Michigan governor comes under fire for refusing to address LGBT issues

Michigan's Republican governor is coming under fire by leaders in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community for his office's refusal to grant multiple requests for a one-on-one interview about LGBT issues.

The criticism comes just days before Gov. Rick Snyder will take center stage with his second State of the State speech -- and on that day, he is expected to face a rally opposing a raft of anti-LGBT legislation working its way through Michigan's GOP-controlled legislature.

The American Independent, along with media partners Between the Lines newspaper and Lansing Online News, requested the one-on-one interview with the governor on Jan. 3. Between the Lines is Michigan's statewide weekly newspaper for the LGBT community; Lansing Online News is a citizen journalists' platform.

The request was specifically to discuss with the governor anti-gay legislation and his views on LGBT issues. The interview would be video-recorded by Lansing Online News. The request came 10 days after Snyder signed legislation banning partner benefits for unmarried public employees across the state.

Snyder spokesperson Sara Wurfel and communications director Geralyn Lasher were both emailed interview requests at the beginning of the month. Late Friday afternoon, Wurfel and Lasher finally responded to TAI, via email.

The email read in part:

"We get 50 to 100 requests from reporters around the state, region and nation on slower days and much more than that on busier ones. We often are responding to inquiries on nights and weekends as well. When you sent your last e-mail for an interview request, our e-mails and server had been temporarily down. I think it’s important to note that we always work to get you answers to your questions for comment/reaction or more information. However, one-on-one interviews with the Governor are far more difficult to arrange as his schedule is intense. The volume of interview requests we get is incredibly high and take a while to accommodate, especially more so this time of year during State of the State and budget preparations. You’re certainly on our list to work in an interview where/how possible, but we simply can’t schedule at this time."

TAI responded asking for the communications team in the governor's office to respond by Tuesday at noon Eastern Standard Time with a list of dates and times in order to schedule an interview. TAI has offered to conduct the interview via Skype in the event the governor's office is unable to schedule a face-to-face meeting. The governor's staff in that same Friday email suggested the TAI attend various press events with the governor and ask questions there, rather than seek a one-on-one. The governor has granted one-on-one interviews to MLive, the Associated Press, the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News and even conducted a video chat with editors of the Macomb Daily and the Oakland Press.

“The Governor represents and works on behalf of all Michigan residents and he’s ignoring a significant portion of the population," said Michael Gregor, communications director for Equality Michigan. "He is accountable to LGBT voters, who have a stake in Michigan’s success but are also deeply concerned about how the government treats their families. Ignoring the media that represents particular groups of constituents is an irresponsible way to govern.”

The refusal to grant the interview comes as the LGBT community and supporters plan a noon rally Wednesday at the Capitol to protest an anti-gay atmosphere that has enveloped the state Capitol since Republicans gained control of the governor's office, both chambers of the legislature, the high court and major statewide executive offices like attorney general and secretary of state.

"It is disturbing to see Governor Rick Snyder embrace the pattern of other elected officials who refuse to grant interviews to reporters perceived as representing groups that are not part of their electorate. Republicans often use LGBT concerns as wedge issues to galvanize the social conservatives in their party. However, Governor Snyder made specific appeals to independent voters by projecting himself as far more moderate than many of his fellow Michigan Republicans," said Bonnie Bucqueroux, publisher of Lansing Online News and a journalism professor at Michigan State University. "Members of the LGBT community had good reason to expect a Snyder administration would not allow legislation to strip domestic partner benefits to pass. So it is particularly disturbing to see his administration refuse to acklowedge a legitimate request from one of the top LGBT reporters in the country to explain why the governor chose to sign this new bill into law."

Bucqueroux is not alone in expressing concerns about the refusals.

Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan LGBT Project, said denying access to the governor for interviews related to disenfranchised groups is not uncommon.

"As Governor of Michigan, he is Governor to everyone who lives in our State, including the LGBT community, and as an elected official his administration should be willing to meet with the media to discuss the issues of importance to the LGBT community. Unfortunately, it is not atypical that many politicians do not meet with various marginalized and disenfranchised communities, nor feel any incentive to do so," Kaplan told TAI via email. "I think Governor Snyder’s signing of 4770 [the new law which bans partner benefits for unmarried public employees] and both the unwillingness of his spokesperson and his communications director to respond, sends a message to the LGBT community regarding just how valued they are by this administration."

Grace Wojcik, a southeast Michigan LGBT community activist and organizer, said the refusals raise questions about whether Snyder is the moderate he claimed to be during is 2010 campaign for governor.

"I think this 'rock and a hard spot' may play into some of Governor Snyder's decision to refuse to even decline an interview with alternative press outlets," Wojcik told TAI. "However, from the beginning of his campaign he was vague about his position on a number of these potentially divisive social issues which I believe was indicative of how his current behavior. Unfortunately, many hoped Governor Snyder would do the right thing and veto HB4771, which as we know didn't happen. The question for me is this: how many more pieces of legislation will this self-professed moderate Governor sign that are hostile to the social issues he claimed to not be focused on?"

Snyder won the GOP nomination in August 2010 over a cast of conservative candidates including former Attorney General Mike Cox and former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra. He went on to beat Democratic candidate Virg Bernero in November 2010 with a platform focused on reforming Michigan's economy with tax restructuring. Throughout the campaign and his tenure, he has repeatedly said social issues are not on his agenda. However, he has signed bills that the more conservative GOP-controlled legislature sent to his desk -- including the partner benefits ban and a ban on so-called partial birth abortions.

In addition, Snyder has pledged to make Michigan a leader in government transparency. On The Issues reports that Snyder's campaign website held the following statement on Nov. 2, 2010:

Michigan's citizens are tired of the divisive political culture in Lansing. Midnight deals, closed doors meetings, lobbyists, and special interest influence have stood in the way of long-term solutions. As Governor, I will ensure that government is open, fair, and accountable to the citizens by making Michigan a national leader in transparency and ethics.

"A Governor that preached about transparency has turned out to the be most secretive governor in history. Snyder has an obligation to speak to smaller media outlets and has a special obligation to the gay press due to his outreach efforts to the gay community during the 2010 campaign," said Joe DiSano, a Democratic political consultant who did some work for the Bernero campaign in 2010. "The LGBT community was cynically manipulated by Snyder for votes. Snyder’s refusal to be interviewed is a slap in the face to the LGBT community. The faster we get rid of the notion that Snyder is a moderate the quicker we can replace him. I can’t point to one example of Snyder refusing to do the bidding of the legislature. If he is a moderate, where are the vetoes?"

The issue has also raised the ire of national LGBT groups.

"LGBT Michiganders deserve the full transparency that Gov Rick Snyder promised. He should stop refusing interviews to gay and alternative media about LGBT and HIV-related issues," said Herndon Graddick, senior director of programs and communications at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, also known as GLAAD.

State Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and is no stranger to media attention. He said the governor is probably too busy for an interview.

"As everyone in the press knows I am available at anytime to do an interview on any topic. I feel that is my job as a Senator to respond to constituents or media that will inform constituents," Jones told TAI in a Facebook chat. "However Governor Snyder is much busier and has an even more demanding schedule than I do. Remember he is like the CEO of a $44 billion company. He is spread very thin. So it must be much more difficult for the Governor to find time to talk to every individual reporter."

Others dismiss Jones' defense of Snyder and his administration.

"I think it says a great deal that Governor Snyder is apparently unwilling to discuss the consequences of his decision to sign legislation banning domestic partner benefits with the Michiganders that are most directly impacted by that decision," said Nathan Triplett, an East Lansing City Council member who pushed for the city to adopt partner benefits. "On the other hand, his silence is understandable when you consider the fact that HB 4770 completely undermines the Governor's stated objective of making Michigan more economically competitive by attracting and retaining talent in this state. People don't generally want to discuss things about which they are embarrassed or ashamed. The Governor should be both."

DiSano is more blunt about the message Snyder's silence sends.

"The message to gays from the Governor is a simple one," DiSano said. "The message is drop dead."

"The message sent is one that suggests Governor Snyder, again, isn't concerned with the LGBT community, its needs, or the impact of his decisions on our lives and our families," Wojcik said. "From the beginning of his campaign he claimed his focus was improving Michigan's economy, not divisive social issues. Unfortunately, the signing of [the partner benefits ban] and his subsequent refusal to comment on the issue may make some feel that those sentiments were insincere."

Photo: Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (source: Flickr/Michigan Municipal League)