LANSING -- Michigan Republicans ousted long-standing National Committeemen Saul Anuzis this weekend, instead opting for a right-wing state lawmaker who has sparked controversy on numerous issues, including his attempts to eliminate funding for HIV programs.
State Rep. Dave Agema (R-Grandville) bested former Michigan GOP Chair Anuzis in what Agema’s Tea Party supporters called a “landslide.” Former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land ousted Holly Hughes, one of Michigan’s other two national committee members.
Agema has rattled the state with a legislative battles to eliminate domestic partner benefits for all public employees, which he insisted ran contrary to the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. The partner benefits battle pitted him against Gov. Rick Snyder when the Snyder administration rejected a budget rider last year that would have eliminated domestic partner benefits specifically for university employees. The Snyder administration said that proposal was unconstitutional and interfered with the autonomy of the universities as assured under the state constitution.
In a May 8, 2011, Facebook post, Agema wrote about controversy:
“Fear the government that fears your guns. Fear the colleges that break the law to force their own faculty and students to accept same sex/unmarried benefits . Remember Universities are training the next generation for what garbage they put out as acceptable into the kids brains. We can lose our country in one generation.”
Other legislation proposed by Agema would have eliminated the state’s Healthy Michigan Fund Initiative, which serves as Michigan’s contribution to receive federal HIV dollars. The fund pays approximately 77 percent of the state’s federal match, without which the federal money would not be made available. Under Agema’s proposal the funding would have been shifted to a fund for airport care and upkeep.
In defending his bill, Agema -- a former airline pilot -- said the shift in funding would be a job creating move. But state health officials said the current money funds 44 full time positions in the state. The legislation has since died in committee and is unlikely to receive a hearing.
The conservative lawmaker has also been pushing a piece of legislation called “American Laws for American Courts.” He argues the bill will restore the dominance of the U.S. Constitution to Michigan courts and will prohibit foreign laws from being used. Similar legislation has been seen across the country and is part of an effort to stop the supposed implementation of Sharia law -- a strict Islamic code of laws.
On Sept. 7, 2011, he was scheduled to appear on the state Capitol steps with Pastor Terry Jones -- the Quran burning pastor from Florida. Agema was slated to discuss his “American Laws” legislation while Jones was to speak of the threat of Islam.
But Agema cancelled on Sept. 6, claiming he had a scheduling conflict. The announcement of the cancellation and the conflict came only after media began inquiring about Agema’s appearance with the controversial pastor. Jones challenged this claim, saying Agema “chickened out.”
Agema’s ascension has progressives raising eyebrows.
“Agema's contempt of immigrants, Muslims, the LGBT community, and working class people is evident in the bills he introduced while serving in the Michigan House including his support of Gov. Snyder's austerity measures,” says Colette Sequin Beighley, a West Michigan activist. “This new leadership position is an affirmation of his homophobic and xenophobic actions, gives license for even more Draconian legislation, and further supports the environment of hate that exists in our state.”
Beighley is not alone. Laurel Sprague, a regional coordinator for the Global Network of People with AIDS North America, says Agema’s election raises concerns for the HIV community as well.
“The selection of Representative Agema to represent Michigan surprises and worries me. Why would Michigan Republicans decide that one of our representatives should be someone who attempted to defund HIV prevention and care programs within the state?” says Sprague. “This seems to be a complete turnaround for the Republicans given that one shining moment for the Republican Party, and an enduring legacy for President George W. Bush, was the creation of the PEPFAR program which has saved millions of lives around the world and prevented thousands of HIV infections among newborns.”
Emily Dievendorf, policy director at Equality Michigan, also expressed concern.
“Rep. Agema's election to the role of GOP National Committeeman is another sad example of Republican leaders' insistence on appointing extreme party members to positions that exist to represent the interests of the majority of the party. Rep. Agema has been responsible for one anti-gay bill after another. In an age of majority support for gay marriage in Michigan, Rep. Agema represents the interests of the few. Despite his minority ideology, he does not hesitate to push forward with a relentless commitment to weakening families that hurts all Michiganders,” says Dievendorf. “Most of the Republican constituency is more reasonable and fair minded than Rep. Agema and the supporters he had in his corner at the convention today.”
State Republican leadership said the move was about “fresh faces,” as Michigan GOP chair Bobby Schostak told the Detroit Free Press.
Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, says the election of Agema was a Tea Party event that shows the movement is “strong and getting stronger.”
But Ballenger, who is a former Republican lawmaker, says the election of Agema is not necessarily a bad thing for the GOP.
“The ‘criticism’ that Agema has always gotten for his stands come from those who don't wish his party well,” says Ballenger. “Democrats, the MSM [mainstream media] (including MLive), and lot of socially moderate independents and ticket-splitters delight in lambasting the Agemas of the world, but that doesn't mean the Republicans are doomed. They've got a lot of other things going for them.”
Photo: Michigan state capitol building. Brian Charles Watson, via Wikimedia Commons.