Rivet said. "We need to get really serious about the transformation of our economy — and move on it with some urgency."

"And you know what? We're not doing that without the Republicans," she added. "My mandate from my constituents? Work on real things, don't play political games and find a way to help."