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New Dem chairman calls for gay rights ballot measure

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The new chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party wants gay rights activists to consider pursuing a statewide ballot initiative next year seeking anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

State Rep. Brandon Dillon, who was elected party chairman last weekend, said Friday it would be “a shame” if LGBT advocates don’t ask voters to extend legal protections in employment, housing and public accommodations to gays and lesbians in light of favorable public opinion polls on the issue.

“My sense is, when something is polling in the 70s and 80s, that the resources that you need to run a successful ballot initiative are significantly less than when you start off in the mid-50s,” Dillon said Friday after he was interviewed on WKAR-TV’s “Off The Record.”

Some advocates in the LGBT community have expressed concerns that mounting a statewide campaign to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s civil rights law could cost upwards of $20 million — even after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage last month.

“We’re hearing figures of about $20 million to run a ballot initiative,” said Sommer Foster, legislative director for Equality Michigan, an LGBT advocacy group.

“Although we know that that’s a lot of money, we have not completely closed the door on it.”

Dillon of Grand Rapids said Friday he will talk soon to LGBT advocates about pursuing a ballot question amending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which the Republican-controlled Legislature has resisted doing.

“It’s a shame. If they don’t do it in 2016, it’s not happening for a long time,” he said. “This current Senate is not going to take it up. The House is not going to take it up.”

A statewide poll of 600 likely Michigan voters conducted June 9-11 found 77 percent of respondents support expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include anti-discrimination protections in housing, employment and public accommodations for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

The poll by Chicago-based Glengariff Group also found 70 percent support on the issue among voters who identify as “strong Republican,” pollster Richard Czuba said.

“There are few issues in Michigan or politics in general that have such clear consensus across the electorate,” he said. “There is a tremendous opportunity heading into 2016 … to get this issue resolved with voters.”

Push from businesses

Czuba’s poll also found 56 percent support for same-sex marriage just weeks before the Supreme Court struck down Michigan’s 2004 ban.

“Don’t confuse people’s position on marriage with their positions on a non-discrimination amendment,” Czuba said.

Foster said the LGBT advocacy group continues to discuss a possible ballot initiative with national groups such as the ACLU, the Human Rights Campaign and the National LGBT Task Force.

“We still think we have a little bit of time to make a firm and final decision,” Foster said.

Last year, some of Michigan’s largest corporations endorsed extending protections against discrimination to gays and lesbians as a way to enhance talent-recruitment and image nationally. The Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition included AT&T, Delta Airlines, Detroit Medical Center, Dow Chemical, Google, Henry Ford Health Systems and Quicken Loans.

But an effort to amend the law stalled in the state House after Democrats and LGBT advocates demanded the amended law specify “gender identity” as a protected class of individuals to protect transgender individuals from discrimination. Republican leaders refused to move the legislation with gender identity included in the language.

Dillon said he believes the support from big businesses effectively neutralizes them as a source of campaign cash for an opposition group.

“Who is the opposition? Where is the money going to come from to oppose this? The corporate community? They support it,” Dillon said.

‘We have to be ... realistic’

Shelli Weisberg, legislative director at the ACLU of Michigan, is among the politically savvy LGBT rights advocates who have said a 2016 ballot initiative on the issue is unlikely.

“If people want to do this, I’m all in to do it,” Weisberg said Friday. “But I think we have to be really realistic about what the potential political landscape would look like, because this can’t fail.

“You can’t come back and do it again later.”

Weisberg said the high court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage exposes an uneven landscape of legal protections in Michigan for gays and lesbians.

“Now a couple can get married and actually out themselves and put themselves in danger of perhaps losing their job and perhaps losing their housing,” Weisberg said. “And I think people in Michigan find that pretty disturbing.”

Dillon, whose resignation from the House is effective Aug. 3, also suggested a gay rights issue on the November 2016 ballot could give his a party another advantage at the polls with the White House, Congress and state House at stake.

“I think it could be an opportunity to engage people who feel disaffected by politics and view this as an issue as a way to show a statement of their values,” he said.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3660

Twitter.com/ChadLivengood