Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Human-rights law a bellwether for Michigan GOP

ROYAL OAK, Mich. — Years ago, the issue of cross-district school busing ruined the political chances of some Michigan Democrats.

“I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t,” said former Michigan attorney general Frank Kelley, who blames hysteria over the busing issue for his loss in a race for the U.S. Senate in 1972.

Democrats were torn between the fiercely pro-busing positions of their black supporters and equally bitter opposition from working-class white voters, determined to vote against those who said they might bus their kids even if the courts forced them to.

Cross-district busing long ago was abandoned as a remedy for school segregation. These days, however, Republicans have their own social issue, which may divide them as deeply and threaten their ability to win elections just as strongly as busing once did for Democrats.

That issue is equal rights for groups that social conservatives and the religious right regard as anathema — primarily, lesbians, gays, bisexual, and transgender people, abbreviated as LGBT.

Polls show that young and well-educated people favor equal rights and same-sex marriage as strongly as older right-wing voters oppose them. And without strong support from both groups, Republicans have little chance of winning offices, statewide or nationally.

That division became impossible to sweep under the rug last month, after Dave Agema, Michigan’s GOP national committeeman, posted an inflammatory anti-gay article on his Facebook page.

The posting, purportedly written by a mysterious “Frank Joseph, MD,” claims gays are responsible for half the murders in big cities. It also makes other false claims, among which are the contentions that most gay men and lesbians die in their 40s because of their “filthy” lifestyle, and that they are dedicated to recruiting children.

Despite calls for Mr. Agema to resign, he stubbornly refused. Mr. Agema has asked people to sign an online petition to support him.

But Mr. Agema was further embarrassed last week when it was discovered that the names on that petition included Adolf Hitler, Osama bin Laden, and somebody called “Goat Killer.” One person signed it “Kim Jung Un — from one dictator to another.”

Soon afterward, Ken Braun, a former GOP legislative aide, reported that the now-infamous “Frank Joseph” article Mr. Agema posted was partly based on the writings of Edward Fields, a well-known white supremacist and anti-Semite who says Jews promote the “mongrelization of the white race.”

Yet even after that, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder had nothing to say about his party’s national committeeman. Neither did GOP state chairman Bobby Schostak.

Why? I asked another former state chairman and longtime GOP activist. “They don’t want to make this a bigger internal issue,” he said. “There’s a lot of frustration over how not only the governor, but the more libertarian wing of the party have chosen to be ‘politically expedient’ and say nothing.”

Though nobody may have expected Mr. Agema’s anti-gay rant, he was elected Republican national committeeman by a state convention after he called President Obama a Muslim, and said he doesn’t believe his birth certificate.

What Mr. Snyder thinks of this is not known publicly. But if voters believe that the governor thinks the same way as his national committeeman, his fight for re-election is likely to become harder.

Nor is the battle over human rights in Michigan likely to stop here. The city commission in Royal Oak, a mostly white and middle-class Detroit suburb of 57,000 people, approved a human-rights ordinance earlier this year that bans discrimination against residents in a wide number of areas. These included the usual “race, color, and religion,“ but the law adds a number of other factors, including weight, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Last week, however, opponents of the ordinance turned in several hundred signatures calling for what is sure to be a costly and divisive referendum on the human-rights ordinance.

Fred Birchard, a 75-year-old city resident, said he doesn’t want gay people to have “special rights.” He said providing them with equal rights amounts to the city “legislating morality.”

Royal Oak turned down a human-rights ordinance a dozen years ago. But polls show that support for tolerance and gay marriage has increased vastly since then, especially among younger voters.

How will all this turn out? Nobody can say what voters will do, although almost two dozen Michigan communities have adopted similar human-rights ordinances, many without much fanfare.

Voters who are most inclined to support Mr. Agema are, to put it politely, dying off. Michigan Republicans face tough battles for the governor’s office and an open U.S. Senate seat nest year.

How they handle human-rights issues — and their bizarre national committeeman — may be crucial, not only in this election, but also for many years to come.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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