After nearly nine months of gathering signatures, members of the coalition Stand Up for Democracy traveled by bus to Michigan's capitol Wednesday to deliver petitions calling for a referendum to repeal the law granting special powers to emergency managers.
Public Act 4 allows the governor to appoint an emergency manager for financially struggling municipalities and school districts. Emergency managers have the unilateral power to overrule local elected officials, sell public assets and break contracts.
Four Michigan cities and one school district are under the authority of an emergency manager, and Highland Park Schools could fall under emergency management for a second time this week. Detroit is in the midst of a financial review that could determine whether the governor appoints an emergency manager for it.
Since it was passed in March 2011, Public Act 4 has faced opposition from citizens and organizations saying it undermines residents' right to representation and municipalities' right to home rule. Unions, church groups, the NAACP, progressive organizations and some Michigan congressional representatives have been involved in the campaign to overturn the law. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) released a report last week that found the law unconstitutional, and he asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate.
But the activists who gathered in Detroit Wednesday morning weren't going to wait for a federal intervention. They were ready to ride to Lansing to deliver the petitions. Before the journey started, Detroit Council Member JoAnn Watson said a prayer. There was joyful singing from the crowd as members boarded a chartered bus.
The contingent traveled with an AFSCME truck and trailer carrying 50 petition boxes with a total of 226,637 signatures far more than the 161,305 needed to put the law up for referendum on the November ballot and freeze it until the vote.
Brandon Jessup , chairman and CEO of the think tank Michigan Forward, spearheaded the petition drive. On the bus trip to Lansing, he told The Huffington Post he considered Feb. 29 a lucky day to turn in the petitions.
Since 1963, only seven Michigan laws have come to a referendum vote through a citizens petition campaign. The last was in 2006, when voters rejected the establishment of a hunting season for mourning doves. Jessup said the campaign to put Public Act 4 up for referendum was a grassroots effort.
"This is a 100 percent working-class movement," he said. He compared Stand Up For Democracy's efforts to the time and money spent in Michigan recently by Republican candidates campaigning for president.
"Governor [Mitt] Romney, he spent $3 million in a two-week period just to gain 300,000 Republican votes, partisan votes in a primary that really didn't engage the state at all. Rick Santorum spent $2 million, roughly, and gained 300,000 votes. We spent roughly $200,000 and got 226,000 signatures, and we went door-to-door to get those signatures."
Around noon, the bus arrived in Lansing, where riders met with activists from Flint, Detroit and Lansing. At Lansing's Central United Methodist Church, a rally of 500 people gathered to send off the delegation.
About 100 people marched past the Capitol building to the offices of the secretary of state to deliver the petitions. Organizers formed an assembly line to pass the boxes of of signed petitions from the truck to staff members. The system allowed each of the activists to handle every one of the 50 petition boxes. When the last box reached Lawrence Roehrig, secretary-treasurer of AFSCME Council 25, he hefted it in the air as the crowd cheered.
Jonathan Drake, a Wayne County employee and vice president of AFSMCE Council 25, said even though it was a last-minute idea, he was glad organizers decided to use the assembly line approach.
"It was very heartfelt," he said, adding, "You really don't know what you're doing and the effect you're having until you get into it."
Meanwhile, other organizers met with state Sens. Virgil Smith (D-Detroit) and Morris Hood III (D-Detroit), urging them to resist efforts by Republican lawmakers to block the referendum.
At the urging of Gov. Rick Snyder and state Treasurer Andy Dillon, the Michigan Senate passed a stop-gap bill in December that would allow the governor to retain the right to place municipal bodies in state receivership and appoint an emergency manager in the event Public Act 4 is frozen. It awaits action in the House.
"It's a great day to show they can't walk all over us," said Errol Griffin, a petitioner and former newspaper ad salesman."It's going to be a battle all the way down. They won't give an inch and we can't give an inch. The battle must go on."
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said in a statement Wednesday that Public Act 4 will remain in effect until state election officials certify the petitions.
"If the petitioners achieve the proper certification, Public Act 4 will be suspended pending the outcome of the referendum vote in November and the previous state law governing emergency financial managers, Public Act 72 of 1990, will govern in the interim," Schuette said.
Once the secretary of state accepts the petitions, the Board of State Canvassers has 60 days to certify the number of signatures and determine whether the petitions meet the requirements of state law. That puts the timeframe for approving the signatures beyond the March 28 deadline for Detroit's financial review team to decide whether to recommend an emergency manager for the city.
After the bus returned from Lansing to Detroit, Jessup told HuffPost he had received an official response from the Chris Thomas, director of the Bureau of Elections, assuring him the agency would review the petitions.
"It's been a long time coming," he said. "It feels good."