KALAMAZOO, MI — Wednesday night, the Kalamazoo Gazette hosted a forum for state House candidates in Kalamazoo County.
As part of that forum, candidates were asked their position on amending Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender persons. They also were asked about legalizing marijuana.
What I found noteworthy: Nobody rejected LGBT rights or legalizing marijuana out of hand.
Expanding civil rights to the LGBT community was endorsed by the four Democrats and the Libertarian, while the four GOP candidates said they needed to “study the issue more.”
Legalizing marijuana got a thumbs-up from three Democrats and a Republican, while everybody else said they were waiting to see how legalized marijuana plays out in Washington and Colorado.
Those answers are reflective of candidates across the state.
Even Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, whose office last winter was arguing in federal court that gay marriage was so harmful for children that a state ban needed to be upheld, has softened his rhetoric on the issue while campaigning this fall.
Likewise, Schuette is playing defense on attempts to trip up Michigan’s medical marijuana law.
Meanwhile, 13 Michigan communities — Saginaw, East Lansing, Port Huron, Mount Pleasant, Portland, Frankfort, Lapeer, Utica, Harrison Township, Oak Park, Hazel Park, Clare and Onaway — have local proposals on the Nov. 4 ballot to decriminalize pot.
No question, the political sands have shifted significantly on these two issues, and fairly fast. Even a few years ago, I’m guessing that GOP candidates would have been answering these questions much differently.
To be sure, it would be a mistake to leap to the conclusion that Michigan, or the United States, is becoming a more liberal society.
At the same time Americans’ views about gay marriage and marijuana have evolved, a number of states — including Michigan — have passed right-to-work laws, tightened abortion restrictions and implemented regulations on voting that make it harder for college students and low-income residents to cast a ballot.
It’s highly probable the November election will leave Republicans in control of the Michigan Legislature, and likely the GOP will take control of the U.S. Senate.
To a certain extent, the fact that Republicans are losing the culture war over gay marriage and marijuana, even as it moves forward on other aspects of its agenda indicates the polarization of American society.
But the larger picture is how societal mores can change regardless of political rhetoric.
In the case of gay marriage, no doubt a major factor has been gays coming out of the closet, which means most Americans today have family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers who are part of the LGBT community.
In the case of marijuana, advocates for legalization have been able to frame the issue in ways that makes it palatable to many conservatives and libertarians. There’s the matter of personal choice over using a substance that has fewer health hazards than alcohol or cigarettes; the possibility of new tax revenue, and the potential cost-savings in the criminal-justice system.
Down the road, it’s possible the pendulum may swing back again on these issues — particularly on marijuana, as the unintended consequences of legalization in Colorado and Washington become more evident.
But for now, the momentum is on the side of expanding gay rights and decriminalizing marijuana. It’s one of those cases where the voters are leading the way, and the politicians are following.
Julie Mack is a reporter for the Kalamazoo Gazette. Contact her [email protected] or 269-350-0277, or follow her on Twitter atTwitter.com/kzjuliemack For all posts by Julie Mack, click here.
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