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A Talk With Fair and Equal Michigan President Trevor Thomas

By | 2020-02-19T16:51:15-05:00 February 19th, 2020|Michigan, News|

By the Numbers
Currently, the ballot language to expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity or expression has been approved, and launches in Grand Rapids and East Lansing have already taken place. Fair and Equal Michigan — the organization leading the initiative – is well underway in its effort to collect the necessary 340,047 valid voter signatures to push the initiative forward. Trevor Thomas, the group’s president, said the group plans to go further, and turn in 500,000 signatures in all, which will cost the campaign between $3 and $3.5 million. As for the predicted cost of the campaign from start to finish, “That changes based on how much TV time people other than ourselves are buying. The ad market will be significantly more expensive this year than normal due to the presidential [election],” said Josh Hovey, communications director and vice president of the Martin Waymire public relations firm.
At the Grand Rapids kickoff, Thomas reported a crowd of 100-plus, with 79 people being trained to collect signatures and leaving with clipboards in-hand. In the first week, 8,000 signatures were collected, but he said they were not yet fully staffed and plan to scale up to 104 individuals working on behalf of the ballot committee. Their optimistic outlook is to have, all told, 10,000 volunteers as well.
Another significant figure is $632,776.91, the amount Fair and Equal Michigan confirmed in their first finance report, covering roughly the first month of the campaign. However, those dollars, cleared and in the bank, are separate from the “roughly $1.5 million in pledged funding for the effort” that organizers have secured, as reported in some media outlets initially.
When asked to clarify Fair and Equal Michigan’s financials, Thomas responded that the $1.5 million was “committed.” Asked whether the commitment was verbal or in writing, Thomas responded, “Our donors are listed in the campaign finance filings with the state and, as you know, that occurs on a rolling basis for all campaigns.”
Of the nearly $633,000, $100,000 was donated by Rock Holdings, the parent company for Detroit business leader Dan Gilbert’s family of companies. A less well-known donor — and one responsible for nearly 3/4 of the total sum — was Bipartisan Solutions, which donated $453,000 to the campaign and currently lists an East Lansing UPS store as its address. As a 501(C)(4) nonprofit, Bipartisan Solutions is not required to disclose its donors. Questioned about this lack of transparency at a time when Democrats increasingly criticize dark money in politics, Hovey indicated that Bipartisan Solutions is “led by” Richard Czuba, whose research firm, Glengariff Group, did polling on behalf of the ballot committee. Czuba did not return calls for comment regarding Bipartisan Solutions. As a private citizen, Czuba donated $25,000 to the campaign.

Optimistic Outlook
Thomas sounded confident that once the signatures are collected, the state Legislature may simply adopt the legislation outright, and thus avoid a costly campaign.
“It would be wrong for people to say we’re going to the ballot,” Thomas stated. “I just constantly remind folks that we are initiating law with our signatures. We are so fortunate that the Michigan Constitution affords for citizens to introduce a citizens’ bill into the state House and state Senate, where they can adopt the law or choose to send the question to voters.”
Thomas also cited the Michigan Chamber of Commerce’s recent statement reported by Michigan Information & Research Service Inc. that every employee deserves equal opportunity and equal protection under the law, regardless of various characteristics including sexual orientation and gender identity. Further, the president of the organization, Rich Studley, would prefer to see lawmakers “be proactive and resolve this issue in a fair and balanced manner instead of waiting to react to a statutory initiative.”
“There’s not a person in Michigan that doesn’t realize that leadership, no matter the party, has been significantly swayed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce,” Thomas said.
Still, when it comes to the leadership of the Legislature it’s clear that House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey have a history of resistance to pro-equality initiatives — a potential roadblock. Thomas is undeterred.
He compared Chatfield’s oft-repeated remark on the “Off the Record” TV program last year, that if discrimination were occurring in Michigan “it would be statewide news” to a more recent statement by Chatfield in which he acknowledged the existence of discrimination. Also reported by MIRS, the House Speaker was asked if the LGBTQ community has seen discrimination in housing and employment. Chatfield replied, “discrimination happens, I’m sure across the country, on a daily basis against people for multiple reasons.” Thomas called that a “small step.”
It’s worth noting that the rest of Chatfield’s statement went on to mention religious protections.
“… We need to make sure religious freedoms are protected. In states where there were good motivations and intentions (it) has cost them their religious freedoms,” Chatfield said.
Thomas added that Chatfield and Shirkey agreed to speak with organizers of the ballot committee. That is positive news for the campaign, but LGBTQ activists not supportive of the initiative are taking that with a grain of salt as Chatfield’s statement goes on to list religious freedom as “a priority.”

Naysayers
When asked about division within the LGBTQ community over the ballot initiative, Thomas cited the eagerness of supporters and the campaign’s focus on diversity.
“We are so excited about our broad coalition, and we are understanding that LGBTQ people — myself included — have been in the bunker for decades, fighting the fight, and on the front lines facing discrimination. And that is why it was so important to us to have a diverse coalition including four co-chairs where two identify as trans Michiganders. And we have worked hard to have a united LGBTQ community in Michigan, and it’s on us to walk people through the process that I’ve walked you through when it comes to initiating law. In my remarks in Grand Rapids, my final sentence was, ‘Stand tall.’ Because Michigan is ready.”
Regarding an inquiry over concerns about civil rights being up for popular vote, Thomas didn’t have an immediate response, only his own question regarding the names behind those concerns.
“There’s a vote either way, and we’re excited to finally have a vote for the first time in history, which we’ve never been afforded,” he said.
Later, Hovey addressed the issue of voting on civil rights.
“I think it’s only fair to point out a vote of the legislature is a vote of the people. And the state Constitution allows for citizen-initiated law when times like these when the politicians aren’t as caught up with where the public stand on an issue,” Hovey said. “I can think of no better reason to have this way of making law than for a civil rights issue like this.”
Because the prospect of a potentially brutal campaign that would impact the trans community had been a topic of conversation with interviewees on all sides of the argument, BTL asked Thomas if Fair and Equal Michigan was prepared for this eventuality. He then cited differences between Michigan’s situation and that of Houston in 2014, which is often used as a benchmark for ballot campaigns involving LGBTQ rights.
“I just want to make sure people aren’t misleading you,” Thomas said. “I understand why Houston is mentioned. We can certainly say on the record Houston was a poorly managed campaign — that’s pretty widely known at this point.”
He warned against comparing state and municipal elections because they vary in terms of turnout and strategy.
“We also recognize that we have been the first to substantially announce with broad bipartisan and nonpartisan support that cannot be said for other campaigns that screwed up their politics,” he said.
Like others, Thomas is tired of being told that Michiganders should continue to wait on the Legislature to advance LGBTQ rights. He called it a “substantial risk” to assume, even with redistricting, that Michigan will see a Democratic majority in both chambers any time soon, plus a pro-equality governor and attorney general all at the same time.
“Michiganders will have their rights through an initiated law process in 2020,” Thomas said. “And I’m going to say something super clear: Anyone that has another idea, where was your plan the last 37 years? We should hold each other accountable. We have a plan. We’re moving forward with the plan. We’re growing by thousands, the number of people that support us … it’s exciting.”
To find out more about the ballot initiative, visit fairandequalmichigan.com.

About the Author:

Ellen Shanna Knoppow
Ellen Knoppow is a writer, editor and activist.