The Michigan Senate confirmed the appointment of Garnett Lewis to the Northern Michigan University Board of Trustees last week. Lewis was appointed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Lewis is the first openly gay person appointed to a governance board for a Michigan university. Also appointed to the NMU board was H. “Sue” Sook Wilkinson. Wilkinson is from Korea. The Board of Trustees oversees the budget, sets tuition, and administers and adopts policy for the institutions.
Appointments to all Michigan universities except Michigan State and University of Michigan are done through appointment by the governor, which requires a Senate advise and consent vote. Last Wednesday, Lewis was called to testify before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education Funding.
Asked by the committee why she was willing to accept the appointment to NMU, Lewis responded, “Northern gave me an opportunity to get my academic act together.”
During nearly 40 minutes of questioning, Lewis and Wilkinson addressed such issues as tuition increases, conflicts of interest arising from Lewis’ current employment at CMU, charter schools and privatizaton. The committee then voted unanimously to approve the appointments.
Lewis, who made a bid for the State House seat representing the 98th District (Midland) and lost in November, said she is stunned by the attention her involvement in politics while being out has brought.
She called the experience “humbling.”
“What was surprising to me is how much of a difference it makes for others,” she said of her former candidacy and appointment.
Lewis also spoke out for the first time about the scathing anti-gay radio campaign launched against her candidacy in the last weekend before the November 2008 elections. The advertisement, paid for by the Campaign for Michigan Families, used the word homosexual five times, and the words gay and lesbian two other times. The commercial ran on the conservative talk radio station for the area.
“Vicki (Lewis’ partner) and I knew this would happen. We didn’t know what it would look like, or feel like,” Lewis said. “They had to resort to dirty tricks and show their true colors to win.”
She said the ad also did not work as well as her opponents had hoped. The weekend the ad began airing, she was doing door to door knocking and she said many people respond with anger – at the ad, not her.
“They would say ‘I’ve heard the ad and I’m voting for you,'” Lewis said. “It pissed people off.”
The ad also brought people together. She said it was at that point she realized people “had my back.”
While Lewis lost the race, young Democrats were paying attention, she said. She was recently invited to speak at a gathering of college Democrats in Ann Arbor and to start her talk, she played the commercial for them. She said in the future, she looks forward to when “an ad like that won’t work.”
But to get to a time when attacking a person’s sexuality is no longer a politically viable option, she said it will take work.
“More of us need to run and run openly,” she said. “I am asking every openly gay individual to consider a run for office.”