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Meet House Speaker Joe Tate

April 12, 2023

A History-Making Journey From the NFL and Afghanistan to Speakership

House Speaker Joe Tate’s (D-Detroit) pre-political credentials are academic, athletic and patriotic – and provided him a wealth of life experience before his historic selection as Michigan’s first Black Speaker of the House.

Tate grew up in Detroit and Southfield before heading to Michigan State University on a football scholarship and earned multiple Big 10 sports and academic honors. He graduated in 2003 with a degree in public policy, but his career path took him to pro sports and the NFL. He was signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars to play offense, moving later to the Atlanta Falcons and the St. Louis Rams.


Joe Tate playing football in the NFL


After two seasons, Tate left the NFL to return to MSU to pursue a master’s degree. In 2009, he enlisted in the US Marine Corps, deploying twice to Afghanistan as an infantry officer.

“You probably recall, the cash crop in Helmand Province, Afghanistan was poppy,” he said. “So, you use it to make opium. We were trying to figure out – this was more US-AID working, but we played a role in that – how do we help community members find an alternative way to make money? So that was part of the challenge, supporting them with, like, farm equipment or helping them build canals. We would help support that.”

Of course, the 20-year Afghan war did not end well for the U.S. and its allies, but Tate doesn’t regret the experience. “I think being on the ground definitely changed lives,” he said. “I think us being there changed lives for the better.”

Crossing Paths With the Future Governor at U of M

Post-military, Tate returned home and enrolled in college again, this time at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources to pursue a dual master’s of business administration and science degree.

At U of M, he caught the attention of former legislator and future governor Gretchen Whitmer, who was a guest lecturer.

“It was so great to be around someone who is so enthusiastic, realistic, but enthusiastic about what’s happening in our world and our ability to impact and improve it,” said Gov. Whitmer. “I think that’s one of the things that really stood out to me with Joe Tate – very dynamic but soft-spoken. Very clearly a leader. Tate says she encouraged his political ambitions and offered advice.

“She was like, ‘Where are you from? And I’m like, ‘Detroit.’ She said: ‘So, are you a Republican or a Democrat?” Tate laughed. “That kind of determines whether you’re going to get out of the race in Detroit, so that was really good advice from the start.”

He lost his first state House primary, but went on in 2020 to win the primary to represent part of Detroit and the Grosse Pointes. He served on the powerful House Appropriations Committee for both his previous House terms.

First House Speaker From Detroit in 25 Years

Now, Tate will not only serve as the first Black Michigan House Speaker, but the first House Speaker from Detroit in 25 years.

“The impact of a Detroiter serving as the Speaker of the House of Representatives under a unified state government cannot be overstated,” said Hassan Beydoun, counsel to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. “With such an unprecedented alignment between Detroit and Lansing, we can bring more positive change to our community than has ever been possible.” That’s some high expectations. And Tate says no one, even the Speaker, gets everything they want. With 110 members, a tight majority, Tate said he’s not suffering under any illusions.

“Nothing is a given,” he said. “You have to earn everything you get here because everyone is independently elected and they’re going to come in and they’re going to represent their constituents to the best of their ability.”

Defining the Middle

New House Leadership to Test Political Center

There’s a political concept known as the Overton Window. It’s essentially the range of thought that’s considered acceptably mainstream and it’s typically where most decisions are made. However, it can shift and expand over time, meaning what’s palatable to voters changes – successful politicians and parties are skilled at reading those political
tea leaves.

With Democrats in charge in Lansing of the Governorship, Senate, and House, they’ll now hold the power to shape the agenda.

Newly minted House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) agrees the most effective governance takes place in the political center. But the decisions made by leaders effect those boundaries and he sees no reason why that will be any different in the next two to four years.

“It’s definitely a consequence of whoever’s in this office,” he said. “And I think for me to be able to get things done, what my caucus feels strongly about, what we promised to people, I think naturally shifts the Overton Window to what becomes more embedded into what we do as a society.” At the federal level, examples include Medicare and Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, and the Affordable Care Act. The ACA in Michigan is the expanded Medicaid program that just enrolled another 322,273 people who might not otherwise qualify for health coverage.

And so, by Tate’s thinking, what happens over the next couple of years in Lansing will redefine in ways large and small what’s normal and possible in Michigan politics.

“There’s a wide middle – and I think everyone has a different definition of that,” he said. “I think bipartisanship is important, but more important than that is ensuring that we’re getting things done and we’re making people’s lives better and if that takes, sometimes, some partisanship, then that’s what we have to do.”