Dems, progressive groups want Michigan civil rights chief to resign over sexist remarks

By: - August 12, 2019 6:03 pm

MDCR Executive Director Agustin Arbulu listens to Attorney General Dana Nessel | Ken Coleman

Updated 9:54 a.m. 8/13/2019

More than 20 Democratic lawmakers on Monday called for embattled Department of Civil Rights Director Agustin Arbulu to resign after making sexist comments. 

But the Michigan Civil Rights Commission declined on Monday to release information to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on the meeting last month when it reprimanded Arbulu.

Documents released by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) last Friday detailed sexist comments that Arbulu made to a coworker, as well as remarks to state investigator that his adult daughter “looked hot” at a recent event they both attended. He also reportedly said to a MDCR male employee while referring to a woman, “Check out her ass.”

Speaking to the Advance, Arbulu said his comment about his daughter was “regrettable.”

“I can’t change that,” Arbulu said. “I have taken responsibility, and [I’m] learning from that experience, specifically in my role as executive director, and recognizing that words do matter.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer | Casey Hull

Arbulu was appointed to the Michigan Commission on Civil Rights in 2013 by former Gov. Rick Snyder. He became the state Department of Civil Rights executive director in 2015. 

Whitmer has asked why Arbulu is still on the job. She does not have the power to remove him.

Commission Chair Alma Wheeler Smith responded to Whitmer’s concerns over Arbulu’s continued service and promised to “closely monitor” the director’s “growth and development through this corrective strategy.” 

Smith also wrote that the sexual harassment complaint before the body “was not actionable” on the advice of legal counsel. The commision has directed Arbulu to enter into corrective action strategies.

Alma Wheeler Smith

However, the panel declined to release discussions on Arbulu, as Whitmer requested. Smith wrote there was no written transcript or audio recording of the closed July 29 meeting when the commission took action against Arbulu. There are meeting minutes, Smith wrote, as required by law.

Last week, House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) called for Arbulu’s resignation. 

State Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) was among those on Monday who called for Arbulu’s resignation. 

“The Director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights serves as a leader for an organization that is integral to ensuring every person in Michigan feels safe and welcome while at work, school and in public spaces,” Anthony said. “Arbulu’s behavior and comments have illustrated that he is not fit to exercise this responsibility, and I am deeply disturbed by the Commission’s choice to retain him in this position despite the findings of their investigation.”

And Anthony isn’t alone. State Reps. Sheryl Kennedy (D-Davison) and Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) also called for Arbulu’s resignation.

“Gender rights are civil rights, and Michiganders need to be able to trust the people in those offices to protect them,” Kennedy said. “Director Arbulu’s comments and actions have proven that he is unfit to fulfill the duties of his office. The Commission took the first step with the reprimand, but this is not enough.”

Panel reprimands Michigan civil rights director for ‘inappropriate’ comments

Pohutsky added that the “flippant manner in which he made such inappropriate comments demonstrates that he does not fully understand the gravity of his remarks or their impact on those he is charged to serve.”

Both Progress Michigan and the Progressive Women’s Caucus’ executive committee* issued statements calling for Arbulu to step down. 

The PWC executive committee is composed of state Rep. Kristy Pagan (D-Canton); state Rep. Kyra Bolden (D-Southfield); state Rep. Mari Manoogian (D-Birmingham); state Rep. Rachel Hood (D-Grand Rapids) and state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit). 

Stephanie Chang

Chang’s Democratic colleagues in the Senate agreed, including Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint). Other senators joining the call are: Betty Jean Alexander (D-Detroit), Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills), Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), Marshall Bullock II (D-Detroit), Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing), Adam Hollier (D-Detroit), Sean McCann (D-Kalamazoo), Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak), Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) and Paul Wojno (D-Warren).

In a joint statement, the senators said they “no longer have confidence Dr. Arbulu can appropriately lead in addressing such serious issues.”

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.

This story was updated to clarify that the Progressive Women’s Caucus’ executive committee called for Arbulu’s resignation.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.