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Republican angst over gay rights in Michigan continues

It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta

The Republican angst over gay rights continues this week.

Driven and riven by the continuing commentary on the topic by Michigan’s Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema, in this case on AIDS and partner benefits. “Folks they want free medical because they’re dying between the ages of 30 and 44 years old… For me it’s a moral issue. It’s a biblical issue,” Agema told a local Republican holiday gathering last week in West Michigan (thanks to the Herald Palladium for audio of remarks).

And, as they often do, Agema’s comments have already gotten a lot of attention; inciting what has become a now-predictable ritual of condemnation from Democrats and Republicans. However, Republicans are complaining not so much about what Agema said but, instead, how he said it.

This is not the first time that Dave Agema has made comments like this. There is a history here. Agema has always made it plain he considers homosexuality to be nothing but a deviant lifestyle. His detractors say he’s a bigot. His supporters - and he certainly has them within the state Republican Party - say he’s a truth-teller. In fact, former state Representative Jack Hoogendyk, a prominent Tea Party leader, recently called him “a prophet.”

But many Republicans just wish he would tone it down. “We need a whole lot more understanding, and a whole lot less strife,” state Attorney General Bill Schuette said after the remarks.

This is similar to the message we heard from some Republicans after the party lost the 2012 presidential race. Some GOP folks saying enough with this kind of rhetoric, that it’s not helpful, particularly if the party is trying to become a less-exclusive, big-tent party.

Of course, Schuette is saying this as he simultaneously defends Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage in court. That fact alone speaks squarely to the Republican dilemma.

Meanwhile, Governor Snyder seems pretty plain in his position that this is something he’d rather not talk about. “What [Agema] said is inappropriate and so I made my statement that what he said is inappropriate and should not have happened and said my piece.” But, Snyder is not done with it because this issue is not going away. That’s because while Republicans equivocate, Democrats and progressives are taking full advantage to use this as an opportunity to organize and fundraise.

When Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie  Wasserman Schultz visited southeast Michigan this week, Agema’s comments were still the issue du jour, and so state Democrats quickly built an LGBT event around it in Ferndale. During her appearance Wasserman Schultz said intolerance is, “in the Republican Party’s DNA.”

Of course, Democrats have been through their own evolution on LGTB rights.  Remember how Jennifer Granholm and John Kerry, even President Obama, used to be for civil unions but against gay marriage?  That’s roughly where Rick Snyder is today.

Now there is a sort-of bipartisan effort to amend Michigan’s civil rights law to add LGBT protections. An effort that’s close enough to fruition that Democrats have agreed that - unlike the past couple of sessions of the state Legislature - they will not introduce a bill to add LGBT protections to Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.  

The bill, as we’ve talked about before on It’s Just Politics, will likely be introduced by Republican state Representative Frank Foster of Charlevoix, a millennial; a generation that’s breaking with the past on gay rights.

And, because Republicans are in the majority in the state Legislature, and looking for a little relief on the issue, state House Speaker Jase Bolger says it’s worth a look. That’s if there’s a way to navigate between protecting people from being fired for being gay, or believed to be gay, and protecting religious freedom.

Governor Snyder says he’s open to the bill if the Legislature takes the lead.

So Republicans want to first, evolve in the direction of public opinion (that’s simply a reality of winning elections in the future) but second, do that without alienating or isolating the social conservative base that was and is a critical element of its electoral success.

You just have to wonder which of those purposes Dave Agema serves as every incendiary utterance inspires a reaction and then a reaction to the reaction…

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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