LANSING, Mich. (AP) - As he takes the helm of the 110-seat Michigan House, Tom Leonard said nothing has better prepared him than the best job he ever had - being a prosecutor in the Flint area.
He said making arguments in court and building cases in trials are skills that have helped him in lawmaking. But perhaps more importantly, he learned to “sit down … and listen to people” while deciding what was fair to crime victims, defendants and the public.
“I really learned the art of negotiation and building relationships and coalitions when I was a prosecutor,” Leonard told The Associated Press in an interview at his Capitol office last month.
The 35-year-old third-term Republican who lives in DeWitt Township near Lansing will officially become House speaker on Wednesday, the opening day of a new two-year legislative session in which the GOP will once again set the agenda. Having House speakers who are in their 30s is commonplace in the term limits era.
Leonard will lead a 63-member majority that chose him shortly after the November election. He said a big reason he is speaker is because of relationships he made with now-freshmen GOP members during their campaigns.
“I was on the road nonstop helping them, working with them, walking alongside of them, getting to know their families, having dinner at their homes. Ninety percent of this business is about relationships and it’s about building trust with individuals,” Leonard said.
He said he fully anticipates Republicans and Democrats to “have our battles” over legislation, but his goal is fostering civility in the House. He also pledged to be transparent about the GOP’s plans.
While Leonard will wait until February to outline the agenda after consulting with rank-and-file members, he already has identified three personal priorities.
They include closing the pension system to newly hired teachers and instead providing them solely with a 401(k), addressing mental illness in the prisons and boosting job opportunities in the skilled trades. The Republican-led Senate considered the pension switch in the recent “lame-duck” session, but such legislation has long concerned GOP Gov. Rick Snyder and others who worry about the shorter-term budget implications.
Another plan that died at the end of the year would have cut retiree health care benefits for police, firefighters and other municipal workers. It likely will be revived this term; Snyder also has said it is a priority.
Leonard, who took no position on the 2016 bills, said his phone was “blowing up off the hook” with calls from retired police officers he came to know as an assistant prosecutor in Genesee County. He grew up between Flint and Saginaw and was a member of Montrose’s 1998 state championship football team.
He said the city of Lansing has more than $400 million in unfunded health care liabilities alone, and public retirees across the state are at risk of losing benefits if municipalities declare bankruptcy.
The introduction of the bills “brought light to a problem, a problem that we need to solve,” Leonard said. “This problem’s not going to go away.” He promised to include all sides, including organized labor, in discussions as long as they acknowledge there is a problem.
Leonard, who chaired the House Insurance Committee in the last session, plans to keep pushing elusive changes to an auto insurance system that is expensive for drivers but also provides them with unlimited lifetime benefit if they are catastrophically injured. He also said he wants to discuss tackling rising college tuition costs.
Leonard graduated from the University of Michigan. He initially wanted to be a sports/entertainment attorney - “the next Jerry Maguire” - but said an internship with then-U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers sparked a greater interest in politics. In law school, he said, a professor encouraged him to consider becoming a prosecutor.
After working in Genesee County for three years, he worked for about a year-and-a-half in the state attorney general’s office before running for the Legislature. He is married to Jenell Leonard, who directs the Michigan Film & Digital Media Office.
In September, she gave birth to the couple’s first child two years after they were told they could not have children. They began the adoption process and were “within just a couple weeks” of making a substantial payment when she found out she was pregnant.
“We’ve been blessed,” he said. “It’s been wonderful.”
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