By Edward McClelland

The word “vagina” first brought national attention to Michigan’s conservative state legislature.

It was uttered by Democratic state Rep. Lisa Brown during a debate on a bill to regulate abortion clinics by requiring doctors to screen women for “coercion” and banning teleconferences to prescribe medication.

“Mr. Speaker,” Brown said, “I’m flattered that you’re so concerned about my vagina, but no means no.”

Majority Floor Leader Jim Stamas slammed down his gavel.

“Members, I do ask that you respect the decorum of the House,” he ordered.

Lisa Brown

Michigan Representative Lisa Brown

For talking about her vajajay on the House floor, Brown was grounded by the chamber’s Republican leadership: the following day, she was not allowed to speak on a bill concerning school employees’ retirement. Neither was state Rep. Barb Byrum, who had tried to introduce an amendment to the abortion bill prohibiting vasectomies unless they were necessary to save a man’s life.

The brouhaha caught the attention of the national media, as vagina-related brouhahas will. When Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler heard about it, she flew to Lansing to perform her play on the Capitol steps, with legislators playing supporting roles. June 18, 2012, was “Say Vagina Day” in Lansing. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart dubbed Brown “The Vagina Ideologue.”

Michigan is a blue state in federal politics — it has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1992, and last year elected Sen. Gary Peters, the only freshman Democrat in the class of 2014. Throughout this decade, though, its state politics have been dominated by a coalition of economic libertarians, religious conservatives, Tea Partiers and handgun activists. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed a right-to-work bill, considered shocking in the state where the modern labor movement was born during the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37. As a result of their decision to uphold a gay marriage ban passed in 2004, Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette are defendants in a gay marriage case now before the Supreme Court — a case that could legalize gay marriage throughout the country. Michigan cut business taxes by $1.7 billion, replacing the revenue by reducing the Earned Income Tax Credit and taking away tax breaks for pension benefits. And Michigan’s Republican National Committeeman, former state Rep. Dave Agema, was censured by the RNC’s executive committee for using his Facebook page to promote an essay by a public defender who argued that blacks cannot reason or control their impulses as well as whites.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Michigan was governed by progressive Republicans. Gov. George Romney marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Detroit. As Richard Nixon’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Romney suggested building public housing in the suburbs. His successor, William Milliken, supported the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights. So did Gerald Ford, Michigan’s only president. But it’s not their Republican Party anymore.

“The Republican Party nationally has moved to the right,” said Bill Ballenger, a former Republican state legislator who founded Inside Michigan Politics, an influential newsletter. “It’s not just Michigan, it’s everywhere. The emblem of Michigan moderate Republicanism is Milliken. He endorsed Snyder, but he endorsed Gary Peters, too.”

It’s not their Michigan anymore, either. Since the mid-1960s, Michigan has dropped from 11th to 37th in per capita income among states. Its poverty rate has doubled. Employment in auto manufacturing, the state’s signature industry, has been cut in half. During that same period, Detroit lost two-thirds of its population, falling from 1.8 million to 675,000.

Michiganders call the 2000s the “The Lost Decade.” During those years, Michigan was the only state to lose population. Many of those refugees used their college degrees as tickets out: Michigan dropped from 30th to 35th in proportion of college graduates, and Chicago became the number one destination for graduates of Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. No one is moving in to replace them: only Louisiana has a higher percentage of native-born residents. General Motors and Chrysler went bankrupt, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs.

As Michigan has become older, less educated, less unionized, less urbanized and more insular, it has become more reactionary. This process has been decades in the making: Macomb County, an 85 percent white suburb of Detroit, was identified by pollster Stanley Greenberg as the home of the Reagan Democrats, blue-collar voters who had defected from their ancestral party over issues of race, taxation and culture.

“There are a lot of Democrats in Michigan who find more in common with Republicans on social issues,” Ballenger said. “The Upper Peninsula used to be Democratic, but it’s become Republican. The U.P. continues to lose population. Those are young people moving away. Old Democrats are dying out, and they’re being replaced by Republicans.”

It was 2010, though, that put the final stamp on conservative drift. In a big year for Republicans nationwide, Snyder won a 20-point landslide for governor, by running as a pro-business moderate unmotivated by social issues. Republicans took over the House and established a veto-proof majority in the Senate. When census figures were released in 2011, Republicans used their new power to draw districts that ensure they will stay in power until the next decade. This process was assisted by the dissolution of Michigan’s cities, unparalleled in any state. In the 1950s, Detroit contained 29 percent of Michigan’s population. It now contains 6 percent. Republicans drew a minimal number of urban districts and scattered the rest among more conservative suburbs and rural areas. When Rep. John Conyers entered Congress in 1965, he was one of five representatives from Detroit; now, he’s the only one left. The gerrymandering was so successful that last year Democrats won 48 percent of the votes for the state senate, but only 11 of 38 seats. In a safe district, only primary voters matter.

“Michigan’s pretty close to being 50-50, but it’s not reflected in the legislature,” said former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, who left office due to term limits this year.

Term limits — six years for representatives, eight years for senators — also contribute to the polarization. Lobbyists and special interests are now the permanent political class in Lansing, and legislators can’t serve long enough to build the goodwill necessary for tough votes. A Republican state legislator from Petoskey was defeated by a Tea Party challenger after voting in favor of a failed proposal to add sexual orientation to the state’s civil rights act.

Michigan State Capitol [Credit: Criticalthinker via Wikipedia Commons]

Michigan State Capitol [Credit: Criticalthinker via Wikipedia Commons]

After the 2010 elections, all the pieces were in place to realize a cherished goal of Michigan conservatives: passing a right-to-work law that would allow workers in union shops to opt out of paying dues, thus stripping funding from the United Auto Workers, an institution that’s practically synonymous with the Michigan Democratic Party.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, had been promoting a right-to-work law for 20 years, arguing that labor unions contributed to Michigan’s industrial decline.

“All sorts of empirical studies by scholars have determined that labor policy is a determinant in deciding where to place a company,” said Michael LaFaive, director of the center’s Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative, and co-author of the study Economic Growth and Right to Work Laws. “It’s hard not to think that the Rust Belt was named the Rust Belt for a number of reasons, hostile labor climates being one of them.”

Right-to-work had been shunned by previous Republican governors, who feared the power of the UAW, which had 1.5 million members at its peak in 1979. But after decades of factory closings and automation, the union was down to under 400,000. In 2012, in an attempt to give the labor movement’s waning power the force of law, UAW president Bob King backed the “Protect Our Jobs Amendment,” a ballot measure which would have added the right to collective bargaining to the state constitution.

“The leadership of the legislature told him not to,” said Republican strategist John Truscott, a spokesman for former GOP Gov. John Engler. “I think it was a political miscalculation. They warned him, ‘If you push for this, we’ll push back.’”

The Protect Our Jobs Amendment also drew the opposition of the DeVos family, the conservative Grand Rapids billionaires who own the Amway Corp. Dick DeVos, son of the company’s founder, spent $37 million of his fortune in a failed run for governor in 2006. He raised millions to defeat Project Our Jobs, funding ads that claimed the amendment would cost the state $1.6 billion and make it impossible for schools to fire incompetent teachers. This time, he succeeded. The voters rejected Project Our Jobs, 57-42. To Republicans in Lansing who had been reluctant to cross organized labor, this was a signal that the tiger had lost its teeth. Immediately after the election, the DeVos-backed Michigan Freedom Fund aired $1 million in TV ads promoting a right-to-work law. DeVos’s allies met privately with dithering legislators, threatening to back primary opponents against Republicans who didn’t fall into line. The bill was brought up during the legislature’s lame duck session. While outraged unionists rallied on the Capitol lawn, it passed on a party line vote and was immediately signed by Snyder, who had previously told reporters that right-to-work was “not on my radar.”

Passing a right-to-work law in the birthplace of the labor movement was a victory not only for Michigan conservatives, but for the conservative movement nationwide.

“It’s a signal that we’re open for business again,” LaFaive said. “They could see it in Missouri, out west: if the home of the UAW can become right-to-work, anything is possible.”

But Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democratic congressman from Flint, called right-to-work “all about weakening the labor movement. Workers have always had the choice not to join a union. They were simply required to pay their fair share. Henry Ford 100 years ago understood that when workers have a decent wage, the economy thrives. We are going to continue to see reduced wages. In the long term, that weakens our economy. We will not be able to compete as a state. Do we want to have an economy that’s based on the whims of our wealthiest citizens?”

(As intended, the law has weakened labor in Michigan. Between 2013 and 2014, the number of unionized workers dropped from 633,000 to 585,000, even as the total workforce increased. No one has been able to point to a new business that moved to Michigan as a result of the law, but recently, a Pennsylvania food processor announced plans to build a pig slaughterhouse in Coldwater, with 810 jobs paying $13 an hour.)

Right-to-work’s passage was also a sign that Michigan’s center of political gravity has shifted away from Detroit, and toward Grand Rapids, the capital of traditionally conservative West Michigan. That part of the state was settled by Dutch Calvinists fleeing the Enlightenment leanings of the Christian Reformed Church in the Netherlands. (One reason Amsterdam is so libertine is that all the religious folks moved to Michigan.) Known as Seceders, they included the ancestors of the DeVos family, as well as Republican National Committeeman Agema and Terri Lynn Land, the Republicans’ failed 2014 Senate candidate. According to the Almanac of American Politics, the Dutch are “probably the single most Republican ethnic group in the country.”

Michigan_state_sealThanks to religious conservatives, Michigan may be headed for an even bigger moment on the national political stage. In 2004, Michigan voters passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. That was hardly unusual: same-sex marriage bans passed in 11 states that year, as part of a Republican strategy to bring out evangelicals who would also vote to re-elect President George W. Bush. What’s unusual is that Michigan is still defending the ban, even after officials in other states — including Republicans — have yielded to growing public support for gay marriage.

April deBoer and Janet Rowse, two nurses from the Detroit suburb of Hazel Park, have three children between them. Hoping to adopt them jointly, they sued in 2012 to overturn Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban. They won their case in federal district court, but Attorney General Bill Schuette appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled the ban constitutional. The nurses appealed to the Supreme Court, which will decide the case this term. Listed on the docket as DeBoer v. Snyder et. al., it could become the Brown v. Board of Education of the gay rights movement, the case that legalizes same-sex marriage in all 50 states. If so, Snyder and Schuette will go down in history as the final obstacles to a civil right.

In his brief with the Supreme Court, Schuette made reference to a case he won there: a defense of a 2006 constitutional amendment banning affirmative action in college admissions. (Since the ban, African-American enrollment at the University of Michigan has been cut in half.)

“This case comes down to two words: who decides,” Schuette wrote. “The history of our democracy demonstrates the wisdom of allowing the people to decide important issues at the ballot box, rather than ceding those decisions to unelected judges.”

Compare that to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a confrontational conservative who nonetheless ordered his administration to recognize gay marriages after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled his state’s ban unconstitutional.

“It’s a decision by the individual who holds the attorney general’s office,” said Whitmer. “Bill Schuette has always been very successful in courting the extreme right. He wants to run for governor.”

Pending the Supreme Court’s decision, Michigan is one of only 13 states that prohibits same-sex marriage, and the only such state that never voted for George W. Bush. As the state struggles to attract young people and educated professionals — Detroit has a lower percentage of Millenials than any city but Cleveland — a gay marriage ban is likely to turn off both groups by sending a message that Michigan is hostile to modern ways, Whitmer argues.

“I think it expresses intolerance,” she said. “I think that has a chilling effect on young people who are mobile and who are looking for exciting places to live.”

John Celletti, 64, and Joseph Madej, 71, are lifelong Michiganders who have been a couple for 35 years. They spend most of the year in Saugatuck, a popular gay-friendly retreat on Lake Michigan, but are on the verge of transferring their official residence to a vacation home in Arizona, a state that recognizes same-sex marriage and inheritance rights.

After the two men were married in Iowa in 2013, Celletti, a retired schoolteacher, sent a copy of the license to the Michigan Public School Employees Pension System, so his partner would be eligible to receive a widower’s share of his benefits. It was returned with a letter informing him that Michigan does not recognize same-sex marriages.

“He should get 85 percent of my pension,” Celletti said. “If I die, he gets nothing. We pay $500 a month for his health insurance. If I were to put him on my insurance, it would be minimal.”

The couple file their federal taxes jointly, but file separately in Michigan, a further expense. They’re hoping a Supreme Court decision allows them to remain Michiganders — and spares the state from its leadership’s benightedness.

“They’re going to lose talent,” Celletti predicted. “There are 37 states that recognize gay marriage. Had we had all this going on when we were younger, I would definitely have moved to a state that values us as a couple.”

Despite his refusal to endorse gay marriage, Snyder is a moderating influence on the Republican caucus, quashing his party’s reddest red-meat measures: he vetoed a voter ID bill, as well as a so-called “rape insurance” bill that would have required women to purchase abortion coverage as an option on their health-care policies. The New York Times praised him for rejecting a bill that would have allowed domestic abusers to obtain concealed carry permits. And after Detroit went bankrupt in 2013, he persuaded legislators to approve a $195 million contribution to the city’s pension system, saving the Detroit Institute of Art’s collection from a sell-off to pay retirees. That kind of bailout would have been unthinkable in earlier decades, when Michigan politics was defined by racially tinged antagonism between Detroit — America’s largest black-majority city — and the rest of the state. Critics say Snyder achieved that harmony by imposing an Emergency Financial Manager on Detroit, stripping Mayor Dave Bing and the city council of its powers. Under Snyder’s administration, 80 percent of black Michiganders have lived under emergency managers, who have also run Flint, Benton Harbor, Pontiac and Ecorse.

“I spent a lot of time in Grand Rapids,” said Truscott, the Republican strategist. “I don’t hear the anti-Southeast Michigan rhetoric anymore. Statewide, people are rooting for Detroit. I think people feel they finally have their house in order. Frankly, Kwame Kilpatrick going away” — the ex-Detroit mayor is in federal prison for collecting kickbacks from contractors — “sent a signal that the days of corruption are over. Mayor Bing, while not a great administrator, is a decent man.”

But Snyder now has an even more powerful strain of conservatism to deal with. This year, three Tea Party-affiliated representatives joined the legislature. They have already begun pushing their “Contract for Liberty,” which includes expanded gun rights, opposition to a one-point sales tax increase for road repair, opposition to Obamacare, and abolition of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and its business subsidies. Rep. Todd Courser has co-sponsored the Freedom to Be Born Act, which would eliminate state funding for Planned Parenthood and require abortions after 19 weeks to be performed in a hospital. He’s writing another bill that would define life as beginning at conception.


Michigan Representative Todd Courser

“We weren’t made for genteel political maneuvering,” said Courser of his Tea Party caucus, which The Detroit News called “three conservative firebrands…determined to move the Republican-controlled legislature further to the right.”  “I’m responsible first and foremost to my God, then to my family, and then to my district.”

In January, Courser organized a Tea Party Pow Wow at an Indian casino in Mount Pleasant. One of the featured speakers: Dave Agema, the censured committeeman.

“Dave is obviously his own man,” Courser said. “He forwarded that link, we all know that. He took it back immediately. He’s obviously flying in some rarefied air, and everything he does is under a microscope. The base of the party loves Dave Agema.”

Calling himself “the tip of the spear,” Courser is optimistic about electing more Tea Partiers in 2016. Because of term limits, most seats above the Saginaw-Muskegon line, which divides northern and southern Michigan, will be vacant. Those rural, conservative districts are populated by hunters who cherish firearm rights.

The prospect of more Tea Partiers gives establishment Republicans such as John Truscott a headache. Truscott called for Agema to resign over a year ago, and would like Schuette to drop his opposition to gay marriage. In fact, he’d like the party to shut up about social issues altogether and concentrate on reviving the state economically after its Lost Decade.

“I think the party is fighting for its identity,” he said. “Dave Agema, he has a small following, but they’re people who run for precinct delegates. I think just right of center is an appropriate place for the party to be. That’s where the voters are.”

Maybe so. But that’s not where the Republicans running Michigan are.

Edward McClelland is the author of Nothin’ but Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland.