An Accidental Ally: Barb Byrum

By |2015-08-27T09:00:00-04:00August 27th, 2015|Michigan, News|

Minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that marriage was legal for same-gender couples in the entire country, Barb Byrum had a couple before her who wanted to be married. The 37-year-old clerk hadn’t even finished reading the ruling, but she was game to marry them. That move put her in the history books as the first elected official to marry a couple after the ruling. The marriage was performed so quickly, there was no media present.
“The couples had waited long enough,” Byrum said.
She speaks of “my families.” Those families are couples Byrum has married since the Supreme Court ruling, but also during a brief window in March of 2014, after a federal judge in Detroit struck down Michigan’s marriage ban. She married the first couple in the state during that window as well.
City Pulse sat with Byrum in her offices located in the downtown Lansing Veteran’s Memorial Courthouse. Her top aides were in the room for the interview, and prior to the interview she gave a tour of the operation. Banter, jokes and laughter abound with Byrum and her staff.
But she warns that the fun house veneer covers up a hard driving boss and an equally committed team of public employees.
In March 2014, after Judge Bernard Friedman ruled that Michigan’s marriage ban was unconstitutional, Byrum was flooded with text messages and social media queries asking her to open the courthouse and issue marriage licenses on a Saturday. She wanted to, but wasn’t sure how to bring in staff on an unscheduled day.
“My biggest struggle on that day was — I can open, yeah, my key will open the door, but how will I actually process those marriage licenses?” she said. “I couldn’t sleep with the thought that I might be standing in the way of loving couples joining together in marriage.”
She thought it over for hours, she said. And finally at about 3 a.m. she texted her team of eight paid staff about opening in the morning.
“They didn’t respond right way, which was really upsetting,” she said with a smile. “We’re still dealing with that,” she quipped, her staff laughing along with her.
But by 6 a.m. the staff did start responding. All of them were in, and the office was opened at 8 a.m. on Saturday, March 21, just like a regular business day. She brags that she even processed a concealed weapons permit request that day, between marriages.
For Byrum it was a matter of “doing what was right.” She noted that many of the couples she married that March had been together for decades and had been waiting “long enough,” to have the same rights and responsibilities attached to their relationships as she had with her husband, Brad Delaney.
She and Delaney have been married for 12 years. They have two sons, Bryce, 5, and Blake, 7. The boys are better known in Byrum’s prolific social media presence as BooBoo and Buggie, respectively. The family attends East Lansing’s All Saints Episcopal Church. Delaney is a detective with the Ingham County Sheriff’s Department.
Byrum is the daughter of Jim Byrum, a former Lansing Community College trustee, and Diane Byrum, a former State Representative. She grew up in Ononadaga, Michigan, a tiny agricultural enclave in southwestern Ingham County. Children in the area attend the Leslie Public Schools.
She acknowledges there is a misperception about residents of rural communities, that somehow those persons are less accepting of the LGBT community. But Byrum said that has not been her experience. She noted that many of the families she has married have lived in southern Ingham County, where rather than being involved in Pride parades and other visible actions, they have lived their lives as out members of a rural community. Their sexuality is not a secret; it’s also not an issue for their neighbors.
But how did Byrum go from Leslie Public Schools and the Ononadaga “homestead” of her youth to vocal and national leader for equality? She said she had no distinct memory of when equality suddenly made sense. For her, it’s always just been the way it is supposed to be.
“For whatever reason, I am an ally,” Byrum said.
During her youth, she worked at the family hardware store in Leslie — and ultimately came to own her own store in Charlotte. And during high school, while her father was on the LCC Board, she attended high school during the day, and classes at the community college at night. When she entered Michigan State University in 2000, she was a sophomore.
“That’s just what I knew that you did,” she said of the dual enrollment at the community college and high school.
That “that’s just what you did” mentality is what has driven her over the years and is something she learned from her family.
She credits the strong role models of her mother and grandmothers. Her paternal grandmother was a nurse. Her maternal grandmother, after her husband passed away, took over the family gas station.
“I remember she used to get up really early in the morning and she would pump gas,” Byrum said. “It was a full service gas station. I remember her jumping in the wrecker with like an 18-year-old kid because she was worried about the kid that was going to pull someone out of a ditch.”
She pauses as she thinks about the women in her life.
“These are the women I grew up with,” she said. “I have had amazing people — that whether they know it or not — have played a very important role in my life.”
She is told by her mother, and vaguely recalls in her own memories, of an incident in third grade. At the time, only boys were invited to hoist the U.S. flag in front of the school. The young Byrum — who would later be at the center of a firestorm of controversy in the state Legislature over women’s reproductive rights — didn’t think that was fair.
So she wrote a note to the principal. Next thing she knew, the principal had agreed with her — that yes, girls should also be allowed to raise the flag — and she was selected to be the first girl in the school to do so.
“I didn’t want to be the girl raising the flag,” she said. “I wanted to see another girl do it.”
That is not the only example of her early advocacy efforts. She recalls walking out of a government class in the ninth grade because the substitute teacher was quoting the Bible. “I was never in trouble,” Byrum said. “I never walked out of class.”
So like the good student, she walked to the office and reported her walk out — and her reasoning — to the principal. She was ordered back to class, which she dutifully did. But word spread in the small school, and other students followed her lead that day and walked out on the same Bible touting substitute. By the end of the day, she said, the assistant principal pulled her from one of her last classes and apologized to her, and said the substitute would not be returning to school.
“I guess that shows I was an advocate before I even know I was one,” she said. Her mother was in the state Senate at that point.
Despite that early advocacy, she said she had no intention of becoming a politician. She was happy running her hardware store in Charlotte. But she was also fascinated with learning. She holds a bachelor’s degree in agribusiness management with an emphasis in crop and soil science.
“I know how to grow crops, kill weeds and run a farm,” she said. “Then I have my law degree from Michigan State College of Law, otherwise known as the Detroit College of Law.”
But she has never practiced law. She said she got the law degree because, “I love to read.”
“I went to law school without having an intent to ever practice law,” she said. “I wouldn’t change it.”
She has no interest to this day of arguing in court, but she said she does “love” arguing.
In 2006, with her mother term limited, and the 67th House District seat up for grabs, Byrum said she was encouraged to run for the state Legislature. She said supporters liked her because of her background in agriculture and as a small business owner.
Her interest in the race was more about adequate representation.
“My mom was term limited out of office,” she said, noting her mother Diane was leaving as the Democratic leader of the House. “And all of the people — the names I heard — that were going to run were older, male individuals.”
Uncomfortable with watching the seat her mother held be taken over by “older, male individuals” that might not represent her or her generation, she decided she needed to throw her hat in the ring.
She said she really had no plans to follow in the political footsteps of her mother and father, but said her mother knew she was destined for a life in political office since she was young and the incident with the flag raising happened.
That first race, she said, thickened her skin. She had a primary, which she won. And her general election opponent was Don Vickers, a Republican who had been her middle school principal. During the race, Vickers, Byrum said, referred to her by her long abandoned childhood nickname — Barbie. That nickname is incongruous with the reputation she has since gained as a fierce advocate, she acknowledged. And while she gladly accepted the label then, it rankles her to hear it to this day.
She prevailed in that general election and went on to win re-election twice.
While she had many accomplishments in the Legislature, including legalizing on-site sales for local brews and distillation, which opened the floodgates to the brew pubs and distilleries popping up all over the state, it is perhaps the floor fight in the House in June 2012 by which she will be most remembered.
During a contentious fight over legislation related to abortion, Bryum and Rep. Lisa Brown — an Oakland County Democrat who nows serves as the county clerk there — challenged the GOP leadership. Both were ordered silenced because of their words. Byrum had used the word “vagina,” and Brown had reminded her GOP colleagues that “no means no.” GOP leadership told Democrat leadership the two were barred from speaking on the floor.
The situation erupted into a national fiasco for the GOP and resulted in a staged reading of the play “The Vagina Monologues” on the steps of the Capitol. Author Eve Ensler flew into Michigan to participate in the event, and both Brown and Byrum read from the play. The event was attended by thousands.
She left the Legislature in 2013, term limited out, but she decided to seek the post of Ingham County Clerk. She said she loves the job and will be seeking another term in 2016.
She replaced Mike Bryanton as clerk. Bryanton did not seek re-election in 2012, after serving in the post for 18 years. His reign was tainted by scandal. The county paid one of his former employees $80,000 in 2011, the Lansing State Journal reported. The employee had alleged she had been forced to resign after being accused of leaving a voicemail accusing Bryanton of an affair with a top staffer in his office.
But at the end of the day, the accidental ally said, she is proud of her advocacy for the LGBT community and for women. She calls the label of “ally” an “honor.”
“I was very happy I was in the right place at the right time,” she said, “and I am very lucky to have had a small impact on people’s lives.”

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