LGBT rights

Susan J. Demas: The Resistance Blooms in the Heart of Republican Country

Photo credit: Progressive Women's Alliance-Lakeshore

Photo credit: Progressive Women's Alliance-Lakeshore

Whenever you walk into an Elks Lodge, it’s like stepping back into the 1970s, if not before.

From the vintage photos on the walls to the omnipresent wood paneling, they typically have the cozy feel of your grandparents’ basement. I’ve done my fair share of interviews in lodges in small towns across the Midwest, usually dispatched by editors looking for veterans, union members and independent voters to include in various stories.

Last Friday night, I was asked to speak at an Elks Lodge in Grand Haven, a beautiful and conservative hamlet on Lake Michigan, which thankfully, given my commute from Lansing, wasn’t buried under two feet of snow. It was the monthly meeting of the Lakeshore chapter of the Progressive Women’s Alliance. The organization blossomed after the 2016 election, starting as a few women chatting at a local pub to a fired-up group searching for bigger and bigger venues.

As I looked out from the middle-school-style stage, I was frankly stunned to see that roughly 200 people were crammed in the hall — women, children and a sizeable number of men — for a talk on the 2018 election more than seven months out.

I do a fair number of speeches, especially in election years, so I have my trusty notes scrawled on a yellow legal pad on key races in Michigan and across the country, party breakdowns in legislative chambers and big factors shaping campaigns.

But after talking to several people gathered before my speech about the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, Michigan’s terrible roads and the latest round of indictments in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, I decided to do something new. I ended up just speaking extemporaneously for 20 minutes about activism, organizing and the history of social movements, and didn’t glance at my notes once.

For an introvert who was paralyzed by extreme stage fright as a child, I’ve often thought how odd it is that a sizeable part of my career is now public speaking and TV interviews. The turning point for me was being asked to speak as a 17-year-old college freshman at a 1994 free-speech rally against an anti-LGBT policy at the University of Iowa. As the mother of an LGBT teen, I’m glad I found my voice back then on such an important issue.

So last Friday, I began my talk by noting that the GOP has controlled all three branches of Michigan government since 2011 and I’ve spent countless hours at the Capitol covering and interviewing Republicans in charge.   

“They don’t know about you,” I said. “They don’t know how many progressives are right here in the heart of Republican Ottawa County. They don’t know that you’re willing to give up your Friday night, when you could be doing much more fun and interesting things than listening to me talk about politics. They don’t know how many other groups — Indivisible and Our Revolution chapters — there are in Michigan, especially in conservative areas. And this is why I think you’re building something big for the 2018 election.”

Several people at the event told me how alone they felt as liberals in Grand Haven, especially before the ‘16 election. One man recalled how overjoyed he was to see even one John Kerry for President sign in 2004 in a neighbor’s yard after he moved in from the Detroit area.

But they’re not alone. When I went to the second annual Women’s March in Lansing in January, there were 5,000 people from across Michigan jammed on the Capitol lawn. Many were kids like my daughter and her friends from their high school Feminist Club.

Susan J. Demas/Women's March, January 21, 2018

Susan J. Demas/Women's March, January 21, 2018

We live in frightening times, especially immigrants threatened with being rounded up and sent back to war-torn countries, LGBT people whose rights are being dismantled by the Trump administration, and struggling people who are being kicked off safety-net programs like Medicaid.

But this has brought out the best in people who are willing to stand up for their friends and neighbors and fight for justice and equality — which is what really makes our country great.

At the Progressive Women’s Alliance event, one of the last questions came from a woman about the Voters Not Politicians ballot initiative to end gerrymandering in Michigan. She said that an oft-quoted political pundit recently lectured her that it would never succeed and it was stupid to even try, because conservatives would file lawsuit after lawsuit.

She asked me what I thought, and I agreed that there would likely be legal and legislative challenges, as people in power tend to want to stay there. “Anything worth doing is going to be hard. And that should never stop you,” I added.

But I suppose I really didn’t need to tell a room full of progressives in Ottawa County that.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Where is Bernie Sanders’ Revolution in Michigan?

This column ran in Dome Magazine.

Hillary Clinton is now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, something that’s devastating to at least a sizable minority of Bernie Sanders supporters.

For months, the Sanders campaign and some of his overzealous voters have used faulty numbers and logic to claim that the former independent was, indeed, winning. Some of them doxxed or harassed superdelegates, like U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield).

These are Tea Party tactics, befitting for folks who have peddled in conspiracy theories. (For years, Tea Partiers have insisted chemtrails are poisonous, Clinton planned the Benghazi attack and more).

As someone who believes the scientific research that vaccines, genetically modified food and fluoride in the water are not just safe, but have helped millions of people, I’m not terribly sympathetic.

But there’s been talk of Sanders sparking a Tea Party on the left. Of course, we all heard that Occupy Wall Street was going to fill that role, and that fizzled fast.

I felt sick to my stomach watching Tea Partiers shout down and threaten then-87-year-old U.S. Rep. John Dingell, a veteran and a patriot, back at a 2009 town hall on Obamacare. That’s not a style of politics I think the left should embrace.

One test will be the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia next month. Several pro-Sanders protests are scheduled. Will they be peaceful? Will most Sanders voters come home and vote Democratic, especially with race-baiting authoritarian Donald Trump as the GOP nominee? We’ll see.

But what I’ve been looking for, and have seen absolutely no sign of, is Sanders’ revolution in Michigan.

This was a huge state for him. Now that the primary season is almost over, his shocking March 8 victory here still remains his most impressive. He did it with zero institutional support, albeit with a hefty advertising campaign.

Sanders inspired thousands at rallies at Eastern Michigan University, Michigan State University and more.

Where are those diehard Sanderistas now? I don’t see too many running for the Legislature or Congress. Are they seeking local office below the radar? That’s a logical place to start if you want a revolution. Most people’s lives are far more impacted by local government than presidential platforms.

There’s so much to be done in Michigan, even if you don’t want to put your name on a ballot, however.

You could work on a campaign for much-needed redistricting reform so that Democrats don’t end up taking roughly 49 percent of the statewide vote, but only 11 of 38 state Senate seats, as they did in 2014. People dismiss this as inside baseball. They’re wrong. This is the real game in town.

You could work to ensure that LGBT people can’t get fired at work –– yes, it’s still legal in Michigan –– or that transgender children can use the bathroom of their choice without Republicans weirdly policing them.

You could work to make it easier for women to exercise their right to choose. In the last five years, laws have been enacted closing clinics and barring insurance companies from covering abortion unless it’s via a special rider (i.e. rape insurance).

And there are dozens, even hundreds, of other worthy causes to start working on if you want fundamental progressive change. It starts at home.

Sanders only raised about $1.7 million in Michigan, which is pocket change for ballot initiatives that typically require a $10 to $20 million investment. But he’s banked over $200 million overall, mostly from small donors. Imagine harnessing some of that small-donor financial potential for ballot initiatives in the Mitten State and across the nation.

It’s easy to get fired up for a single, inspiring politician. It’s also almost impossible for one person, however charismatic, to make real change in this country. (And it’s remarkably easy to be let down by that leader, who, in the end, is flawed like everyone else).

It’s fun to cheer at rallies and post memes on Facebook. But that’s being a fan, not making social change.

The real work of politics is hard. It’s knocking on doors and calling donors. It’s making compromise after compromise to try and win something that will make people’s lives better, like Obamacare, even if it’s not ideal.

It’s grinding and demoralizing, but completely necessary.

Is that the kind of work Sanders supporters are willing to do? I don’t know. Some will use the excuse that Clinton is so distasteful that they’re through with politics, (although they were never going to stick around anyway if their kindly grandpa hero didn’t win). Some will find the incrementalism of social change too hard to bear.

I sympathize.

But that’s our system. And I’ll take that kind of order over a radical like Trump, who’s threatened to mess with the First Amendment and the principle of an independent judiciary. Revolutions aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Sanders’ millions of supporters hold tremendous power right now. Do they want to use it smartly by running for office and helming grassroots campaigns? Or do they want to squander it with ineffectual DNC protests and checking out of the political process?

I’m pretty sure I know which path a young, idealistic Bernie Sanders would have encouraged.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: A Tale of Two Speakers: What Kevin Cotter Could Have Learned from Curtis Hertel Sr.

“He never bragged a lot about stuff. He just quietly did it.” –– State Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. on his father, legendary former Speaker Curtis Hertel Sr., who passed away on Easter Sunday

Last week, Republican House Speaker Kevin Cotter fired off not one, but two fearmongering press releases about transgender students in Michigan schools.

But when one of his predecessors, Curtis Hertel Sr., unexpectedly passed away at age 63 on Sunday, Cotter could only muster up a trite tweet with his condolences.

This speaks volumes about the current speaker’s priorities.

Susan J. Demas: Michigan GOP state convention shows why National Committeeman Dave Agema isn't going anywhere

"Make no mistake about it - [the] crazy racist, homophobic and xenophobic National Committeeman has tremendous power in the Michigan GOP. ... If [Dave] Agema were to run for reelection to his post, he would win." -- Republican consultant Joe Munem after attending the Feb. 20-21 Michigan GOP state convention

Dave Agema was elected to his post almost three years ago.

Since then, he's unleashed a string of eye-popping homophobic comments (gays want free health care because they're all dying of AIDS). He's insulted Muslims many times ("Have you ever seen a Muslim do anything that contributes positively to the American way of life?")

Most recently, Agema shared on Facebook (his favorite medium) an article on African-American crime that appeared in a white supremacist magazine, as conservative MLive columnist Ken Braun pointed out (Agema called it "very enlightening.")

Read more.

Susan J. Demas: In Michigan, gays may soon be able to marry ... and then get fired

Congratulations may soon be in order for thousands of gay couples in Michigan waiting to get married.

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Appeals Court last month heard arguments on gay marriage bans in Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio and Kentucky.

That comes after a federal judge in March struck down Michigan's law. More than 300 couples were able to marry before the ruling was put on hold.

While marriage equality forces are optimistic, this isn't a done deal by any means. Two of the three judges are Republican appointees. And the case ultimately may go before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Read more.

Susan J. Demas: Sorry, ladies. Republicans will eventually support gay rights, but aren't that into yours

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision last week, Republicans have fallen over themselves to convince us this wasn't another salvo in the War on Women.

In a 5-4 decision no female justice supported, the High Court said closely held corporations have the right to deny employees birth-control coverage.

Cue the right-wing's justifications, which range from foolhardy to outright falsehoods:

- Hobby Lobby still covers 16 other forms of birth control. That's great, but it excludes some big choices for women, like IUDs and emergency contraception. The court has since issued an emergency injunction for a Christian college, which opens the door to institutions denying all contraception coverage.

Read more.