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Would Rick Snyder tap dance at a gay wedding?

Republicans in Michigan, at least some of them, are trying to reposition their  party vis a vis gay rights, and especially gay marriage. It’s one of the issues that has been killing Republicans among younger voters.

This week, Michigan Republican National Committeeman David Agema put that dilemma front and center with a post on his Facebook page. It was an old and pretty much discredited piece that outlines “facts” about homosexuality; like gay people are responsible for half the murders in large cities.

As a national committeeman from Michigan, Agema helps set the direction at the Republican National Committee. He was elected last year by a Republican state convention; swept in by a Tea Party insurgency. This Facebook post took the simmering conundrum facing Republicans and turned up the heat. The rest of the public is watching as Republicans try to resolve this question: Is it possible to simultaneously be against gay marriage and against discrimination that targets gay people?

Some Michigan Republicans are calling on Agema to resign. But Agema and his position certainly still have plenty of supporters in the Republican Party.

Gay rights victory in a very unusual place

Meanwhile, a budget bill just signed by Governor Snyder includes money for dredging around harbors and marinas. It has boilerplate anti-discrimination language in it – that the money can’t go to any entity that discriminates based on race, gender, etc. And, for the first time, that we’re aware of, at least, that list also includes “sexual orientation.”

Yet no one will take credit for adding the language to the bill! It’s like it just magically appeared. And the Legislature has refused for the longest time to amend the state’s civil rights law to do the same thing. This got us wondering why someone didn’t re-introduce that bill in this session.

Note to Democrats: Missed messaging opportunity.

The first time around

Interestingly enough, it was a Republican who introduced the first bill in the Michigan Legislature to protect gay people from discrimination. It was introduced in 1983 by Jim Dressel, a state representative from a very conservative district near Holland. It ended his political career. He lost a Republican primary the following year to an opponent he’d easily beat before.

Much later, he quietly came out and became an activist for gay rights. He died 21 years ago this week. Not too long before he passed away he spoke about Republican politics and bemoaned his party’s drift to the right. “They just keep making it harder and harder to pull the lever under the elephant,” Dressel noted.

Tap dancing around the issue

There are, of course, still plenty of gay Republicans who refuse to abandon their party. Just think about the Log Cabin Republicans: fiscal conservatives who stick with the GOP, wishing their party would step away from social issues, who never felt at home in the Democratic Party. So Republicans have a base to work from. It’s just that they don’t really know how to handle it when a significant portion of the Republican base still remains vehemently opposed to gay marriage and gay rights.

Governor Snyder was asked about it this week and basically just tap-danced around the issue.  “That’s not a topic I would spend a lot of time on as a practical matter because, in particular in Michigan, it’s in Michigan’s constitution. So I view it as I’m here to follow through on the laws of the state of Michigan. It was decided some years ago in Michigan,” Snyder said.

So, he’s not for it. He’s not against it. There’s also a federal court case pending on Michigan’s gay marriage ban. The crux of the question is this: Is marriage a basic right that everyone’s entitled to? Or, is it more of a privilege, like a driver’s license, that can be voted on in an election or by the Legislature?

Whether he wanted to or not, the governor just took a stand.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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