Chatfield resigns from southwest Michigan post after opposition

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Former Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield resigned Monday morning as CEO of a southwest Michigan economic development group after a wave of criticism over his past opposition to civil rights protections for gays and lesbians.

In a letter to the board of Southwest Michigan First, Chatfield, a Republican from Levering, said the organization deserves "someone with a blank political slate that won’t bring about the division that I’ve unfortunately caused."

"As a Christian, I believe the Bible. I don’t want to hide from that," Chatfield added. "Nor do I want to run from that. I don’t say that as a shield, and I certainly don’t say that to use as a weapon. I say it only because I want to be open and honest. And I don’t want to feel I have to be quiet about that within this community so I could collect a paycheck."

Lee Chatfield, on the state House floor in November 2018.

Southwest Michigan First announced Chatfield's hiring on Feb. 11. Since then, supporters of expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to ban discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation have blasted the decision.

Chatfield served in the Michigan House from 2015-2020 and was the speaker of the House, the top position in the chamber, over 2019 and 2020. While in office, he opposed amending the civil rights act without protections for religious beliefs.

The City of Kalamazoo, the largest city in the region, was among a handful of groups that decided to part ways with Southwest Michigan First over Chatfield's hiring.

Kalamazoo 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."

Chatfield's decision to resign Monday, 11 days after his new job was announced, points to a lingering debate over how lawmakers should be held accountable for their stances once they leave office.

Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, is one of three lesbian, gay or bisexual members of the Michigan Legislature. He worked with Chatfield while serving in the House. His conversations with Chatfield about Elliott-Larsen were thoughtful and respectful, Moss said.

Chatfield came a lot further than other lawmakers who "obstructed and undermined our efforts," Moss said.

"There is no clear path forward in how we balance gaining acceptance, imploring people to change their minds and holding people responsible for their past views," the Southfield Democrat said.

The best time to amend Michigan's civil rights act would have been while Chatfield was speaker, Moss said. But the second best time is right now, he added. Moss said a Republican senator, whom he declined to name, has agreed to co-sponsor the proposed amendment in the new term.

Likewise, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel tweeted last week that Chatfield had spent his time in the Michigan Legislature cultivating meaningful and respectful working relationships with members in the LGBTQ community.

"It’s long past time for him to recognize that discrimination against Michiganders and our families based on sexual orientation and gender identity is wrong," Nessel added.

On Thursday, Chatfield said in his new position he would support expanding the state's civil rights act to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

"Those are the values of this company, and as CEO, I support those values and the effort," Chatfield said.

However, some advocates felt the statement didn't go far enough and opposition to the hire remained.

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.

Southwest Michigan First's previous CEO, Ron Kitchens, made $720,814 in total compensation in 2018, according to a federal tax filing.

The organization's board accepted Chatfield's resignation during a Monday meeting. In a statement, Southwest Michigan First said it recognized its hiring decision had caused a "great deal of disappointment" for team members and community partners.

"As we renew and begin again our search process for our next CEO, we are committed to and will assure a process that is open, transparent and inclusive of those who depend on us to improvement economic development and employment opportunities for all we serve," the organization said.

During his time in the Legislature, Chatfield championed overhauling Michigan's auto insurance system and instituting criminal justice reform measures. He was also known as a skilled political fundraiser — an expertise that could benefit nonprofit organizations like Southwest Michigan First.

In his Monday resignation letter, Chatfield apologized to the staff at Southwest Michigan First.

"I have learned to deal with criticism for political reasons, but they haven’t, nor should they have to," he said. "They didn’t deserve this negative attention. They didn’t deserve the negative backlash."

When it comes to Elliott-Larsen, Chatfield said his goal "was always to ensure that each individual’s personal, religious and civil liberties were protected."

"Growing up, I was taught to love my neighbor as myself, and I will always live by this principle. I will strive to continue learning and understanding those with different opinions," Chatfield said. "We all deserve that from each other. It makes us stronger.

"And I do hope that in the future, as communities, we can learn to live in harmony even with those whom we disagree. If we can, America can truly benefit from the unity that many are calling for today."