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Opinion: Virus response proves leaders can work together

Harvey Santana

The Michigan Legislature’s passage of a bill directing federal spending related to COVID-19 is a significant victory for emergency service providers, the people who rely on their help and everyone who cares about good government. It is also an inspiring reminder that our leaders, and Michigan residents generally, can work together for the best interests of our state.

As a former Democratic state representative from Detroit who once worked in a Republican gubernatorial administration, I know the value of working together across party lines. Having represented an underserved community, I also know the impact of health and safety needs going unmet, particularly for African Americans in our state.

COVID-19 has uncovered the generational impact of this, as African Americans account for 33% of coronavirus diagnoses and 40% of deaths, despite comprising just 14% of the state’s overall population. 

Our leaders, and Michiganders generally, can work together for the best interests of our state, Santana writes.

The federal stimulus package, known as the CARES Act, includes funds to help state and local safety systems prevent, prepare for and respond to COVID-19. It gives state leaders an opportunity to make a welcome investment in keeping these communities healthy and safe, and we should all be proud that they seized it.

Long before COVID-19  arrived in our state, Michigan’s Black and Brown communities faced a daunting combination of debilitating systemic forces, including limited access to health services.

Too often, when people in these chronically stressed communities needed help, the one place they trusted was a network of local support organizations, such as domestic violence shelters, nonprofit and community-based providers of mental health and substance abuse counseling, housing assistance and reentry services.

Yet, without the adequate levels of support to meet the breadth of the need, these essential providers were overextended.

Now, because of COVID-19, many of these organizations are not just overextended, they are  in crisis. A recent survey by Alliance for Safety and Justice (which I work for) found that these groups — that provide essential and crisis services across the nation — are facing tremendous challenges, including significant funding shortfalls and deficient access to protective equipment and technology to continue providing services.

It is critically important that this essential sector — which is crucial for the safety and stability of Michigan communities that are most harmed during this pandemic and economic downturn — survives and thrives. And not only for the current crisis, but long beyond.

That’s one reason it is so gratifying to be able to praise our state leaders for their direction of CARES federal stimulus funding to some of these critical providers.

Rep. Bronna Kahle, R-Adrian, and her colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats, came together to allocate $4 million in grant funding for groups that provide crime victim services that help to meet the needs of crime survivors and make our communities safer. 

This collaboration across party lines is so important because it challenges the conventional wisdom about our state, especially during the pandemic. Too often, stories about the Michigan government have focused on partisan conflict and bitter division. 

But it’s not the entire story. In this case, Republicans and Democrats came together to do the right thing. That is leadership. It can be a source of pride and hopefully pave a path forward in our state.  

Harvey Santana is the Michigan government affairs manager for Alliance for Safety and Justice, and a former state representative.