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Election year realities put hate crime bill on hold

By Kyle Melin

What would you consider a hate crime?

Is it a threat of violence against someone because of who that person is, whether they are part of the LGBTQ+ community, have a disability, are from another country, are old or overweight?

Or is it more than that? Is it stalking a person because they are not straight and white? Is it calling a person a racist slur and then physically attacking them?

Could it be that you say something that others perceive as a threat? That they smear your car? Flatten your tires? And all because of who you are?

House Representative Noah Arbit (D-West Bloomfield) has spent most of his first term trying to enshrine in state law a broader definition of a hate crime that includes all types of verbal attacks he faced as a gay man.

He has experienced the threats himself and believes that the perpetrators must be prosecuted to prevent real violence and real suffering.

He is on his third draft of his bill and is struggling to gain traction, even within the LGBTQ+ community.

Equality Michigan, the state's premier advocacy group for LGBTQ+ people, is neutral on what Arbit is trying to do. Instead, Arbit is not seeking Equality Michigan's support in the upcoming election, saying its position is “harmful to the people it claims to serve.”

Equality Michigan Executive Director Erin Knott declined to elaborate on why Equality Michigan is unwilling to get involved, but the political realities are clear.

When Arbit's bills were first introduced, Republicans criticized them on the grounds that misgendering a person was a crime.

Regardless of whether the misgendering is intentional, people like Republican Rep. Andrew Beeler of Port Huron say criminalizing an act as subjective as “intimidation” is a violation of “constitutionally protected” free speech.

Beeler's allegations have attracted nationwide media attention.

The idea that calling a transgender man a woman or a transgender woman a man could get you arrested, fined, or even jailed has captured the imagination of FOX News and other conservative media outlets.

Given the narrow split between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, Democratic sympathizers like Equality Michigan do not want to give Republicans an easy divisive issue with which to lure away swing voters.

Arbit swears that his original bill did not criminalize misgendering. Neither did his second version. And neither did his third version.

But none of that matters when it comes to what might appear in a TV ad or a sales letter. Democrats hold a slim 56-54 majority in the state House of Representatives.

The House leadership is being extremely cautious about the issues they take up this year. Anything that even remotely smacks of tax increases, government expansion, or any other socially contentious issue will be put on the waiting list or pushed to next year—assuming they're in charge next year.

In the House of Representatives, they're all about the budget. They spend more money on schools, make targeted economic investments that help communities grow, and provide support to those who need it.

Democratic representatives in swing districts can expect their communities to be taken care of. A new fire truck. A new boat dock. Improvements to a park. These are the kinds of things that are smuggled into the budget at the last minute to give more campaign material to the 10 to 15 representatives who represent districts with a smaller Democratic base.

This is currently the focus of the Michigan State Legislature.

Whether or not Arbit is endorsed by Equality Michigan will have no impact on his election outcome. But the fact that Equality Michigan does not support his hate crimes bill will have no impact on Equality Michigan's future either.

Equality Michigan believes it is not worth risking the Democratic majority to stand up for something that, right or wrong, could be twisted and exploited.

If the Democrats win in November, Arbit's bill could be worth considering, but for now it's on hold.

(Email Kyle Melinn of Capitol Intelligence Service MIRS at [email protected].)