Fair Michigan Ballot Initiative to Press Pause

Michigan Information and Research Services, Inc — known as MIRS — reported Jan. 29 that a controversial ballot initiative to amend the state constitution will end.
Dana Nessel, a Detroit area lawyer best known for her representation of the DeBoer family which led to a favorable US Supreme Court ruling for marriage equality last year, told public television's Tim Skubick that the campaign is "being suspended." Nessel, with GOP attorney Richard McLellan, were co-chairs of the Fair Michigan ballot initiative. MIRS reported two unnamed sources confirmed Nessel's intent.
"2016 presented a real, unique opportunity to give Michigan voters the chance at long last to update and expand our constitution to prevent discrimination and ensure everyone is treated fairly after too many years of legislative inaction," said Nessel. "We had the right language at the right time, backed by detailed research that demonstrated Michiganders of all political affiliations, backgrounds and communities across the state would have been behind this effort. Unfortunately, politics got in the way and created barriers to long-term success.
"All worthwhile civil rights battles must start somewhere and this effort is no different. Unfortunately, women and the LGBT community will not receive equal protections under the constitution in 2016, but this does not mark the end of my efforts to amend the constitution to guarantee that everyone is equal. I am committed to solving this critical problem in Michigan," added Nessel.

Controversy from the Start

Nessel's announcement in October that she would run a ballot initiative to extend protections for the LGBT community through an amendment to the constitution was met with controversy. The state's leading organizations representing the community, as well as national organizations, questioned the wisdom of such a move. The fear was that while polling data showed support for LGBT equality as high, when voters were subjected to negative messages regarding the community, that support collapsed.
That was particularly true in relation to the transgender community, and activists feared a political smear campaign similar to that used in Houston, Texas to kill a local human rights ordinance would appear in Michigan. That campaign smear painted the transgender community as predatory threats to women and children.
Nessel and her supporters were frustrated by the foot dragging delays in the legislative process and saw the ballot process as a quick path to victory on the extension of equal rights for the community. But advocates had noted that while the legislative path was slow, headway was being made. Equality Michigan earlier this month announced a multi-year, multi-prong strategy to flip the Legislature from opponent to supporter of the initiative. A loss at the ballot, it was feared, would damage that work.
MIRS reported the business community, which has been a key ally in getting Republican Gov. Rick Snyder on board, was unwilling to support the initiative with the cash necessary to win at the ballot in November.


Some media reports have implicated so-called "infighting" in the community as the reason the business community was unwilling to step up on the effort. However, the situation was much more mundane.
Last month, Stephanie White, executive director of Equality Michigan, told BTL that what happened was a discussion on strategy. That is backed by previous reporting.
"Before we go down this path — and maybe it is the path we should take — we just really need to research it, think through it and see what lessons we can learn from around the country," said White in a Nov. 4 interview with BTL.
That quote was contained in a larger story related to 17 national and local LGBT organizations and three state lawmakers issuing a letter urging caution on a ballot measure.
"We all support the need to advance inclusive and comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community of Michigan. We agree with Governor Snyder that it's time to update Elliott-Larsen so that Michigan can be a competitive destination for top talent," the joint statement reads. "No one who wants to work hard and provide for themselves and their families should face discrimination. We share this important goal and believe that it is best achieved by working together. Victory in Michigan requires thoughtful planning and, most importantly, sitting down with all of the many communities and groups whose support and engagement will be essential to successfully updating our laws. Any attempt to move forward without a clear path to victory is ultimately a disservice to the LGBT people who live in Michigan and risks dividing our community and others who deserve protection from discrimination."
Michigan Public Radio has also reported that somehow Freedom for All Americans, which came in with polling models showing a ballot initiative might lose in Michigan, "called the shots." While the organization certainly is focused on a national strategy and is targeting key states to push a national LGBT equality agenda forward, those involved with the calls for "thoughtful planning" said that decision was made before FFAA became involved.
Despite repeated requests by Between The Lines, Sara Wurfel, a spokesperson for Fair Michigan, refused to provide an accounting for how much money the group had on had to pay for signature collection. The group had until July 11 to collect 315,654 signatures of registered voters to qualify for the ballot in November.


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