As the 102nd Session of the Michigan Legislature picks up steam in the second month of the new year, Joe Tate (D-Detroit), the first African American ever elected to serve as Michigan’s House Speaker, looks right at home using the power of the gavel as the top presiding officer.
Tate’s position as Speaker is amid a unique political party stronghold, as for the first time since the mid-1980s, the Michigan House of Representatives, Senate, and Governor’s office are controlled by Democrats.
Is there pressure on Tate and the Democrats to deliver?
“I wouldn’t say there’s pressure, but definitely there are more opportunities for us to be able to meet the demands of addressing issues and policymaking to get things done for the people of Michigan,” said Tate, 42, who represents the 10th House District. “And for me, just as much as history has been made about becoming the Speaker of the House, there’s a real responsibility that comes with the position.”
In mid-January, Speaker Tate and Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) – the first woman to hold that position – rolled out numerous bills that place Michigan’s working families at the center of the new agenda. The bills introduced include repealing the unfair and unpopular “retirement tax,” enabling workers to keep more of their hard-earned money through an increased Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Other bills introduced include expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act; restoring the state’s prevailing wage law; restoring workers’ rights by repealing the so-called “Right to Work” policy; and legislation to repeal the state’s 1931 statute criminalizing abortion.
“House Democrats are committed to supporting Michigan families, guaranteeing the rights of all Michiganders are protected and respected, ensuring workers know they are valued, protecting and investing in our future, and promoting safe and strong communities,” Tate said. “Our commitment to make good on our promise to advance the priorities of the people is made clear with the introduction of these first bills of the session.”
While Tate’s role as House Speaker is to serve all Michigan residents, it’s not lost on him the importance of a strong Detroit, the state’s most populated city and home to approximately 600,000 African Americans.
“Being a Detroiter and a Black male, I know there have been disinvestments in the Black community,” said Tate. “However, where goes Detroit goes the state of Michigan. That’s something that I believe to be true. We have to have a vibrant Detroit, where everyone is receiving opportunities.”
Wayne County Commissioner Jonathan C. Kinloch, who is also 3rd Vice Chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, and Chair of the 13th Congressional District’s Democratic Party, agrees.
“It is understood that from the Speaker’s perspective and the Speaker’s role, Joe Tate’s interest cannot be just about Detroit; it has to be about the wellbeing of the entire state,” said Kinloch. “So it will be interesting to see how Joe will balance such an agenda with legislative priorities for Detroit and the entire state. But Joe is an amazing leader and consensus builder who gets things done for the people.”
For Tate, the desire to help empower people was instilled as a young kid growing up in the Jefferson Chalmers community on Detroit’s far east side. Tate’s mother was a city public school teacher, and his father was a Detroit firefighter. Tate’s father died in the line of duty four decades ago when Tate was a young child. Nevertheless, the youngster grew up hearing epic stories about his father’s activism and service to the community. Young Tate also learned the importance of service and education from his mother.
The streets of Detroit can sometimes be pathways to destinations detrimental to young Black men’s lives and freedom. However, Tate discovered sports as a way to build discipline and decision-making skills to stay above the potential trappings of the streets.
In high school, Tate played football and earned a scholarship to play as an offensive lineman at Michigan State University. After graduating, Tate’s talents took him to the National Football League (NFL), where he played with the Jacksonville Jaguars, St. Louis Rams, and Atlanta Falcons. After the NFL, Tate served America in the United States Marine Corps, where he was deployed twice to Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.
Upon receiving an honorable discharge, Tate returned to school and earned an MBA and master’s degree in environmental policy and planning from the University of Michigan. He went on to become a program manager for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, where he supervised programs and initiatives that helped small businesses prosper.
In 2018 and again in 2020, Tate was elected to serve in the Michigan House of Representatives (2nd District), representing constituents on Detroit’s northeast side, in all five cities of Grosse Pointe, and a sector of Harper Woods. In November of 2022, Tate was victorious in the 10th House District race and ultimately elected to Speakership in Jan. 2023.
When asked about past legislation that some Republican Michigan lawmakers either passed or attempted to pass to weaken the voting rights of people, especially African Americans, Tate implied, “those days are over.”
“If there are any bills that look to create and raise barriers on voters’ rights, they are bills that we will not be interested in passing,” Tate said. “It will be the opposite. We want to make sure that we are opening up access to voting.”
As Tate settles in as House Speaker, many believe he will be extremely effective. When State Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit) was asked by some Republicans in early January to vote against Tate becoming the new Speaker of the House, she issued a statement fully supporting him. “He (Tate) has demonstrated strong, thoughtful leadership throughout his time in office,” Whitsett said. “And I will do all I can to make sure his tenure as Speaker is successful.”