Lee Chatfield has made LGBT friends in Lansing and they don’t see his resignation as a “win”
After Dana Nessel won the attorney general’s race in 2018, she received a message from Lee Chatfield congratulating her. She thought it was sarcastic.
Nessel had built her political brand as a tireless LGBT lawyer and progressive democrat. Chatfield, R-Levering, was a Conservative Republican who came to Lansing by challenging an opponent who suggested extending civil rights to LGBT people.
Nessel mentioned the note to Senator Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, as something of a curiosity.
“He’s like, ‘Oh, you’re going to love Lee Chatfield.’ And I said, “I don’t think I’ll love Lee Chatfield,” Nessel said in an interview.
Time would prove that instinct is wrong. The note was real and turned into a real friendship. When Chatfield introduced his first civil property loss bill as a speaker, Nessel was by his side. The two worked together as one of the most unlikely political pairings in Lansing.
“Of all the Republicans in the legislature, he was the one I was closest to and the one I worked best with,” said Nessel.
Two years later, Chatfield and his stance on LGBT issues became the center of controversy and CEO of Kalamazoo-based business development group Southwest Michigan First after he retired from lawmakers. His selection sparked backlash, with some pointing to his opposition to including the protection of LGBT civil rights in the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act as evidence that he was not keeping up with the community.
Major partners have severed ties with Southwest Michigan First, and the organization has issued an anti-discrimination policy as a result. Chatfield told FOX 17 that he would support the company’s goal of changing the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act in his new role. But in the end he resigned.
Some, like Kalamazoo County Commissioner and Equality Michigan Director Erin Knott, have called it a victory.
“Mr. Chatfield’s resignation shows that the larger Kalamazoo community and the Southwest region have shown that we value diversity, equity and inclusion,” Knott said at the time.
But in Lansing, LGBT leaders see the situation differently.
“Lee Chatfield’s resignation has not promoted LGBTQ rights. It wasn’t a win for everyone, ”said Moss.
He first heard from Chatfield in 2014 when they were both running for State House. Moss as an openly gay candidate and Chatfield as a conservative who spoke out against including LGBT protection in the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act. As soon as they got to Lansing, Chatfield introduced themselves.
When they ended up serving as chairman and vice chairman of the minority of the same committee, they worked closely together. At one point, Chatfield Moss was presiding over a meeting in his place, Moss said – a rare show of confidence between members of opposing parties in Lansing.
Chatfield, unavailable for comment on this article, mentioned his connections with members of the LGBT community in his resignation letter.
“I entered the legislature with publicly known beliefs, particularly on the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act,” he wrote.
“Since then, I’ve had many thoughtful and insightful conversations and built close friendships that I honestly didn’t have before I was elected in 2014. I sought these opportunities to learn from LGBTQ + lawyers and allies in order to be better informed. I have learned so much over the past seven years, and the meaningful relationships that the legislature has built with members of different perspectives have guided and shaped some of my personal views on diversity and inclusion today. “
Moss, Nessel, and former MP Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, had friendly, collegial relationships with Chatfield during his time in Lansing.
To be clear, they have worked together on a number of issues but disagreed fundamentally on one major point: Moss, Nessel, and Hoadley all support the inclusion of LGBT protection in the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act, period. Chatfield didn’t do it, at least not without adding exemptions to religious freedom, which proponents have long feared undermining the point of change.
Nessel often says that knowing about LGBT people changes the way people react and vote on LGBT issues. She has played this role in people’s lives before and believes her friendship with Chatfield made an impression too.
“I know that from a political point of view, there are certain things that Lee Chatfield probably always had to do. But I suspect I have no corroborative evidence, but I suspect that over time he has probably changed his mind by only making friends that he had three people and probably others that he also met ” said Nettle.
Hoadley, who hails from the same area Southwest Michigan First operates, criticized the way the appointment was carried out without any transparency or input from important parts of the community.
“Honestly, I feel bad that the executive search process at Southwest Michigan First was so poorly built that Lee failed in that regard,” said Hoadley.
He said if Chatfield’s position on extending civil rights to LGBT people had evolved, and he took the time to explain that it could have been a punchy story under the normal screening process.
And this is where LGBT leaders get conflicting feelings: the criticism Chatfield faced and his resignation sent a signal that taking positions against LGBT politics was culturally unacceptable and reflect growing support for LGBT civil rights contrary.
“It’s a cautionary story that we are in this moment where people are seeing more than just personal development and actually want to see the results,” said Hoadley.
But Moss, Nessel and Hoadley fear that this will also send out a signal that people cannot change their minds.
Ultimately, LGBT leaders want Republicans to support the extension of civil rights protections in the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act – such as protection from discrimination based on housing and employment – to include people based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Legislation for this has been pending in Michigan Legislature for years but has never been passed. Recently, the election proposal for Fair and Equal Michigan garnered enough signatures to get it into the bosom of the legislature on a civic initiative.
But proponents will have to win over some members of the Republican majority to make any real progress on the law.
David Dulio, a professor of political science at Oakland University, said whether extending civil rights to LGBT Michigandans was sort of an either-or problem, as there wasn’t much middle ground or room for negotiation, which made it “just more difficult.”
Both Moss and Hoadley say they have spoken to Republicans and know there is more support for the effort than people are publicly saying. But without Republican co-sponsors or clout, it’s difficult to get a proposal off the ground and get a full vote.
“What we don’t want is for people to feel, whatever their initial thoughts on LGBTQ rights, that there is no room for them to evolve. Because everyone should have this opportunity, ”said Nessel.
Moss was uncomfortable with what he described as a lot of “joy” over Chatfield’s resignation. Chatfield held LGBT rights talks and met LGBT people and endorsed Southwest Michigan First’s non-discrimination policy.
“And so we’ve come a lot further than the 2014 candidate, and to hit him over the head, signals are now being sent to the next person who supports Elliott-Larsen now or you may never support it again in the future,” said Moss. “And that’s not our attitude at all. In order for me to find Republican co-sponsors … I need Republican lawmakers to change their minds for the first time. “
Chatfield conversed regularly with Moss, Nettle, and Hoadley during his brief stint at Southwest Michigan First. You all personally wish him all the best and will always answer his calls.
Hoadley said he thinks Chatfield has an opportunity as a privateer to make a difference on the matter by speaking to other Republicans still in office if he so wishes.
Hoadley said in the Fair and Equal Michigan election there was an opportunity for people to support the extension of civil rights to LGBT people, and he would not look back on people’s previous positions.
“I will be ready to cheer on all those people who will take the opportunity to say yes to fairness and equality when they cast that vote,” said Hoadley.
More about MLive:
Lee Chatfield resigns as CEO of Southwest Michigan First following criticism from the Kalamazoo community
The LGBT anti-discrimination campaign submits nearly 500,000 signatures for the 2022 nomination
Michigan lawmakers reintroduced the bill to incorporate LGBT protection into civil rights law
Kalamazoo Promise to end relationships with Southwest Michigan First at the latest