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Lansing — Republican attorney general Bill Schuette is facing opposition from unusual corners in his bid to be Michigan’s next governor, battling GOP critics and shifting demographics as he takes on Democrat Gretchen Whitmer.

Thirteen former lawmakers, executive-level officials and business leaders on Thursday announced a new “Republicans and Independents for Whitmer” group that will back the East Lansing Democrat over Schuette, prompting outrage from GOP officials and legislative leaders.

Controversy erupted earlier this week in Grand Rapids, an increasingly liberal pocket in conservative West Michigan, when the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce did what it usually does in gubernatorial elections: endorsed the Republican candidate.

Unlike GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, who was a virtual unknown when he ran for governor eight years ago, Schuette has been a mainstay in mainstream Republican politics for three decades, serving in Congress, the Legislature and on the state Court of Appeals.

“You get both the benefits and brick bats from that,” said Bill Ballenger, a former GOP state lawmaker and head of The Ballenger Report, about Schuette's long political run. "Has he made some enemies? Damn right.”

Founders Brewing Co., the state’s largest brewery, on Wednesday joined a handful of local businesses that canceled their chamber memberships over the Schuette endorsement, citing concern over his track record on gay rights.

As attorney general, Schuette defended the state's gay marriage ban that was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 and joined a 2016 suit challenging a federal school guidance for transgender students. This year, he issued a controversial legal opinion challenging the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s ability to apply existing anti-discrimination law to gay or transgender residents.

Schuette is also endorsed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a powerful statewide group. But business diversity in the Grand Rapids chamber reflects the larger cultural shift in the state’s second largest city, Ballenger said.

While Kent and Ottawa counties remain fertile territory for Republicans, “Grand Rapids itself is not the monolithic conservative bastion that it was historically,” he said. “We used to just automatically assume if they’re business, they’re Republican and they’re conservative. They’re not anymore.”

Democrat Hillary Clinton carried Grand Rapids 62 percent to 30 percent over Republican Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

Gay rights record

With chamber backlash pushing his gay rights record back into the spotlight, Schuette this week signaled he is open to new anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender residents. But he wants to do it in a way that would also protect religious freedoms, a position his opponents called an attempt to “rewrite history.”

Schuette strategist John Sellek pointed to policies in Utah as "one example of the ability to find a way forward” on the issue. Utah has broad employment and housing protections for LGBT resident but allows certain exemptions for religious organizations and affiliates, including schools and hospitals. 

“Bill's goal is to prohibit discrimination of any kind through Elliott-Larsen and protect constitutional religious freedoms,” Sellek told The Detroit News. “He believes all sides must be brought to the table to talk in a welcoming environment for everyone involved.”

But Whitmer's campaign didn't buy the argument.

“Trying to claim he's a friend to the LGBTQ+ community goes against every action he's taken in his 33-year political career,” said Zack Pohl, a Whitmer spokesman. He suggested Schuette is trying to “hide from his extensive record of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community” because he’s behind in the polls.

Whitmer, the former state Senate minority leader, has long supported expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Nobody should lose their job or be evicted from their home because of who they are or who they love,” Whitmer said in a statement. “That's how we'll attract a talented workforce and make Michigan a state where everyone has a path to a high-wage job, has access to quality, affordable health care, and can travel our roads safely.”

The Grand Rapids Chamber is among a growing number of business organizations that have called for LGBT protections to be added to the state’s civil rights law. Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature has not acted despite a nudge from term-limited GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.

The state Civil Rights Commission in May issued an interpretive statement holding that current law offers some protections for gay and transgender residents. Schuette said only lawmakers could make that call, but the commission ignored his opinion and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights has continued to investigate complaints based on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

The attorney general has consistently argued that he is just doing his job. He defended the state’s gay marriage ban because voters approved it through a constitutional amendment in 2004, he said at the time, and his recent ruling on LGBT rights was limited to the civil rights commission’s authority to interpret law in a new way.

But as a state senator in 1996, Schuette co-sponsored a law that outlawed gay marriage in Michigan and prohibited the state from recognizing same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. It was approved by wide margins with bipartisan support at the time.  

“Michigan must be a place where we grow our recovering economy and ensure there is no room for discrimination of any kind, because all people must be treated with dignity, grace and respect,” Schuette said in a statement this week. “We will work together to protect everyone, including employment protections and religious liberties. It's been done elsewhere. It’s the 21st century, we can do it here, too.” 

Luke Londo, a Schuette staffer and campaign volunteer who is bisexual, defended the attorney general in personal comments on Twitter. He decried what he called “manufactured outrage” that Founders and others “fell for.”

Schuette’s legal opinion simply held that the Legislature was the “avenue to fix” the civil rights law, Londo said. After the gay marriage case, he said he had a long conversation with Schuette about LGBT rights and his own orientation.

“The man y'all are vilifying hired me (knowing I was always this vocal) two years later,” Londo wrote. “If you knew him like I do, you'd know how out of touch this outrage mob is.”

Chamber officials were not available for comment Thursday, but President and CEO Rick Backer said this week that the organization has heard frustration and disappointment by some “members of our business community, particularly as it relates to diversity, equity and inclusion.”

The chamber remains committed to those goals, Baker said.

“We announced our endorsement of Bill Schuette because he aligns most closely with our business-friendly policies and all candidates are aware that an advocacy priority for the Chamber is expansion of the Elliott Larsen Act,” he said.

Republicans for Whitmer

Former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz, former Engler and Snyder administration health director Jim Haveman, former Engler transition director Richard McLellan and Milliken administration treasurer Vivian Carpenter on Thursday said they'll lead a new "Republicans and Independents for Whitmer" group.

“We all kind of felt the Republican Party has left us and began looking at issues of health care, higher education, working with the Legislature, who can continue to move Michigan forward and who’s showing tolerance toward people who are different,” Haveman told The Detroit News. “It just became clear we should support Gretchen Whitmer.”

State Sen. Mike Shirkey and Rep. Lee Chatfield, who are likely to serve as majority leaders if Republicans retain control this fall of the Legislature, blasted the group in a joint statement.

“Anyone claiming to be a ‘Republican for Whitmer’ is someone opposed to lower taxes, limited government and fiscal responsibility,” the lawmakers said. “By abandoning our party, they are working to tear down not only Bill Schuette and the top of the ticket, but to end the Republican majorities in the House and Senate that have got the job done and have been the driving force behind Michigan’s economic comeback.”

The coalition backing Whitmer includes Trish Foster, retired senior managing director and chief operating officer at CBRE-Martin; former Republican Rep. Mel Larsen, who co-wrote the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act; Bill Milliken Jr., a real estate broker and son of former GOP Gov. Bill Milliken; John Pirich, a partner at Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn; and Gina Yob, vice president of sales and marketing for 3S International LLC.

McLellan, who founded a group that spent heavily on ads supporting Schuette’s re-election as attorney general in 2014, said he’s a lifelong Republican but believes Whitmer is the best person for the job.

The Michigan Republican Party and Schuette allies were quick to downplay the group's formation, suggesting sour grapes.

Haveman and McLellan have been highly critical of Schuette for charging state health director Nick Lyon with involuntary manslaughter for Legionnaire’s disease deaths tied to the Flint water crisis. Lyon has been bound over for trial.

"It’s not a surprise that the same people who have been trying to stop Schuette from getting justice in Flint are the same people supporting Gretchen Whitmer," said Schuette spokesman Stu Sandler. "Schuette is willing to take on Lansing bureaucrats, Gretchen Whitmer will always side with special interests.”

Haveman has long argued that Schuette’s Flint water crisis investigation is too political but said that’s not his only reason for supporting Whitmer. He helped craft the state’s Healthy Michigan Medicaid expansion plan and does not trust Schuette to maintain it despite recent comments, he said. Whitmer helped secure votes for the program as minority leader in the state Senate.

Haveman said he expects more current and former Republicans to join the group and anticipates public events.

Snyder, who is term-limited and cannot run for re-election, has not endorsed in the gubernatorial race.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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