As I reported earlier this week, a group headed up by civil rights attorney Dana Nessel has formed to put civil rights for the LGBT community on the ballot in 2016. Nessel’s group, Fair Michigan, will submit petition language and then collect signatures for a ballot proposal that will enshrine civil rights like employment and housing equality in the state constitution, forcing the state legislature to amend the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act. She has some heavy hitters in her corner like Republican attorney Richard McLellan and Democratic strategist Howard Edelson.
What she does not have, however, is the support of any of the major LGBT organizations in the state. In a statement published a couple of days before Nessel’s announcement, no fewer than 17 LGBT advocacy organizations signed on to urge a thoughtful approach to updating the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act that includes groups most heavily impacted by the approach:
- Equality Michigan
- Kalamazoo Gay & Lesbian Resource Center (KGLRC)
- Benton Harbor Out Center
- LGBT Detroit
- LGBT Network of West Michigan
- Ruth Ellis Center
- GNA Gender Identity Network Alliance
- American Unity Fund
- Equality Federation
- Freedom for All Americans
- Human Rights Campaign
- National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund
- Transgender Advocacy Project
- Transgender Michigan
The statement reads, in part, “Victory in Michigan requires thoughtful planning and, most importantly, sitting down with all of the many communities and groups whose support and engagement will be essential to successfully updating our laws. Any attempt to move forward without a clear path to victory is ultimately a disservice to the LGBT people who live in Michigan and risks dividing our community and others who deserve protection from discrimination.”
This conversation is particularly salient given the recent defeat of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) which was rejected by Houston voters after a vicious campaign by opponents who framed the issue as one that would allow men to enter women’s restrooms with impunity, threatening their safety. An effort to provide equal employment and housing rights was distilled down to this one non-issue and the ballot proposal went down in flames. Not only that, violence against people in the transgender community increased during the campaign.
This is the backdrop for the unified approach being urged by every major LGBT group in the state of Michigan. It is their position, in part, that, if you are going to put one or more of the impacted groups in harm’s way, they should at least have a seat at the table when the strategy and approach to moving forward is being discussed.
This did not happen with the Fair Michigan campaign who, in fact, rebuffed efforts for such a discussion prior to their announcement.
There are also reasonable arguments NOT to go the way of a ballot initiative. When a legislative approach is taken, you can continue lobbying and campaigning for change every year. Once a ballot initiative is defeated, it not only makes another ballot initiative all but impossible for years, it gives opponents in the legislature ammunition to reject any bills that might attempt to do the same thing. They could simply say, “The voters don’t want this,” and would have the proof to show.
Meanwhile, an interesting assortment of supporters of the “let’s vote on civil rights for the LGBT community” approach has bubbled up on social media. Two journalists and commentators in particular – Susan Demas of MLive and Inside Michigan Politics and Jack Lessenberry of Michigan Radio and the Metro Times – have gone on the attack. In a post on Facebook, Demas described those supporting the legislative approach as “running for cover”:
In comments on her post, Lessenberry described those opposing the ballot initiative as “liberal cowards” with insultingly patronizing remarks to anyone who disagrees with his assessment.
Democratic candidate for the state House Brian Stone, an out gay man, took to the Huffington Post to personally attack new Equality Michigan Executive Director Stephanie White and one of their staffers. In his piece – which incorrectly attributes a quote from White to an interview I did with her, a quote that was actually from an op-ed White published in Between the Lines – Stone makes the ridiculous accusation that Equality Michigan has done nothing to lobby for LGBT civil rights based on conversations he had with four of the 148 state legislators. He uses this “proof” to suggest we have to go the ballot initiative route because “Equality Michigan isn’t pursuing a legislative solution”.
On Facebook, Stone echoed Lessenberry’s “liberal coward” comment, saying that LGBT “activists” should be willing to die for the effort (his use of quotation marks around “activists” suggests he thinks they aren’t true activists at all.) He also characterizes concerns people have for the physical safety of transgender Michiganders as wanting to avoid “hurting feelings”:
So, this is where we are at the moment. On one side we have every single major LGBT advocacy group and organization in the state urging a deliberate, unified approach that includes ALL stakeholders and that has a well-thought out, well-planned strategy with a high likelihood of success. On the other side we have a group that has decided to go it alone, rebuffing invitations to discuss the strategy and approach, and that is vilifying its opponents as do-nothing cowards for their lack of support. These people also seem to be characterizing this is a “Dana Nessel vs. Stephanie White” argument rather than admit that this is a “Fair Michigan vs. every single major LGBT organization in the state” situation.
It’s worth noting that the major players in Fair Michigan – Kelly Rossman-McKinney from the consulting firm Truscott-Rossman, Richard Czuba from the Glengariff Group, and campaign consultant Howard Edelson – all stand to make a LOT of money if this ballot initiative continues. The three groups have cashed in big time over the past decade on ballot initiatives (data from the Michigan Secretary of State’s website, JSW is Joe Slade White, a media/ad buying firm):
These three firms along with their media group have made over $33 million from working on ballot initiatives over the past decade.
When I look at this issue, I see compelling arguments on both sides. While I understand that you only get one bite at the apple if you go the ballot proposal route, I also understand that our state legislature is dominated by ultra-conservative religionists elected by a gerrymandered system rigged by Republicans to maintain their power. I will be interviewing Dana Nessel in the next week or so to get her take on why she believes her approach is best and why it’s worth risking going it alone, at least in the near term. That’s a perspective worth hearing.
However, to suggest that those wanting a more unified approach and a smarter strategic plan are stupid or are cowards is beyond the pale. The transgender community, in particular, will be at the tip of the spear during this campaign, a group of people that already experiences the vast majority of the violent hate crimes aimed at the LGBT community. To not give them a seat at the table where strategy is being discussed and then to call them cowards is outrageous.
Also, many of those pushing for a legislative approach are longtime veterans on the political scene. They aren’t cowards and they are hardly stupid. They are political realists who understand the ins and outs and nuances of making substantive change to our state’s laws. The insults and invective being hurled at them by a handful of Fair Michigan supporters are offensive and ultimately damaging to a cause that has seen unprecedented success over a very short period of time due to smart political & social strategies and a unified approach that gives all stakeholders a voice.
The LGBT community deserves better than that.
[CC LGBT graphic: The Limpa-Vias Blog]