Show Me the Money
Once shunned by his own party, Harvey Santana is keeper of the state’s $53 billion budget
Illustration by Barry Blitt
To the unrestrained glee of many Democrats in the Michigan House of Representatives, Harvey Santana has been working on his farewell speech.
“I’ll give you a synopsis,” says the colorful, crusading Democrat from Detroit’s 9th District. “I’m going to say that in my six years there, my success hasn’t been measured by how many bills I had signed by the governor. It’s how many lives you change for the better. That’s what this job is all about.
“When I’m 80-something on some hospital bed, in will walk the doctor. He’ll say, ‘Mr. Santana, I’m here to help you. By the way, were you a state representative? I want to thank you, because those tough decisions you made on education gave me the ability to go to college.’ He might be a kid I helped pull out of a gang.”
Now in his third and final two-year term, Santana, through events that only can be described as bizarre (or just politics), went from being shunned by his own party in February to becoming arguably the most powerful Democrat in the Republican-controlled House.
The 42-year-old — variously described as a “pariah,” “lightning rod,” and “persona non grata” in Lansing press coverage — is now minority vice chairman of the mighty House Appropriations Committee, meaning access to the state’s $52.8 billion budget by his fellow Democrats must flow through him. It also makes Santana a high-ranking Hispanic legislator.
He accepted the appointment a day before he was physically escorted from a Democratic caucus and ordered never to return, ostensibly for a combination of impassioned tirades in past caucuses and failure to hold the party line.
He prefers to view his actions as — horrors! — bipartisanship. “When you work across the aisle, you know a percentage of people [in Lansing] are going to brand you a turncoat, an Uncle Tom,” Santana says, who had more bills signed into law in 2014 than any other House Democrat. “I’ve found Oreo cookies in my mailbox. [I] filter through it and find out what’s best on behalf of the people I represent.”
Holding the purse strings over the colleagues who rebuffed him seems a delicious revenge. “Success has its enemies,” Santana says. However, it’s the way this occurred that clarifies the phrase, “Politics makes strange bedfellows.”
Democrats initially nominated Rep. Brandon Dillon, D-Grand Rapids, as their Appropriations vice chair. But Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, who makes committee appointments, refused to accept the recommendation (One reason might be because Dillon actively campaigned against Cotter’s re-election). Cotter proposed Pam Faris, D-Clio, for the post. Well, if you won’t accept our choice, the Dems snorted, we won’t offer anybody: Faris declined the nomination.
“After she and the other Democrat members locked arms and refused to serve, I looked to Rep. Santana,” Cotter says. “We need to move beyond political stunts. I knew I could count on him to put politics aside and put people first.”
Santana, ostracized by his party’s caucus, didn’t get the memo.
“And really, why wouldn’t I take it?” he asks. “A whole lot of people are happy I got this position.”
After graduating from Chadsey High, Santana enlisted in the U.S. Navy, taking on the dangerous duties of rescue swimmer after serving in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Returning home and earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Eastern Michigan University, he worked as a transportation planner on such projects as the Detroit River International Crossing before politics called.
“One of the smartest elected officials representing Detroit is Harvey Santana,” says Dr. Jimmy Womack, the former Detroit state representative whom Santana considers a political mentor. “But I’ve reminded him to be a statesman at all times. He has a lot of energy he needs to harness.”
That energy can be channeled for good, as when Santana took former House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, among others, on a 2013 bus tour of his district. “The first thing I did was take them across the street from where I live to a dope house,” Santana recalls. “I said, ‘That’s a crack pipe … .’ ”
“It was eye-opening,” Bolger says. “What that tour made clear was that the great financial help Detroit has received has not necessarily translated into help for Detroit’s residents.”
That event helped Santana secure funding to reopen the Brennan Pools in Rouge Park and assist Hutzel Women’s Hospital.
But his energy also has run unchecked, as in an infamous House floor dustup with fellow Democrat David Nathan. “It got loud; we were in each other’s faces,” Santana concedes. It was enough for Bolger to strip him of his committee appointments.
Clearly, he had to change his ways. “That’s one of the more drastic things a Speaker can do to a sitting member,” Bolger says. “And it could have gone either way. Had Harvey not been mature he could have escalated and become less productive. Instead, he did the complete opposite. He came back from that determined to work together.”
Still loyal to a childhood friend who he says “went down the wrong path” and is serving time on drug charges, Santana is working on an initiative to trade gang peace inside Michigan’s prisons for meaningful jobs for their relatives on the outside. “We’ve got to reverse this pipeline to prison,” he says.
As to those who think he went down the wrong path politically: “I was born a Democrat, I’m going to die a Democrat,” Santana vows. “I believe in our core values. But that doesn’t mean you have to be obstinate and not work with the Republicans, because it’s the right thing to do.”