TRAVERSE CITY –
In a town with a tumultuous history on gay rights issues, the most popular person in city politics is a gay environmental activist.
Jim Carruthers first became involved with city politics after skinheads attacked a man at local gay bar Side Traxx in 2000. Now he is at the front of a grassroots movement that is changing the way business gets done in this quiet bayside town. Earlier this month, the former police chief nominated him to be appointed as city commissioner, calling him, “the best candidate with the most support.”
Carruthers came to the area in 1989 to prevent his grandmother from covering their old family summer home in vinyl siding. Pleased with the natural beauty of the region and slower paced lifestyle, Carruthers left his work as a Boston area yacht salesman and got involved with conservation work. He later served as executive director of the HIV/AIDS Wellness Network and community development coordinator for Northern Michigan Planned Parenthood. He is the chair of the city Parks and Recreation Commission and a regular fixture at city meetings.
Last summer Carruthers’ notoriety as a community activist was racheted up several notches when he took the lead in opposing plans for a publicly funded parking deck downtown. Carruthers organized to bring the development proposal to a vote, and it was resoundingly defeated, forcing the commissioners to recognize that they were out of touch with the priorities of city voters.
In December city commissioner, Rick Csapo, a retired deputy sheriff, resigned from his commission seat following his conviction on domestic violence charges. Carruthers volunteered to replace him.
Local resident Ross Richardson and his wife, Ann Laurence, started calling people to organize support for Carruthers over the New Year’s weekend, and 461 registered city voters signed on to a petition asking the city commissioners to appoint Carruthers.
“Ninety-to-95 percent of people that we were able to reach were willing to sign,” Richardson said.
Richardson said that he was amazed at how many elderly people signed up to support Carruthers, and that nobody seemed to mind that Carruthers wears a ponytail.
“They were respectful of position he took (on the parking deck) and his willingness to fight for it.”
When the commissioners convened to fill the opening Jan. 4, Commissioner Ralph Soffredine, former chief of city police, nominated him to fill the open commission seat.
Despite Soffredine’s support, Carruthers was one vote short of being appointed city commissioner – the seat instead went to another, lesser known progressive candidate, environmental lawyer Chris Bzdok.
Carruthers announced that he will run for a seat on the commission in the November election.
Orientation an issue
Though Carruthers is widely known and has more organized support that any candidate in recent history, he will have to contend with smears related to his sexual orientation.
Paul Nepote is part of an effort that has been dubbed “Bag-a-Fag,” in which law enforcement and anti-gay activists patrol a nature area known as a cruising spot.
As the city commissioners prepared to fill the commission vacancy Nepote circulated an e-mail accusing Carruthers of encouraging “illegal and disgusting behavior” by promoting condom distribution as head of the HIV/AIDSWellness Network. The e-mail contained a graphic created by Nepote – a yield sign with stick figures in a sexual position.
In an e-mail to BTL Nepote said that Traverse City is not ready for a gay commissioner, that steps to “legislate acceptance of the gay lifestyle” has “pissed people off” and will lead to backlash. Nepote promised to make Carruthers sexual orientation an issue when he seeks election, and he claimed to have support from members of the city commission and area police agencies.
It’s not clear what, if any, effect Nepote’s lobbying had on the appointment process.
Commissioner Soffredine said he felt sexual orientation had nothing to do with a person’s ability to represent the city.
“That’s bullshit,” Soffredine said about Nepote’s claims of commission and police support for his anti-gay agenda, “and you can tell him I said so.”