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‘Gen Y’ Republican lawmaker takes up gay rights fight in Lansing

This week on "It’s Just Politics," it’s all about ch-ch-changes (cue your best David Bowie impersonation here). Changes are afoot vis-a-vis lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Michigan.

Democrats in the Legislature made news this week by introducing a package of bills to reverse Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage and to recognize same-sex marriages that are legal in other states. All of this is occurring, of course, as we wait for the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings on gay marriage, due sometime this month. There is also a federal case in Michigan that could be affected by the decision.

The big question is: How significant is this new legislation when all of the sponsors are Democrats? We all know Republicans run the show in Lansing; controlling the state House, state Senate and the Governor’s office. And the Republican leadership has shown no signs of wanting to make this issue a priority. When Gov. Snyder is asked about it, he tends to tap dance around the issue, won’t say "no," won’t say "yes." “I’m staying focused on jobs and kids and seniors at this point,” the governor said this week.

So why are Democrats choosing this moment to roll out this legislation? Well, to remind LGBT rights supporters that they’re with them on this as the Supreme Court’s actions focus attention on the issue. As we know, there are three main reasons to introduce legislation:

  1. to make it look like you’re doing something; create an appearance of activity.
  2. to make a point in the absence of making policy.
  3. to actually make policy.

(We should point out quickly that most legislation goes into the first two categories).
A few weeks ago, here on "It’s Just Politics," we called out Democrats for missing a messaging opportunity by not proposing, as Democrats have for the past several sessions, legislation to add sexual orientation or sexual identity protections to Michigan’s civil rights law, the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Well, mea culpa, because there is more to this story.

We are not seeing proposals from Democrats to change adoption laws, or civil rights protections for LGBT people because these are actual policy changes that are within reach. LGBT rights supporters asked Democrats to stay away from this one because the landscape is changing as more Republicans are open to the idea of adding at least some LGBT civil rights protections in housing and employment.

Now there is a Republican lawmaker ready to sponsor the bill: State Representative Frank Foster. At 26 years old, the "Gen Y" Republican from Petoskey has some influence. He chairs the House Commerce Committee; he’s considered an up-and-comer. He is circulating draft legislation for co-sponsorship. This matters because a Republican like Foster, in the majority party, is a lot more likely to get a bill passed through the Legislature than a Democrat.

The last Republican to sponsor this sort of LGBT civil rights bill was state Representative Jim Dressel, back in the 1980s. It actually cost him a seat in his next primary. But if the polling is to be believed, times are changing. And Frank Foster says there are reasons for Republicans to change, too. “I think Republicans have always been supportive of human rights which is how I look at this issue. It’s not necessarily just a gay or a lesbian issue. This is about do we really think people ought to be fired for, or denied housing or discriminated against based on – I mean, hatred’s a powerful thing, and so I think probably nine out of 10 Michiganders already think that’s probably protected under law, but in fact it’s not. Race, ethnicity, all these other things are, is protected, but sexual orientation isn’t. So this Legislature’s going to have to have a conversation about it,” Foster said at the state capitol this week.

This also reflects some new political realities for Republicans. A study commissioned by the Republican National Committee last year found resistance to gay rights is costing the GOP among younger voters. A poll by the Glengariff Group shows a majority of Michiganders now support gay marriage; a real shift from a decade ago. Support for same-sex marriage has increased 56 percent since 2004 when the ban on gay marriage was approved by Michigan voters. The polling also shows that now 54 percent would repeal that ban and allow same-sex marriages in Michigan.

There are some strategy-minded Republicans who really just hope the U.S. Supreme Court will sideline that issue by simply legalizing gay marriage; remove that wedge within the Republican Party and eliminate it as an issue with the larger voting public.

As far as amending the Elliott-Larsen law, there’s still a lot that would have to happen. Having a Republican sponsor is a big first step. I hear there may be about 10 House Republicans ready to join if and when the time is right. We’ll see if that’s this session, and how it might also play out with the 2014 elections coming up.

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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