Susan J. Demas: The Mackinac Conference lauds civility, but Kent Co. conflicts tell another tale

Many Republicans have ditched the value during the pandemic era

September 23, 2021 5:14 am

The Grand Hotel, May 29, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

“Civility still lives here at the Mackinac conference,” Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Sandy Baruah declared while kicking off the (usually) annual Mackinac Policy Conference on Tuesday.

But apparently, that value is waning more than 200 miles southwest of the storied island in business-friendly Grand Rapids, once the unofficial home of “Michigan Nice.” While the area is steadily diversifying, it’s still nationally known as the Bible Belt of Michigan.

On Aug. 22, Kent County health director Dr. Adam London wrote a pleading letter to the county board of commissioners after surviving almost being run off the road at 70 mph. That was only hours after he issued a mask mandate in K-6 schools to protect vulnerable children too young to get vaccinated against COVID-19, which has now sickened more than 1 million Michiganders and killed about 21,000.

“I need help,” London wrote to county commissioners, which the Michigan Advance first reported after filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. “My team and I are broken. I’m about done. I’ve done my job to the best of my ability. I’ve given just about everything to Kent County, and now I’ve given some more of my safety.”

The letter is nothing short of chilling, as London details how he “had a person yell out to me, ‘Hey mother******, I hope someone abuses your kids and forces you to watch.”

As a result, London attended an Aug. 26 meeting virtually out of safety concerns, where some attendees spewed COVID misinformation while torching him is a “liar” and “coward,” with one demanding his arrest. Following calls for London’s removal, both the county’s in-house legal team and an outside counsel group, Warner Norcross & Judd, concluded that would not be legal.

Dr. Adam London, Kent County administrative health officer | Screenshot

Meanwhile, Reps. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell), Mark Huizenga (R-Walker), Steven Johnson (R-Wayland) and Bryan Posthumus (R-Cannon Twp.) threatened to pull funding from the county Health Department over the mask order. Johnson told constituents to “disobey this overreach into people’s lives.”

In his letter to commissioners, London said that “public service is honorable and noble” and made a personal appeal, opening up about how his faith shapes his job.

“I am a Christian, and I embrace my job because it is an expression of that working faith,” he wrote. “ … I attend church on Sundays and holy days, pray and study every day, and you can often find me spending my lunch hour at St. Andrew’s Cathedral attending noon mass and praying for you, my co-workers, the people of Kent County, and the wisdom to do my job well.”

But Republican commissioners appeared to be unmoved. None signed on to a letter from Democratic commissioners backing the school mask mandate. They wrote they were “shocked” at the threats to London and his family and expressed “our gratitude for the Health Department and [London] … and appreciate their work to keep the people of Kent County healthy and safe in the face of a serious threat.”

Just a few years ago, threats like these against any public official would be quickly condemned by leaders in both parties. This was just a standard part of politics and civility.

Only after the Advance published its story did Chair Mandy Bolter, a Republican, issue a statement that “threats of violence against any resident or county employee is, without question, unacceptable.” And Huizenga also released a statement that “I completely and utterly denounce either being harbored against Dr. London, or any public official for that matter.”

But it shouldn’t take public pressure generated by news reporting to get leaders to do the simplest act of kindness and civility: Stand up against thuggish threats and violence against those trying to keep children safe during a deadly pandemic.

What happened in Kent County isn’t an isolated incident, either. Dozens of school board and public health officials in Michigan and across the country have faced intimidation and death threats, as part of a well-coordinated, well-funded right-wing harassment campaign, as documented by the Advance‘s reporting. It’s particularly galling because children are being hospitalized over COVID at record rates and school mask orders are there to protect their health — and their lives.

As I’ve argued, one of their goals is to exact such a personal toll that good people, like Adam London, decide to quit.

We can’t ignore that violent threats have become a standard part of COVID deniers’ playbook, borrowing heavily from irascible former President Donald Trump — from heavily armed rallies at the Michigan Capitol featuring signs like “Tyrants Get the Rope” to the alleged plot announced last October to kidnap and kill Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over her health orders.

Can we really say that rhetoric has no impact, when the top Republican in the state, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), has met with militia members who he said have gotten 'a bad rap' and has ranted that Whitmer is a 'dictator'?

– Susan J. Demas

Can we really say that rhetoric has no impact, when the top Republican in the state, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), has met with militia members who he said have gotten “a bad rap” and has ranted that Whitmer is a “dictator”? Just days after the FBI foiled the plot against Whitmer, then-House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) decided it was a good time to send her an open letter blaming her for “partisan rhetoric” in talking about her near-assassination and suggesting she’d failed on security.

And what about Nolan Finley, the longtime Detroit News opinion page editor who was invited to be on not one, but two Mackinac Conference panels again this year, spending the pandemic railing against Whitmer for “turning the state into a dictatorship”? Is he the shining example of civility the Mackinac Conference wants to be known for?

Like most attendees of this year’s conference, I preferred a time when people felt constrained from unleashing every terrible thought they had about their foes on social media or in campaign speeches. But that’s just standard operating procedure for too many Republicans and COVID deniers, some of whom cross the line and make actual threats.

If business leaders are going to hold an influential bipartisan conference lifting up civility, they should address how members of a major political party are harming society by falling short and stop funding those who do.

Otherwise, calls for civility will continue to ring hollow.


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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.