Michigan LGBTQ community still waiting for business leaders to step up

By: - June 16, 2019 5:26 am

Michigan Pride | Angela Demas

When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the most recent push to amend Michigan’s civil rights act to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination, she pitched it as a win for both human rights and the state’s bottom line.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at Affirmations in Ferndale, June 3, 2019 | Derek Robertson

“When we make this a state that respects and protects everyone under the law, we make this a more competitive state, we make this a place where our young people want to stay,” Whitmer said. “It’s not just the right thing to do — that should be good enough — but let me make a point that it’s also the smart thing to do for our economy.”

Those hearing Whitmer’s remarks applauded and nodded their heads in agreement, but so far, there’s little concrete evidence the argument will lead the business community to take the kind of action necessary for the bill’s passage.

Only one Republican, state Rep. Tommy Brann (R-Wyoming), has signed on to the legislation. The Legislature’s business-friendly Republican caucus leaders in House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) have reiterated that they won’t bring the bill to the floor.

Tommy Brann

Meanwhile, business leaders have largely chosen to flex their lobbying muscle on other issues like tax cuts and the recently passed auto insurance reform bill.

Without serious buy-in from Republicans, the newest bill to amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act likely will face the same fate as those that have preceded it since the 1980s.

And some in the LGBTQ community aren’t predicting a sudden change of heart — or, crucially, for the business community to cash in their political capital on the group’s behalf.

“The business community talks out of both sides of its mouth,” said  Richard Czuba, a Chicago-based pollster who’s gay and frequently polls on LGBTQ issues in Michigan. “They turn around and fund the very people [Republicans] standing in the way of change.”

One company doing as much is Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM), a sponsor of the Motor City Pride event. According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN), BCBSM has donated almost $40,000 to Chatfield and his associated committees since 2013, and just over $30,000 to Shirkey and his committees since 2011.

Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan, Lansing | Susan J. Demas

BCBSM did not respond to a request for comment on those donations.

In Czuba’s most recent polling, he found widespread support for an Elliott-Larsen amendment — even among Republicans and older voters among whom it’s a traditionally harder sell — with 74% of the state’s likely voters overall in favor. Seventy percent of those identifying as “Lean GOP” and almost 60% of those identifying as “Strong GOP” voiced their support, along with 71% of voters ages 50 to 64 and 67% of those 65 and older.

Erin Knott, executive director of the LGBTQ nonprofit Equality Michigan, said that businesses in Michigan walk a fine line when it comes to government outreach on behalf of LGBTQ rights.

“In recent years, we’ve seen more companies speaking up about public policies impacting the LGBT community, and many are doing so in places where they face stiff headwinds,” Knott said. “I think that business leaders are putting their brands, and their political relationships on the line.

Equality Michigan interim Director Erin Knott at the announcement of non-discrimination legislation for LGBTQs, June 4, 2019 | Derek Robertson

“Businesses have their own legislative agendas. So speaking on other, more divisive issues such as expanding Elliott-Larsen … is, in fact, in opposition to both the Senate and the House leadership, and there’s a fear of political retaliation.”

Knott also noted that most businesses’ lobbying arms are oriented toward more strictly economic issues, and therefore aren’t as well-equipped to put their muscle behind policies like Elliott-Larsen — but they are reaching out to her group for help.

“A company might be internally supportive of its LGBTQ employees, but legislation impacting the LGBTQ community isn’t typically one of the core competencies of its government affairs team,” Knott said. “Right now, it’s about me having the time to coordinate with multiple employers or businesses to get in front of them and talk about, ‘Here’s what I need from you, here’s the strategy, here are resources and messaging.’”

To some in Michigan’s LGBTQ community, that’s long overdue.

Richard Czuba

“We need to stop accepting crumbs from the business community. It’s not enough to be patted on the head anymore,” said Czuba. “It’s not enough for them to sponsor Pride and hand out their trinkets with rainbows.”

Some of the state’s biggest Fortune 500 corporations — like General Motors, Ford, Dow, and Whirlpool — have been outspoken in their support for the LGBTQ community. All four companies prohibit discrimination for sexual orientation or gender identity, a key element of the proposed Elliott-Larsen amendment.

All four corporations earn marks of at least 90% on the Human Rights Campaign’s “Corporate Equality Index,” which tracks companies’ stances on protections like prohibiting discrimination and ensuring equality of benefits for same-sex partners.

Dow spokesperson Guillaume Artois told the Advance that the company’s “competitiveness is affected by a variety of public policies, including those on inclusion and diversity, workforce development, energy, tax and many others,” and reiterated its support for an Elliott-Larsen amendment, as it supported the failed 2014 legislative effort.

General Motors spokesperson David Caldwell pointed to the company’s participation in Motor City Pride and its sponsorship of the Equality Act in the U.S. Congress that would add LGBTQ protections to the federal 1964 Civil Rights Act, but did not immediately respond to a question about whether it would lobby Republican lawmakers to support Elliott-Larsen.

Ford sent a statement to the Advance saying it’s “committed to creating an environment that promotes diversity and inclusion within our workforce and communities.”

Some Democrats view the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the state’s most powerful lobby with close ties to the Republican party, as the logical intermediary between pro-LGBTQ corporations and recalcitrant Republicans in the Legislature.

“If we could get the Michigan Chamber of Commerce to support amending on Elliot Larson, that would be hugely helpful,” said Mark LaChey, the 1st vice chair of the Michigan Democratic Party.

AG will offer opinion, but says Legislature should ban LGBTQ discrimination

This round of Elliott-Larsen legislation has been endorsed by the Grand Rapids, Lansing Regional and Detroit Chambers of Commerce, all three of which sponsored the push in 2014 as well. In February, the Grand Rapids Chamber issued a statement in support of Whitmer’s call to expand the civil rights law in her State of the State address.

Michigan's Chamber of Commerce
Michigan Chamber of Commerce | Susan J. Demas

Their statewide counterpart, meanwhile, has remained silent. The Michigan Chamber did not respond to a request for comment on whether it supports an Elliott-Larsen amendment.

Czuba noted that in other Midwestern states, the business community hasn’t hesitated to advocate on behalf of LGBTQ rights, especially in the case of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act — pushed by Vice President Mike Pence when he was governor — that would have made it easier for businesses to refuse services to LGBTQ people under the law.

Knott said that despite the lack of political results so far in Michigan, behind the scenes “the vast majority of the employers that we’ve been talking to are on board and want to see this done, and want to know how they can most help me and my team’s efforts.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel said that she talked last month at the Mackinac Policy Conference to business leaders who would be receptive to a potential ballot proposal to amend Elliott-Larsen, should the legislative push fail.

Attorney General Dana Nessel | Susan J. Demas

“I did have an opportunity to talk to some different companies and they are really interested in a potential ballot proposal,” said Nessel, who advocated that idea in 2015 before her attorney general bid. “… I think it’s the best way, the fastest way, the easiest way to get the protections that would be good, again, not just for the LGBTQ community, but also for the economy of our state and for the business community.”

And state Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo), sponsor of the House legislation to amend the civil rights bill, said that given that building pressure he’s not ready to discount the possibility his Republican colleagues may yet be persuadable.

“[This is] an area where the vast majority of Michiganders agree, and the business community agrees,” Hoadley said. “[House Speaker Chatfield] has plenty of caucus members who want to cast a vote to get on the right side of history.”

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.

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Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson

Derek Robertson is a former reporter for the Advance. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.