When Michiganians sent Gretchen Whitmer to Lansing to serve as their 49th governor, they didn’t send a bully-in-chief. They didn’t send someone they thought would use Trumpian tactics and engage in executive overreach to get rid of perceived opponents or people who do not fit her game plan. 

The people of the state believed they sent someone who would tackle the burning issues of the day, including fixing “the damn roads," providing a real urban plan for Benton Harbor High School, helping address the gross inequality in Detroit and other matters affecting the populace.

Instead, what has been coming from Lansing recently is an attempt by the governor to dictate to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights how it should conduct personnel matters. Whitmer has been pressuring the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, which oversees the department, to fire director Agustin Arbulu for apparently inappropriate sexual comments he made involving certain people — including Todd Heywood, who works at the department and filed a complaint.  

Arbulu’s comments were unacceptable. The commission has reprimanded him, as any responsible employer would do. He has also apologized for objectifying women, which places a burden of responsibility on him to be more careful and sensitive moving forward.

Even though Arbulu doesn’t report to Whitmer, the governor is behaving as if the Civil Rights Commission is the governor’s mansion-annex, and a pet project of the administration, and therefore should accept her recommendation to fire the director as irrevocable.

What is baffling in the desperate and ruthless campaign to take down Arbulu is that the commission already sought an opinion from the Office of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, which concluded that Arbulu may not have violated any extant laws.

“When considered under the standards set forth in the cases cited above, it is our opinion that Mr. Haywood’s allegations do not amount to ‘severe or pervasive’ sexually harassing conduct. The conduct alleged pales in comparison to that alleged in the cases discussed above, wherein the allegations included explicit sexual conversation and even the touching of private body parts and still the courts held that the conduct either lacked the severity or were insufficiently pervasive to sustain a hostile environment claim,” Jeanmarie Miller, assistant attorney general, wrote to commission chair Alma Wheeler Smith on July 29.

Miller added, “It should be noted that while it is our opinion that Mr. Heywood’s claims may not be actionable under the applicable civil rights statutes, we have not offered an opinion with regard to whether or not the conduct alleged may violate the standards of conduct that MDCR sets for its director. That is a question that must be answered by the commission.”

Removing Arbulu, who earned his law degree from the University of Detroit Mercy and  a Master of Laws from New York University, at this stage could destabilize the institution, which has a long and legendary history that includes the late federal judge Damon Keith serving as its founding co-chair. The reason why the Michigan constitution enshrined the commission as an independent body is to free it from the risk of political interference and arm-twisting.

Under Arbulu, the commission has gone into areas that have not been politically palatable for past administrations. For example, it held crucial public hearings in Flint at the height of the water crisis, looking at the saga through the lens of racial justice. It also organized sessions with the Grand Rapids Police Department to discuss patterns and practices that target black and brown drivers. And most recently it conducted hearings on farmworker conditions in the state as well as how to address issues facing students of color in the Grosse Pointe School District.

What is often overlooked is that Arbulu and his team have ruffled very powerful feathers in carrying out their legitimate functions, and as history tells us, any slip on his part would be exploited for vendetta. The work that he and the commission have done should not be minimized and the vicious campaign to get him out, and possibly replace him with a favorite of the governor, would likely ensure that things go back to business as usual.  

For example, the commission has been brainstorming about holding a hearing in Benton Harbor regarding the school crisis there. That probably would not be viewed favorably by the governor, who was applying a heavy-handed approach there until public outcry forced her to back off.

One former member of the commission told me that Whitmer’s campaign against Arbulu amounts to “death by public humiliation,” and wonders why Whitmer is bent on being the judge and jury in a case outside her jurisdiction.

The intensity of the governor’s campaign lends the suggestion that Arbulu lacks godfathers in high places. But do we need godfathers to defend the defenseless and fight for those who are suppressed?

Whitmer should stand down and let the commission do its job.

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