Southwest Michigan First, a Kalamazoo-based economic development organization, has named former House Speaker Lee Chatfield as CEO. According to Crain’s Detroit Business, Chatfield confirmed he would be moving to Kalamazoo. The former representative from Levering, who was term-limited after six years in the state House, is no friend to the LGBTQ community.
“Today’s announcement was a surprise to people who care about equality,” said Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan in a statement. “The former Speaker, having the worst equality record in the state House, does not share the values of Kalamazoo County or Southwest Michigan.”
Knott has served on the Kalamazoo City Commission since 2015.
“Lee Chatfield’s record includes comparing LGBTQ individuals to ‘swingers, adulterers, polygamists and pedophiles,’” Knott’s statement continued. “Furthermore, he has stated numerous times that discrimination does not exist, and that ‘if people today in Michigan were being discriminated against on a daily basis because of their sexual orientation, it would be statewide news.’”
It should be noted that LGBTQ people in Michigan do face discrimination on a daily basis regardless of whether it makes statewide news, and regardless of whether that news reaches Chatfield, who represented rural northern Michigan’s 107th State House District.
In response to Knott’s criticism, Chatfield told MLive that he believes in equal civil rights for everyone. Further, the position is non-partisan, and he said he would work to keep his personal opinions separate from any decision-making for the organization.
However, one cannot ignore Chatfield’s anti-LGBTQ political history. He opposed the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s ruling that sexual orientation and gender identity or expression should be included as protected classes under Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. In a letter, he claimed it would have a detrimental effect on the business and religious community.
In a follow-up interview, Knott explained why, given his departure from the political realm, Chatfiled’s hiring is significant.
“I think it is important because he is a CEO of a company that’s primary purpose is to bring business and institutions into the greater southwest Michigan area,” Knott said. “And we know that to retain and attract talent, communities need to be welcoming and to have inclusive policies in place that make it fair and equal for all folks to reside, to work, to shop, to play. And with his past track record … I don’t know how he’s going to lead this particular organization to the challenge of recruiting businesses to come into our area.”
Knott was told Southwest Michigan First held a national search for the CEO position. Chatfield has acknowledged he has no economic development experience.
Concerned citizens may wish to visit the organization’s website that lists the CEOs on its board of directors and the organizations they represent. In addition, there is a “Council of 100,” which Knott explained.
“These are folks that paid dues to be part of the elite Council of 100,” Knott said. “And just quickly look at those corporations: Target’s on there, and Chase [Bank] is on there, Consumer’s Energy is on there and there are a number of corporations that are scored highly by HRC as it relates to their employer index. And so, the question really is, did the selection committee use a diversity, equity and inclusion lens in making this decision? Do these corporations and institutions recognize what’s happened here? And who made that decision?”
Knott said it’s not just the LGBTQ community, allies are affected as well. In addition, she noted that while she can’t speak for any of the CEOs on the board of directors, some are champions in other avenues for diversity, equity and inclusion, particularly as it relates to LGBTQ rights.
The fallout from Chatfield’s hire could even affect institutions in Southwest Michigan that serve young people, Knott said. That is, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo Promise and Kalamazoo Valley Community College are represented on the board. And that broadcasts a message.
“What kind of message is their support of this hire sending to kids that are coming out as gay or struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity?” Knott asked. “We know that Western Michigan University is struggling with student enrollment right now. What kind of message does this send to potential students that are considering coming to Kalamazoo to attend Western, when Western was part of this decision-making?”
In 2018, Southwest Michigan First reported $5.4 million in revenue, with the former CEO making more than $720,000 that year, according to Crain’s.
Before being elected to the state House, Chatfield was an athletic director, teacher and coach at Northern Michigan Christian Academy in Burt Lake.
On its website, Southwest Michigan First Chairman Aaron Zeigler said, “Southwest Michigan First has had incredible leadership and success over the years, but we are eager to see Lee grow our company and expand our impact and footprint even more. We believe he has the right vision and work ethic to partner with our team to take us to new heights. We couldn’t be more excited.”
Clearly, LGBTQ Michiganders and their allies who are aware of Chatfield’s history do not share that excitement.
“How can Southwest Michigan First align itself with Lee Chatfield’s record?” Knott’s statement read. “Lee Chatfield, for six years, championed the obstruction of every effort to pass non-discrimination protections and stood against anti-discriminatory laws.”
This is a developing story.