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by Jordyn Hermani, Staff Writer

Civil Rights Department Turmoil Can Stop – If Commission Wants It To

Posted: August 9, 2019 1:51 PM

It's been slightly chaotic for the Department of Civil Rights for the last week, to say the least.

Civil Rights Commission Chair Alma Wheeler Smith told Gongwer News Service on August 2 the commission held a special meeting on Monday, July 29, which lasted for several hours and included an almost three-hour, closed door session debating the fate of Civil Rights Director Agustin Arbulu for comments he made in May to a male colleague which objectified a woman.

That same night, the commission determined Mr. Arbulu's remarks in the complaint filed "did not rise to a violation of the law" and that prescribed punishment fit with the severity of his actions, Ms. Smith said. We, as did several other news outlets, only found out about it thanks to an anonymous tipster who alerted Gongwer that the meeting took place and that Mr. Arbulu was going to be disciplined.

Only after media outlets broke the news did the department send out a release, around 9 p.m. August 1, confirming what happened. The following morning, Governor Gretchen Whitmer sent the department a letter outlining the "serious concerns" she had regarding the decision to keep Mr. Arbulu on board and demanded to know the reason why this was (See Gongwer Michigan Report, August 2, 2019).

Her concerns are based off a report completed on what it was Mr. Arbulu said. Details of what's in the report are still unknown. It's is with the Department of Attorney General and is protected by attorney-client privilege, according to Kelly Rossman-McKinney, spokesperson for the attorney general.

Which leaves this situation in a tricky spot: The Department of Civil Rights is one of the few organizations that, due to power enshrined in the Constitution, does not have its leader appointed by the governor to avoid unnecessary politicization. It's worked this way for decades and is extremely unlikely to change – for good reason.

There would be nothing more detrimental than a department which handles issues on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, disability, national origin and more be subject to the changing whims of each administration.

As of Wednesday, a spokesperson for the governor confirmed she still has not received an answer (See Gongwer Michigan Report, August 7, 2019) – and she's not likely to get one until the Civil Rights Commission convenes again, judging by a previous phone call with Ms. Smith who told Gongwer she would not have a response for Ms. Whitmer until then.

But a lack of forward progress on the issue is leading some lawmakers, like House Minority Leader Rep. Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills), to call for Mr. Arbulu to resign. There are murmurs from others in the Legislature that they, too, are inclined to believe the director should resign from his post.

Others around Mr. Arbulu, like department Director of Law and Policy Dan Levy, are stepping away from the situation entirely. In an email, Mr. Levy said that he feels "that I have no other option" than to take an extended leave from the department.

"I am simply not able to properly do my job under the present circumstances," Mr. Levy wrote in a letter, attached to the email. "I can no longer provide neutral counsel to either you or the commission during this period."

There needs to be some level of accountability, because if even the department's law and policy director is demanding to be removed from the situation and saying that he is also "aware of other occasions where (Mr. Arbulu has) been cautioned", then there is something more here than what the public is being led to believe.

It is incumbent on the commission to say why Mr. Arbulu is keeping his post. Mr. Arbulu has told multiple media outlets his comments were about a woman's appearance but would not go into detail as to what they were. He also said he can't recall any type of comments or actions made that would have risen to the level of making a gay staff member at the department feel uncomfortable, allegations of which were outlined in a memo sent to the governor.

So long as the Civil Rights Commission reaffirms its support for Mr. Arbulu, and so long as he does not make the personal decision to resign, then this poking and prodding of the department will continue.

The question isn't if this will continue, but how long? Pressure from other officials can only amount to so much when they aren't making the decision to retain the embattled director.

At this point we only have questions.

It's up to the commission to provide the answers – and the results.

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No GOP Challenge To Upton Despite Frequent Disagreements With Trump

Posted: July 25, 2019 2:33 PM

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton hasn't been incredibly vocal about his disagreements with President Donald Trump but sometimes, voting records speak louder than words.

His most recent example being the only Michigan Republican to vote with Democrats on a U.S. House resolution that condemned "President Trump's racist comments directed at members of Congress" – four progressive freshman women of color, including U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit). Mr. Trump had tweeted the four should "go back" to the countries they came from despite all being U.S. citizens and three having been born in the U.S.

When U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (I-Cascade Township), a former Republican, said the Mueller report showed Mr. Trump had committed impeachable offenses, several notable Republicans emerged to challenge him in next year's GOP primary though Mr. Amash then declared he would run as an independent. But since Mr. Upton's vote, there's been crickets about a possible challenge. I reached to most Republican current state legislators in Mr. Upton's district for their thoughts on his vote and to gauge whether they might challenge him and received no response.

Records compiled by the analytics group FiveThirtyEight shows that during the 115th Congress, Mr. Upton sided with Mr. Trump just more than 94 percent of the time on any given issue. This Congress? Mr. Upton, who never endorsed Mr. Trump in 2016, has only sided with Mr. Trump 61 percent of the time.

Granted, we're only about a year into the 116th Congress, but when you compare to every other Republican representative from the state, Mr. Upton has the of the lowest "agreement" ratings among his colleagues – not a single Republican dips under the 95 percent agreement threshold, giving an average of agreeing with the president about 96.2 percent of the time.

Except Mr. Upton. The outlier. If you factor in his 61 percent, that average drops down to just 78.2 percent making it sound like Michigan Republican Representatives aren't very receptive to the president.

Mr. Upton has a long history of sometimes bucking his fellow Republicans. He's drawn the ire of far-right conservatives in his district and the occasional primary challenge, but has always emerged victorious. Unlike Mr. Amash, Mr. Upton has worked hard for decades to elect other Republicans in his area and has the network of support that has kept him in office.

A Republican strategist who spoke to Gongwer News Service on background said the party is in wait-and-see mode, adding that Mr. Upton is a "man of his own convictions." Even though several Republicans have told him in private that they consider Mr. Upton a traitor to the party, they still plan on "holding their nose and voting for Fred" as the alternative might be to get saddled with a more maverick congressman than he.

While it's possible that Mr. Upton could see a challenger from his own party, it's very, very unlikely as many don't have the money or network to properly contend, this source said.

It should be noted that Mr. Upton has not officially declared an intent to run again, but second quarter Federal Election Commission filings show he raised $361,178, hardly the sign of someone planning to retire. He outraised presumptive Democratic nominee Rep. Jon Hoadley of Kalamazoo by roughly $45,300, bringing his overall funds raised since the start of his campaign to $696,082.

Victor Fitz, chair of the 6th Congressional District Republican Party, reaffirmed the party's support for Mr. Upton in an interview earlier in the week saying that "Fred and the president have the same message, they just differ sometimes on the delivery of that message."

"In some ways, there's an effort to make a mountain out of a molehill," Mr. Fitz said. "If you look at the substance, and this is what's really important to us in southwest Michigan, we want a strong economy, we want jobs for all Americans including minorities and women, and I know the president – working with Fred – has worked to deliver that, and that's what we're thrilled about."

For the time being it seems that, in public, Mr. Upton has the support of the party. He's been a pillar for that side of the state since the 1980s.

But the cracks are there. It's just uncertain as to when those cracks might become fissures, sending it all crumbling down.

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Democrat Presidential Candidates Must Remember MI If They Want To Win

Posted: July 17, 2019 5:23 PM

This month, before the July 30 and 31 debates take place in Detroit, 10 of the 20-something Democratic presidential candidates will have visited the state in an attempt to reach out to voters and get to know the issues Michiganders are concerned about.

Through various events including two bus tours, a fundraiser and a forum at the annual NAACP Convention in Detroit, we'll hear from former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York).

It's an unusual amount of early attention for Michigan on the Democratic primary/caucus calendar, especially considering almost half the states will have held their primaries or caucuses before Michigan.

A large amount of criticism was levied at former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for this very reason: Not leaving the greater Detroit area in 2016 when she ran for the presidency. She even admits it herself in a memoir published after the election entitled "What Happened."

"If just 40,000 people across Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania had changed their minds, I would have won…some critics have said that everything hinged on me not campaigning in the Midwest," Ms. Clinton wrote. "And I suppose it is possible that a few more trips to Saginaw or a few more ads on the air on Waukesha could have tipped a couple thousand votes here and there."

So far, we have had or will have (pending the post of this blog) Mr. Sanders in Detroit, Mr. Biden in Detroit, Mr. Booker in Detroit, Ms. Warren in Detroit, Ms. Harris in Detroit and Mr. Castro in Detroit. Mr. Buttigieg has a private fundraiser planned for Saugatuck and reports late this afternoon say he will visit the NAACP convention in Detroit as well.

Are we seeing a pattern? The only candidate in the state prior to the debates who emphasized areas other than Detroit was Ms. Gillibrand who made stops in Bloomfield Hills, Flint and Lansing.

Come the end of the month, nearly all 20-plus candidates will pack into the city for what might be their first – and only – joint foray not only into the city, but the state as a whole.

There's a lot of name recognition across the state, and country, for people like Mr. Biden, Mr. Sanders, Ms. Harris, Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren. But there was much, much more for someone like Ms. Clinton, who had been in and around the national and international political limelight since before many of these candidates ever contemplated holding public office.

President Donald Trump eked out a Michigan win by 0.33 percentage points in 2016 because he spoke to the issues that people outside of major metropolitan areas were passionate about. That's only 10,704 votes. If you look at a map dividing his and Ms. Clinton's battle for the state in votes, he won the state by 10 percentage points if you subtract Oakland and Wayne counties.

Michigan was one of the last states to hold out in 2016 and it was because of this state, in part, that Mr. Trump won the election. For Democrats serious about removing Mr. Trump from the office, it would do them well to remember there are other paths to winning the state outside of solely appealing to Wayne and Oakland counties.

Whether that's squeezing more votes from areas won by former President Barack Obama and then won by Mr. Trump – like Saginaw and Bay counties – or trying to reduce Mr. Trump's victory margin in place he won huge like Macomb or outstate counties, the choice is up to them and their campaigns.

But ultimately, it comes down to making their presence, and their policy points, known in those areas. It comes down to encouraging greater voter turnout in other areas that had lesser turn out than in the Obama era. It involves remembering that places outside the metro areas vote too, and their votes count just as much in those cast in Detroit, Flint or Ann Arbor.

It would only take a small shift from the purple areas to make the state blue. Or they could try again to get more blue votes from comfortably Democratic areas like Oakland and Wayne by convincing those who went third-party, or didn't vote at all, that they're the right one for the White House.

However, the candidates plan to do that is up to them – but the message is clear: Michigan took a chance on the candidate who bucked political norms last election because a plurality of voters felt listened to. So if the Dems want to take it back, they have to prove they're ready to listen to Michiganders throughout the state.

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Don't Burn Yourself Out On Election Season Just Yet

Posted: June 28, 2019 3:53 PM

This week marked the start of Open Season.

No, not hunting season: Presidential candidate season.

On Wednesday, in Miami, 10 Democratic hopefuls took the stage: New York mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Rep. John Delaney (D-N.J).

They got no opening statements but had a minute to respond to a moderator question and were allowed 30 seconds on a rebuttal a spectacle that, only mildly interrupted by five commercial breaks, began at 9 p.m. but didn't get over until around 11 p.m.

On Thursday – same time, same place – the other 10 candidates had their turn: author/activist Marianne Williamson, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.).

Didn't get a chance to watch it? Don't worry – the same show is coming to Detroit in late July to do it all over again.

Then there's the Republican side to consider. President Donald Trump has technically been running for the Republican nominee since he took office in 2017. Currently, he only faces Bill Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts, but it's more than extremely likely Mr. Trump will take the nomination for the Republicans – though, in politics, anything can happen.

Feeling tired yet? That's my point.

As of Friday, June 28 – the time of writing this – there are 256 days until the Michigan primaries and 494 days until the presidential election. Less than a year until Michiganders must decide for who they want on the Democratic and Republican ticket but more than a year until they have to finalize that decision and pick the 46th President of the United States.

Every day we hurtle closer to needing to make a decision regarding who we want to represent us, as Americans, on a national stage. Right now, it's important to listen to issues candidates are talking about, the policies and proposals they're putting forward and the visions they could possibly have planned for the country.

But, it's also important not to get bogged down with knowing the intricate details of every politician or entrepreneur put in front of you. That's how you end up overwhelmed and unenthusiastic come March. It's what could lead to apathy and disenfranchisement.

There's nothing wrong with looking up people and trying to know your basics. Google searches for some of the candidates jumped more than 2000 percent between Wednesday and Thursday. And that's good! It's good to be informed. However, there's a difference between being informed and being obsessive.

After all, it's a marathon, not a sprint. A lot can happen in 400-plus days.

November 2020 is a long, long way away.

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Hi, I'm The New Reporter, I Cover Agencies, I Like Star Trek Too

Posted: June 13, 2019 6:22 PM

I've always found that when people ask you to write about yourself, you conveniently forget everything that makes you an interesting human being and default to talking about basic life facts. That's me right now. Maybe it'll help if I get it out of the way.

If you didn't already read the article sent out earlier this week – Hi! My name is Jordyn Hermani and I'm the reporter at Gongwer tasked with covering the attorney general's office and several state agencies. I'm 23 years old, originally from Troy and graduated with dual degrees in journalism and political science from Central Michigan University in May 2018.

Right now, I live in Grand Blanc with my boyfriend and our pet cat. I love hockey, can play the drums and speak a moderate amount of Russian due to living in Moscow for a short period of time. My favorite movie is "Reservoir Dogs," my favorite author is Victor Hugo and I have an uncanny talent of being able to tell what song is playing on the radio or in a restaurant after only hearing a few seconds of it.

Also, and probably most controversially, I prefer "Star Trek" over "Star Wars."

Prior to being at Gongwer, I covered breaking news and cybersecurity with Politico, state politics with the Indianapolis Star and have reported with The Ann Arbor News, Detroit Free Press, Midland Daily News and Mackinac Island Town Crier. I came to Gongwer not just because I enjoy writing about state politics (which I do, dearly) but because this job gave me the opportunity to come home and serve my community by writing about issues which will affect all Michiganders.

But I can't do that without your help.

It's the end of my first week here, so I've been slowly (but surely) reaching out to different agencies and people to introduce myself, set up a coffee date and talk one-on-one. And even if I'm diligent, which I try to be, I know I'll probably miss a few people due to them changing offices or filling vacancies.

This blog serves as a more informal introduction to who I am, but it also doubles as a sort of PSA: Please, feel free to reach out to me! I love meeting and talking to new people and learning more about the different lives we all lead. I'm most active on Twitter (@JordynHermani) but can also be reached via email at jhermani@gongwer.com. It doesn't matter what for: story tip, introduction, video game or book recommendation – shoot me a line.

I want to cover what goes on around here to the best of my ability. I want to help people stay informed and do that by getting them what they need to know. Help me to help you, so that we can help each other. (I promise, I don't actually sound like a Hallmark card in real life.)

Lansing is an exciting town where a lot is happening, so I appreciate any pushes in the right direction you can give. And – don't be a stranger! Feel free to say hello if you see me buzzing around the Capitol on the days I cover for Alethia or Nick when they're on vacation.

I have bright red, curly hair. You can't miss me.

In the meantime, a simple online hello will have to suffice.

So… Hello!

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