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From Gridiron to Statehouse and Still Helping the Team Score Goals

Joe Tate, the Michigan House speaker and a former pro football player, has built consensus in his caucus to deliver on his party’s legislative priorities.

By Taylor Huhn and Marco Savarin  |  February 14, 2024

Joe Tate is a former professional football player and Marine Corps veteran who is currently serving in his first session as speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives.

Tate was born in Detroit, where his mother was a public school teacher and his father was a firefighter. Tate was still an infant when his father was killed in the line of duty.

“That’s been something that stuck with me for life,” he says. “It led me to really think about service and giving back to my community. It led me into the military, but it also led me to running for office and viewing this as a second service, so to speak.”

NCSL recently sat down with the speaker to hear about his first term holding the gavel and how his past experiences are shaping his leadership style at a key time for his party. The Democrats control the Michigan House for the first time since 2008, and they control both chambers and the governor’s office for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Black History Month

State Legislatures News is reposting this story, which was first published in October 2023, for Black History Month. February’s recognition of the achievements and struggles of African Americans began in 1926 as Negro History Week. Read more

What excites you about the speaker role and what has been most challenging?

I’m one of 110 members in the Legislature. As you know, the Legislature is a consensus-building organization. The work we do, we must find common ground. We must find the ability to all work together towards the same goal. At times, that can be challenging, because everyone comes from a different background, has a different set of priorities that they want to get done; we have different experiences. But when it all comes together, it is very gratifying, because we know that the work that we do impacts the people of Michigan.

We have this saying in our caucus: “We’re working to put people first.” We are helping our fellow Michigan residents have better lives and have better opportunities. That’s something that I’ve really enjoyed doing.

How has having a Democratic trifecta affected your approach to the session?

I think it did change our approach. We have been able to set an agenda that we’ve been talking about for a number of years, which had come up from the people that we represent. We wanted to show that we were taking action on important things like targeted tax relief for working families, expanding the Civil Rights Act to ensure that everybody is treated equally before the eyes of government, and gun violence reduction legislation. We wanted to show we could do everything we said we’d do. We also worked hard to get a budget done early. Our fiscal year ends Sept. 30, but we were able to get a budget done and moved to the governor in June, which was a top priority for us.

What motivated you to pursue a leadership role?

Before I joined the military, I was in athletics. I was a student athlete who played football at Michigan State and professionally, and then I was in the military. At each stage of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work together in teams. Having leadership that can point a group of people from different backgrounds in the right direction is something that’s always attracted me. No person is an island, and when we’re all able to work together towards one goal, we all benefit from that. Those ideals attracted me to being in leadership, to work with my colleagues, to be able to build consensus and point us in the direction that we all want to go to get things done.

“At each stage of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work together in teams. … No person is an island, and when we’re all able to work together towards one goal, we all benefit from that.”

—Michigan House Speaker Joe Tate

Who do you view as a role model for leadership?

I have had a lot of wonderful mentors and leaders in my life. I would  start with my family, especially my mom. But I also had coaches in football, including one that I still keep in touch with. During my time in the military, I had several different leaders that have been able to mentor me and point me in the right direction. They didn’t always get too worked up when I made mistakes, but they were willing to take the time to correct me and show me what I was doing wrong and what I was doing right.

Historically, I glean insights from a lot of individuals. One is Coleman Young, who was the first African American mayor of the city of Detroit. I look to his example in how he led the city. I also look to former speakers that we had in Michigan, like Curtis Hertel Sr. He was the last Detroiter that served as speaker. He also, funny enough, served when the chamber was split 55-55, so it was a shared power agreement where he served as co-speaker.

What would surprise people to learn about you?

I am a big Steely Dan fan, even though it was a little bit before my time. I’ve been to several concerts. They’re coming to Detroit in the fall, so I’m trying to see if I can block off some time to go see them.

Is there a book you’ve read recently that you would recommend?

There’s one I recently finished that I think about quite a bit. It’s by Tom Ricks, and it’s called “Waging a Good War.” Ricks was a longtime war correspondent and journalist. He decided that with his experience covering conflicts across the globe for decades, he would examine the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and make comparisons about how the movement was planned just like an actual war campaign. There were many similarities in terms of recruiting volunteers to participate, raising resources or fundraising, and knowing which areas to go into that they felt that they had a chance to really make change. This played out everywhere from Montgomery to Selma and to Nashville, as well. I gained a lot of insights from that book, and it’s one I would highly recommend.

Taylor Huhn is a program manager in NCSL’s Leaders and International Program; Marco Savarin is an intern in the program. This interview had been edited for length and clarity.

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