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LANSING – There is one thing every one of the coalition for Safe Schools’ members can agree on; making laws is an ugly business. In fact, there is an old adage that there are two things you don’t want to witness being made, sausage and laws.
This was certainly true on March 28 when Matt’s Safe Schools Law passed the State House. Activists were gathered to lobby their legislators with strict instructions to push for certain language to be included in the proposed bill. Then later that same day, LGBT leaders agreed to strip the bill of the very language they had earlier insisted upon. The abrupt change in course left some coaltion members frustrated and angry that more thought and strategy hadn’t been applied to the process of pushing the anti-bullying bill.
Activists had gathered at the Speaker’s Library in the Capitol for a day of lobbying for the bill. When the day began, no one expected a vote on the House floor for three weeks. The citizen lobbyists were told to spread the message to lawmakers to please keep the enumeration portion of the bill.
Enumeration is a legal term for the list of protected classes in law. In this case, the proposed law would include sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, something conservatives opposed.
Shortly before 1 p.m., as the citizens gathered for a press conference with bill sponsors and Gov. Jennifer Granholm, coalition members Derek Smiertka from Michigan Equality, Sean Kosofsky from Triangle Foundation, Shelli Weisberg from ACLU Michigan and Jean Doss, a lobbyist and consultant for Triangle Foundation, had an impromptu meeting with Rep. Pam Byrnes (D-Lansing) and one of her aides. Byrnes is the House sponsor for the bill.
This meeting occurred in a hallway just beyond the capitol rotunda and near the elevators. Some call the meeting a meeting, but Sean Kosofsky from Triangle Foundation says there was never a meeting.
“There were no meetings; not that I was in. Did I have conversation? Yes,” Kosofsky said in a phone interview. “There has been conversation all along. Conversations have been going on for weeks.”
During this meeting or conversation, coalition partners were given several options. First, they could put the bill up as it had passed from the House Committee and watch it pass. However, it was likely the enumeration portion would be stripped from the bill and those who would do this were supposedly Deomocratic representatives supportive of the LBGT community who were losing their nerve due to pressure from the right.
The second option was to not allow a vote for the three weeks that the coalition had originally been promised. Rep. Byrnes said she was concerned with this option because they were losing votes every day.
The third option was to have a vote on a compromise substitute bill that would replace enumeration with a reference to the language of a 2005 Model Policy passed by the State Board of Education. The bill would mandate that Michigan School Boards use the Model Policy definitions which include enumeration with sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
This third option is what coalition members agreed on as the course of action for the vote that afternoon.
Reporting to the community
Once the decision was made, and the coalition had agreed to the substitute bill, activists pulled the citizen lobbyists into the library to explain what was about to happen. Media, although initially invited into the room, were told to leave.
Kosofsky says State Sen. Glenn Anderson (D-Livonia) explained to the lobbyists what the deal was, and what was about to happen on the floor. Kosofsky says this was done to prevent outrage from the lobbyists.
“We wanted to say ‘stay,'” Kosofsky says. “We wanted to make sure we were not disrespectful.”
He says he wanted to prevent participants from booing or otherwise disrupting the House chamber from the gallery, and getting “gaveled” down by the Speaker of the House.
After a series of motions to amend the bill by House Republicans, the bill passed the House on a 59-50 vote, mostly along party lines. Four Republicans supported the bill, and three Democrats voted against it.
Rep. Byrnes says she is surprised that more Democrats did not vote against the bill. “I am surprised we did not lose more Democrats. Some are very concerned about negative feedback from their constituents.”
That negative feedback so far, has been an all-out assault waged by Gary Glenn from American Family Association of Michigan, and coordinated with the national American Family Association based in Tupelo, MS. Both organizations sent out action alerts calling the bill an attempt by gay rights advocates to sneak in provisions to legitimize homosexual behavior.
“Immature” and “not politically savvy”, mis-steps plague the process
Some members of the coalition expressed frustration with the process and communication between members.
“I think the coalition should have anticipated it (attacks from AFA) and been able to respond,” says Shelli Weisberg from ACLU. “We didn’t admit right away that it was happening.”
“We moved too fast,” she says. “I think there were opportunities overlooked when dealing with the House. We should have had broader representation with more time with the (state) education community and parents so it looked like it was more important.”
Derek Smiertka, executive director of Michigan Equality, says he agrees.
“Everybody did their own things,” he says.
The lack of strategic coordination between coalition members is attributed by one coalition partner, who did not want to be named, to the coalition’s newness. This person called the coalition “immature” and “not politically savvy.”
“It’s ugly how we had to push it through,” Smiertka says.
“We had to push it through that way because we did not have the support of the Democratic caucus.”
Lack of support
Bill Ballenger, the editor of Inside Michigan Politics and a government instructor at Central Michigan University, says the bill is in trouble because of the focus on sexual orientation. “Look it might have problems anyway, but making it a gay issue does not help.”
Ballenger is a former state representative and a former state senator.
Weisberg concurs. “We are still at our heart a conservative state,” she says. “The focus on the gay community distracted the representatives.”
“When you put that much spotlight on it, enumeration, it doesn’t help,” Smiertka says. “That did come from the opposition.”
Smiertka, Weisberg and Ballenger all agree that the bill is now entering into the senate, a hostile body to begin with, in a weaker position.
“We are in a less than strong position with enumeration,” Smiertka says. “The legislation is very passable, but how it comes out of the meat grinder on the other end is the question.”
“If we can keep talking and give it a couple of months and keep (the) education (community) talking about it, I give it a fifty-fifty chance in the Senate,” says Wiesberg. “Less of a chance if we run it like the House.”
Sean Kosofsky says he disagrees. He says the bill has more senate co-sponsors than necessary to pass the bill.
“We are on a pretty strong stance. Its up to the senate to move this, ignore it or pass it. We hope they will give it a fair shake,” Kosofsky says.
Changed the organization of political representation
Smiertka says the way the House bill passed and the battle that ensued was unacceptable.
“Our fight should not have been in the House,” he says.
And that acknowledgment also has Smiertka calling for a new look at the way the LBGT community organizes on a political level.
“We need work as a coalition. We also need serious conversations about restructuring the political activities of the community,” he says.
“We do have a chance to become more of a player,” says Weisberg, “if we do things right. This coalition can do things, really sweet things, it just has to work together.”
Coalition members told BTL about how certain members’ strategy recommendations have been ignored, about gossip and mistrust in the ranks of the coalition, although none were willing to be named or quoted directly talking about these issues troubling the coalition.