Updated, 2:47 p.m., 4/6/21
For at least the third time this year, Republican Muskegon County Commissioner Zach Lahring is facing calls for his resignation — and this time it’s from groups and residents who say he has a history of social media posts that are racist, transphobic and ableist.
Lahring, who also is the chair of the Muskegon County GOP in West Michigan, has a deep trove of options for inflammatory social media posts, but it was a meme he shared in March that largely galvanized the most recent cries for his removal. The meme read: “Are we still allowed to play pool since we use a white ball to hit the colored balls.”
Quickly shared, and condemned, by a wide variety of political and grassroots organizations and leaders throughout Muskegon, the post led to a group of elected officials and other residents denouncing Lahring and supporting his removal from public office during the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday evening.
“I would believe if I looked far enough in his closet I would find a white cloak and hood, just based off of what he stands for on his social media,” Destinee Keener, a community advocate and business owner from Muskegon, said during the meeting, referring to the clothing worn by the Ku Klux Klan.
Along with Keener, those who backed Lahring’s resignation on Tuesday were Democratic Commissioners Marcia Hovey-Wright and Charles Nash, racial justice organizers, business owners, and other community advocates.
Lahring, who sat in front of an image of an American flag and a cowboy riding on a horse for the broadcast on Zoom and Facebook, did not defend himself during the meeting. However, he was supported by a number of conservative residents, who said he was not racist, as well as Republican Commissioners Malinda Pego and Kim Cyr.
“If some of these people making these comments … if they got to know Zach Lahring, they might find their opinion of Zach Lahring would change dramatically,” Cyr said. “I can tell you right now: Zach Lahring is no racist.”
Many of those who spoke criticized Lahring’s frequent posts on his personal Facebook page, a platform from where the commissioner, a strong supporter of former President Donald Trump, shares everything from election conspiracy theories (namely that Trump won) and criticism of the COVID-19 vaccine (“I’ll take that shot the day they pry my weapon out of my cold dead fingers,” he wrote) to attacks on other commissioners. For example, he routinely mocks Commissioner Bob Scolnik, a Republican and the board’s new chair, for previously supporting a drag brunch benefit that raised money for Muskegon Civic Theatre.
Lahring also uses the platform to encourage supporters to advocate for his priorities — which, in the past, have included closing Planned Parenthood’s Muskegon office, a cause Lahring successfully championed during his first year in office in 2019, and barring Muskegon from becoming a “sanctuary county.” Several of the speakers on Tuesday noted that when they tried to engage with Lahring on social media, they were blocked when it became clear they disagreed with the commissioner.
Annie Koon, an HIV prevention specialist, said she “tried to meet with [Lahring] to discuss the impact of removing Planned Parenthood from Muskegon County,” including the importance of sexual health education in the area, but “was rebuked and blocked on Facebook.”
Other social media posts from Lahring that were criticized by those who spoke during Tuesday’s meeting included one that called George Floyd — a Black man who died after pleading for his life as a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck — a “violent racist,” an image of Michelle Obama accompanied by the sentence, “If we’re going to spend money on gender studies, we should start here,” and another that used a slur about individuals with disabilities, often known as the “R-word,” when referring to President Joe Biden.
Additionally, a post from January included a link to an article headlined “Doctors are encouraging people to double up their COVID-19 efforts by wearing two masks.” In that post, Lahring wrote, “You can’t fix stupid so you might as well suffocate them. I think ziploc [sic] makes the best mask [sic] perhaps these educated idiots will give it a try.”
“I know you think these posts are a humorous way of poking fun at so-called cancel culture and political correctness, but what you call political correctness we call being a decent human being,” said Norm Kittleson, a Whitehall resident and former Whitehall City Council member.
Lahring did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but he did tell WOOD-TV that he does not “believe I posted any racist comments, so I think that they’re a bunch of snowflakes.”
“I think they are projecting their own racism onto my post and reading into it what they want,” Lahring told the television station.
This is not the first time Lahring has been the source of contention. Because he has repeatedly, and falsely, claimed that the election was stolen from Trump and that it was Antifa, not Trump supporters, that was responsible for the violence during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., the Muskegon County Democrats called for his resignation in both January and February.
And earlier in March, Lahring, whose re-election slogan was “Make Muskegon Great Again”, was issued a formal warning from the Michigan Bureau of Elections for wearing a “Trump 2020” hat during a commission meeting in 2019.
“We cannot have a county commissioner or political leader promoting racism or denying its existence,” Commissioner Hovey-Wright said, referring to Lahring’s claim that systemic racism does not exist. “Other commissioners have talked to Mr. Lahring about his destructive, negative behavior to no avail. That is why I am asking him publicly to stop inflaming the public by making racist statements and posting misinformation about Blacks Lives Matter, nonviolent protesters, or efforts to contain the coronavirus.”
Despite calls for Lahring’s resignation, he has many very conservative supporters living in his district, which covers all of Fruitport Township, Ravenna Township and Sullivan Township and is made up of mostly white, more rural voters.
In the November 2020 election, Lahring, a farmer and construction superintendent, garnered 61.59% of the vote, compared to the 38.4% received by his Democratic challenger, Ashley Podein.
And Lahring’s supporters are engaged. Prior to COVID-19, if the commissioner called on people to attend a meeting, the room would almost always be packed.
Some of those supporters turned out for Tuesday’s meeting and slammed the calls for the commissioner’s resignation as a political hit job or “cancel culture.”
“I know Commissioner Lahring is pretty racy … but that’s his right to be able to do that,” Muskegon County resident Chris Kaijala said.
“I find this to be a bullying tactic,” Kaijala continued, referring to the calls for Lahring’s resignation. “I don’t find it to be democratic, and it would disenfranchise the voters who put him in office.”
Brian Allred, another Muskegon County resident, criticized people for “judging [Lahring] by a few posts on Facebook.”
“He’s an honorable man,” Allred said. “… I don’t see anything offensive on his Facebook. For people to say he’s a racist, I don’t see that. He’s an honorable man; he has a right to his opinion.”
Allred urged those condemning Lahring to “have that one-on-one conversation with him before you start casting stones at a good man.”
Others who spoke in favor of Lahring often went down something of a cultural rabbit hole, invoking anger about “Christians and conservatives being canceled on Amazon and Facebook,” “woke policies” and “reverse racism,” popular themes in right-wing media.
“Political correctness is overtaking us: Washington Redskins; Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head; Dr. Seuss; Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow, J.K. Rowling from the Harry Potter series — all of these people have spoken against the woke policies and all of these people have a campaign against them to cancel them because the woke policy doesn’t like what they have to say,” said Michael Del Percio of North Muskegon.
“They all use the word racist; I’m not sure any of them know what the term racist means,” Del Percio continued, referring to those who spoke against Lahring during Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s a form of reverse racism.”
But Koon said “people are confused with what the First Amendment means and what cancel culture means.”
“We’re just tired of hearing your nonsense, and we don’t want to listen to it anymore,” she said. “We think Muskegon County doesn’t need to have a racist on its commission.”
Hayley VandenBranden, a Laketon Township resident, agreed.
“[Lahring] may have a right to speak his mind, but he’s not immune to criticism and consequences, especially as a public servant. His beliefs trickle into the way he votes to run this diverse county, and it’s harmful not only to Black, Indigenous people of color, but to all of us. He’s shown himself to be unfit for public office,” she said.
Nash, a Black commissioner who has routinely been criticized by Lahring for using Black Lives Matter imagery during Zoom meetings, said Lahring uses his platform “as a bully pulpit and to make jokes about race.”
“… I would love to see him resign, or, at least, make an apology to the people of this community for his behavior. But until that’s done, I don’t want to get to know Mr. Lahring; I just have to work with him,” Nash said.
Addressing Lahring, Nash added: “Everything you do is to divide this community.”