Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 7, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: GOP looks for demographics

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
Columnist

— Mitt Romney had barely finished conceding defeat five months ago when a parade of Republican wise men began trooping before the cameras.

“We need to broaden the base,” Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said, as votes from the far West continued to swell President Obama’s victory margin. Jon Huntsman, the Utah governor who made a brief try for the nomination, was even more emphatic.

“We have to go after lost demographics,“ he added, meaning mostly women and minorities.

In the months since, everyone from Karl Rove to Peggy Noonan has echoed that theme, in speeches, articles and books.

Except, perhaps, in Michigan.

Last week, as the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases about the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, Michigan Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema started an oral and written argument of his own.

He posted a hate-filled rant against gay people on Facebook. Supposedly written by a mysterious physician named Frank Joseph, “Everyone Should Know these Statistics on Homosexuals,” mainly consists of smears based on other anti-gay tracts.

Some of its statistics are plainly absurd, such as its contention that “homosexuals account for half the murders in large cities.”

The author also claims that half of all lesbians are dead by age 45, four-fifths of gay people are riddled with sexually transmitted diseases, and that because gay men and lesbians “cannot reproduce naturally, they resort to recruiting children … chanting “TEN PERCENT IS NOT ENOUGH, RECRUIT, RECRUIT, RECRUIT.”

That immediately caused an uproar in state political circles - and a yawning shrug from Agema, a former airline pilot. That none of these claims is remotely true didn’t seem to bother him.

“It’s not hate. It’s facts derived from several studies,” the former Grand Rapids-based state legislator said, after one Lansing-based public relations professional posted in response that “I’m embarrassed to live in the same state as this hatemonger.”

While that posting stunned some, the 64-year-old Agema is no stranger to controversy. Not all of it has been ideological. Six years ago, during a budget crisis that briefly shut down state government, he wasn’t there when the crucial vote was taken.

Instead, he had gone off to hunt bighorn sheep in Siberia. When he returned, he took positions so far on the extreme right that a survey of Lansing insiders ranked him the least effective member of the Legislature.

Last December, when protestors against the new Right-to-Work law were tear-gassed at the state Capitol, Agema said it pleasantly reminded him of being in the military.

“I rather enjoy this,” he posted on Facebook.

To be sure, both parties have had their share of embarrassing legislators. Most disappear after their terms. But in this case, a flood of Tea Party supporters at the party’s state convention elected Dave Agema the state’s Republican National Committeeman in May 2012.

But after he posted the controversial anti-gay article, some clearly had buyers’ remorse. Twenty-one GOP precinct delegates and young Republican leaders demanded he resign.

“This isn’t about what we believe either politically, or as women and men of faith,“ they said in a statement. “This is about common decency and realizing you cannot win an election by insulting a wide swath of the electorate, whose votes our Republican Party needs to once again form a national majority.”

Not surprisingly, Agema refused to quit, offering an odd defense. “Basically, I copied and pasted a piece written by another author,” he said, adding that “a few liberal Republicans have chosen to take the words of someone else and cast them as my own.”

However, he clearly indicated that those were his views. Over the weekend, he sent out a mass e-mail belligerently proclaiming “I will not back down. I will dig in and fight even harder to defend our conservative values from these attacks.”

He asked readers who agreed to sign his petition. One of the first to do so was former Michigan assistant attorney general Andrew Shirvell, who was fired in 2010 after repeatedly harassing a gay student body president at the University of Michigan.

Two things seem clear. First, regardless of how anyone feels about these issues, Agema is not close to the mainstream; even conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly have acknowledged that same-sex marriage is here to stay.

Second, none of this helps Republicans “broaden the base,“ as they so desperately need to do, especially in Michigan, where they have failed to carry the state in six straight presidential elections.

Nationwide, polls showed gay and lesbian voters voted for President Obama by a 76 to 22 percent margin. But Republicans can ill afford to lose any voters, and insulting gay people could also make it harder to win their friends and family members.

John Corvino is both openly gay, and head of the Department of Philosophy at Wayne State University in Detroit. “I think this is a real decision point for the Republican Party,” he said.

“I think it is quite possible that LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people will vote Republican in the future, if - and it’s a big if - the party manages to get past the idiocy that we’ve seen from folks like Agema and move in a more positive direction on both social and economic issues.”

So far, however, neither the governor nor any other prominent Republican has called on their national committeeman to resign.

Few have done more than quibble with some of the “facts” Agema posted. “We shall see,” Corvino said this week. Others may conclude that voters already have.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.