On Nov. 2, Republicans captured control of all three branches of Michigan state government, effectively securing their power over all state business for the next two years.
An analysis of the election results in the state showed that more candidates won who were endorsed by the conservative, anti-LGBT Citizens for Traditional Values than who were pro-LGBT and endorsed by BTL. This spread was particularly striking in the State Senate races, where only eight candidates endorsed by BTL won their races, but 20 candidates endorsed by CTV won, indicating a sharp shift to the far-right in that chamber. In the House the results were more balanced, where 32 candidates endorsed by BTL won their races and 35 candidates endorsed by CTV won. The remaining 43 winning candidates in the House were endorsed by neither BTL or CTV, suggesting that the House may become the more centrist chamber.
LGBT activists and allies expressed their concern that rights and protections could be threatened under the state’s new, more conservative leadership.
Jay Kaplan, staff attorney at the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT rights project, is worried that the new Supreme Court may expand the reach of the anti-marriage constitutional amendment to further restrict benefits for public employees.
“The (2009 Supreme Court) decision basically said that public employers can’t offer benefits based on domestic partnerships. In response, many universities and other employers created new ‘alternative eligibility criteria’ so they could continue the health and other benefits that they had offered under their domestic partnership benefits programs,” explained Kaplan. “We once again have solidified the conservative majority on the Supreme Court and I don’t know if another case were to come before them if they would further expand the reach of the anti-marriage amendment. Young was reelected and the new Justice Kelly is very conservative. Both have made public statements that they believe the anti-marriage amendment ought to be interpreted broadly.”
Kaplan is also concerned about the impact that the new conservative Attorney General Bill Schuette will have on domestic partner benefits in Michigan.
“In 2009, Republican State Rep. Meekhof requested Attorney General Mike Cox to issue an opinion on the constitutionality of the universities offering benefits based on this alternative eligibility criteria. Cox never issued that opinion, and whether or not Bill Schuette would wade into these waters if he were requested, we don’t know. He is certainly as conservative as Mike Cox on social issues and especially LGBT rights,” said Kaplan.
The new team at Equality Michigan is figuring out how to approach the legislative agenda with such a staunchly conservative majority in both chambers.
“I realize that the progressive community has taken this last week to regroup but it is also clear to me that nobody has given up,” said Emily Dievendorf, policy director at Equality Michigan, the newly-formed LGBT rights group from the merger of The Triangle Foundation and Michigan Equality. “The Republican sweep of Michigan government has accomplished the opposite of making progressive causes irrelevant. In 2011, it will be all the more necessary that we are an active and resourceful part of the policy dialogue.”
Not daunted by the challenge of an unfriendly state government, Dievendorf said she is ready to press forward. “This November’s election results have done nothing to change my own personal commitment to LGBT causes or my role as a lobbyist for Equality Michigan. I wake up every morning with social justice on my mind and always have. That doesn’t change because a wave of Republicans were dropped on my doorstep,” she said.
In 2009, Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith introduced a bill to permit second-parent adoption. It got through the House Judiciary committee and was referred to the full House for a vote, but was not taken up by the leadership. Wheeler Smith is doubtful that this important legislation that would protect LGBT families will go anywhere in the new Republican controlled legislature.
“I don’t see the Republican majority taking up this issue. It flies in the face of their conservative base,” said Wheeler Smith. “Also, they won’t want to put their new Republican governor in the position of aggravating their base.”
Wheeler Smith lamented that the state legislature trails the general public on so many issues.
“It’s too bad when the public leads the legislature, but the legislative role has always been to protect the status quo – they aren’t going to shake up the world. Until the grassroots understands that power and acts on that power, we are going to continue to be conservative here in Michigan,” she said. Wheeler Smith is termed out of the state legislature, and is currently weighing options for her next venture.