Advance Notice: Briefs

After flip-flopping on LGBTQ rights, Chatfield resigns from new CEO post

By: - February 22, 2021 12:01 pm

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

Former state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) announced on social media Monday morning that he has resigned as CEO of Southwest Michigan First, as the Kalamazoo-based economic development agency hemorrhaged support over his anti-LGBTQ rights record.

“The arrival of my family and me to the Kalamazoo community has caused some unfortunate controversy, and for that I am truly sorry. It was never my intent to cause a distraction, and I apologize for any hard feelings or stress caused. There’s so much division in our country today, and it pains me to see my political past separate a welcoming community,” Chatfield said in a letter to the board.

Chatfield was announced as the agency’s new head on Feb. 11. His predecessor had a package worth more than $700,000 annually, according to tax records.

Criticism from LGBTQ rights activists soon followed, as Chatfield has a long history of supporting anti-LGBTQ policies. He primaried a GOP House member, Frank Foster, who backed expanding the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act in 2014 to win his seat and declined to take up legislation doing so as speaker.

“Personally, I don’t believe people should be discriminated against. But at the same time, I’m never going to 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,” Chatfield said on “Off the Record” in 2019.

The city of Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo Promise both withdrew funding from Southwest Michigan First after Chatfield’s hiring.

In 2017, Southwest Michigan First’s board voted to support adding LGBTQs the Elliot-Larsen. Following the backlash, Chatfield issued a statement last week that he would back that in his new role.

“Those are the values of this company, and as CEO, I support those values and the effort,” Chatfield said.

However, Chatfield said Monday he would be stepping down from his new job.

“I especially apologize to the incredible staff at Southwest Michigan First. I have learned to deal with criticism for political reasons, but they haven’t, nor should they have to. They didn’t deserve this negative attention. They didn’t deserve the negative backlash. Even during just one short week, I witnessed a very talented, hard-working and driven team that truly only wants to serve their community and better people’s lives,” Chatfield said in a statement to the board.

The organization released a statement wishing “the very best for Lee and his family” and reaffirming its support of LGBTQ rights.

“In recent days, the announcement of our selection to fill the vacant CEO position has caused a great deal of disappointment by our team members, community partners, investors, donors and board members of Southwest Michigan First. Many have questioned our agency’s commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion as well as our human capital and CEO search processes,” the group said. “We welcome the conversations, challenging questions and opportunities to listen, learn and grow. What is abundantly clear is that our search process fell well below the standard expected by our board, our community partners, investors, donors and importantly, our Southwest Michigan First team.”

Southwest Michigan First also said that it would be establishing an executive-level position for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, 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, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. 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 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.