Gay rights group ends Michigan ballot campaign

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Fair Michigan, a bipartisan campaign committee that hoped to put an equal rights proposal on the November ballot, announced Friday it is calling it quits for 2016 amid opposition from some prominent lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy groups.

The committee, headed by Detroit attorney Dana Nessel, had won clearance to circulate petitions for a proposed amendment to the state constitution, which sought to prohibit discrimination based on gender, gender identity, sex and sexual orientation.

But “infighting” with other groups caused some potential donors to back off, according to Nessel. She told The Detroit News she believes the business community remains “desperate” for gay rights protections to help attract talented workers to Michigan.

“It just seemed clear to us that we were not going to have the financial support we needed,” said Nessel, who successfully fought the state’s gay marriage ban in court. “A campaign of this magnitude was going to cost millions and millions of dollars, and honestly, if we weren’t going to run the campaign the way we wanted, the way we could ensure victory, then it was best to just delay it to another time.”

Fair Michigan faced public opposition from groups like Equality Michigan and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which feared the committee was moving too fast and predicted failure at the ballot box.

Those groups had instead continued to urge the state Legislature to consider gay rights protections. While Gov. Rick Snyder had asked legislators to have that discussion last year, current Republican leaders have not expressed much interest.

“I wish them the best of luck in that endeavor,” said Nessel. “I’m personally not optimistic about it, but we’re all trying to get to the same place and have the same goals. Whoever gets there first, I’m happy to have that happen as soon as it can, however it occurs.”

Fair Michigan attracted high-profile Republicans to the cause, including Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and longtime Lansing insider and attorney Richard McLellan. It also assembled a team of Democratic ballot campaign veterans in Lansing who were working on a pro-bono basis, including consultants Kelly Rossman and Howard Edelson.

Equality Michigan and the ACLU had said their modeling did not show a clear path to victory for the ballot proposal, and they expressed concern that a statewide election loss could set back the gay rights movement for years.

They pointed to the Nov. 3 defeat of a Houston nondiscrimination proposal, dubbed the “bathroom ordinance” by critics, who stoked fears over transgender individuals using women’s bathrooms.

But Fair Michigan’s internal polling showed support at nearly 70 percent, before and after prospective voters were presented with pro and con messaging, including the kind of attacks made in Houston, according to Richard Czuba, founder and CEO of the Glengariff Group.

“The overriding feeling I have right now is Michigan is losing out on a really unique opportunity with Fair Michigan not moving forward,” he said. “…What strikes me consistently is the strength and steadiness of these numbers.”

Fair Michigan had lined up a company to help collect signatures and there “was money” for the petition drive, according to Czuba. But he said businesses that may have backed the campaign were turned off by the strategy dispute between the ballot committee and other groups.

“Our biggest error was assuming that because we were all allies, we could find avenues to work together,” Czuba said. ‘That was just not the case.”

Czuba said advocacy groups did not share their modeling with Fair Michigan, and he questioned whether the data accounted for the dynamics of a general election or the specific language of the new proposal, which would have also enshrined anti-discrimination protections for women in the constitution.

But the ACLU did share its polling data with Fair Michigan as far back as August 2015, said legislative liaison Shelli Weisberg. The ACLU also arranged for the committee to see modeling data after a winter meeting in Ann Arbor and had been in negotiations over funding additional research, she said.

“And then they suddenly suspend the campaign and lay the blame at the feet of the community,” Weisberg said. “I suspect they finally came to the same heartbreakingly realistic conclusion we arrived at back in March 2015, when we also investigated a 2016 ballot campaign.”

In addition to urging action by the Legislature, Weisberg said the ACLU continues to fight for equality through educational outreach efforts, work on local anti-discrimination ordinances and lawsuits to help the gay community secure additional rights.

“That is the work of allies,” she said.