January 14, 2014 at 1:38 am

Laura Berman

Berman: Equality Michigan director's friendliness opens doors in Lansing

Emily Dievendorf, executive director of Equality Michigan, has found respect and support among both Democrats and Republicans as she pushes for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights in Michigan. (Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)

Her mission is advocating for the state’s lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) community, trying to popularize same-sex marriage and adoption, for starters — issues that wedge voters into corners.

Add that to her sleek, cartoon-red hairstyle and frankness about everything and you might not expect the doors of Republican legislators to swing open for Emily Dievendorf, the executive director of Equality Michigan.

Yet, Teri Ambs, the legislative director for Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, applauds Dievendorf’s brainpower and ability to seek common ground. His door, she says, is one of those open to Dievendorf. “She’s very intelligent; she knows her stuff; she’s well-liked ... Sen. Richardville has a lot of respect for her.”

All doors may not open, but Dievendorf’s openness is mentioned by many who have worked with her. “What strikes me ... is her willingness to work on a bipartisan basis, because she realizes that nothing will get done on just Democratic votes,” says Richard Czuba, the Chicago-based pollster. His firm, working with Equality Michigan, found rising support for same-sex marriage in Michigan.

Polls are one thing; votes another. For now it’s clear that Dievendorf is winning attention: Equality Michigan has tightened its focus and effectiveness since she took the helm a year ago. Until now, the LGBT political fray was largely rudderless and disorganized.

Equality Michigan is now laying the groundwork for a statewide referendum on the same sex marriage ban — in 2016. The time lag, she believes, will only help as public opinion continues to swing toward approving same-sex marriage.

In the meantime, Dievendorf continues lobbying hard to encourage legislators to amend the state’s Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination on grounds of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, and marital status — virtually everything but sexual orientation.

Her goal is to see that prospective amendment introduced by a Republican lawmaker, although that hasn’t yet happened. “We’re having delays not because things aren’t moving but because we are having great conversations,” she says. “In the past, we’ve made too many assumptions about who is on board and who is not.”

That civil rights effort is spreading statewide: Last year, at least 10 Michigan cities adopted non-discrimination ordinances, bringing the total to 31 communities. That’s the second highest number of any state, she says.

Dievendorf’s funny, frank style — combined with her command of the issues, and that slender ring she wears in her nose — makes her an intriguing new model of political operative. Typical is this recent Facebook post: “Love that Barbie is finding more diversity. I can’t wait until they make red-headed ... bisexual LGBT civil rights lobbyist Barbie.”

She challenges and defies stereotypes in a personal way that’s been effective for her as a political force. She’s a self-described policy nerd who also says “as cheesy as it sounds, I do this for love.”

“A lot of people are very careful in Lansing. The downside is that you don’t make connections that you might be able to make ... Emily is a personality,” says Andy Coulouris, a former Democratic state representative who is now in government relations for Dow-Corning in Washington, D.C.

Dievendorf grew up as the unconventional sister in a conservative Kalamazoo family — a background that enabled her to understand people who think very differently from her. “She was great with constituents,” says Coulouris, who was her boss when they were both in their 20s, “because she sees everybody as people first.”

That approach is disarming and appealing, at least to most. “She’s working on an issue that’s an uphill battle and she’s working in a way that’s making her a household name,” says Ambs. Last week, Crain’s named her a “person to watch in 2014.”

Despite political momentum, the Republican majority may block Dievendorf’s ambitious goals — but they won’t make her any less fun to watch.

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