Protesters blast country club's snub of GOP candidate

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A group of GOP supporters from Metro Detroit protested Monday outside an Oakland County club that canceled a fundraiser for a Republican congressional candidate over her political views. 

The demonstration at Franklin Hills Country Club was organized by former U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, one of Lena Epstein's rivals in the GOP primary who called the cancellation “another Intolerable act from the left!” He urged Republican candidates in the 11th District race and their supporters to temporarily suspend their campaigns and join him.

U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio waves to passing cars while leading a protest in front of the Franklin Country Club in Franklin on Monday.

“It’s about doing the right thing,” Bentivolio said.  “You can’t make a promise and break it simply because you don’t like the politics. …We’re standing up for her.”

A Franklin Hills manager who would not give his name or answer questions during the event, which drew about a dozen protesters, said the demonstrators were entitled to their opinion.

“That’s free speech,” he said before hanging up. “They can do what they want.”

Epstein, who chaired President Donald Trump's campaign in Michigan in 2016, learned last month that the Franklin Hills board voted not to permit her fundraising event to be held at the club. The businesswoman, a fourth-generation club member, was told her political views played a role in the decision, she told The Detroit News.

Franklin Hills is a private club dating to the 1920s, founded by a group of Detroit Jewish leaders. It has a golf course and a clubhouse designed by renowned Detroit architect Albert Kahn.

The fundraiser cancellation came after a Facebook post by Michael Simon, the son of a former Franklin Hills president, who expressed concerns about Epstein backing Trump's border and immigration policies, which have been playing out in the national and local news media.

Epstein eventually held her gathering elsewhere in the county but accused the club, which previously hosted a fundraiser to help Democrat Suneel Gupta, another 11th District candidate, of having different standards for Republicans and Democrats.

She did not appear at the demonstration Monday. In a statement, campaign manager Brad Berry said: “Lena appreciates the outpouring of support from voters of many backgrounds and beliefs, including her competitors in the primary.  The liberal left needs to understand that most Americans ... want leaders to be able to treat each other with respect even when disagreeing.”

Supporters have made her case a rallying cry on social media, asking Trump supporters to cancel their club memberships and calling Franklin Hills the “Red Hen of Michigan,” referring to the Virginia restaurant that asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave last month.

Outside the Franklin Hills country club Monday, some protesters highlight those recent incidents as part of a troubling trend.

“We are blessed in this country with freedom of speech. We shouldn’t put handcuffs on that,” said Chris Carbott of Northville, who spent 20 years in the Navy. “If we lose civility in the public sphere, we run the risk of chaos and anarchy.”

Michigan Democratic Party leaders have supported the club’s decision, saying Epstein often backs some of the most controversial moves of the Trump administration.

Franklin Hills leaders "are able to make their own decisions, and Lena is going to use this controversy for all it's worth to play the victim," party chairman Brandon Dillon said Monday. "She hitched her wagon to somebody like Donald Trump and has bought into his agenda. She shouldn't be surprised when people are disgusted by the people she supports and the policies she advocates for."

Others at the Franklin protest had a different take.

“This is a business and they should give equal say to both sides,” said Tony Partin, a Bentivolio supporter from Westland.

Estelle Oliansky came from Plymouth Township to brave the heat with a sign reading “Principles Not Politics.”

“I’m tired of everyone fighting," she said. "I’m tired of everything going on. It isn’t about what candidate I support, it’s about what I believe.”

Dillon wondered why demonstrators did not speak out "when Trump was blocking kids at the border or when people were told they couldn't travel here because of their religion."

"If this is the issue that gets them motivated to protest, they ought to take a hard look in the mirror and figure out what they really care about," he said.