Susan J. Demas: A GOP firebrand put economics before his values — and we all lost

That’s been the story of the pandemic

February 24, 2021 7:55 am

Former House Speaker Lee Chatfield | Andrew Roth

It was somewhat surprising when news broke a couple weeks ago that Southwest Michigan First was tapping former state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) as its new CEO.

Chatfield had a controversial record during his two years running the lower chamber, including jetting off with GOP leaders for a November White House confab with then-President Trump, who had made no secret of his desire for legislatures in key states he lost like Michigan to do him a solid and hand the election to him. The speaker also attended an anti-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer rally hours after the FBI announced a right-wing extremist plot against her. And a couple days after that, Chatfield sent the governor a letter accusing her of being too partisan in her response to almost being murdered in a public show trial and demanding to know if she was responsible for security failures.

The 32-year-old skated from a lot of criticism over these jaw-dropping examples of hyperpartisanship and bad judgment, just as his attempt to bring a loaded handgun on an airplane in 2018 only resulted in a slap on the wrist from a GOP prosecutor.

Talk about a charmed political life.

So you could see why Chatfield, who isn’t from the Kalamazoo area and admitted he didn’t have an economic development background, wouldn’t think twice about pursuing a high-profile job that paid his predecessor roughly $725,000 a year.

What was surprising is why the Southwest Michigan First board thought he was a fit for such a prestigious job. When former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley was announced as the head of the Lansing-based Small Business Association of Michigan in 2019, it made complete sense. Calley had devoted more than a decade in Lansing, first as a state representative and later as Gov. Rick Snyder’s No. 2, to lowering business taxes and axing regulations.

Chatfield, a graduate of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, was best-known for his staunch anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion views, having primaried a GOP House member who backed gay rights in 2014. Two years ago, there was a strong bipartisan push to finally add LGBTQs to the state’s non-discrimination law that Whitmer said she would sign. Chatfield put the kibosh on it early, declaring on a statewide TV show that he would never “endorse a law or allow a bill to come for a vote that I believe infringes on someone’s ability to exercise their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Michigan Pride | Angela Demas

That doesn’t jibe with the dynamic Kalamazoo area, which has become much bluer and has been home to many LGBTQ officials, including Kalamazoo City Commissioner Erin Knott and former state Rep. Jon Hoadley.

Southwest Michigan First, to its credit, first backed adding LGBTQs to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act in 2017. So when the group was called out for hiring one of the leaders responsible for blocking that, a curious thing happened.

Last week, Chatfield issued a statement that he would now back that effort in his new role. “Those are the values of this company, and as CEO, I support those values and the effort,” he said.

But that wasn’t enough to quell criticism or stop organizations like the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship program from pulling support. So Chatfield announced on Monday that he was stepping down, noting “many of my political opinions were causing an uproar” and insisting he had never personally discriminated against anyone, which, of course, was never the point.

The Chatfield episode didn’t occur in a vacuum. It was actually the perfect encapsulation of what we’ve seen from Republicans as the nation has reeled from the worst public health crisis in modern history that has now taken a half-million souls.

In order to stop the spread of COVID and save lives, public health officials have backed a number of restrictions in the last year, including wearing masks, shuttering some businesses, closing schools and barring large indoor gatherings. Whitmer has been aggressive in her actions and studies have shown that they have saved thousands of lives. As case rates have sharply declined, most restrictions have now been lifted.

You would think that pro-life Republicans would be completely on board, as nothing is supposed to be more important that the sanctity of human life. This is a time when you can truly walk the walk. But instead, they have emerged as the most strident voices against restrictions because of the economic toll.

Of course, studies also show that it’s not shutdowns that have caused the recession, but people changing consumer behavior and taking precautions to protect themselves. That’s why smart policymakers, including those in the new Biden administration, have long said that you can’t fix the economy until you get the pandemic under control, something that Trump had no interest in doing, especially in his final months.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield speaks at the auto insurance reform bill signing, May 30, 2019 | Andrew Roth

But instead of holding memorials to the almost 15,400 Michiganders who have died of this horrible disease, Republicans have embarked on an almost yearlong grievance tour, from attending heavily armed rallies where activists called for Whitmer’s murder to carting out aggrieved parents who just want their kids to be able to play football (parents who don’t want their immunocompromised kids to die don’t seem to get them same red carpet rolled out).

This is very popular with business lobbyists and wealthy donors, but what often gets lost is that a majority of Michiganders have backed Whitmer’s job performance on the pandemic from the start.

There’s been a lot of talk from Republicans about freedoms but not a lot of talk about values, besides slipping in language in a COVID relief bill backed by Right to Life of Michigan that will likely scare people from taking the life-saving vaccine by issuing a warning that aborted fetuses may have been used at some point.

And indeed, Republicans, as we speak, are holding up almost $6 billion in federal aid for Michigan families and businesses — who they claim have been destroyed by life-saving restrictions — until the Democratic governor agrees to cede her power to fight the pandemic.

Given this context, it makes sense that Chatfield was willing to sell out his closely held beliefs for a big paycheck. In the Legislature, he and other Republicans made a calculated decision to set aside their pro-life politics to push an economic and political agenda backed by special interests and funders during the pandemic.

Chatfield gambled and lost. But Republicans, as a whole, are betting that their pandemic politics will fill their campaign coffers in 2022 so they can topple a popular governor.

With enough money, they may be right.

Correction: This column has been updated to reflect where Erin Knott serves.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.