• Oakland County Commissioner Penny Luebs and Board of Commissioners Chair Dave Woodward address the crowd at the Greater Royal Oak Democratic Club, May 4.

County Commissions Take Lead on Expanding LGBTQ Rights in Michigan

Ellen Shanna Knoppow
By | 2019-08-08T11:31:27-04:00 August 8th, 2019|News|

Editor’s Note: This piece originally incorrectly listed Oakland County as “taking the lead” in passing a resolution supporting the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Shortly after publishing this original piece, BTL learned that commissioners in several other Michigan counties have passed similar resolutions. Below is an updated version of the piece that includes those counties.

 

Oakland County Sends a Message

In a series of moves that could serve as leverage toward expanding LGBTQ rights in Michigan, first-term Oakland County Commissioner Penny Luebs is one of several county commissioners across the state leading the charge.

According to an Aug. 6 video with Luebs and Board of Commissioners Chair Dave Woodward that was posted on Facebook, the County Commission has adopted a resolution supporting the expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

Oakland County is not the first county in Michigan to adopt such a resolution. Coincidently, Isabella County adopted a similar resolution Aug. 6 as well. Ingham and Washtenaw Counties adopted resolutions in 2014 and 2015, respectively, while Jackson County adopted a resolution in June.

“I think Oakland County is a welcoming county, and we’re emphasizing that in any way we can,” Luebs told Between The Lines. “We appreciate everybody, their contributions.”

Luebs said the resolution was sent to Lansing. “We feel this is an important issue that will impact people’s lives,” she said, later adding, “Each person, you treat with respect. I don’t understand the other side of it. It seems normal to me. To put it in writing perhaps will help people understand.”

 

Blue Wave

Luebs is one of five new Commissioners. Flipping the seat held by Republican incumbent Wade Fleming secured a Democratic majority on the Commission for the first time in more than 40 years. That district, District 16, encompasses Clawson, half of Troy and a very small part of Royal Oak. Prior to the 2018 election, Luebs was Clawson’s longest-serving mayor.

“We’re moving in all different directions,” Luebs said with a laugh. “It almost seems that with a majority on the board now, we all have good ideas and we’re all moving in those directions, and there’s so much to talk about. So it really is quite exciting.”

However, Luebs refused to take all the credit when asked about the progress of the newly Democratic-majority Commission.

“It’s not just me,” she said. “I can’t take that limelight or that credit. The board staff is very welcoming. They’re good at what they do. They answer questions, they provide information, they provide background. Everybody is quite helpful. We have mentors, we have role models. We have a lot of activity. It’s comfortable, and it’s exciting,” she said, although she’s “not sure those two words go together” but agreed she feels very welcomed.

To further illustrate the changes happening as a result of the new leadership, Luebs pointed out, “We appointed the first woman to the road commission. We’re moving toward more diversity. We appointed the first two African-American women to the [Parks and Recreation] board,” she said, citing various ways Oakland County is not just “talking the talk.”

 

Bipartisan Support, Hope for the Future

In the video, Woodward noted that state Sen. Jeremy Moss, who represents part of Oakland County, recently introduced legislation to amend ELCRA — the latest of numerous attempts over the years. It has the support of other state legislators as well.  And Woodward emphasized the resolution had bipartisan support of the commission.

“I think it really speaks volumes to have a bipartisan vote in support of expanding protections for the LGBT community,” Woodward said, adding that they will ask members of the state legislature from Oakland County to be “champions and leaders” on this issue. Woodward thanked Luebs for her leadership.

“It is the right thing to do,” Luebs said, as the video concluded. “It’s past time.”

The death of Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson on Aug. 3 leaves many unanswered questions as to the county’s direction in the long term. Democratic leadership is a real possibility for the first time since the 1970s.

 

Meanwhile, in Mt. Pleasant

Concurrently on Aug. 6, Isabella County passed a resolution in support of ELCRA. BTL caught up with County Commissioner James Moreno to get the longtime social justice and political activist’s take on the developments in his own county, and the prospects for ELCRA’s future.

“What I’m trying to do is build momentum, like a snowball” rolling downhill, Moreno said, “It’s in limbo. It’s in committee,” he said, regarding the legislation never having had a hearing.

Of his own county’s board of commissioners, he expressed frustration with some conservative members whom he said told him, ‘We can’t immediately do this.’

“It’s 37 years late,” Moreno pointed out.

Sounding fairly confident that a county-by-county strategy is a winning one toward putting pressure on Lansing and ultimately amending ELCRA, Moreno stated that “timing in politics is very important.”

“It’s the difference between getting something done and not getting it done,” he said.

Moreno speaks with the authority of an 18-year elected official as well as someone who’s managed political campaigns, worked on ballot initiatives and done collective bargaining.

“And besides,” he continued, “I don’t really think Republicans want to be seen as the bad guy all the time.”

As a matter of fact, a “bad guy” scenario was narrowly avoided in Mt. Pleasant on Aug. 6. In a work session that preceded the meeting, one of the commissioners suggested that he would propose a religious exemption amendment to the resolution.

Moreno set the scene for the meeting that followed the work session: a packed room, audience members such as the mayor of Mt. Pleasant and public comment that included moving testimony by two young people. Whether the commissioner in question realized his amendment defeated the purpose of the resolution or he didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history, he never introduced it and “passage was unanimous.”

“I didn’t really plan on that,” Moreno said.  “It was kind of miraculous. And wonderful.”

Returning to the big picture, he said, “It basically boils down to human nature: people want to be liked, especially politicians. And so I’m hoping just enough of them will be good, so we can make this happen.”

Moreno noted that the Michigan Association of Counties usually sends the various resolutions to each of Michigan’s 83 counties. That’s one way to spread the news and encourage others, simply by planting the idea.

Finally, in reference to the fact that Oakland County adopted a resolution on the same day, Moreno returned to the analogy of a snowball getting larger and more powerful as it rolls downhill.

“I can sense that happening right now,” he said.

About the Author:

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