BY JACK LESSENBERRY
---- — Years ago, the issue of cross-district school busing ruined the political chances of some Democrats.
“I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t,” said former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley, who blames hysteria over the busing issue for his loss in a race for the U.S. Senate in 1972.
Democrats were torn between the fiercely pro-busing positions of their black supporters — and equally bitter opposition from working-class white voters, determined to vote against anyone who said they might bus their kids — even if forced to by the courts.
Cross-district busing was long ago abandoned as a remedy for school segregation. These days, however, Republicans have their own social issue which may divide them as deeply and threaten their ability to win elections just as strongly as busing once did Democrats.
That issue is equal rights for groups social conservatives and the religious right regard as anathema - primarily, lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgendered people, usually abbreviated as LGBT.
Polls show that young people and the well educated favor equal rights and same-sex marriage as strongly as older right-wing voters oppose them. And without strong support from both groups, Republicans have little chance of winning statewide or nationally.
That division became impossible to sweep under the rug last month, after Dave Agema, Michigan’s GOP National Committeeman, posted an inflammatory anti-gay article on his Facebook page.
As I mentioned in last week’s column, the article, purportedly written by a mysterious “Frank Joseph, MD,” claims gays are responsible for half the murders in big cities.
Additionally, it makes a number of other wild and crazily false claims, among which are the contentions that most gay men and lesbians die in their 40s because of their “filthy” lifestyle, and they are dedicated to recruiting children.
Despite calls for Agema to resign, he stubbornly refused, and asked people to sign an online petition to support him.
But Agema was further embarrassed last week when it was discovered that the names on the petition supporting him included Adolf Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, and somebody called “Goat Killer.“
Additionally, one person signed it “Kim Jung-Un - from one dictator to another.”
Soon afterwards, Ken Braun, a former GOP legislative aide, reported that the now-infamous “Frank Joseph” article Agema posted was partly based on the writings of one Edward Fields, a well-known white supremacist and anti-Semite who says Jews promote the “mongrelization of the white race.”
Yet even after that, Gov. Rick Snyder had nothing to say about his party’s national committeeman.
Why? I asked another former state chair and longtime GOP activist. “They don’t want to make this a bigger internal issue,” the man said. “There’s a lot of frustration over how not only the governor, but the more libertarian wing of the party have chosen to be ‘politically expedient’ and say nothing.”
That was, however, the former party chair believed, a mistake that will cost the party. “What Agema posted and said represent the worst of what politics has to offer. He chose to promote myths and old stereotypes that too many ignorant people would accept as fact because he posted it, as a ‘credible leader’ of the GOP.”
Though nobody may have expected Agema’s anti-gay rant, he was elected Republican National Committeeman by a state convention after he called President Obama a Muslim, and said he doesn’t believe his birth certificate.
What the governor thinks of any of this is not known.
What is clear, however, is that if voters believe the governor thinks the same way as his national committeeman, his fight for re-election is likely to become harder.
Nor is the battle over human rights likely to stop here. The city commission in Royal Oak, a mostly white and middle class 57,000-population Detroit suburb, approved a human rights ordinance earlier this year banning discrimination against residents on a wide number of areas. These included the usual “race, color and religion,“ but also adding a number of other characteristics, including weight, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Last week, however, those opposed to the ordinance turned in several hundred signatures calling for what is sure to be a costly and divisive referendum on the human rights ordinance.
Fred Birchard, a 75-year-old resident, said he doesn’t want gay people to have “special rights,” and providing them with equal rights amounts to the city “legislating morality.”
Royal Oak turned down a human rights ordinance a dozen years ago, but polls show support for tolerance and gay marriage has vastly increased since then, especially among younger voters.
How will all this turn out? Nobody can say what voters will do, though almost two dozen Michigan cities, including Traverse CIty, have adopted similar human rights ordinances, many without much fanfare.
What is clear is that the vast majority of the youngest voters support gay marriage and equal rights for LBGT people, regardless of their politics. Republicans are acutely aware they have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.
Those voters most inclined to support Agema are, to put it politely, dying off. Michigan Republicans face tough battles for the governor’s office and an open U.S. Senate seat nest year.
How they handle human rights issues - and their bizarre national committeeman - may be crucial, not just in this election, but for many years to come.
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.