Diagnosis: Trumpism Infecting the Michigan GOP

“He is projecting an image of hyper-masculinity, demeaning critics, brittle — brittleness in the face of criticism and the strongman idea that ‘trust me, I won’t be very specific, trust me, and I will take care of all your problems.’ And we are seeing in our — in our therapy offices particularly members of minority groups who are very troubled by what they’re hearing and seeing. And so this strongman, brittle ego, hyper-masculinity needs to be named, called out.” — William Doherty — psychologist and director, Citizen Professional Center, University of Minnesota, on the Diane Rehm Show

Trump -the verge

Photo: The Verge

Donald Trump came to Michigan last week to demand, smug-faced, that African-American voters unquestioningly support him. Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, get in line, folks, if you know what’s best. Obnoxious as the GOP candidate is, the party itself isn’t exactly a political Xanadu for black voters. When Trump delivered his RNC acceptance speech, there were an estimated 18 blacks out of nearly 2,500 delegates in the room. Trump’s African-American support is polling at between zero and two percent, a fact not surprising given his checkered history of racism.

Voicing his tightly scripted, teleprompter-driven remarks against a sea of angry old white faces, many draped in old glory-themed sartorial choices, Trump blamed Democrats for impoverishing Michigan cities and leaving the state’s infrastructure in shambles. The GOP nominee boldly claimed that the “Michigan manufacturing sector” would bow to his authority and bring back jobs under his strongman control.  Donald promised “great deals” for the American worker.

How does he plan to single-handedly accomplish all this?

He hasn’t a clue, but that’s not important to him, because his motives have little to do with the well-being of Michiganians, or Americans of any stripe. He’s a self-centered nutjob, and the media is finally talking about the looming public danger of his mental deficits.

A group of over 2,200 mental health professionals have opted to break the 50-year old Goldwater Rule — an ethical guideline which prevents experts from weighing-in on the mental stability of public figures, without personally examining them. They published a statement of concern over the dangerous effects of “Trumpism.” (Excerpts below)

As psychotherapists practicing in the United States, we are alarmed by the rise of the ideology of Trumpism, which we see as a threat to the well-being of the people we care for and to American democracy itself. We cannot remain silent as we witness the rise of an American form of fascism. We can leverage this time of crisis to deepen our commitment to American democracy.

What is Trumpism?

Trumpism is an ideology, not an individual, and it may well endure and grow after the Presidential election even if Donald Trump is defeated. (Variants can be seen all over Europe.) Trumpism is a set of ideas about public life and a set of public practices characterized by:

  • Scapegoating and banishing groups of people who are seen as threats, including immigrants and religious minorities.
  • Degrading, ridiculing, and demeaning rivals and critics.
  • Fostering a cult of the Strong Man who:
    • Appeals to fear and anger
    • Promises to solve our problems if we just trust in him
    • Reinvents history and has little concern for truth
    • Never apologizes or admits mistakes of consequence
    • Sees no need for rational persuasion
    • Subordinates women while claiming to idealize them
    • Disdains public institutions like the courts when they are not subservient
    • Champions national power over international law and respect for other nations
    • Incites and excuses public violence by supporters

At the political level, Trumpism is an emerging form of American fascism, a point being made by social critics across the political spectrum, including Robert Reich, Robert Kagan, and Andrew Sullivan. As journalist Adam Gopnik points out, whether or not the term “fascism” fully fits, it’s clear that the American republic faces a clear and present danger when the candidate of a major political party embraces an anti-democratic ideology. At the cultural level, the Urban Dictionary has defined Trumpism as “the belief system that encourages pretentious, narcissistic behavior as a way to achieve money, fame, and power.”

What are the Effects of Trumpism?

  1. Fear and alienation among scapegoated groups, beginning with Latino immigrants and Muslims, and then other groups who become identified as threats
  2. Exaggerated masculinity as a cultural ideal, with particular influence on young people and economically insecure men
  3. Coarsening of public life by personal attacks on those who disagree
  4. Erosion of the American democratic tradition which has emphasized the agency of we-the-people instead of the Strong Man tradition of power

Why Therapists Must Speak Out

We must speak out for the well-being of people we treat and care for in our work. Trumpism will undermine the emotional health of those seen as the “other” in America—both historically denigrated groups and those whose turn will come. And it will compromise the integrity of those who are seduced by the illusion that real Americans can only become winners if others become losers. The public rhetoric of Trumpism normalizes what therapists work against in our work: the tendency to blame others in our lives for our personal fears and insecurities and then battle these others instead of taking the healthier but more difficult path of self-awareness and self-responsibility. It also normalizes a kind of hyper-masculinity that is antithetical to the examined life and healthy relationships that psychotherapy helps people achieve. Simply stated, Trumpism is inconsistent with emotionally healthy living—and we have to say so publicly.

We must speak out for the well-being of our democracy, which is both a way of living and acting together and a set of political institutions. Therapists have taken for granted how our work relies on a democratic tradition that gives people a sense of personal agency to create new narratives and take personal and collective responsibility for themselves, their families, and their communities. Reliance on a Strong Man who will solve our problems and deal with internal and external enemies is a direct threat to the democratic basis of psychotherapy. Therapy only flourishes on democratic soil.

Why speak collectively? Our responses thus far have been primarily personal—and too often confined to arm-chair diagnoses of Donald Trump. But a collective crisis faces our nation, a harkening back to the economic depression and demoralization of the 1930s (which fed European fascism) and the upheaval over Jim Crow and Black civil rights in the 1950s. Fortunately, the resolution of these crises led to a deepening of American democracy, not the abandonment of it. Martin Luther King, influenced by his mentor Bayard Rustin and by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, didn’t just critique unjust systems from the outside. He called for strategic, collective work to take back an American democracy that belongs to all the people. As therapists, we have been entrusted by society with collective responsibility in the arena of mental, behavioral, and relational health. When there is a public threat to our domain of responsibility we must speak out together, not just to protest but to deepen our commitment to a just society and a democratic way of life. This means being citizen therapists who are concerned with community well-being as much as personal well-being, since the two are inextricably joined.

Where We Stand as Citizen Therapists

We understand the draw of Trumpism and we acknowledge that some of our fellow citizens, and some of our clients, may vote for Donald Trump not because they embrace all aspects of Trumpism but because they are frustrated with their circumstances and fed up with the current political system. We are against Trumpism and its architects, not against those who are inclined to give it a chance to change the direction of the country.

But we reject the false equivalence of saying that because there is dishonesty and demagoguery on all political sides, why not support someone from the outside? Trumpism is qualitatively different. To repeat: Trumpism undermines the core of American democracy by promoting the idea of a single leader who will bring greatness to the nation by battling Those People. Democracy requires personal and collective agency so that we can work together across differences to solve problems and develop a shared way of life. Psychotherapists must be firmly on the side of democracy and work in solidarity with groups directly threatened by current and future versions of Trumpism. This work will not end with the election in November 2016. The wake-up call has been received. Our first response is this manifesto. More to follow.

Therefore, as citizen therapists we stand united against the dangerous ideology of Trumpism, and we encourage others to join us in a deepened commitment to a democratic way of life that engages the talents, yearnings, and capacities of all the people.

What Trumpism looks like in Michigan:

It’s no secret, there truly is a monster of sorts infecting Michigan Republicans, like a pestilent guinea worm — insidiously working its way in through the lowest extremities and emerging at the top, in the form of Attorney General Bill Schuette. Most recently, Trumpism has reared itself in an attempt to officially label 94-year old former Gov. William Milliken as irrelevant and not representative of core GOP conservative views, citing the governor’s wholesale rejection of Trump, and endorsement of  Hillary Clinton.

It occurred earlier this month in Grand Traverse County, a comparatively affluent, well-educated, and mostly Republican corner of Michigan where the revered statesman and his beloved family have called home for generations. The local party passed a resolution denouncing Gov. Milliken. The motion was promoted by Jason Gillman, an outspoken Tea Party member known for his hate-filled anti-gay obsession.

Gillman, with his obtuse positions on LGBTQ issues, often displays a classically diagnosable homophobic preoccupation, including his comments likening gays to pedophiles while he served as a county commissioner. Gillman justified his dislike of Milliken’s values thusly:

“Much in the way our nation has been beset by ‘gender confusion’, it seemed the former state executive has had a political identity crisis for some time.”

Gillman’s dad, a retired attorney who served in the Milliken administration, had a very different opinion. Michael Gillman, spoke with a number of media outlets expressing his opposition to his son’s resolution.

“I think we’re at a critical time for the Republican Party and I think that it’s important that we do nothing to diminish or attempt to exclude anybody who is going to call themselves a Republican.”

Gillman, the younger, is burning down his party’s tent. Grand Traverse County Republicans are watching in silent horror at the barrage of letters to the editor condemning their resolution. Among the many voices in opposition, a second-term GOP delegate penned one of dozens of letters to the local paper:

“I am not proud of the Grand Traverse County Republican party now, since it has been overrun by unhinged radicals who are using the party for their personal playground. What an embarrassment!” — Karilee Walter, letter to the editor, Traverse City Record-Eagle

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Litigator Trump Seeks Legal Ass-Coverage With “Unification” Claim

“It is not necessary that the defendant intend to, or be able to carry out his threat; the only intent requirement for a true threat is that the defendant intentionally or knowingly communicate the threat.” — Ninth Circuit Court 

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Trump speaking at rally in Wilmington, NC

Sorry Donald. Your “unification” argument, as sometimes protected under a Supreme Court First Amendment ruling, just may not apply here.

It’s All About the Precedent

Anyone who’s been within earshot of the internet or TV media over the past few hours knows that Donald Trump has once again stepped in a stinking pile of his own excrement with his veiled lone wolf threat to incite the assassination of Hillary Clinton, or perhaps a Supreme Court Justice:

“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is I don’t know.”

Within minutes of his public statement the media rightfully exploded with cries of foul play, including an assertion from former NSA Director Michael Hayden that Trump should be cuffed and taken downtown:

“Well, let me say if someone else said that outside of the hall, he’d be in the back of a police wagon now, with the Secret Service questioning him.”

While perhaps any ordinary citizen would find themselves under the glare of a bare lightbulb for the duration, what is the risk Trump will be held accountable for his brazen remark?

In an unusual moment of panic-driven clarity his campaign staff issued the following statement, no doubt with a cadre of legal advisers as ad hoc editors:

“It’s called the power of unification — 2nd Amendment people have amazing spirit and are tremendously unified, which gives them great political power. And this year, they will be voting in record numbers, and it won’t be for Hillary Clinton, it will be for Donald Trump.” (emphasis mine)

That may seem like the bull shit it truly is, but the word “unification” is a sly pre-emptive legal maneuver based on Supreme Court precedent which protects otherwise violent speech that seeks to unify.

Justia Law informs us that, while the area remains a bit murky, there are bits and pieces of legal precedent available to those wishing to cover their butts — legally speaking. A number of cases have dealt with First Amendment protections and threatening speech, including Watts v. United States in which the defendant, Watts, a military draft protestor during the Vietnam era stated at a public rally that “If they ever make me carry a rifle, the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J.” The Supreme Court decided that his speech was protected because it was not a “true threat” intended to incite others to act and was mere “political hyperbole.”

However, the next major test of violent speech, NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Company delved a bit deeper into the topic of intent. This is where the idea of unification for a cause comes into play. The court conditionally protected violent speech:

“An advocate must be free to stimulate his audience with spontaneous and emotional appeals for unity and action in a common cause. When such appeals do not incite lawless action, they must be regarded as protected speech.” (emphasis mine)

Trump’s words may only meet half of that test though. Another case, Planned Parenthood v. American Coalition of Life Activists, a case involving the incited murder of abortion providers put before the Ninth Circuit offers some much-needed illumination on the topic of what defines a “true threat”:

“[A] statement which, in the entire context and under all the circumstances, a reasonable person would foresee would be interpreted by those to whom the statement is communicated as a serious expression of intent to inflict bodily harm upon that person… It is not necessary that the defendant intend to, or be able to carry out his threat; the only intent requirement for a true threat is that the defendant intentionally or knowingly communicate the threat.” (again, emphasis mine)

A lone wolf call has been made by this mad man, and no clever press release in the world can un-ring that bell.

Trump’s dangerous 15 second blunder on video here:

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Striking Back at the GOP’s War on Women — On All Fronts

“The highest court in the land has affirmed that each of us deserves compassion, respect, and dignity in making health decisions. Now it’s time to work toward a future in which all of us—wherever we may live and however much we earn—can get safe & affordable abortion care if & when we need it.”All Above All statement on reproductive rights after the recent Supreme Court decision

Texas strike down -- All Above All

Photo: All Above All

As recently as last week, much ado about nothing was made over the issue of reproductive rights and Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, a practicing Catholic who like many of his faith are willing to tolerate some cognitive dissonance in order to support a women’s right to choose.

How important is the presidential election in terms of women’s reproductive rights?

A President Clinton would stay the course on Roe v. Wade, with a progressive Supreme Court nominee and a willingness to wield the power of the veto pen. No threats to women’s health rights in Washington with her at the helm.

However, a Trump occupancy of the oval office would be a crapshoot on abortion, as with everything else, including thermal nuclear war. The Republican nominee has vacillated from vowing to criminalize abortion seekers in one breath, to calling himself “prolife with exceptions” as he exhales. Under Trump, all matters of state will be subject to the shifting moods of a chimeric child, who just this week proved he doesn’t even like babies. A manbaby himself, he will control women’s rights –leveraged as a bargaining chip against a Congress he’ll suddenly discover is impervious to his temper tantrums. He’ll need to get their attention with an ultra-conservative high court nominee — and Roe v. Wade will become history. Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, is about as dangerous on reproductive issues as they come — including his wacky beliefs that condoms are just too modern and they don’t prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

Yet, against the backdrop of the daily political gaffes and pyrotechnics in the national spotlight, it’s those elections at the state level that continue to plague the ongoing battle over uterine sovereignty.

Those who voted in Michigan’s primary election this week are among a minority of the electorate who understand what is truly at stake. Gerrymandering of districts has rendered a political lock on party bias of legislative seats — thus, lawmakers are chosen on the first Tuesday in August, not in November. Unfortunately, GOP incumbents ruled the day. And Michigan can expect more of the same.

When Gov. Snyder took office in 2011, one of the most conservative groups of Republican lawmakers moved into Lansing, controlling both houses, and poised to unleash a nonstop barrage of assaults on women’s reproductive health. They’ve attempted a number of TRAP laws (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) — laws designed to make it impossible for clinics to function due to unnecessary regulatory burdens. GOP lawmakers also tried multiple times to sneak through proposals for forced transvaginal probe requirements on patients prior to abortions, with one such bill still pending in the House Committee on Health Policy. One of their most reviled achievements is the rape insurance law — requiring women to seek additional insurance for abortion coverage, even in the case of rape.

Last year, in response to the bogus Planned Parenthood tapes which where doctored to appear to show the organization was marketing baby parts for profit, Michigan conservatives rolled-out a number of proposals, all disingenuously intended to solve a problem that was clearly fabricated just to drum-up support, and dollars, from the far right.

Michigan lawmakers were successful in enacting one TRAP law back in 2012 which requires certain clinics to be licensed as freestanding outpatient surgical facilities, thereby potentially limiting the number of available clinics. Michigan is one of 25 states to have a similar kind of TRAP law on the books. However, a comparable law in Texas was recently struck-down by the U.S. Supreme Court for creating an undue burden on women seeking abortion services. The decision was remarkable given the unequivocal concurring opinion of Justice Ginsburg, who wrote in no uncertain terms that TRAP laws like these will not “survive judicial inspection.”

The Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy group on sexual and reproductive health, provides a interactive tracking database on reproductive healthcare which indicates the women of Michigan are grossly underserved. One-third of women aged 15-44 are living in areas without an abortion provider, with an ongoing trend of decreasing service, leaving over 80 percent of the state’s 83 counties unserved.

Twice a year Guttmacher additionally publishes a state-level report on legislative initiatives potentially impacting reproductive rights. The July 2016 report finds that Michigan lawmakers are not alone in their continued offensive on sexual and reproductive health rights. In just the first half of this year, 32 legislatures have attempted to ban or curtail abortion:

32 states

Source: Guttmacher Institute

However, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon for reproductive rights. Headway is slowly being made in an effort to repeal the Hyde Amendment — a provision attached to annual appropriation bills for the past four decades to prevent the use of federal funds for abortions, more specifically Medicaid dollars, with some exceptions in extreme cases.

Guttmacher published an analysis last month on the impact of the Hyde Amendment. They discovered, to no one’s surprise, that it disproportionately impacts low-income populations, and primarily women of color. Nationally, seven million women of reproductive age, half living below the poverty level, are unable to use their Medicaid coverage for abortion services. Slightly more than half of them are women of color.

So, where’s the good news?

Guttmacher reports is that grassroots organizers and activists are working hard to get the message out in both Congress and in state legislatures. Their efforts also include:

  • All Above All, a network of reproductive rights and justice groups, has led the grassroots effort through activities such as social media, college campus visits and a petition to Congress.
  • Digital campaigns, including the 1 in 3 Campaign and #ShoutYourAbortion, encourage women to share their stories about abortion in order to destigmatize the procedure and strengthen support for abortion access.
  • In Congress, legislators are gathering support for the EACH Woman Act and the Women’s Health Protection Act, both of which directly aim to roll back federal and state restrictions on abortion coverage and care.

As long as there remain conservative lawmakers bent on returning us to the stone age, the fight for reproductive rights marches on.

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Step Aside Cleveland, Michigan’s Got its Own GOP Sh*tshow – Follow the Money

There’s a New Easy-to-Use Tool Now Available to Follow the Money in Michigan Politics

“Right now, it can be difficult for a member of the public to find the true answer to the question of who’s given the most to my representative. The idea behind this new tool is simple: Make it easier for people to investigate who’s written the largest disclosed checks over time to benefit specific elected officials.” — Craig Mauger, executive director of Michigan Campaign Finance Network


Image: Occupy.Com

It’s been a brutally hot summer, and understandably many of those otherwise adroit members of the electorate have glazed-over from the GOP’s flaming dumpster parade. Yet, for those precious few Michigan voters still in possession of their faculties, who find themselves capable of peeling their weary eyes away from the rolling RNC shitshow in Cleveland (literally, with a norovirus garnish), there is a valuable new resource available for them to use to examine the fundraising habits of those equally critical down-ballot officials.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network has developed a user-friendly searchable database designed to reveal who is buying state lawmakers, along with various other officials. Because now, more than ever, it’s important to take a break from the national conflagration, and spend a moment considering the political landscape at home. Hate to agree with Ted Cruz, but more attention must be paid to state and local elections.

Every two years the entirety of the Michigan House is up for grabs — a biennial prescription for a legislative logjam deep in the bowels of Lansing. It’s a condition especially prone during the busy campaign fundraising season. Starting in January, and running through November, with no meaningful action through the summer months other than a half-assed budget — all of Michigan suffers. Relief is not achieved until the lame-duck session in December, when the retentive sluices open-up to spew forth some of the most foul proposals — effluent intended as a giant stinking thank you to big money donors, and a flaming bag of crap for constituents.

Naturally, Michigan House members are cranky. Just imagine if you could only unload every two years.

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The new MCFN database provides us with an easy-access, detailed list of the corporate laxatives Lansing prefers. It’s much easier to navigate than the clunky secretary of state site. No cramping, very smooth.

In addition to lawmakers, the new tracking tool includes the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and funds for both party caucuses in each house. Naturally, of interest are the monied sponsors of current Attorney General Bill Schuette, with his gubernatorial aspirations and political machinations well-known over the years. His snail’s crawl to the governor’s mansion is no secret, with him occupying every elected office below, excluding dog-catcher. Schuette’s political finance profile includes many of the corporate heavy-hitters expected in Michigan politics. It’s worth a look-see.

The MCFN tracking tool identifies top donors to each candidate, and additionally discloses various sources not necessarily tracked by the secretary of state, such as PACs, administrative accounts, and reporting nonprofits. The database provides voters with a more complete picture of the money trail. The information is updated regularly as new reports and disclosures become available.

So, get on it folks! — See who’s bankrolling your elected leaders.

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IRS Complaint Filed Against Michigan GOP Sham “Social Welfare” Group

“The disastrous Citizens United decision opened up the floodgates for dark money groups to spend on politics. But there are still some limits to the amount of spending and secrecy these groups are permitted—and too many brazenly ignore these modest limits.” — Noah Bookbinder, Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington

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Photo source: Sterling Corporation website

A prominent Michigan Republican “social welfare” group is among ten organizations targeted for legal action over engaging in political activities not reported to the IRS. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint against Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility (MCFR), a 501(c)4 spinoff of the Sterling Corporation, for failure to disclose $290,000 in political spending in the 2014 election cycle.

Social welfare groups which file under 501(c)4 status are prohibited from engaging in significant political spending, and what little direct or indirect spending they do make must be reported on an IRS Schedule C. The CREW complaint filed with the Commissioner of the IRS alleges that Steve Linder, president of MCFR, filed a false report omitting significant contributions to two political groups.

The Michigan-based Super PAC, Hardworking Americans Committee, spent just shy of a million dollars in 2014 trying to influence Michigan House and Senate races. Their Federal Elections Commission report for that year indicated the receipt of three contributions from MCFR totaling $155,000.

Plus, the Republican State Leadership Fund, a self-described “caucus of Republican state leaders… whose mission is to elect down-ballot, state-level Republican officeholders” reported to the IRS they received MCFR contributions to the tune of $135,000 in 2014.

Yet, the tax report for that year filed by MCFR, and signed by Linder, indicated there were no “direct or indirect political campaign activities on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office.” The CREW complaint asserts that Linder is an experienced political fundraiser who has previously demonstrated a detailed knowledge of applicable tax law, and therefore must have been acting willfully when omitting the expenditures.

The name Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility may sound familiar to some readers. The group is the spawn of the Sterling Corporation — a GOP mothership with ties to multiple political organizations and operatives. The Senate Majority 2014 PAC, the West Michigan Preservation Fund, and the Moving Michigan Forward Fund II, all shared an address with Sterling in the previous election cycle and had similar contribution profiles — all giving to the Hardworking Americans Committee.

Linder is the president of the Sterling Corporation, working alongside political operative and senior counsel, Bob LaBrant. The two are up to their chins in Michigan’s dark money machine — and they’re mighty proud of it!

LaBrant recently penned a braggadocious memoir titled PAC Man, a compendium of his shrewd use of Super PACs to ensure GOP dominance in Lansing. There’s a Facebook post from several days ago where the Sterling Corporation promoted an article about LaBrant’s prowess, then became the sole party to “like” the post, and followed-up with an excerpt quote describing how LaBrant gamed the system. (And yes, they “liked” their comment too.)

Sterling FB post

Back in 2012, another Sterling generated PAC, Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, spent thousands attempting to invalidate petition signatures collected by Stand Up for Democracy — the group behind the successful referendum to repeal Michigan’s emergency manager law. Although the PAC failed in its mission to keep the question off the ballot, Michigan lawmakers, with the blessing of Gov. Snyder, re-enacted the law, claiming the electorate didn’t fully understand what they had done.

The IRS complaint filed against Linder demands a full investigation, and if found guilty of a potential felony, the imposition of the full penalty of the law — steep fines, including significant incarceration should apply. Noah Bookbinder, of CREW, cautions:

“These groups have demonstrated a clear disregard for the law. If the government does not act, it will send a signal to dark money groups that no laws or limits apply to them and it is open season for secret money in our elections.”

Even with the possibility of Linder being fitted for an orange jumpsuit, the GOP department of skullduggery will remain alive and well in Michigan for the 2016 election cycle.

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Michigan: After 5 Years of GOP Tyranny

A Calculated Attack in Progress

“It was obvious that House Republicans brought this bill up this week to undermine the petitions that are being gathered across the State of Michigan on a number of initiatives. They’re undermining the rights of those citizens.” — Michigan House Democratic Floor Leader, Rep. Sam Singh, speaking last month against yet another GOP attack on citizen-initiated petitions.

MCFN graphic

Graphic: Michigan Campaign Finance Network

The people’s right to petition in Michigan is considered so sacrosanct that it’s been codified into the state’s constitution. Yet, unintended loopholes in that broadly worded document are allowing opportunistic lawmakers numerous means to manipulate, if not entirely scuttle the basic rights of their citizenry.  And under recent Republican dominance, surreptitious obstructionism has now become the norm. GOP lawmakers in the Great Lakes State routinely go the extra mile just to punish voting constituents for attempting to exercise their core democratic rights at the ballot box.

Michigan’s GOP Rap Sheet

Just during the Snyder years, GOP offenses include (but are not limited to):

  • When voters opted to oust Republican Representative Paul Scott in 2011 over his anti-union, anti-teacher leadership of the House Education Committee, the legislature retaliated against constituents by rigging recall rules to make the process nearly impossible in the future.
  • Within months, these same lawmakers reinstated the emergency manager law just days after its repeal by popular vote — a law which in itself is a grave affront to democracy.
  • Michigan’s minimum wage petition initiative was short-circuited by GOP machinations, never reaching the voters for approval.
  • There was an endless barrage of legislative skullduggery employed to bypass popular support for the petition to protect Michigan’s threatened wolf population.
  • Women in particular remember when a largely male cadre of lawmakers fast-tracked the “rape insurance” law, requiring women to purchase a special policy to cover abortion, even in the case of rape — a feat accomplished through another abuse of the petition process which prevented voters from having their say.
  • Most recently, by changing the signature-gathering rules mid-stream, they circumvented ongoing petition drives, including one to put on the ballot the question of legalizing pot.

Petitioning is Hard Work

Petitioning is already an arduous undertaking, fraught with legal challenges and legislative chicanery. Yet GOP lawmakers remain hell-bent on rendering the endeavour humanly impossible. I was recently reminded of how very difficult the process can be, even in its simplest form, when asked to assist a group in a neighboring municipality with a local ballot initiative for their city. Educating them on the process brought back stressful memories of my participation in the 2011-12 petition drive and referendum election to repeal Snyder’s first version of the emergency manager law — a citizen effort rendered moot by an unconstitutional GOP override.

And now we have Senate Bill 776, enacted last month as Public Act 142, designed to prohibitively limit the window for gathering signatures to 180 days — a standard which had been informally followed in the past, but was not codified into law, nor cited in the state’s constitution. MI Legalize, the group collecting signatures on the marijuana question, asked the Board of State Canvassers to approve an expedited computerized process for validating otherwise “stale-dated” signatures, older than 180 days — which had been the long-standing practice until Republicans stepped-in. Yes, GOP lawmakers sprung into action to put the kibosh on the request, thus killing the citizen-initiated effort altogether, or not… MI Legalize has since filed suit in the Michigan Court of Claims, and requested a fast-track decision, hoping to recapture this election cycle. It’s worth noting that the courts, although at times political animals themselves, tend to take a stronger stand on the separation and balance of powers than we find in their legislative and executive counterparts, even here in Michigan.

Hard Work and Tons of Money

Executing a successful statewide ballot drive requires a serious bankroll — with hiring lawyers, printing petitions, training signature-gathers (paid or not), contracting support firms, all in addition to the day-to-day costs of running the campaign and building a coalition. This grassroots apparatus demands a whole lotta jack.  It’s not a casual hobby for the armchair activist.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network reports that, over the past year and a half, 11 ballot question committees have raised $6.4 million, spending $3.5 million thus far, and of that amount, $2.9 million on the petitioning process alone. Most of the money went to professional signature-gathering companies, with nearly half of that going to one firm, Silver Bullet, in an effort to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law. MCFN prognosticates that none of the 11 questions will be on the ballot this November — the signature requirement bar is set too high, and the time-frame is too narrow.

Ballot proposals in Michigan consist of referendums, initiated laws, and constitutional amendments, with increasingly higher signature requirements in that order — all based on a percentage of the number of ballots cast in the most recent gubernatorial election.

It’s clearly a topic on the minds of lawmakers. Other pending legislative items that could impact ballot proposals in the state include:

Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-23) introduced legislation late last fall designed to regulate and provide penalties for false statements made by petition gatherers on ballot questions and recall attempts. The bill would make it a misdemeanor for someone who “intentionally makes a false statement or misrepresentation concerning the contents” of a petition.

Late last year, Rep. Jim Townsend (D-26) offered a House Joint Resolution, with strong partisan support, to amend Article II, Sec. 9 of the Michigan Constitution to close what’s known as the appropriations loophole — a provision which renders laws referendum-proof if a spending package is attached. GOP lawmakers have a storied history of abusing this clause when they know a majority of voters disagree with a piece of their legislation.

Both of these proposals predictably remain in committee.

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Our First Amendment Rights Are Under Seige on Campus and Beyond

“Truth comes from the competition of ideas. Critical thinking skills involve listening to both sides.” — Robert Rosenkranz, chairman of Intelligence Squared, speaking at a debate over the question of free speech on campus.

Troubles Come to a Boiling Point on Campus:

The First Amendment is under attack, and not just due to unconstitutional school policies, of which there are plenty. No, it’s all too frequently the student body itself demanding censorship of free speech. Collective outrage over opposing opinions has become epidemic in the halls and on the quads of American academia. It’s a hot topic, earning front page billing in two major publications just this week.

frre speech in media

The Newsweek piece opens without any preliminary niceties. Presenting their premise, author Nina Burleigh launches with the following:

“Graduates of the Class of 2016 are leaving behind campuses that have become petri dishes of extreme political correctness and heading out into a world without trigger warnings, safe spaces and free speech zones, with no rules forbidding offensive verbal conduct or microaggressions, and where the names of cruel, rapacious capitalists are embossed in brass and granite on buildings across the land. Baby seals during the Canadian hunting season may have a better chance of survival.”

By way of example, Burleigh reminds her readers that it wasn’t until last year that the 20-year-running acclaimed play, The Vagina Monologues, was censored. In 2o15, Mount Holyoke College cancelled its performance explaining that “the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman.” Bottomline — it was considered insensitive to transgender women.

If readers agree, I suggest that, as a purely intellectual exercise, they consider for a moment if the production was instead about the angst and anguish of women who lacked that particular anatomical feature at birth — should the college axe that performance too? Would they consider that non-inclusive of women with vaginas?

Last March we reported on some bipartisan legislation proposed in the Michigan Senate which would offer specific protections from censorship for student journalists at public institutions. That bill remains lodged in committee, but lawmakers in Arizona have taken the fight to the next level by successfully enacting a law with much broader protections of free speech in public schools. The legislation prevents school administrators from setting up “free speech zones” — an egregious rule designed to limit First Amendment protections at colleges and universities. The policy shunts students and protestors engaged in acts of expression to specific areas, often on the campus boondocks, where few will hear their message. They additionally gave the thumbs-up to a new law which would impose criminal penalties for protestors who physically interfere with the right of others to assemble. The latter legislation seems to have been inspired by protests which blocked individuals from participating in Trump rallies. (More on the irony of Trump below.)

Greg Lukianoff, a self-proclaimed liberal and atheist, is the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization championing free speech in higher education. In an Intelligence Squared Debate last year, he described the reality on campuses as biased toward liberal free speech, and stifling of intellectual diversity, especially of conservative voices. From his opening statement:

“If you’re going to be censored on the modern college campus for your opinion, chances are you are going to be censored by the left… Take any hot topic in America today and I can point you to examples of students and faculty members getting in trouble for being on the conservative side of the issue.”

Lukianoff went on to specifically cite a number of such examples, including an incident at Dartmouth where a Pro-Choice student, with a “Coexist” bumper sticker, felt so offended by a Pro-Life campus display of tiny American flags, that he felt compelled to run it over with his car.

It’s No Laughing Matter:

Standup comedians think twice about booking college gigs anymore because they’re finding student audiences are increasingly unable to process the very nature of humor and its role to push the envelope in our freedom-loving culture. And some schools have taken their new humorless environment to the point of censorship by decree, requiring comedians to sign contracts agreeing to avoid offensive language and sensitive topics. The kangaroo court of social media is in part driving the self-censorship crusade, as students and faculty worry about backlash on Twitter and Facebook.

A documentary on the trend to stifle comedy, Can We Take a Joke?, is due out this summer.

“It’s the duty of a comedian to find out where the line is drawn and deliberately cross over it.” — Gilbert Godfrey in Can We Take a Joke?

View the trailer below.

Troubles off Campus Abound:

In a larger sense, free speech is in the national crosshairs in the realm of the tender sensibilities of presidential politics. Donald Trump, the king of unmitigated hubris, has vowed, if elected, to curtail the First Amendment rights of the media as they continue to report his all too frequent dumbo eruptions — with the irony being that it’s his own free speech that he should be self-policing. The presumptive GOP nominee simply does not enjoy the right not to be offended, particularly by the repetition of his own hate-filled speech. Yet, if the worst were to happen in November, this thin-skinned manbaby, along with his low-information sycophants, could further imperil First Amendment protections both on and off campus. Yes, with the authority of the oval office, he would have much more than the abusive power of civil litigation at his disposal.

It’s not as if it hasn’t happened in American history. Gene Policinski of the First Amendment Center recently wrote a cautionary op-ed reminding us that back in 1909 none other than sitting president Theodore Roosevelt ordered government attorneys to sue newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer over his coverage questioning the purchase of properties related to the construction of the Panama Canal. Policinski expressed concern that the landmark 1964 Supreme Court ruling, New York Times Company v. Sullivan, may be in peril. The unanimous decision found that public officials, (later extended to include public figures), bore the burden of proof that a journalist intentionally and recklessly disregarded the truth. Lest we forget, a President Trump would likely be naming the next Supreme Court Justice, thereby determining the balance of the high court.

Now more than ever, our nation needs young adults familiar with the rights and responsibilities that accompany the First Amendment.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Post Script: A recent post in Democracy Tree drew some word-policing from progressive readers. The objection was to the term “bailout” in reference to the legislative appropriation for Detroit Public Schools. It appears that in some circles the term has taken-on a meaning that is wholly derogatory. bailout def.However, a simple consultation with a reputable dictionary finds no nefarious meaning, nor does it imply ineptitude, blame, or any characteristic at all, good or bad. Modern dictionaries are careful to point out when a certain word has acquired a defamatory or contemptuous tone, or evolved in meaning. In the case of the term “bailout”, the meaning has not changed, at all. While the financial distress at DPS is very real, and clearly created in large part due to underfunding by the state, it is a situation the “bailout” won’t fully remedy — now that would be a solid reason to avoid the term in question. This seems to be a case where those who can’t change the ugly political reality have opted to get precious about words. Semantics, when all else fails.



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Michigan’s Smaller School Districts Get Screwed, as DPS is Poised for a Bailout

Updated 6-26-16

“Three years ago, the state of Michigan made the decision to dissolve Inkster Public Schools against the will of the people,… it is past time for the state to step up and remove the burden of debt from the residents of Inkster. There has been enough suffering as a result of decisions made by the state. It’s time to allow Inkster to move forward without being forced to pay for a school district that no longer exists.” — Sen. David Knezek 


Sen. David Knezek, Photo: SenateDems

The rest of Michigan looks on with skepticism as Detroit Public Schools are headed toward an inevitable legislative bailout, while other school districts toil under the Snyder administration’s starvation-level budgets. Year after year, the gap between richer and poorer, (the latter often being smaller communities), widens into an unbridgeable chasm.

Detroit Schools will be at the top of the agenda at this week’s Detroit Regional Policy Conference on Mackinac Island where lawmakers and business leaders are typically all about the business of exchanging money for policy. But this year, House Leader Kevin Cotter is keeping his kids in class down in Lansing during their regular legislative session — preventing them from schmoozing and boozing on the island. Between trays of drinks and canapés, Detroit business leaders had hoped to put the squeeze on reluctant House members to approve a more generous DPS bailout package.

One way or another though, Detroit will get some form of support, albeit insufficient and negligently late. But, what of those other struggling districts — those not too large to fail?

Inkster and Buena Vista come to mind.

Public Acts 96 and 97 of 2013 were the two hastily enacted laws that provided means for the state to dissolve small school districts that are fiscally distressed, yet not big enough to support the cost of the emergency manager apparatus or to warrant a bailout. The first strips a district of local control, and the second sorts through the details and financials. The laws provide an appropriation of $2.2 million, over four years, for the purpose of grants to the receiving school districts for transition and enrollment costs as they take on students from the dissolved schools. Additionally, the receiving districts earn a 10 percent bonus over the per pupil foundation grant of transferred students for four fiscal years.

To date, only two school districts have been forcibly dissolved — Buena Vista and Inkster. In truth, the above laws were maliciously written and enacted specifically with them in mind. It was a nadir for the previous legislature — a time when the chair of the House Education Committee, Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, referred to public school teachers as swine in her argument supporting the dissolution of Inkster and Buena Vista.

After a careful evaluation of the fiscal fallout from the dissolution policy, the Citizens Research Council of Michigan published a detailed analysis titled School District Dissolutions: Another Approach to Address Local School District Fiscal DistressIn the report, the CRC outlined several concerns about the wisdom of the law, mostly stemming from slight-of-hand tax policies that simply shift burdens and ignore underlying systemic problems. They concluded that the law is not good public policy and should be revisited, referring to its hasty enactment as an “ad hoc reaction” which “illustrates that state government lacks a uniform model that will apply when school districts fail”.

The policy not only transferred students against their will to surrounding districts, it also conveyed the defunct district’s assets to the receiving districts — creating a costly burden for the receiving schools in the form of the maintenance of crumbling buildings. The 10 percent per student bonus offset some of those expenses, which in the case of Buena Vista totalled an additional $2,019,000, and Inkster students were worth an extra $8,138,000 over the course of four years. Yet, the legislature was forced to shell-out additional millions to the receiving districts just to keep them solvent.

The state also became responsible for the dissolved district’s portion of pension funding through the Michigan Public School Employee Retirement System. The two defunct districts’ portions have since reverted to the state, which the House Fiscal Agency estimated to be $4.1 million in additional costs.

The bulk of the debt load of the dissolved districts remained where it was — with the taxpayers of that school-less community.

All Prop A taxes collected in the defunct districts are allocated to paying-down the residual debt, and thus, do not contribute to the School Aid Fund. Any additional millage monies are rerouted to the receiving district, via their local Intermediate School District, to be used at their discretion.

In an effort to ease the local tax burden, two lawmakers serving the Inkster area, Sen. David Knezek (D-5) and Rep. Julie Plawecki (D-11), have introduced legislation which would allocate state funds to payoff the Inkster Public School debt of $37 million. Plawecki explained:

“The four school districts surrounding Inkster have welcomed their students with open arms, but the dissolved Inkster Public Schools still has a substantial debt, which places an onerous burden on the city and its residents. This is similar to the situation that Detroit Public Schools are facing, as they are dealing with a debt due to several decisions, many of which were made by the state. And just as the state is helping DPS with its debt obligations, we believe the same should happen with the community of Inkster.”

(Update: Rep. Plawecki passed away suddenly while vacationing over the legislative break with her family. She will be missed by all.)

House Bill 5708 and Senate Bill 1006 have both been referred to their respective Appropriations Committees. It is doubtful they will emerge to see the light of day.

Perhaps, a pricey tray of champaign and canapés, served with a generous promise of campaign dollars, would do the trick.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin



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Smackdown of a Michigan Lawmaker and His Mean Spirited Potty Bill

Sen. Tom Casperson (R-38), one of Michigan’s worst lawmakers, who’s currently running in a crowded field to replace U.S. Congressman Dan Benishek in Michigan’s 1st District, today offered his long-expected politically pandering “bathroom bill.”


The proposal is a tortured exercise in passive-aggressive doublespeak:

First, the legislation is couched in falsely inclusive fuzzy language — granting the student a legal right to declare their gender preference, with parental consent of course, and additionally requiring the school district to make a “reasonable accommodation” which “does not impose an undue hardship”…  on the school district, not the student. Translation: the school doesn’t have to go out of their way to accommodate the needs of transgender students, at all, ever. But, transgender students, it is suggested, should declare themselves to the district.

Second, the proposal explicitly forbids transgender students from accessing facilities that align with their declared gender. Period.

As far as Casperson is concerned, transgender students must learn how to exercise tremendous control over basic bodily functions — Title IX protections be damned.

It’s not my habit to post press releases, especially verbatim, but today I found among the clutter in my inbox one of interest — not just of topic, but also well-written. Congressman Dan Kildee of Michigan’s 5th District has been following the situation and had this to say earlier today about his potential colleague as the story broke:

“Of all Michigan’s pressing problems – fixing our crumbling roads, improving our schools, ensuring access to safe drinking water – Senator Tom Casperson and Republicans in Lansing have apparently decided the most urgent need facing our state is to police bathrooms in search of a problem that does not exist. Their priorities are completely wrong and in disagreement with the majority of Michiganders.

Their ‘bathroom bill’, introduced today and modeled off of other states like North Carolina, is discriminatory and bigoted. It seeks to divide Michiganders and deny people access to restrooms when they simply want privacy, safety and respect when using such accommodations — just like everyone else.

Like North Carolina, Senator Casperson’s bill could cost Michigan thousands of jobs and millions in economic investment. In North Carolina, more than $500 million in investments is in jeopardy after their state passed similar legislation. Over 200 private businesses that create jobs and revenue in the state have condemned North Carolina’s anti-LGBT law, with many pulling out new investments and jobs. We cannot let this happen in Michigan.

Michigan Republicans like Senator Casperson should spend less time bullying Michiganders and more time on the actual problems facing our state. This hateful bill flies in the face of Michigan values like dignity, equality and respect, and it should be promptly shelved and defeated.”

As for Casperson, this isn’t his first self-serving legislative maneuver, and it likely won’t be his last, but it remains among his worst.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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It’s True! — There Really is Bipartisan Support to Ban Conversion Therapy in Michigan

One Michigan lawmaker has been attempting to make “conversion therapy” illegal in the state for a number of years, but he met with little success as a Democrat in a Republican-dominated legislature — now, that may all be about to change.

In his first attempt, Rep. Adam Zemke (D-55) introduced HB 5703 about two years ago to prohibit the use of conversion therapy — a reprehensible and professionally discredited practice which attempts to change gender identity or sexual orientation through hurtful mind games. Under the cloak of faux medicine, quacks and charlatans target vulnerable teens and young adults for psychological abuse, often with the trust and money of their families. The Human Rights Campaign asserts that for this young group conversion therapy can lead to “depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness, and suicide.”

Rep. Zemke’s 2014 legislation died in the Health Policy Committee with no further action.

Now, with some bipartisan support, a new legislative package will hopefully gain some traction in the Michigan House in 2016. Rep. Mike Calton (R-87) is sponsoring one bill, and co-sponsoring its companion piece, with the goal of eliminating the disreputable practice of conversion therapy on minors and of making violations subject to professional disciplinary action.

A number of other states have already passed similar laws — all which have withstood judicial scrutiny, including the U.S. Supreme Court twice allowing lower court rulings to stand which struck down challenges to these laws. And last year, a New Jersey court found a conversion therapy provider liable for consumer fraud.

In that light, several months ago, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a consumer fraud complaint against People Can Change, a group promoting conversion therapy. Religious organizations are behind the push to intimidate young LGBT individuals, with conversion therapy being their license to bully — but, their snake oil approach is certainly not proven to be an efficacious “treatment.” Litigation is pending.

Groups opposing conversion therapy are too numerous to fully list here, but they include the American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Association for Marriage and Family, American College of Physicians, American Counseling Association, American Medical Association, American Psychoanalytic Association, American Psychological Association…the list goes on and on.

Both new bills have been referred to the Regulatory Reform Committee. Neither Calton, nor Zemke, or any other sponsor is a member of that committee. Let’s hope the issue gets its due respect.

The tide of human rights is rising, and this wave appears to be of the same strong current that brought our nation marriage equality just a few short months ago.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin


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