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200,000 voters can't be wrong. Discrimination is alive and well in Michigan.

Jack Lessenberry

The state officially certified Michigan’s election returns two days ago, and though the focus was on the extremely close presidential race, there was something I found even more troubling in another result, one that’s drawn very little notice.

That would be the vote for the state board of education. John Austin, who is now the board’s president, courageously rallied his colleagues to support the rights of transgender students. 

They adopted a voluntary statewide policy encouraging districts to allow them to use whatever bathrooms and locker rooms match their gender identity.

That enraged the religious right, and I wondered whether Austin would pay a big penalty at the polls. Well, he lost – but the results would seem to indicate he really didn’t.

The top two vote-getters are elected to an eight-year term, and while both Republicans won, Austin finished only 7,000 votes behind, a closer margin than the one by which Hillary Clinton lost the state. In fact, there was very little difference in the totals for the top three candidates; Austin and the two winning Republicans.

But what was troubling was that the second Democratic nominee finished more than 200,000 votes behind all the others.

But what was troubling was that the second Democratic nominee finished more than 200,000 votes behind all the others. This was a man who, in many quarters, is one of the most respected and admired people in the state. Ismael Ahmed co-founded, built up, and ran ACCESS, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, which became the nation’s largest private welfare agency of its kind.

People came from around the nation to study it as a model.

Later, he served in Governor Granholm’s cabinet as director of the Michigan Department of Human Services, and then became associate provost of the University of Michigan Dearborn.

Not bad for a self-made man who once worked on the line and served in Vietnam and Korea. By any measure, he ought to have been seen as highly qualified to serve on the state board of education. Any measure, that is, except one. Ahmed is an Arab, and a Muslim.

He is a totally American Muslim who is as much a part of the fabric of our society as you could imagine, and has been married for many years to a non-Muslim woman. But clearly, 200,000 voters who were fine with other Democrats refused to vote for him.

What’s dismaying is that this is the second time this has happened; Ahmed also lost a race for an education board seat in 2002, despite strong support from Carl and Sander Levin, probably the two most prominent Jewish Americans in Michigan politics.

... we'd all be better off if more of us were more like him.

When I talked to Ahmed after this year’s election, I found him to be gentlemanly, not angry or bitter, and wanting to downplay discrimination as the reason – though he admitted “there was clearly some of that.”

Instead, he said that "we and the Democratic Party may not have been talking to working people in the way we should have been talking to them."

That may well be a suitable epitaph for Hillary Clinton’s defeat, but doesn’t really explain his.

When I asked what he will do now, he didn’t hesitate. “I’m a community organizer, and what happened gives me a lot more incentive to work even harder,” he said.

I have a hunch we’d all be better off if more of us were more like him.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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