Susan J. Demas: Women keep having to fight the same battles in Lansing

Attorney General spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney | Susan J. Demas

More than eight years ago, a backbencher state senator called the female head of the most powerful public relations firm in Lansing a “hooker.”

Kelly Rossman-McKinney, then CEO of Truscott Rossman, had been asked by MIRS to play pundit and name the biggest political losers of the year. One of her choices was then-state Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), saying he chose media attention over public policy (which was not a new observation). Jones the became quite emotional and emailed back a diatribe that included this beauty of an ad hominem attack, “Unfortunately Kelly, like a ‘hooker,’ works for whichever client hires her — policy be damned.”

It became a weeklong story, because Jones took that long to apologize — and part of that was asking Rossman-McKinney to do his “Polar Plunge” charity event, weirdly making sure to suggest she wear a bathing suit.

Kelly, who’s dealt with this sort of Neanderthal nonsense since starting her own PR firm as a single mom in the ’80s, handled the whole thing with enviable aplomb.

But it wasn’t even an isolated incident at the time. Longtime DeVos ally Greg McNeilly, who heads the Michigan Freedom Fund, also decided to call then-Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) a “government hooker” for calling out sexism at the Capitol.

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I thought about all this when another GOP state senator, Ed McBroom of Vulcan, last week slammed two of his African American colleagues as “shrill” and accused them of “feigned” outrage. Both Sens. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) and Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) have passionately called out racism during the COVID-19 pandemic that has disproportionately hurt African Americans, as the Capitol has been subjected to heavily armed right-wing protesters carrying Confederate flags and swastikas.

And Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) donned a Confederate flag-patterned face mask in the chamber, while Sen. Kim LaSata expressed her outrage over COVID-19 shutdowns, declaring in a committee meeting, “I am not Detroit.”

“I would be negligent in my duties if I did not stand up here and voice my disapproval regarding the lack of civility and the apparent disrespect of my people and my city during these challenging times,” Santana said.

McBroom took familiar umbrage, announcing their speeches did “little to convince open-minded people that there’s a reason to listen to the shrill outrage and determine whether or not it’s feigned or not.”

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There have been so many instances of crass misogyny in the Capitol that I’ve frankly lost track. You remember the big ones, like “Vaginagate” in 2012, when two Democratic representatives, Lisa Brown and Barb Byrum, were silenced by majority Republicans on the House floor during an abortion debate. And I’ll never forget sexist diatribes like “tyrant bitch” tossed at now-Gov. Whitmer or Sen. Peter Lucido (R-Shelby Twp.) sexually harassing women, including one of the Advance‘s reporters, Allison Donahue.

But when it comes to life for women in Lansing, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And women of color often get it worst of all. It’s always about men, especially conservatives, putting us women in our place, making sure that we understand that it’s a privilege for us to be there, but they still run the show. And if we know what’s good for us, we’ll shut the hell up and stop causing so much trouble.

I thought about all this again Tuesday, when Kelly went public with her battle with cancer. True to form, she’s still working as the attorney general’s communications director and is using her mandatory furlough day during our state budget crisis for chemo.

She is my second friend to be diagnosed with cancer in a few months — we all lost Graham Davis, who used to work for her, back in March — not to mention the people I know who had COVID-19. It hasn’t been an easy time for anyone and I don’t have any magical words that make any of this better. It is awful.

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But I can tell you why having someone like Kelly Rossman-McKinney in Lansing has made such a difference for women. When I was a lowly political reporter at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot, I found whatever excuse I could to cover things in Lansing. Kelly was a moderator at a post-2006 election confab where I opened my big mouth and corrected one of the panelists. Everyone was silent for a moment and then Kelly let out a laugh and declared I was right.

She then tracked down my email and invited me to dinner, where she said she’d do whatever she could to help with my then-nascent career. It meant the world to me for a high-powered executive to reach out, as I was just a small-town reporter still trying to annoy my bosses into letting me write a column.

But it’s something she’s done for dozens — probably hundreds — of women over the years, including several who worked for me and even my own teenage daughter (who Kelly reached out to independent of me).

Kelly has been a good friend for the last 14 years. But she also hasn’t been afraid to call me out when I’ve fallen short — and no, not when I used to write critical stories about her clients; she was always a pro. When I penned my first column coming back in 2013 after being forced by my bosses to quit because it made the wrong people mad (the problem got solved when they fired me anyway), I mentioned some of the leaders I’d interviewed.

I got a note from Kelly that afternoon, telling me she was glad to have my voice back, but noting that I didn’t list a single woman. “You missed the mark on that one, kiddo,” she told me. She was right — and it made me think about why that didn’t occur to me and how I could do better in the future.

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When I bought Inside Michigan Politics later that year, she bought me lunch and gave me invaluable advice on how to be an entrepreneur. “You’re always going to be the bitch boss to some people, no matter what you do,” she warned, and as usual, she was right. I’ve had mostly male bosses and made similar tough decisions, but there’s always a higher price to be paid when you’re female.

Running publications is still a lonely place for a woman, so it means a lot to have mentors who have seen everything in this town and lived to tell about it.

And in these tumultuous times, when powerful men want to shut us up at all costs, those of us who can must keep speaking up. It may feel like we keep fighting the same battles, but we sure as hell can’t afford to lose them.

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Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.