Let’s take a ride in the Wayback Machine, back to the summer of 2013.
Former Rep. Barb Byrum (D-Onondaga), who was once silenced after uttering the word “vasectomy” during an abortion debate on the House floor (the horror), was now keeping a busy schedule as Ingham County clerk. She also was being mentioned as a possible 2014 running mate for Democrats’ presumed gubernatorial nominee, Mark Schauer.
That brings us to an episode that the satirical D.C. website Wonkette dubbed: “Michigan Lady Might Run For Office Even Though She Has Children, What Is Even Up With That?”
Yes, in an interview with subscription-only MIRS (full disclosure: I once worked there), Byrum was repeatedly asked about how being a mom might be a problem if she ran for LG:
“Reminded that being on the ticket means less family time with her 3-and 5-year-old children, one of whom enters kindergarten this fall, she noted, ‘I’ve been doing that running around the state.’
“The clerk and former House member has already attended Democratic Party functions in Kalamazoo, Manistee and Muskegon promoting election and redistricting reforms. She’s scheduled to speak to a group in Jackson County, Marquette County and, possibly, Monroe.
“But don’t the children want Mom at home? MIRS wondered.
“‘I think a 3-and 5-year old want daddy home. They want mommy home,’ Byrum said. She added that would be a factor in her decision-making process if it gets that far. ‘If I am asked it would be a conversation to have with family and supporters,’ she concluded.”
After the interview netted national mockery, as well as criticism from the media watchdog group Name It, Change It, MIRS pulled the passage and did a follow-up story. It seems that a female reporter there also noticed that there were some problems.
I, too, happen to be a Lady Reporter who occasionally stumbles across sexism and double standards in politics (you may retreat to your fainting couch now). In a column I wrote after the debacle, I noted that Lt. Gov. Brian Calley is never asked about the pressures he faces balancing work and a young family.
Calley, who’s now weighing a 2018 bid for governor, won a seat in the state House at age 29. His middle child was born two weeks after the election (“So that’s all she’s ever known,” the father of three told me last month). He’s spoken at length about her autism, and he’s long been a vocal advocate for insurance coverage for those on the spectrum. Calley has also been public about his youngest daughter’s heart surgeries. And his wife, former Ionia County Commission Chair Julie Calley, was just elected to his old House seat in November.
But go ahead and search stories on the LG, far and wide. I’ve yet to come across any that ask him about his work-life balance, which is a fairly standard question for women in politics (or any female who achieves professional acclaim). Even Hillary Clinton was asked how she could juggle running for president with being a grandmother, for God’s sake. That’s a question that was never hurled at Donald Trump or Mitt Romney.
This is just one of the subconscious biases (yes, I said it) that reporters carry with them, like presuming that any crime committed by someone who’s Muslim is terrorism.
Newsroom diversity is a hot-button topic after Trump’s victory last year, with some arguing that we need more conservative, working-class and military voices in the media. I have no issue with that, especially as someone who lived in poverty for years. (When I got my first journalism job in 2001, it paid $10 an hour — which was a huge raise after subsisting on multiple minimum wage jobs). I also think that women, African-Americans, LGBTs, Latinos and Asians in the newsroom bring vital perspectives to coverage, and there shouldn’t be a knee-jerk inclination to suddenly discount their voices.
Anyway, talk is cheap. So when I sat down with Brian Calley last month for an in-depth interview for my publication, Inside Michigan Politics, I asked him the question men are never asked:
“IMP: Given the fact that you do have three young kids — and you’ve talked extensively about your daughter, Reagan, having autism and your youngest daughter, Karagan, who had a heart condition — do you feel like you’re able to balance raising a family and possibly taking on the challenge of running for governor?
“Calley: Well, I think regardless of what happens in the — regardless of what happens and my future looks like, I feel that I have finally figured out how to balance life and make sure I take care of my top priorities, which are — my top responsibility, which is my family, while also doing a good job at being lieutenant governor. I wish I could go back 10 years ago and talk to myself and give myself a few hints about how to maintain that balance and how to establish the kind of schedule that allows me to be very effective at my job responsibilities without my family having to pay such a steep price for it. So it’s been a learning experience. But I am confident that whether I stay in public service in some way or I go into the private sector that maintaining that balance is something that I’ll be able to accomplish.”
Now, see, that wasn’t so hard. And to his credit, Calley took the question in stride, just like he did when I pressed him about how he’d rate Trump’s presidency or what he’d do differently than his boss, Gov. Rick Snyder, on the Flint water crisis.
I’m sure some critics would say I have an agenda. But then again, wouldn’t asking Byrum if her kids “want Mom at home” also be pushing an agenda (from 1955)?
To me, journalism is about starting a dialogue and making people think. It’s not always a comfortable process — which is precisely the point.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.