Michigan Capitol rife with sexism, Gov. Whitmer says. And that’s ‘depressing’
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says Lansing has a longstanding culture of misogyny and power imbalances that hasn’t changed as more women come to office.
“It’s really depressing, honestly,” Whitmer told Bridge Michigan on Monday. “This culture hasn’t changed. This isn’t new.
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“What is new is that there’s a bold set of women in the workforce that aren’t going to take it. They are documenting and they are speaking their truths, and that I find a great deal of inspiration in.”
Whitmer spoke to Bridge amid ongoing controversies over Republican State Party Chair Ron Weiser calling her an other elected officials “witches” who should be “burned at the stake” — and accusations of sexual harassment against a prominent Democratic political consultant.
Whitmer, who served in the Michigan House and Senate from 2001 to 2015, didn’t go into detail but said she “battled what these incredible young women are giving voice to” while she was in state government.
Whitmer’s election in 2018 along with two other Democratic women to top posts — Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson — coincided with gains among women in other offices as well.
Women now hold 36 percent of the state’s 148 seats in the state Legislature, up from 20 percent in 2016. That’s the 13th highest ratio in the nation, according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Nationwide, women hold 31 percent of legislative seats and only one state— Nevada — has a legislature with a female majority.
But the gains have come with what Democrats say is a casual misogyny, from Republicans repeatedly saying Whitmer is “emasculating” them on emergency coronavirus orders to Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey bragging that lawmakers “spanked” her on budget negotiations.
“Those of us who lean in take additional heat and ugliness and threats,” Whitmer told Bridge Michigan.
Whitmer said female elected officials face higher numbers of death threats — and she urged women to continue speaking out.
“It is a dangerous, vitriolic moment and yet I don’t think any of us can bite our tongue,” Whitmer told Bridge.
Women need to “insist on justice,” Whitmer said.
Weiser controversy continues
Whitmer spoke hours after more groups — including a group of Catholic nuns — joined the calls for Weiser to resign his elected position as a University of Michigan regent.
Weiser, a real estate mogul, is under pressure for last week telling Republican activists that “our job now is to soften up those three witches and make sure that we have good candidates to run against them, that they are ready for burning at the stake.”
Weiser also joked that “other than assassination,” he has no way of removing U.S. Reps. Fred Upton and Peter Meijer, Republicans who voted to impeach the former president for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
At least four U-M regents, all Democrats, have called for him to quit, and officials including U-M President Mark S. Schlissel have issued statements of condemnation.
“This kind of abusive language, displaying misogynistic contempt for women, is abominable. It has no place in our public discourse and is appalling coming from a regent of one of our nation’s premier educational institutions,” the Michigan Catholic Sisters said in a statement.
Weiser initially said his comments were taken out of context, but issued a statement Saturday apologizing “to those I offended for the flippant analogy about three women who are elected officials” and for what he called “off-hand” comments about the Republican officials.
“In an increasingly vitriolic political environment, we should all do better to treat each other with respect, myself included,” Weiser said. “I fell short of that the other night.”
Women are ‘rarely safe’ to speak
Lansing, meanwhile, is roiling from harassment claims against T.J. Bucholz, president of Vanguard Public Affairs, whose firm represented high-profile candidates including 2010 governor hopeful Andy Dillon, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit and Lansing Mayor Andy Schor.
Bucholz worked for former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and employed younger women who now accuse him of harassment.
Emily Dievendorf, an LGBTQ activist who worked with Bucholz on a 2010 gubernatorial campaign and went public on March 18, wrote on Facebook that he would regularly call her into his office and ask her to close the door behind her.
Bucholz would “just sit there with his mouth hanging open and, in an obvious way, look me up and down,” Divendorf wrote. He also showed her pictures of his wife in a bikini and repeatedly suggested a threesome, Dievendorf claimed.
She and other women speaking out this month say they want to end a culture that has been pervasive in Lansing.
“Women are rarely safe enough in a job to say anything,” Dievendorf wrote. “Women who have tried to say something about the harassment in state government have just been moved around while men kept climbing.”
Bucholz has denied some accusations, suggested he did not recall others or was misunderstood. He also told The Detroit Free Press he “sincerely” apologizes “for those who I have offended with my comments in the past.”
Other employees left Vanguard last week en masse and Bucholz was removed from the Downtown Lansing Inc. board. Central Michigan University suspended two employees the school is now investigating to determine if they helped Bucholz recruit interns and employees.
The power balance in Lansing is gradually shifting as more women are elected to office, including Benson, Nessel and Whitmer, who said the majority of her cabinet and staff is female.
“I didn’t set out to do that,” Whitmer said. “I just removed barriers. I think that in and of itself has had a big impact on culture.”
Those gains — as well as more women elected to office — are “creating more space for people to call out inappropriate behaviors and misogyny and sexual harassment” in Lansing, “but I don’t think it’s actually improving the root cause of it,” said state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia.
“I don’t think people feel any less emboldened to actually behave that way.”
Pohutsky, now serving her second two-year term, said she was personally harassed by a sitting state senator during an orientation event when she was first preparing to take office in December 2018.
She confronted the male senator at the time but did not report the incident, given her freshman status and fear of “coming off as difficult,” Pohutsky told Bridge Michigan.
But exposing the behavior is how the culture will change, she said
“I’m really grateful for the women who spoke up,” she said about Bucholz last week. “It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s also, I feel, very difficult to call out your own party for that type of behavior.”
But not all lawmakers see misogyny as a pervasive issue in Lansing.
State Rep. Sue Allor, R-Wolverine, said she has not experienced any gender-based discrimination at the Michigan Capitol and is not aware of any female staffers who have.
Still, more female representation in Lansing is good, Allor told Bridge Michigan.
“It’s amazing,” she said of the growing numbers. “It’s important to have women in office, and that’s at all levels. There’s different thought processes, different experiences in life, male to female, and it’s good when you’re able to get insight from both sides, so to speak.”
Whitmer said her two daughters are watching these situations and learning from them.
“I work so hard to make things better for them and their generation,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
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