jason wentworth gretchen whitmer

Wentworth, at the podium, with the state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, to his left. “We have a very conservative legislature that often clashes with a liberal governor,” he says. “But in spite of that, we’ve gotten some big things done.”

Michigan Speaker Wentworth Leads ‘From the Grassroots Up’

By Stacy Householder | May 16, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

jason wentworth
Wentworth

Jason Wentworth always keeps a copy of Michigan’s legislative process and procedure guide at hand—as House speaker, he never knows when a parliamentary debate might break out. A Republican state representative since 2016 and speaker for a year, Wentworth is a former military police officer who completed a tour in South Korea. As a former regional coordinator for the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, Wentworth says a desire to improve services to veterans inspired his political career. NCSL asked him about his approach to leadership and legislating.

When you think about Michigan’s future, what do you see as the main challenges and opportunities?

Michigan’s Legislature is in a unique position right now. We’re focusing on the ongoing COVID response, and we’re looking at long-term policy reforms. We’re working hard every day to strike that balance and get back to some sense of normalcy, while also making sure our responses to the pandemic remain strong. It can be interesting because you wear so many hats at once, so it’s a constant challenge.

During your tenure as speaker, how do you aspire to strengthen Michigan?

I look at the first bills we introduced this term, which focused on ethics reform and making government more accountable, more transparent, and just frankly better for generations to come. So, making those real substantive changes to government ethics will change how we work on anything in the future.

When we have the opportunity to work on really important issues, one thing we can do is make sure that touches everything else we do and anything we ever will do. If we can make these real changes in the way our Legislature does business, it means strengthening our government for generations.

What advice do you think is most important for new legislators?

I would say, get to know your colleagues on both sides of the aisle as people first and colleagues second. Because once you make that connection as a person, it’s difficult to fight them and debate them once you realize they’re in it for the right reasons, you know what they’re there for. You might disagree on the policy, but at the end of the day, they’re people just like you from a different part of the state with different backgrounds, different experiences to draw from.

How does operating in a term-limited environment influence your leadership style?

It basically means that government officials don’t have as much of that institutional knowledge as in years past, but it means that we have a wider range of experiences and backgrounds that we can draw from. Our representatives in Michigan do a great job bringing that community voice to the capital.

I think we make the most of that diversity of expertise and experience. I’ve made an effort to take our cues from the ground up and let members’ goals and priorities from their districts really drive our policy agenda for the state.

What should other legislatures across the country know about Michigan?

We have a very conservative legislature that often clashes with a liberal governor. But in spite of that, we’ve gotten some big things done.

In addition to the billions in COVID relief getting into the communities that need it, we’ve found consensus on a successful 2021 and 2022 budget. We did ethics reform. We’ve lowered the cost of health care through prescription drug pricing. We’ve expanded child care. And we’ve even had some bipartisan work on securing elections make it through both chambers.

We’ve found consensus on a successful 2021 and 2022 budget. We did ethics reform. We’ve lowered the cost of health care through prescription drug pricing. We’ve expanded child care. And we’ve even had some bipartisan work on securing elections make it through both chambers.

Those are really big wins for a state that gets such attention for being in a politically divisive state. We passed a lot of this stuff with 90-plus out of 110 votes in the House. I attribute that directly to the members and their ability to work across the aisle.

What leadership traits do you excel at, and what traits are you continually working on?

It’s sounds cliché, but I’m not a politician. I ran for office to fix a particular policy problem that I had experienced in my career.

I used to work for the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency. There were a lot of gaps in service delivery. When a veteran or their family reach out for help and they don’t get it, they’re likely not going to come back and ask again. So we really have one chance to serve that veteran in every way we can, and as a state, we should.

I never intended to get involved in leadership. It was issue by issue that got me to continue to engage. I want to make sure we’re actually taking those ideas from people working in Michigan, living in Michigan, taking them to the Legislature and getting them through the process. And so, that’s kind of my leadership style, from the grassroots up.

One thing that I’m continuing to work on as a leader that’s very challenging to do is to make sure that members have the authority and the autonomy to do their jobs.

What book is on your nightstand?

“The Sun Does Shine,” about a guy who was on death row, Anthony Ray Hinton. He’s got an incredible story, wrongly convicted, being on death row a completely innocent man, 30 years of his life was taken. I’m a very pro-law-enforcement guy. I came from a law enforcement background. So, as speaker, I’m trying to be more understanding of both victims’ rights, supporting the police, but also things like bail reform and things that put people in spiraling places. This guy has a great perspective on criminal justice reform and the death penalty.

Stacy Householder directs NCSL’s Leaders and International programs. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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