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What Troy Mayor Janice Daniels can learn from mayors who criticized Chick-fil-A

If I asked the well-informed Michigan Radio listeners to name the mayors of Ann Arbor, Birmingham, Flint and Grand Rapids, and those cities' most critical electoral issues, I expect that very few could do it.

But naming the mayor of Troy, and her most pressing issue, is something most of us can easily do. That is because Troy mayor Janice Daniels is facing a recall election.  And not just any recall; the reason Daniels faces a recall is that last summer, she posted this comment to her own Facebook page:

“I think I am going to throw away my I Love New York carrying bag now that queers can get married there.”

The Daniels story quickly became irresistible to Michigan’s newspapers, local TV news and radio. A Troy High School Gay-Straight Alliance student group was formed, and last January, Daniels met with them to apologize for her Facebook post.

But the meeting went awry when the group pressed Daniels to speak at an anti-bullying event, and she replied, "If I do, I'm not sure that any of you will be satisfied… I will bring in psychiatrists, who will tell you that the homosexual lifestyle is dangerous." 

A public campaign to demand Mayor Daniels’ resignation morphed into a petition drive to recall her, and in the process, the mayor doubled down in a radio interview where she was questioned about her comments at Troy High School.  She told Detroit CBS radio host Charlie Langton that her comments had been directed at what she perceived as dangers of homosexuality, and if she had “been with a group of smokers, I might have said I would like to bring a doctor into this meeting to say that smoking is dangerous."

The national media noticed, money was raised, and the recall petition drive succeeded.

You won’t hear any defense of Mayor Daniels’ comments coming from me.  But I do wonder about the recall election.

Proponents of the recall say it is not merely about Daniels’ social comments, but that she was a critical vote against a federally-subsidized regional transit center and that other official actions earned her the recall vote.  Nonsense.  Other mayors vote against federally subsidized projects all the time, and we don’t see them being recalled.  

Janice Daniels has herself questioned the basis of the recall campaign against her, noting that she’s done nothing that was illegal or that represented any corruption of her official duties. Recall proponents point out that they are not required to allege or prove any illegality; if Daniels had done something illegal, she might be removed from office without a recall election.

Could Janice Daniels have avoided a recall? Would it all have ended quietly if she had made a simple apology for her Facebook page and thereafter said nothing about her views on homosexuality?  It’s hard to say; politicians don’t always choose their subjects of commentary.  They get asked questions by reporters and constituents, and their answers are often on the record.

Other times, mayors voluntarily pop off, and say stupid things.

Which brings us to this week’s news cycle and the Chick-fil-A chain of chicken restaurant franchises.  Company president Dan Cathy was a guest on the Ken Coleman syndicated radio show, where he recited his belief in traditional marriage and his religious concern about any redefinition of marriage.  The audio was picked up in the blogosphere, and eventually the food fight was on.

The mayor of San Francisco, Ed Lee, wrote on his Twitter that the closest Chick-fil-A restaurant to the City by the Bay was “40 miles away,” and that he “strongly recommend[ed] that they not try to come any closer.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel criticized Chick-fil-A, following the comments of Alderman Joe Moreno, who openly threatened to use his council privilege to block the opening of one of the franchise restaurants in his ward.

And Boston mayor Tom Menino threatened to block the opening of any new Chick-fil-A restaurants in his city.

To the extent that any of those threats were serious ones, they were plainly illegal uses of zoning and permitting powers by the big cities. The illegality was obvious enough to prompt the ACLU, the New York Times and Boston Globe editorial pages, and law professor Alan Dershowitz to condemn the municipal threats. Had the mayors persisted, they’d have exposed themselves to massive lawsuits and millions in losses for their cities.

There will, however, be no recalls in San Francisco, Chicago or Boston.

The mayors, having scored their political points, are all now walking back their comments and declaiming any official threats against Chick-fil-A.  There will be no official bar to locating in those cities.  They now know better.  Judging by the popularity of the nationwide Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, it might be good business for those city governments, where they certainly know how to tax businesses.  “When you are in a hole, stop digging” is a public relations truism that the big-city boys could perhaps teach to small-town Mayor Daniels.

But so it is that Janice Daniels, who never made any illegal threats, and whose comments didn’t expose Troy to any lawsuit liability, is facing a recall election.

Charles Brown is an attorney from Livonia. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.

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