Bankole: Civil rights director didn't deserve to lose his job

Bankole Thompson

The independence of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights is now in serious limbo after Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer successfully interfered in a personnel matter and publicly forced the Michigan Civil Rights Commission to bow to her demands by firing director Agustin Arbulu Tuesday night for sexually inappropriate comments that were deemed to not have violated any laws.

Despite a reprimand for his actions by the commission and an opinion from the office of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel concluded Arbulu’s comments did not rise to “severe” harassment, the commission under apparent pressure from the governor proceeded to terminate him after a closed session, where it reportedly discussed that he was on personal leave.

Members of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC), from left, Mary L. Engelman, Regina Gasko-Bentley and Pastor Ira Combs, Jr., listen during the public comment portion of a meeting in Detroit Tuesday.

"I have been fired in Trump-like fashion via press release today," Arbulu told me in an email hours after his dismissal was announced. "Apparently, there is no due process offered to people of color in leadership in this state administration. The chair of the Civil Rights Commission (Alma Wheeler Smith) knows I am not on personal leave. Overall, I am proud of the work accomplished during my tenure as MDCR director and the recognition I have received from community members and civil rights leaders whom I have worked alongside.”

What happened Tuesday is a cause for concern for every independent public body in the state that may interface with the governor, because it gives us a window into how Whitmer operates. 

Showing a total disregard for the commission as a constitutionally enshrined entity whose decisions must be respected, Whitmer has been relentless in publicly shaming Arbulu, who has proven to be an effective leader on racial justice issues.

Whitmer’s behavior represents a profound disappointment in a governor, who as a candidate presented herself as someone who is not heavy-handed. 

But with more than six months into her office, we are being introduced to the real Gretchen Whitmer, who is seemingly ruthless, given the crusade to forcefully remove Arbulu.   

With the commission now looking like an extension of the governor’s office, which public body is Whitmer going to mess with next? Only time will tell.

I believe the anti-democratic actions of a governor who does not want to stay in her lane can be restrained. That means Whitmer must be called out every time she engages in executive overreach and we must build a public record of her interferences in public entities that she has no control over, like MDCR as well as her failed campaign promises.

The only recourse in dealing with two-faced public officials like Whitmer is to create a massive public record of their anti-democratic actions so that voters and succeeding generations can cite them as examples of bad governance.

Even though Whitmer has a coterie of compliant black civic leaders in her corner who exaggerate their relevance and are prone to gaslighting because she can dangle perfunctory appointments in their faces, it should not stop the rest of us from engaging in a Socratic questioning of the administration on matters of governance.

Meanwhile, we can mourn the loss of the Civil Rights Commission’s independence and watch how it begins to dance to Whitmer’s tune as it prepares to select her favorite candidate as the new MDCR status quo director.