The Humble Hippopotamus: Michigan’s Next Pride Symbol?

The HRP reshaped local laws, including pioneering decriminalization efforts and landmark non-discrimination ordinances ahead of their time

Hank Kennedy

The animals that represent American political parties are quite the menagerie. Most people know about the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant, but what about the Libertarian porcupine? The Constitution Party eagle? The very fitting Prohibition Party camel? In Michigan, we were graced with a unique political party animal mascot, the hippopotamus of the Ann Arbor- and Ypsilanti-based Human Rights Party. 

Third parties have acquired a reputation of being “spoilers” for the two major parties. Yet, third parties provide an important function. Often, they raise issues that the two major parties are too timid to broach themselves. The first political parties to oppose the spread of slavery were the Liberty Party and the more moderate Free Soil Part (namesake of Michigan’s Free Soil Township), not the established Democrats and Whigs. The Prohibition Party created a constituency that led to the 19th Amendment and the “noble experiment” of banning alcohol. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal borrowed many of the reforms, like Social Security, a minimum wage and protecting collective bargaining rights from Norman Thomas’ Socialist Party. Thomas, however, maintained that Roosevelt carried out the socialist program out “on a stretcher.”

The Human Rights Party (HRP) can be counted with this group. The HRP managed to elect several members to the city councils of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti between 1972 and 1976. Its elected officials enacted prescient reforms that would become law state-wide in decades hence. HRP membership was composed of disaffected Democrats and independent socialists, but by far the largest cohort was student radicals at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University. Although considered a product of student radicalism, the HRP also sought out support from organized labor, the poor and racial minorities. They showed up to picket lines during strikes and made connections to the UAW and Teamsters.

When two HRP candidates were elected to Ann Arbor City Council in 1972, they held the balance of power between the Democrats and Republicans. Using their leverage, the HRP passed legislation decriminalizing marijuana, changing possession of the drug from a felony to a misdemeanor worthy of a $5 fine. This harm-reduction legislation was a compromise between HRP councilors and the Democrats but it served as a model; similar laws were passed in Ypsilanti and East Lansing. It took until 2018 for marijuana to become legal statewide. The HRP platform called for an end to anti-abortion laws, even before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade Decision and way before the 2022 passage of Proposal 3 that guaranteed reproductive freedom in Michigan. The hippos of the HRP were leading the way back in the 1970s. 

Aside from fighting for the decriminalization of marijuana, HRP members of Ann Arbor’s city council passed the first non-discrimination ordinance in the state. This ordinance was amended to include sexual orientation as a protected category, another first. The HRP’s two elected officials in Ann Arbor made history in yet another way: When Jerry Degriek and Nancy Weschler came out as gay in 1973, they became the first openly gay elected officials in America. In 1974, HRPer Kathy Kozachenko, elected to Ann Arbor as an open lesbian, became the first openly gay person elected to public office in this country, four years before Harvey Milk’s election in San Francisco. In her acceptance speech, Kozachenko said that her campaign forced people “to reexamine their prejudices and stereotypes.”

Zoltan Ferency, the party’s candidate for governor in 1974, was less successful, as was his 1994 attempt to pass a ballot initiative requiring a unicameral legislature. Although, given the progress of some other HRP initiatives… The HRP nominee for Ann Arbor school board likewise failed to be elected. There were some extenuating circumstances, though. She was a 15-year-old member of Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor named Sonia Yaco, running as a write-in candidate. Still, she received 1,363 votes, about eight percent of the total. 

Although some of the issues pushed by the HRP today are the law of the land, others, such as calling for a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam and community control of the police, were considerably more controversial. During the party’s heyday, not everyone was happy about the success of the HRP hippos. The now-defunct “Red Squads” of the Michigan State Police and the Detroit Police Department kept files on the group as potentially dangerous or even subversive. Regina McNulty, who ran for lieutenant governor with Ferency in 1974, kept her police records with pride. She maintained that the police were “the only ones who kept track of all the cool things [she] did.” 

Although the HRP pushed for important reforms and fought for tenants, workers and students in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area, the party did not survive the ebb in student activism in the late 1970s. By 1977, it ceased to exist as an independent entity and merged into the Socialist Party of Michigan. Still, electing committed radicals to office was a victory in and of itself, and the HRP left behind a legacy of reforms to be proud of.  Looking back on her council career, Nancy Weschler said she “wanted to raise a little hell.” She, Degriek and Kozachenko certainly did.

So this Pride, Michiganders should add the humble hippopotamus to all the other vaunted symbols of queer liberation. Perhaps some enterprising soul will put the hippo on a rainbow flag, alongside a pot leaf and a peace sign, in memory of the late Human Rights Party. I’d certainly fly it. Hopefully, readers of this article will feel the same way.