Former Michigan House speaker's new job spurs backlash

Craig Mauger Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Lansing — Former Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield's new job as the leader of Southwest Michigan First, a regional economic development organization, has generated opposition, including pushing Kalamazoo to stop supporting the group.

Kalamazoo City Commissioner Erin Knott, who is executive director of Equality Michigan, made  a motion at Monday night's meeting for the city to "dis-invest" in Southwest Michigan First over Chatfield's past stances on LGBTQ rights. The city pays the organization about $10,000 a year, Knott said.

After lengthy discussion, the commission unanimously approved Knott's proposal, citing how residents view Chatfield.

"It truly is a community matter," Commissioner Jeanne Hess said before the vote.

Commissioner Eric Cunningham said Chatfield's selection "made a statement, and it was not one that reflects the culture of the city of Kalamazoo, and so I am really confused with that hire."

Knott said she also plans to call on the former conservative Republican lawmaker and board members of Southwest Michigan First to support a proposed ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Michigan.

“I am in it for the action side of it," Knott said Monday afternoon. "I want to impact change.”

Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, motions to supporters of President Donald Trump while speaking at a rally in Norton Shores on Oct. 17, 2020.

Southwest Michigan First announced Thursday that its new CEO will be Chatfield, 32, who served six years in the House in a lower northern Michigan district before leaving because of term limits at the end of 2020.

"We are proud to welcome Lee Chatfield to our team as CEO and are excited to work with him to do even more to improve our region and assist companies in creating Michigan jobs,” said Aaron Zeigler, chairman of Southwest Michigan First.

Southwest Michigan First is "an organization of privately funded economic development advisers who act as the catalyst for economic growth across the seven counties of Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren," according to a press release.

"My goal in this position is to serve this community and ensure there are good paying jobs available for all," Chatfield said Monday. "I'm eager to work with anyone and everyone to help make that happen. I am optimistic that healthy partnerships can be formed to move this region forward."

Knott is a member of the City Commission for Kalamazoo, the largest city in southwest Michigan, but she also leads Equality Michigan, an organization that provides education, victim services and outreach for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Michiganians.

Chatfield ran to the right of then-Rep. Frank Foster in a Republican primary in 2014 to win his seat in the Michigan House. Foster supported expanding civil rights protections in Michigan to include sexual orientation, and his stance became an issue in the campaign.

In 2014, Chatfield told the Petoskey News-Review that it was an attack on Christians' beliefs that they must go beyond the "toleration of homosexuality."

As he served in the Michigan House and rose to speaker, Chatfield continued to oppose  proposed expansions of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, a 1976 law that already bars discrimination based on religion, race, age, sex and other attributes.

In 2019, while he was speaker, Chatfield said in a taping of “Off the Record” on WKAR-TV that he didn’t plan to hold a vote during the term on any gay rights legislation.

"I do not believe we can pass this law while still protecting religious freedom," Chatfield said on the TV show. "You’ve seen these laws passed in other states where what happens, in my opinion, is a reverse discrimination against those who have religious beliefs."

On Monday, Knott said she's been reaching out to business leaders in southwest Michigan about Chatfield's hiring, but she didn't identify the individuals.

Southwest Michigan First's board includes officials from large Michigan corporations, such as Consumers Energy, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Stryker, according to its website. Knott noted that entities that focus on young people, like Kalamazoo Valley Community College and Western Michigan University, are also involved in Southwest Michigan First.

“What kind of message does this send to them?” Knott asked of young gay and lesbian people in the region.

Before the vote, some residents spoke out about the hiring decision and called on the commission to support Knott's proposal.

One man told them Chatfield "is not in line with city values and community values."

The commission considered delaying a decision on divesting until after meeting with Chatfield and Southwest Michigan First, but some said it was important to take a stand immediately.

Commissioner Chris Praedel said he heard from residents of varying political beliefs who expressed frustration and outrage over Chatfield's hire.

"It comes down to the treasured value system of this community," he said.

Before becoming a lawmaker, Chatfield was an athletic director and teacher at Northern Michigan Christian Academy in Burt Lake. Chatfield, who's been floated as a potential GOP candidate for governor in 2022, was the House speaker during the 2019-2020 session.

"I am looking forward to partnering with an amazing organization that’s focused on creating more opportunities and good paying jobs in our state and this region in particular," Chatfield said in a Thursday statement.

During his time in the Legislature, he championed overhauling Michigan's auto insurance system and instituting criminal justice reform measures.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, touted Chatfield's hiring, tweeting Thursday that he looks forward to working with the former House speaker.

But state Rep. Brad Paquette, R-Berrien Springs, criticized the selection. In a Facebook post, Paquette noted that Chatfield has no economic development experience.

"Chatfield, with no background in economic development and no experience in business other than interacting with special interests concerning public policy, will continue contributing to the unfortunate process in Michigan politics that saps the trust of voters," Paquette added. "As legislation is crafted and signed into law, it causes the taxpayer to truly wonder, 'Who is it really for?'"