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 SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Can Brian Calley Balance Family with Running for Governor?

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.

Susan J. Demas: Welcome to the Liberal Tea Party

Women's March on Washington, January 21, 2017

Women's March on Washington, January 21, 2017

Liberals are often parodied as effete, humorless, latte-sipping politically correct yuppies living in blue-state bubbles.

Variations of that stereotype popped up in a seemingly endless array of hot takes following Donald Trump’s shocking win last year. Politicos rushed to declare that left-wing smugness was the culprit, with many deciding that feckless Democrats were destined to wander in political desert for years to come.

So it seems to have come as quite a shock to just about everyone — the nascent President Trump administration, Republicans who control Congress and plenty of members of the beltway media — that liberals aren’t simply rolling over in 2017.

From the Women’s March in Washington (which dwarfed the attendance for Trump’s inauguration) to protests of his Muslim ban in airports across the country, progressives have proven they’re capable of organized displays of outrage — and even doing so effectively.

Many Republicans and pundits expected Democrats to follow their defeatist playbook after George W. Bush’s narrow, U.S. Supreme Court-decided 2000 victory. The Dems would privately sulk but would largely go along with the new president’s cabinet picks in the name of national unity. They’d work with him on issues that were popular in the polls, while liberal activists wouldn’t be heard from for years.

That wasn’t a bad bet to make. Democrats have been more prone to compromise than Republicans in recent years.

And the party clearly has big cracks cutting through it, as some Bernie Sanders loyalists sat out the general election or voted for third-party candidates over Hillary Clinton. Disaffected Sanders supporters likely exceeded Trump’s margin in the three states that put him over the top in the Electoral College: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

As a result, state Democratic parties are facing upheaval, although an insurgent movement petered out at Michigan’s state convention last weekend. But the Sanders-vs.-the-establishment dynamic is still playing out with the Democratic National Committee chair race.

So you could see why conservatives and analysts might think progressives would be too preoccupied with internecine warfare to fight Trump.

As it turns out, liberals can walk and chew gum at the same time. They haven’t forgotten that Clinton actually won almost 3 million more votes than Trump, even if pundits eager to blame out-of-touch lefty ideas for her loss have.

Every day, the new president does something to make progressives’ blood boil — and it’s fueling demonstrations, donations to liberal causes and interest in the Democratic Party.

Just consider the first month of Trump’s presidency. He’s tapped exceedingly controversial figures, like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a blockbuster GOP donor whose disdain for public schools is well-known to those of us in her native Michigan.

Even more troubling is the faith Trump instilled in now-resigned National Security Advisor Michael Flynn — who has a fondness for baseless conspiracy theories and may have jeopardized American interests with Russia.

Trump also threatened the U.S. judiciary (a co-equal branch of the government, courtesy of the Founding Fathers) after judges rebuffed his sloppy executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

These have been mobilizing events. Liberals regard Trump’s presidency as a national emergency.

Pundits looking for the progressive playbook in the Trump era needed only to go back to 2009. That was when the Tea Party became a driving force in the GOP, spurred by Barack Obama’s historic victory that would usher in the stimulus, Affordable Care Act and Wall Street regulation.

Conservatives packed the town halls of Democratic members of Congress and shouted them down. Now it’s turnabout fair play, with progressives jamming GOP members’ events.

Count me among those who expected the new leader of the free world to get off to a flying start, aided by GOP majorities in both the House and Senate. After all, that’s worked out pretty well for Gov. Rick Snyder, who’s been blessed with strong legislative majorities to rubber-stamp much of his agenda.

I thought House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would already have his tax cut for the wealthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would have slayed Obamacare as promised.

But Trump’s Twitter tantrums and national security follies are throwing a wrench into the long-awaited implementation of an ambitious conservative agenda. And Republicans are clearly unnerved by angry liberal protests.

Now progressives won’t be able to block Trump and the GOP Congress on everything. There will be plenty of setbacks. But they’re certainly enjoying more early success than anyone ever imagined.

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.

Susan J. Demas: Why I cried when Hillary Clinton clinched the nomination

When Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday, I cried. I’m not afraid to admit that.

Eight years ago, I cried when Barack Obama did the same thing (yes, by defeating Clinton). It’s nothing short of remarkable that an African-American could be the Democrats’ standard-bearer after this country was founded on slavery, on blacks being legally being three-fifths of a person in the Constitution. And not that many decades have passed since Jim Crow and KKK lynchings.

And it’s pretty damn important that a woman will now be the nominee for a major political party in America. Women haven’t even had the right to vote for 100 years. For centuries, most of us couldn’t own property or go to school. This final barrier must be broken.

I say this as a mother of a teenage girl who couldn’t fathom why there were no presidents who looked like her on her old placemat. I say this as a mother of a tween boy who has never asked if a woman is up to the job of running the free world. He knows we are.

But I realized that I was crying mainly as a soon-to-be 40-year-old woman. I’ve been raped and abused. As a journalist and businesswoman, I’ve been stalked, sexually harassed and constantly belittled (one of my favorites is the legislator who suggested I shouldn’t cover abortion legislation as I was a “Vagina-American.”)

One of the advantages of being middle-aged and self-employed is that you’re far better equipped to deal with crass chauvinism and lame attempts to hurt your bottom line. No one’s gotten me to shut up yet, and I wouldn’t hold my breath, boys.

But I thought back to when I was roughly my daughter’s age during Bill Clinton’s first presidential bid in 1992. I remember being annoyed that Hillary wasn’t running then. Sure, he had the charisma, but she was so damn smart. Why do so many women wait their turn? Why did she have to backtrack from her crack that she could have stayed home and “baked cookies and had teas” instead of being a badass children’s rights lawyer? Why couldn’t she have declared, “That’s me, take it or leave it”?

That’s the kind of woman I wanted to be. That’s the kind of woman my friends wanted to be. We didn’t want to be married to men running the world. We wanted to run it.

Hillary made a political calculation to wait, though. It was probably the right one. She was coming up in a world that frowned upon her keeping her own name, even though she’d accomplished so much as Hillary Rodham. She faced blowback after promising the American people they’d be getting “two for the price of one” in the White House, even though Eleanor Roosevelt, Nancy Reagan and Edith Wilson all filled that role behind the scenes.

The conventional wisdom was always that the first female president would be a Republican, our own Margaret Thatcher –– tough on national defense, with the uniquely American twist of an unwavering devotion to God to soften her edges in all the right ways.

Clinton decided to become the Iron Lady herself, first in her outward persona in the face of her husband’s infidelity and impeachment and then in her carefully crafted defense hawk stance and moderate U.S. Senate platform. And finally, she rose above petty partisanship when Obama appointed her Secretary of State, giving her a powerful voice on the world stage.

But she almost derailed herself along the way, emotionally lashing out at the media over her marriage. Her failed 2008 presidential campaign was marred by entitlement and fits of race-baiting by surrogates. Clinton had waited so long and was furious that her chance was being thwarted by an upstart. It showed.

It was a turnoff to me and millions of women. Obama was inspiring and stubbornly immune to tawdry controversies which have plagued the Clintons since their days in Arkansas. My anti-Clinton columns in 2008 (I once declared that she failed feminism) still get me dirty looks from some liberal women to this day.

So what changed for me? The first was covering her on the stump for Obama after their bitter primary. Clinton was utterly gracious and never made it about her, however personally devastated she almost certainly still was. Then there was her partnership with the president for four years. His “Team of Rivals” play worked and she was a far better asset in his cabinet than in the Senate.

And a lot has happened to me from ages 31 to 39. I’m now the mother of a boy.  I’ve seen firsthand how insidious sexism can be, from casual remarks about who should do the dishes to rape jokes he hears in school. I worked my way up as a reporter only to hit the glass ceiling and get fired. I run two businesses now and still encounter men trying to put me in my place –– and even allegedly feminist women who still insist I must have a male partner running the show (I don’t).

I have learned that if you are a woman who values herself, who wants to be heard, who wants to change the world, you need to take ownership of something. You can’t settle for being your boss’ work wife –– he’ll almost certainly take you for granted. You’ll be in the office working late so he can enjoy his daughter’s softball game. You’ll think you’re building something together, but in the end, it’s not your company. And you are always disposable.

You need to be the boss. And that’s something Clinton realized, too.

The truth is that it is exhausting being a woman. You are always judged differently, from your tone to your relationships to your shoes. And you can see that all over Hillary Clinton’s face. Few people have taken as many blows as she has. And yet, she’s still here. She’s still fighting.

That’s all any of us can do.

But the real game-changer for me was this revelation. When I was a teenager in 1992, the political climate was better for women than it is for my daughter today.

It was far easier to obtain an abortion than it is now with an explosion of anti-choice laws across the states. Equal pay was a bipartisan issue, with many Republicans as the (no-brainer) issue’s biggest champions. Even birth control –– something 90 percent of Americans support –– is under attack from Congress.

What the hell? The promise of America is progress. And women today are being left behind.

Electing a woman president isn’t a panacea. We have a record 20 women in the U.S. Senate right now and women’s rights are still being rolled back.

But it’s a strong message –– the strongest one possible –– that our rights matter and we deserve a seat at the table. What better way to convey that than having a woman –– and an immensely tough and qualified one at that –– behind the desk in the Oval Office?

It’s about damned time.

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.

Susan J. Demas: Modern-Day Journalism and the Surrealness of Internet Hate

I’m a political columnist, the owner of a well-established publication, and yes, the owner of ovaries. So Twitter trolls, online harassment and even a couple death threats (though not recently) are nothing new.

But the last few days have been nothing if not surreal. I published a longform piece in Salon on the Flint water crisis, Gov. Rick Snyder and his predecessor, Jennifer Granholm –– which was excerpted by Deadline Detroit. It started as a column and blossomed into something more. It was a labor of love about the state I love, which has been torn apart by horrible decisions and indifference in the current administration. I have to say, the positive reaction from readers –– especially from some who have been my frequent adversaries –– has been humbling.

Now there are always naysayers. Not everyone agreed with my decision several months ago, for instance, to cut ties with Bill Ballenger, from whom I bought Inside Michigan Politics in 2013. But Bill’s comments about the Flint water crisis weren’t just insensitive; they were inaccurate. The main issue was, as CNN put it in a big subhead: “Scientists not in agreement with Ballenger.” As a journalist, I believe everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

Susan J. Demas: The message dress codes send to girls –– and boys

My 12-year-old daughter plays on a co-ed soccer team, which means she routinely defends against boys a half-foot taller than her.

That's actually her favorite part, as she catches them off-guard with her speed and aggression.

But she got a rude awakening when she wore her soccer shorts in gym class last year, because she was informed they were too "distracting" for the boys. My daughter, being a shrinking violet, shot back that that was sexist. But as a straight-A student, she acquiesced, lest she be slapped with a "B" -- or worse.

There's nothing unusual about her school's policy -- which is the problem. I will say that other schools seem far more zealous in enforcing dress codes, like an Ann Arbor middle school that recently inspired a protest by 80 students.

Read more.

Susan J. Demas: Yes, it's still a big deal that Hillary Clinton would be the first female president

A few weeks ago, Kelley Paul was showing off her southern charm (and southern cooking!) on CNN.

My 12-year-old daughter caught me viewing the clip online and sardonically asked if I was now watching the Food Network.

I said no, explaining that she's married to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who's running for president. And Mrs. Paul is pretty accomplished herself, working in marketing and politics (CNN pretty much reduces this to a cliched, "No one should mistake Kelley Paul for a wallflower.")

Then my daughter's teenage sarcasm (she's precocious) was really unleashed: "So they interview her in the kitchen? You have got to be kidding me."

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.

Susan J. Demas: #YesAllWomen: How everyday sexism poisons us all

When I was 7, I gripped my beautiful mother's hand, squirming as catcalls followed her all the way down a Chicago street.

Three years later, I was playing in our front yard when a car full of teenage boys stopped, telling me how pretty I was, asking if I had an older sister.

Throughout my childhood, my father's clients would call the house, telling me I was so polite I should be a secretary, a fine aspiration for a girl who wrote novellas and got all A's.

By the time I was 15, those men would ogle me. A couple drunkenly propositioned me. Everywhere I walked, from the halls of my high school to my job at the local library, I felt like a piece of meat.

Read more.

Susan J. Demas: Nice girls don't say 'vagina' -- what the Rep. Lisa Brown controversy is really about

Nice girls don't say the word "vagina."

They don't say the word "vasectomy," either.


That's what two female lawmakers being banned from speaking last week -- a move Inside Michigan Politics Publisher Bill Ballenger called unprecedented -- is really about.


As much of the country knows, thanks to coverage from National Public Radio, CBS News and CNN, Rep. Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield) protested some highly restrictive abortion bills by announcing in a floor speech: "I'm flattered that you're all so interested in my vagina, but no means no."


Read more.