State Rep. Brandon Dillon, D-Grand Rapids, had barely starting warming the chairmanship seat of the Michigan Democratic Party last week when he started a very public conversation among advocates and politicians. That discussion had been occurring for months, to be certain, whispered about in corners of the Capitol.
The question: With a recalcitrant GOP dominated legislature that refuses to move on LGBT equality, and with a positive ruling from the Supreme Court of the United States, is it time to ask Michigan voters to amend the state civil rights act, Elliott-Larsen, to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes?
“I think that this is probably the moment,” Dillon said in an interview Sunday in Flint. “I don’t think the conversation is done, but we will have to make the decision very, very soon.”
Making that decision however is going to require the players at the table taking into account a lot of moving parts, political leaders interviewed for this story said.
How much money will it take? Conservative estimates come in at least $7 million, whereas most put the cost at $18 to $25 million. That’s serious money in a tight political year which is expected to see multiple questions and a contentious presidential battle.
And the more ballot questions put before the voters, the more likely they are to reject all of them out of hand, said leaders. Petitions are currently circulating to legalize marijuana, and there are discussions about an initiative to address redistricting issues in the state.
“This is part of the conversation,” said Sommer Foster, policy director at Equality Michigan. “I don’t think we can put Elliott-Larsen on the ballot if it’s going to be on there with seven other things.”
“You don’t go into a ballot initiative unless you know you can come out on top,” said Lonnie Scott, executive director at Progress Michigan, a liberal advocacy group in Lansing. “You want to know that this is the best strategy and that you have exhausted all the other legislative options.”
Scott said the legislature “has not done its job to protect the LGBT community.”
For nearly a decade, the LGBT community has argued that the ballot box is not the place to address the rights of any group of people in America, so that plays into the political calculus as well, said Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan.
“There’s a concern about subjecting rights to a popular vote,” Moss said. “The legislature should have gotten this done.”
Foster agreed with Moss.
“It is wrong to vote on minority rights; but that being said, if putting it on the ballot is the only way to protect people, then we need to do it,” she said.
While there is an exuberance related to LGBT equality, post-marriage decision, that excitement may not translate to the ballot box. Writer, activist and radio host Michelangelo Signorile calls “victory blindness” a significant stumbling block to full LGBT equality in his new book, “It’s Not Over.”
National polling still shows that in spite of recent high profile gains in the courts, a majority of Americans still have a fundamental discomfort with homosexuality and gender identity. That discomfort, Signorile points out, is fueling a new movement among right-wing, anti-gay advocates he likened to the battle to reverse Roe v. Wade. He said activists will use that discomfort to find wedge issues with voters, to separate the community and watch initiatives for equality fail.
Joe Munem, a Michigan based GOP political consultant, said there is such a separation in Michigan already. He pointed to the very public battle over an inclusive Elliott-Larsen amendment in last year’s lame duck session of the legislature. The GOP was ready to move forward with sexual orientation, but refused to push for inclusion of gender identity. The LGBT and progressive communities pushed back, refusing to endorse a noninclusive amendment, and the legislative process died.
“I think if you were to look at amending it for gays and lesbians in Elliott-Larsen, many Republicans would go for it,” Munem said. “I don’t think they are all the way there yet on gender identity.”
Also at play are questions of long term and short term strategy. There are several variables playing out there. What happens if the voters reject an initiative? Leaders said it could delay protecting LGBT people with laws by a decade or more.
Another strategy that could play out is allowing a redistricting proposal to take front and center. Michigan’s legislative districts have been tightly drawn to create very Republican districts and drive an ongoing GOP domination of the legislature. Right now, the legislature redraws legislative districts – with the party in control directing the process. Legislative districts are drawn every decade following the census.
If that proposal were to pass, it could set the legislature on a path towards loosening control of the body from the grasp of right-wing extremists by creating more moderate districts which provide more potentiality for progressives to win elections.
The flaw in this plan? It would take until 2024 at the earliest to start reaping the harvest of the initiative.
Also playing a role, said Dillon, is who exactly will be the opposition to such an initiative. Munem identified the Michigan Catholic Conference as well as some of the smaller small business advocacy groups as likely opponents.
The Michigan Catholic Conference, which was heavily involved in the 2004 initiative to amend the state constitution to forbid same-sex marriage, did not respond to inquiries from BTL on where the agency stood on a ballot initiative to amend Elliott-Larsen.
Community leaders will continue to discuss the political options in the coming weeks. Something Dillon said the Michigan Democratic Party will be a part of, but does not seek to “lead.”
“There are serious concerns on this,” said Foster. “But nothing has been ruled out yet. We’re all committed to coming to the table and having these conversations.”