News and analysis from The Center for Michigan •
©2015 Bridge Michigan. All Rights Reserved. • Join us online at

Original article URL:

Public sector

Inside the rise of Michigan's Tea Party:

The Tea Party’s tepid relations with Michigan business groups

As the Tea Party has gained political profile and headlines, it has crossed swords with business groups that would seem to be natural allies in the push for conservative policies.

“Long before the Tea Party, the business community was the voice of fiscal responsibility and limited, rational government, and the business community will still be that voice long after the Tea Party is gone,” said Rob Fowler, president and CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

Philosophically, business groups such as SBAM and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce often are aligned with Tea Party principles of limited government, but there’s a difference between limited government and no government.

SBAM, the state Chamber and others, such as Business Leaders for Michigan, have achieved major policy victories under Gov. Rick Snyder, none bigger than business tax reform. Yet many in the business community also favor several high-profile public sector investments, including increased road funding, Medicaid expansion, and funding for the Common Core Curriculum education standards. Tea Party groups have stood in the way of those initiatives, leading some business leaders to shake their heads at what they see as a lack of pragmatism.

SBAM opposed the federal health care legislation, but when it became the law of the land, the group switched its focus to assure a business-friendly implementation. SBAM concluded it was better to have a state-based health insurance exchange than to have the federal government run it, Fowler said, because “state government is the government closest to the people. It’s not a good strategy to deny the existence of Obamacare now that it’s here.”

SBAM’s interest is in “not missing the opportunity to make a real difference in the issue of cost shifting, where our members end up paying for those who access health care but can’t afford to pay for it,” Fowler said. “After all, Michigan businesses will be paying the taxes and other increased costs that are going to pay for the Medicaid expansion.”

Tensions between the Tea Party and business interests grew in recent months as Tea Party groups are plotting a Republican Party coup for next year – the nomination of their own candidate for lieutenant governor against the incumbent, Brian Calley.

Wes Nakagiri, the Tea Partier who hopes to unseat Calley, said members of the movement aren’t as naïve as some business leaders believe. “We understand how things work,” he said. “The light bulb went on for me brightly maybe three months ago. There’s a portion of the Republican Party that actually benefits from big government,” including the Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Health & Hospital Association. If elected, he would bring a more-conservative voice to the Snyder administration, Nakagiri said.

“Seriously?” Fowler asked. “Brian Calley is not conservative enough? That’s almost unbelievable. Those are the tactics that get you beat.”

Beating the Tea Party may even become a business priority. Numerous mainstream, business-friendly Republicans told Bridge they are depending on traditional business advocates like the Michigan Chamber and Business Leaders for Michigan to beat back Tea Party extremists in future legislative primaries and to further Gov. Rick Snyder’s public investment priorities.

Michigan Chamber CEO Richard Studley and BLM CEO Doug Rothwell declined comment for this report. Fowler said it is SBAM’s intention to protect political leaders who have business-friendly voting records. So will the business community openly oppose Tea Party candidates?

“It depends on who they go after,” Fowler said.

Pat Shellenbarger is a freelance writer based in West Michigan. He previously was a reporter and editor at the Detroit News, the St. Petersburg Times and the Grand Rapids Press.

8 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Chuck Fellows

    Tea Party = Willful Ignorance and ignoring the truth in order to remain ideologically pure.

    Those are the bricks the road to hell is paved with.

  2. Rich

    Both parties need to recognize that when the extreme fringe of the party gets to say who is running, that that person will probably not be elected. The electorate wants a center of the road candidate in office.

  3. Bob Gorsline

    The Tea Party and Business have to stay focused on Conservative, common ground. There is no other option. If they remain split, then the Leftists in the Democratic Party will continue to tear our nation apart and win. There are ALOT of these crazy people in the Democratic Party that want this division in the Republic Party. So, REPUBLICAN PARTY: STAY FOCUSED AND WIN IN THE NEXT ELECTIONS, PLEASE!!! YOU ARE OUR ONLY HOPE IN KEEPING OUR GREAT NATION TOGETHER!!!

  4. Jason Gillman

    . “Philosophically, business groups such as SBAM and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce often are aligned with Tea Party principles of limited government, but there’s a difference between limited government and no government.”

    What an interesting statement.

    Its AS-IF the Tea party types favor NO government. How slanted of you. Just repeat things like this, and of course people will have the wrong impression.

    If this current set of legislative catastrophes is SBAM’s or the Bridge’s version of “limited government”, then SBAM should quit now, and the bridge should admit its willful disregard for unbiased reflection of fact. The reality is that small business will not be served well. Check with a REAL small business owner, (I happen to be that guy) not some flunkie administrative ‘association’ type taking advantage of the small business community.

    Even with an advocated position of advantage for a couple years, Michigan business will see even further regulatory nightmares based on this measure alone. We can apparently learn nothing from history about those who promise from the wallets of others and what they are offering up.

    Crony capitalism served on a hot buttered medicaid bun.

  5. James Lefler

    ‘No Government’? If this author believes this to be a basic tenet of the Tea Party, he’s horribly misinformed and is doing a disservice to the public. No mention of NFIB, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and a opponent to Obamacare. This lack of journalistic equality and justice shows the unfairness of the ideology to which Mr. Fowler staunchly adheres.
    LG Calley is on the record claiming to be a conservative BUT will support the Gov. if it violates his conservative principles. If that’s the type of person you want in office, go for it. Kinda like your wife saying ‘I’ll be faithful, BUT if Brad Pitt comes along…’

    1. James Lefler

      Edit note: Correction – Shellenbarger, not Fowler

  6. Deb

    If we were ‘pragmatic’ about slavery being the ‘law of the land’ at the time, then the Republican Party never would have abolished it.

    If we were ‘pragmatic’ about King George taxes on America as ‘law of the land’ the true patriot ‘extremists’ would never have led us to become a free and independent nation.

    If we were ‘pragmatic’ about women not having the right to vote because it was ‘the law of the land’ then the Republican Party never would have led the charge to recognize and ensure women most definitely had the right to vote.

    Pragmatism is another word for giving up, for going along to get along.

    Pragmatism is the lazy way out of defending principles.

    Pragmatism is the death of innovation.

    Pragmatism is enslaving future generations to depend on govt.

    Pragmatism costs us liberty, principle, and prosperity. NONE of which I’m willing to give up easily. And shame on those who do, for their pragmatic path leads their family too to a life of dependency on govt.

  7. KG-1

    “leading some business leaders to shake their heads at what they see as a lack of pragmatism.”

    So according to those “leaders”, pragmatism must mean the quickly jettisoning of ones philosophy when it becomes politically expedient to do so.

    If these “business folk” really subscribes to the notion of limited government, where were their calls for alternatives to funding the roads (i.e. use all of the transportation taxes and fees for actual road building, instead of siphoning them off for frivolous uses)?

    Where were their calls on address improving the overall quality of health care, instead of just giving someone a health care card, sending them on their way and worrying about how to pay for it later?

    Where were their calls of making sure that ‘Common Core” standards reflect what Michigan really needs (and will continue to need), instead of some group that no one exactly who they are?

    Pat Shellenbarger is a fairly competent writer.

    It’s a shame that he failed to heed one of the early tenets they used to teach in Journalism 101: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How.

    Maybe when those lessons come back to him, he can dig a little deeper and ask those same “business leaders” for some more insight, instead of just accepting “no comment” from them as a valid answer.

Leave your comment...

Your email address will not be published.

Currently on Bridge

Will we be better off if Proposal 1 passes? Former treasurer says yes

An Earth Day pitch: When you hang up the phone for good, toss it the right way

Michigan’s roads affect everyone, so a 'yes' vote on Proposal 1 makes sense

‘Diplomacy Begins Here’ conference aims to illuminate international relations

What NOT to post on Facebook: Jokes about prison rape, when you’re in charge of preventing prison rape

A program to give young offenders a second chance is sending many to prison

Similar accounts in suit over alleged teen prison rapes pose challenge to state's defense

‘New fish’ ‒ One teen inmate’s account of alleged sexual assault

Early learning summit in June could impact Michigan’s children

Money Smart Week: Be penny wise, and pound savvier

Plan B or no Plan B, here’s what happens if road proposal fails

The political tale behind the selling of Proposal 1

A Bridge primer: Untangling the pothole promise of Proposal 1

Who supports, and opposes, Proposal 1

Let's rebuild Michigan through its greatest asset: its water

Could a public boarding school model work in Detroit?

Coalition supporting Detroit schools a step in the city’s road back

Chasing fads? Today’s schools are struggling too much for that

For one Michigan legislative staffer, an hour or two in the spotlight

A cull is a kill, and it’s an overreaction to deer ‘problem’

Lack of college guidance keeps poor and rural students from applying

Those who can, do – and get their hands ‘dirty’ in the process

For one Detroit mom, a complicated path to employment

Detroit by the numbers – the truth about poverty

Michigan should require dental screening for all children entering kindergarten

Where in the world is the Center for Michigan?

After two years, hard to call ACA anything but a success

Bridge’s Academic State Champs emphasizes all the wrong measurements

A graying population poses challenges for Up North counties

Up North, isolation impedes health care for seniors

Enbridge oil pipes and the Straits of Mackinac: Too risky to ignore

Not bigger government, but better services when Community Health and Human Services merge

Two Michigans gaze across a widening gap

In northern counties, workers and business find each other lacking

Hidden poverty stalks a Pure Michigan setting

Postcard: How a git-’er-done spirit helps one rural school district

Postcard: When elk is for dinner

Postcard: Luxe life at Bay Harbor reflects changing economy

Postcard: A roof and a bed

Invest in non-partisan journalism.

Donate to The Center for Michigan. Find out why.