Hemond: A lot is negotiable, but not your ‘basic rights as a human being’

Adrian Hemond | Laina G. Stebbins photo

Adrian Hemond doesn’t want you to look away from this moment.

And even as the CEO of a bipartisan political consulting firm, he’s not afraid to tell you so.

Hemond, an African American Democrat who heads the Lansing-based Grassroots Midwest, has never been one to pull punches. A scroll through his Twitter feed is a mix of scathing criticism of politicians (mostly, but not all, on the right), unflinching support for Black Lives Matter protests and centrist-to-progressive commentary.

Not all political strategists and ex-lobbyists are as vocal on social justice issues, but Hemond feels that it’s important to have these uncomfortable conversations and confront America’s racist history head-on.

“I think most people who take an honest, close look at that part of the history of our country should be horrified,” Hemond told the Advance in a wide-ranging interview last week.

In a few ways, Hemond straddles two different worlds — as a mixed-race man, and as a Democrat leading a firm alongside staunch Republican colleagues.

Born in Detroit, Hemond spent most of his childhood in Oakland, Calif. He returned to Michigan after the death of his mother and was adopted by his aunt and her husband just before high school.

He initially started down a career path in academia, but left partway through his political science Ph.D dissertation at Michigan State University to “practice the dark arts” (i.e. politics). It was then that Hemond says he was “picked out of the chorus by Black lawmakers” and served as lead House Appropriations Committee staff for several Detroit Democrats from 2005 to 2007, including former state Reps. Marsha Cheeks and George Cushingberry Jr.

From there, Hemond fell into lobbying for several years before bouncing back into the world of politics for good. It was after a “brief, silly sojourn” as chief of staff last decade for former House Minority Leader Tim Greimel that Hemond teamed up with Dan McMaster, then-political director for the House Republicans, to launch Grassroots Midwest in 2013. As Hemond puts it, the unlikely pair had been “kicking the crap out of each other in politics for a decade or so” before deciding “to do it to other people, for money.”

Hemond talked with the Advance on why he’s not afraid to speak his mind as a business owner, what it’s really like to be Black in Michigan’s capital city, why he works for Republicans, what changes he wants to see to address racial injustice and more.

The following are excerpts from the interview.

Michigan Advance: You’re very vocal on social media, obviously, and you’re not afraid to say these things. Why are you speaking out [about Black Lives Matter], and what has been the response?

Hemond: The response has kind of been all over the map, both in terms of things that people will put on social media or talk to me about offline. I think it’s important to have these conversations — it has been important to have these conversations for a long time. I’ve been a little bit more vocal about it lately, because people have been paying more attention to issues like this. But I’ve sort of consistently done that sort of thing.

I occupy a weird sort of space. Because of my mixed racial background, I always joke about like, I’m the gateway drug. I have never really fit in particularly well in groups when I was a younger person, just because, you know, I was too Black for the white kids, too white for the Black kids. And I sort of had to consciously cultivate ways to fit in with people and try to understand their different vantage points. 

And at the same time, there are lots of things that you can negotiate on, that you can disagree about, etc., but your basic rights as a human being, I’m not asking. That’s a demand. Like, that’s not something I’m willing to negotiate about.

Adrian Hemond | Laina G. Stebbins photo

Michigan Advance: As you said, the response to it has been all over the place. Are you worried about fallout for your business?

Hemond: You always worry about that sort of thing. I own a small business; this is how I pay the mortgage. I guess anything can happen, but we’re the busiest we’ve ever been, and I think that people kind of know what they’re getting with our firm. 

I’m the CEO, but we are, in fact, a bipartisan firm. Brian Began, who is our research and elections director at the firm, did the last gerrymander for the House Republicans. He’s got a set of deer horns with a MAGA hat on it on his wall in the office. I was just looking at it a moment ago. That’s part of what you get with our firm; you get widely divergent views with the people who work in our firm, but we’re very good technicians and we have different sorts of perspectives that we can bring to bear for people of all different sorts of political persuasions.

By way of example, I have worked very closely with a lot of Republicans, both on the electoral side and the institutional side. In the 2014 elections, three of the four house seats that flipped against the House Democrats in Michigan were my clients. 

So I’m sure that there are some people, I know this for a fact, that would not hire my firm because of how outspoken I am about certain issues. That’s OK. There are plenty of people who have also gotten after me about my take on some of these issues or how aggressive I’ve been about them that have also hired my firm. 

So I think that for a lot of folks who are in the political space, they might care about what my views are, but ultimately they care about winning, whether that’s winning an election or winning on an issue. And if they think that we can help them do that, they’re keeping us busy.

Michigan Advance: You mentioned a MAGA hat on deer antlers in the office. What are the dynamics like? You and your colleagues obviously have some very strong opposing views — does everyone get along?

Hemond: I mean, yes. We also have some very heated conversations about things sometimes. But we really view that as a strength. I mean, it can be uncomfortable sometimes. I’m OK with uncomfortable, clearly, since I’m encouraging people on social media to have uncomfortable conversations. 

But that’s OK. It’s part of what makes us successful as a firm. We’ve got Democrats; we’ve got Republicans; we’ve had some Libertarians that have worked here in the past. One of our former staff who worked on the Tom Barrett race and the John Bizon race [both Republicans now in the Senate] back in 2014 is an actual hammer-and-sickle Communist. 

We try to bring all those perspectives and the different techniques that we’ve got from our background to bear to make our clients successful. People who come to work here, they’ve also got a very clear idea that we’ve all got our own views, and those views are not always going to be in agreement because of the backgrounds that we come from. But we’re here to make money.

Michigan Advance: As you said, your firm got some Republicans elected to the House in 2014, which padded the GOP majority. You being a Democrat, how do you feel about that in retrospect? Was that just business?

Hemond: It absolutely was business. One of my favorite turns of phrase about this is in the United States of America, we don’t print red money and blue money. We print green money. 

Would I have preferred to have seen a Democratic majority, personally, over the last few years? Yeah, absolutely. But that’s not what our firm was being paid to do, and I’d be doing a disservice to our clients and the Republicans who work at our firm if we weren’t giving 100% effort to help the people who pay all our mortgages win.

Michigan Advance: From your experience, what is it really like for African Americans at the state Capitol in Lansing?

Hemond: It’s a really mixed bag. It’s very reflective of society in general, honestly. All the experiences that you will have in the real world, you will have in the Legislature. 

Both people who are bending over backwards to help you — a lot of my career in Lansing was made by being picked out of the chorus by Black lawmakers, which is, I think, an experience that a lot of young Black professionals have had in their lifetime when they get an opportunity. It’s because somebody else who fought for that opportunity is willing to grab them and pull them up into the big time. 

But then the flip side of that is that you do experience a lot of what I would call the sort of typical American genteel racism or whatever. And this sort of racial essentialism like, ‘Well, of course you think like that, you’re a Black person.’ So I mean, it’s really reflective of society at large. The people of our state elect these people, however imperfect that system is, and they’re, in general, pretty reflective of the sort of people you meet in Michigan.

Adrian Hemond | Laina G. Stebbins photo

Michigan Advance: In terms of police reform, racial justice and everything else that’s going on right now, what do you personally want to see changed?

Hemond: I think that there are two conversations here. There’s a budgetary conversation and there’s a policy conversation. 

On the budgetary side, we’ve invested far too much in this sort of aggressive policing of things that maybe aren’t appropriate for police, right? Whether that’s somebody getting choked out in front of a convenience store over an alleged $20 counterfeit bill [like George Floyd in Minneapolis]. You know, things like that. 

I was talking to a mayor of one of our cities last night, actually, who was telling a story about police having to respond to a guy who was swimming in a pothole on private property. That’s probably not a great job for the police, and we need to have a real conversation about how we want to allocate our resources, so that maybe the guy that’s swimming in a pothole gets approached by a social worker instead of a guy with a gun, if he’s not being threatening.

The other part of that is a policy conversation. And we do need to make some real progress on what the police are for, both in terms of the way that they apply violence, the types of tools that are at their disposal, the military-grade equipment. There’s not a reason for most police departments to have an armored personnel carrier. There’s just not. 

We need to have a conversation about use of force techniques. Congressman [Justin] Amash has got his bill with Congresswoman [Ayanna] Pressley from Massachusetts about ending qualified immunity, which is essentially carte blanche for police more or less to violate people’s civil rights, and is not a legislative doctrine. … So I think that there are these two conversations that need to happen in terms of what we do for government.

But also, I think the deeper conversation that’s really going to lead to real progress is this country finally confronting its history in an honest way. And we’ve never really done that. 

We never really finished the job of Reconstruction after the Civil War. We just sort of glossed over it, and then very quickly this Lost Cause movement arose that somehow the American Civil War wasn’t about slavery. 

And that a lot of the things that are wrong with our country trace back to that, and I think that that’s frankly bullshit. It is objectively bullshit. And this country has never really confronted its history around race. These problems are gonna continue until we do so.

Adrian Hemond | Laina G. Stebbins photo

Michigan Advance: How do you think Democrats and Republicans have been responding to these issues, both right now in this moment and over the years?

Hemond: Poorly. [Laughs]. Poorly. 

Look, race issues are in large part the reason why I’m a Democrat. I’m not an especially liberal person — I’m fairly moderate, even conservative on some issues. So that’s largely the reason that I’m a Democrat, and so I would certainly tell you that Democrats’ record on this is better over the last 30 or so years. It’s not great. It’s just the best of two bad options, from one Brown guy’s perspective. 

The rubric that I use to explain this is, whichever party has taken up the mantle of the old Confederacy, I’m with the other guys. That’s sort of my view. And the Republican Party, really since [Barry] Goldwater, has pivoted to taking up the mantle of the old Confederacy, which had always been owned by Democrats prior to that. 

As it does with realignments, it’s taken a few decades for that to play itself out, but the realignment is basically complete now. In addition to the Confederate attitude outside the South, the Republican Party is the party of the South now. It’s the party of the old Confederacy. 

And so, that’s part of the conversation that is going on in our country right now, is around the old Confederacy and those sort of neo-Confederate attitudes. The statues and everything else is reckoning with that legacy a little bit. I think most people who take an honest, close look at that part of the history of our country should be horrified.

Now, as soon as you say that, there are plenty of Republicans who have adopted what I would call a more reasonable approach, a more humane approach to the racial issues in our country. Unfortunately, that doesn’t describe the president [Donald Trump], and elected Republicans are terrified of the president and largely will not cross him.

Michigan Advance: Are you concerned at all, if we do get a Democrat in office [as president], that we will shy away from looking too closely at this history and not feel the need to confront these things as much?

Hemond: It’s a very real danger. I hope that that’s not the case, but if past is prologue, unfortunately, you have to say it’s quite possible. We’ve had these flare-ups around issues of race throughout the history of our country. By and large, there is a brief moment where some amount of change occurs, and then it stalls, and then there’s a retrenchment. 

That was the pattern for Reconstruction; that was the pattern when the military was integrated; that was the pattern after the assassination of Dr. [Martin Luther] King. We made some incremental, even some large progress, then stalled, and then there’s a retrenchment. And so hopefully we can break out of that pattern. But it’s reasonable to expect that we won’t, unfortunately.

Michigan Advance: Is there anything else that you want to add that I didn’t ask you?

Hemond: For as militant as I can seem, particularly around issues of race, I do think it’s important to approach people with some charity. We do have a really bad history in this country with race. And there’s not any excusing that, but you also have to kind of understand where people come from. 

One of the things that I tell people all the time is, look: If most of your experience in life with Black people is what you see on the television or at the movies, I get why you’re scared of us. I would be, too. That does not excuse people being racist, but it does explain some ignorance, right? Because if the only Black people you ever see are on “Cops” or when you go to the movies, then yeah, you’re gonna have a really bad impression of us. 

We can talk about how those things came to be in our culture, but that’s part of why people have some of the attitudes that they do. So I think it’s important to approach people like that.

… If people want to change, if people are coming from a place of ignorance, then you’ve got to give them a little bit of space to change — if you can do that. You shouldn’t traumatize yourself in an effort to do that, but if you can give people the space to change and give them the tools to change, you should try to do that.