In 2004, almost 60% of Michiganders voted to deny same-sex couples marriage rights. The constitutional amendment outperformed former President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in the state by 11 points.
Five years later, pollster Richard Czuba, a former aide to Gov. John Engler, began polling the popularity of not just same-sex marriage, but amending the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to protect LGBTQ individuals from discrimination. He noticed the difference immediately.
“It was, you know, probably just four to five years after the same-sex marriage amendment that we noticed the shift starting to take place,” Czuba said. “There has been no single issue for which we have seen a greater cultural change at a more rapid pace than on LGBTQ issues.”
Coinciding with that change, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 26, 2015, that all same-sex couples have the right to marry. And just a few years later, at least within the Democratic Party, the shift in opinion was apparent at the voting booth — this time around not through a proposal, but the very names on the ballot.
The Victory Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based political action committee (PAC) dedicated to electing openly LGBTQ candidates, recorded 161 victories for them in 2018, the most ever in the country. Seven of those were in Michigan, including the re-election of state Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo), now running to become the first openly gay member of the state’s congressional delegation, and the election of Attorney General Dana Nessel, Michigan’s first openly gay top statewide officeholder.
“Every year that goes by, it gets a little bit easier for people who identify as LGBTQ to win elected office,” Nessel told the Advance in an interview this month.
LGBTQ office-holders, along with the state’s activist community and their allies, are pushing not only to increase their gains from 2018, but to capitalize on them now. Just this year, that’s included a renewed push to amend Elliott-Larsen — as even four years after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized marriage equality, it’s still legal to fire LGBTQ Michiganders for their sexual orientation — and efforts to protect adoption rights for same-sex couples.
Earlier this month, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer formally declared June LGBTQ Pride Month in Michigan, making her the first governor in the state ever to do so.
In that light, the Advance spoke with LGBTQ politicians and activists about what they intend to do with their increased clout, and how far they’ve come to achieve it — and found that the state’s LGBTQ community sees its political mission as not just a minority-rights issue, but an integral part of the broader liberal project.
‘A whole lot of change’
Garnet Lewis has done just about everything at this point, from owning three small businesses across the state to serving as an academic director at not just one, but two of Michigan’s public universities.
Oh, and she chairs Saugatuck’s Planning Commission and sits on its Board of Review, as well — something that was unthinkable to her less than 20 years ago, just before the passage of the marriage amendment.
“I never had the intention at that time to run for public office,” Lewis said. “I didn’t see it as something that would be viable for me as an LGBT candidate.”
She got involved in Democratic Party politics instead, giving her a front-row seat to the sea change in public opinion that’s accompanied her eventual campaigns for the state Legislature, albeit unsuccessful, in 2008, 2014 and 2016.
“It’s like night and day,” Lewis said. “When I first ran in 2008, it was pretty terrifying to be out there running openly as lesbian. … We didn’t really know what it was going to look and feel like when they came after us, which they did.”
Lewis was referring to an ad campaign from the activist Gary Glenn, whose anti-LGBTQ Campaign for Michigan Families aired radio ads in 2008 attacking the “openly homosexual Democrat Garnet Lewis” for insufficiently supporting “our values,” the character of which the spots barely left to the imagination.
(The attacks clearly didn’t faze Lewis, who recently announced a run for Saugatuck City Council. Glenn, himself, would go on to serve two terms in the Michigan House of Representatives.)
Mark LaChey, 1st vice chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, described the gains LGBTQ politicians made in the years following that campaign, not just in elected officials, but in shifting opinion within their own party.
“Prior to 2018, when I took over [as chair of the party’s LGBT and Allies Caucus] six years ago, we had no LGBTQ members in our Legislature; we had none elected above the county level other than [then-state Rep. and current State Budget Director] Chris Kolb,” LaChey said. “We’ve made some great advances, but separately from that, one of the things I’m proud of … in the Legislature and statewide is that we’re pro-equality.
“When I first became an activist in the formal Democratic Party around 2010, there were still legislative candidates that might have privately been in favor of marriage equality, but felt that they couldn’t run openly on that platform in their districts, and that has changed.”
Those advances, however, have been mostly limited to LaChey’s party. There aren’t currently any openly LGBTQ Republican members of the Legislature. But in the past, two House members have come out after leaving office — Leon Drolet, who drew brutal anti-gay attacks during his unsuccessful 2010 state Senate bid for supporting same-sex marriage, and Jim Dressel, who sponsored a 1983 push to amend Elliott-Larsen.
Brian Savage, chair of the Michigan Log Cabin Republicans, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
For Democrats, state Rep. Jon Hoadley, who was first elected in 2014, pegged the change in attitude toward LGBTQ issues to now-former President Barack Obama’s softening on marriage equality.
“When Obama basically came out in favor of marriage equality, all of a sudden, the rest of the conversation tipped,” Hoadley said. “It’s clear now that the vast majority of Democrats support marriage equality. It’s not even a conversation, right? That’s a whole lot of change in the last 15 years.”
Almost uniformly, the LGBTQ politicians and allies the Advance spoke to described that rapid thaw as the result of a feedback loop in which representation in media, both cultural and political, led to feelings of personal empowerment and validation — which then led them to enter the public sphere themselves.
“I give a lot of credit, I would say, quite honestly, to the entertainment industry, because I know when I was young, I didn’t have any role models at all,” said Attorney General Nessel.
“We didn’t have many movies that featured characters that were gay, unless they were serial-killer lesbians. And that was pretty much it, I think. … [Now] you just get used to seeing LGBTQ people in every realm of society. And it makes it easier, I think, for people — whether you’re running for office, or whether you’re running a company, or wherever you are in life, whatever your area of employment is — I think it makes things a little easier.”
Czuba, the pollster, described that shift in the course of his work over the last decade and a half.
“We used to ask the question, ‘Do you know anybody in your family, or do you have any friends that are LGBT?’” Czuba said. “And after 2004, frankly, that number started really increasing. And I think what happened was a direct response of the LGBT community to say, ‘We’re going to make sure our friends know who we are, and our family knows who we are.’”
And now that the Michigan electorate largely does know who they are, leaders like state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) say they can get down to the work that led them to seek office in the first place.
“We’re living in such a different time than when I was first running for office [in 2011], where the second you were the ‘LGBT candidate,’ that’s all you were,” Moss said.
“I really define [the legalization of] marriage equality as kind of a dividing line between [a time when one would run for office] identifying as LGBT and not being able to break through on other issues you’re passionate about, and then talking about the issues you’re passionate about, while also being an LGBT candidate.”
Earlier this month, Hoadley and Moss teamed up to put that walk-and-chew-gum strategy into action.
With the former ramping up his health care-focused congressional campaign and the latter continuing his work in the Senate on government transparency and workers’ rights issues, they jointly announced a renewed effort to amend the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.
That act, passed in 1976 to outlaw discrimination based on “religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status,” has long been a target of LGBTQ and allied activists who hope to add sexual orientation and gender identity to its list of protected classes.
There have been several unsuccessful efforts to do so in the Legislature in the past, but this time around, the bill’s supporters think their odds might be improved with Whitmer, a supportive Democratic governor, in office and a business community that is, at least in public, supportive of the push for LGBTQ rights.
“This [bill amending Elliott-Larsen] is, I think reflective, of everything that we are putting forward in terms of setting the right priorities in the state and making this a place where people come to for opportunity,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at Ferndale’s Affirmations community center the day before the legislation was announced.
Whitmer’s framing of the bill as not just the right choice when it comes to human rights, but a smart choice from a technocratic and economic standpoint, reflects a new reality in which for much of the state — and much of the country — LGBTQ rights are increasingly taken for granted, despite pockets of dug-in conservative resistance.
Currently, 21 states have signed into law protections against discrimination for LGBTQ people. In two states, Michigan and Pennsylvania, Democratic governors have enacted protections for public sector employees by executive order, the latter in 2016 and the former just earlier this year.
In keeping with his past findings, Czuba’s most recent poll shows that not just three out of four of the state’s likely voters, but even a majority of Republicans and voters older than 65, support amending Elliott-Larsen.
The problem that remains for that bill’s supporters, however, of how best to persuade its opponents in the GOP-controlled Legislature, who represent what Czuba calls a “narrow band of … older, white, Republican primary voters” who staunchly oppose LGBTQ protections.
One Republican, state Rep. Tommy Brann of Wyoming, has co-sponsored Hoadley’s House Bill 4688. Before him, the last Republican to support a push to amend Elliott-Larsen was now-former state Rep. Frank Foster (R-Petoskey) — who was thus primaried out of office in 2014 by current House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering).
Both Chatfield and his counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), have said they won’t bring the legislation up for a vote.
Moss says he’s optimistic that the same trends that have led to Michigan’s unprecedented number of LGBTQ officeholders will persuade Chatfield, a personal friend, that it’s in his best interest to change with the times.
“It’s a very different world for him to have campaigned in 2014 compared to where we are now in 2019,” Moss said. “I’m sure there’s no more aggressive person that he talks to on a day-to-day basis than me on equality, and maybe that’s shifted his thinking. … We in Michigan haven’t been facing setbacks in 2019 like we were in a pre-marriage equality era, and now is the chance to shift the momentum and progress forward.”
Some of the state’s top Democrats, however, believe that even the massive shift in public opinion on LGBTQ rights over the last decade won’t be enough to convince recalcitrant Republican caucus leaders.
“I, candidly, don’t believe that we will have an amendment to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act unless we control both houses of our Legislature and have the governor’s mansion,” Michigan Democratic Party 1st Vice Chair LaChey said, stressing that it was his personal opinion and not that of the party.
LaChey said that “like the Equality Act in Congress, there is a value to having [Elliott-Larsen legislation] repeatedly introduced.”
But in the face of a Republican-controlled Legislature, he sees its most likely endpoint as fodder for Democrats’ 2020 stump speeches rather than a bill signed into law.
Constitutional amendment controversy
Some in the community advocate, instead, for what’s become a controversial alternative — a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment, not a bill, to expand Elliott-Larsen.
One of them is Attorney General Dana Nessel, who said, in no uncertain terms, that “as time has gone on, it has become crystal clear that this is never going to happen in [this] Legislature.”
In 2015, Nessel was best known as the Detroit-area attorney who brought a lawsuit that was eventually rolled into what would become Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage. That same year, Nessel launched an initiative to get an Elliott-Larsen amendment on the ballot, but withdrew it later amid uncertainty and debate within the LGBTQ community.
That experience, however, hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm to take another shot.
“I think it would be great to get it in the 2020 ballot,” Nessel said. “I was not one of those naysayers who believed that it should not go on the ballot in the first place. And the complaint that I heard over and over again was, ‘Well, we … shouldn’t have people voting on other people’s rights.’ And my perspective was [that] someone is always voting on your rights.”
That puts her directly at odds with Moss, who voiced his strong opposition to a ballot proposal.
“It’s probably one of the biggest dividing points within our community,” Moss said. “You know, you have people who think that popular opinion outpaces the Legislature … and they believe that there’s no downside to even losing a ballot initiative.
“I just don’t want to validate people who would win an election to stop LGBT rights as somehow being right because the public sided with them. … We’re the part of the government that is elected to change laws, and that’s our job, and so that’s where I think amending Elliot-Larsen should be put forward.”
In Czuba’s most recent poll, just over 75% of likely voters surveyed said they would support a ballot initiative. He also polled Nessel’s proposed ballot language in 2016, with 68% of respondents saying they would support an amendment.
Another ‘rainbow wave’?
The disagreement, however, is over how best to achieve a pro-LGBTQ policy outcome that even its opponents would be hard-pressed to argue is unpopular at the state level. That, perhaps more than anything else, reflects the wholly different set of political problems facing the LGBTQ community today compared to even just a decade ago.
“A clear generational shift has occurred where particularly for young folks, [protection against discrimination] falls squarely in the freedom bucket, and the personal liberties bucket, and they do not understand why other folks get to use the power of the state to … allow people to continue to have to be discriminatory,” Hoadley said.
And Hoadley, whose political career began in 2004 when he organized against the anti-same-sex marriage amendment, said that emerging consensus has opened a new chapter for the LGBTQ candidates hoping to follow in the footsteps that he, Moss; Nessel; state Rep. Tim Sneller (D-Burton); Washtenaw County Commissioners Jason Morgan and Katie Scott; and Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Jake Cunningham left behind with their 2018 victories.
“There’s a whole set of LGBT folks that [running for office now] aren’t going to be the historic ‘first,’” Hoadley said. “Which is great, right? They’re coming to raise their hand to serve because they want to bring their unique talents and skills to public office.”
The Michigan Democratic Party’s LaChey, who just ended his term on the Victory Fund’s campaign board, noted that the party is optimistic it can build on what media called the “rainbow wave” of 2018. And that although the “firsts” referred to by Hoadley may be diminishing, there are still some barriers to be broken within the state.
“We’ve never elected a gay woman … to our Legislature,” LaChey said. “It’s a very exciting time, and I think we will have more gay people in the Legislature in 2020 than we have now.”
Kalamazoo County Commissioner Tracy Hall is running for Hoadley’s Kalamazoo seat, and Democratic organizer Jody LaMacchia is running for the deep-red 46th district in a semi-rural part of Oakland County represented by state Rep. John Reilly (R-Oakland Twp.). Either would be the first openly gay woman elected to Michigan’s Legislature.
And in down-ballot races, although the Victory Fund hasn’t yet announced any 2020 endorsements, it has endorsed the 23-year-old Connor Berdy, who would be the first openly LGBTQ member of the Warren City Council if elected this year.
Hoadley described how the nature of the conversations he’s had with newcomer LGBTQ candidates has changed over time, pointing to how that momentum has built for another potential breakthrough in the next election cycle.
“When we help with LGBT candidates … a lot of the time, we have to initiate a conversation where one part of their brain might be a little worried, ‘Are people ready to vote for an LGBT person for whatever my next office might be?’”
“And the answer to that now is, ‘Yeah,’ because they’ve been doing it for a long time.”
Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.