GRAND RAPIDS — Over the last several years, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce has sought to make diversity and inclusion a key part of its mission and culture.
That’s why the Chamber’s endorsement via its Friends of West Michigan Business Political Action Committee on Monday of GOP gubernatorial candidate and sitting Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette caught many in the region’s LGBT and business communities by surprise.
The Chamber — which endorsed Lt. Gov. Brian Calley in his failed gubernatorial primary bid, and typically endorses GOP candidates for statewide office — announced the Schuette endorsement in a Facebook post and at a campaign-organized event.
The Facebook post generated more than 140 comments nearly unanimously condemning the endorsement.
The dissenters’ anger stems from a late-July attorney general opinion issued by Schuette. In the case, Schuette concluded the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s interpretation of a 1976 state law as granting discrimination protection for gender identity and sexual orientation was “invalid.” Schuette’s opinion stated that state commissions and agencies can’t make or alter laws.
However, without the civil rights protections, many advocates fear that LGBT individuals could have their employment put in jeopardy or be denied access to housing.
Despite the backlash, Chamber executives say they stand by their endorsement of Schuette for his “pro-business” policies. They also said the Chamber will continue fighting to expand legislative protections for gender identity and sexual orientation.
Nonetheless, some businesses affiliated with the Chamber say the Schuette endorsement led then to end their support of the organization.
The owners of Donkey Taqueria, a Mexican-style restaurant on Wealthy Street SE in Grand Rapids, announced on Tuesday afternoon that the company intended to resign as a member of the Chamber.
“As a business that employs and serves many this law (the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act) was enacted to protect, we have ended our long standing relationship with the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and encourage other businesses to consider this as well,” read a statement posted on Donkey Taqueria’s Facebook page, which was also shared on the page of sister restaurant The Winchester.
Grand Rapids-based 8THIRTYFOUR Integrated Communications Principal Kim Bode also confirmed that her company cancelled its Chamber membership, citing that diversity and inclusion efforts “must be more than simple lip service or ‘token’ programs.”
Michael Erickson — a marketing executive at a local cultural arts organization — stated in a social media post observed by MiBiz that he intends to resign immediately from the board of OutPro, an LGBT professional group that operates within the umbrella of the Grand Rapids Chamber.
Stephanie White, executive director of Equality Michigan, a Detroit-based nonprofit focused on statewide LGBT equality initiatives, said there are real consequences associated with the failure by the state to strengthen civil rights protections for the LGBT community.
“Day in and day out, there are people who are fired from their jobs, kicked out of restaurants or denied housing, denied the ability to rent an apartment — just because of who they are,” White said, adding that the state receives about a dozen such complaints every month.
White noted that her organization has enjoyed a positive relationship with the Chamber because of its support of increasing LGBT protections, but she strongly disagrees with the group’s endorsement of Schuette.
Tommy Allen, a local LGBT activist and the publisher of online publication Rapid Growth Media expressed a similar sentiment.
“It’s a very uncomfortable endorsement, given the amount of work we’ve done to be not only equitable, but welcoming (as a community),” said Allen, who’s also the chair of the city’s Community Relations Committee. “What I’m frustrated with is that our Chamber was supposed to be a part of that. This endorsement runs counter to that.”
Standing by the decision
For their part, Chamber executives are taking the criticism in stride.
“I don’t think (Schuette’s) opinion runs counter to our support for expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act,” said Andy Johnston, vice president of government and corporate affairs for the Chamber. “(Schuette’s) ruling is about whether a commission can make a law. I still think that as a state … (we should) extend protection based upon sexual orientation and sexual identity under the state’s civil right act. That’s still work that needs to be done and the legislature needs to be the one to do that.”
However, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission — the group at the center of Schuette’s opinion — believes the attorney general likely overstepped by weighing in on the body’s actions.
Following the ruling in July, Agustin Arbulu, director of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, said Schuette’s decision should be up to the courts, adding that the state body would continue to hear complaints of discrimination until a court weighs in on the matter.
“The Michigan Civil Rights Commission is an independent, constitutionally created and established body,” Arbulu said in a statement. “The Commission is not bound by the opinion of the Attorney General. The only recourse is for the courts to determine if issuing the interpretive statement was within the scope of the commission’s authority, and that is the appropriate venue for resolving this issue. Until that time, the Department will continue to carry out the directive of the Commission.”
Regardless of how the courts may proceed, Johnston with the Chamber said the organization will continue urging the legislature and the next governor — whether it’s Schuette or not — to extend those protections.
In a statement to MiBiz attributed to Schuette, the candidate called for end to all discrimination.
“It is the 21st century,” Schuette said in a statement. “There is no room for discrimination of any kind and everyone must be treated with dignity, grace and respect. So we ought to be able to protect everyone, including protecting religious liberties. It's been done elsewhere. These are the principals I will work with as governor.”
Another aspect of the Chamber’s endorsement that’s caused some consternation among members is its use of banners displaying corporate supporters at the Monday event, which MiBiz was not invited to attend.
A photo from the event shows Schuette’s running mate Lisa Posthumus Lyons flanked by banners including the names of several prominent West Michigan companies, including Walker-based retailer Meijer Inc. and Grand Rapids furniture manufacturer Steelcase Inc.
Both companies maintain perfect or high rankings on the annual Corporate Equality Index released annually by Human Rights Campaign, as MiBiz has previously reported.
An inquiry sent to a Meijer spokesperson regarding the use of the company’s logo at the endorsement event was not returned as this report went to press.
Meanwhile, a Steelcase spokesperson wrote in an email to MiBiz that the company does not endorse political candidates for office and that the “use of our logo as a part of a membership list does not imply a corporate endorsement or a change in our long-standing policy against making candidate endorsements.”
Steelcase’s Katie Woodruff added the company’s “commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion is core to who we are and will continue to be.”
Johnston with the Chamber said the banners were just part of the press conference, and added that neither company was involved in the decision to endorse Schuette.
Ultimately, Johnston said he understands that making political endorsements can be controversial and result in some form of backlash. But he notes that doing so allows the Chamber’s membership to have a seat at the table in the political process.
“In order to have influence in the process, we’re willing to engage in the difficult and high-profile work of candidate endorsements,” Johnston said. “We’ve intentionally chosen to engage in the process to ensure our West Michigan business community has an effective voice in policymaking. It’s a member-driven process; it’s an agenda developed for and by our members and candidates are evaluated by members.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a mention of 8THIRTYFOUR Integrated Communications cancelling its Chamber membership and to name an local executive who previously asked to remain anonymous. It was also updated to note that 834 Marketing & Design LLC does business as 8THIRTYFOUR Integrated Communications.