Q. What are your views on abortion?
A. I am pro-choice. I believe that a woman has a right to her own body and the government shouldn’t be restricting those rights. The decision for all health care choices, including this one, should be made between a woman, her doctor and whatever family she wants to include in that decision.
. Q. I know you were involved in a bill that was trying to repeal the “abortion insurance” act. Can you tell me about that bill?
A. Yeah, this is my first year in the Senate, but last year the legislature passed a voter initiated referendum, so it wasn’t exactly a normal procedure. But signatures were collected to put an issue in front of the legislature and basically it would ban insurance companies from covering abortion in any circumstance. I believe that’s wrong on a couple levels: We shouldn’t be getting involved in a decision between a woman and her doctor but we also shouldn’t be involved in a person and their insurance company. The idea that we would actually say to someone, ‘You have to go to your HR director or your boss and request a separate rider on the off chance that something terrible happens to you’ is crazy. There is no other example that I can come up with where a medical procedure has been banned from insurance coverage, just this one issue. People go bankrupt for this. In a situation where a woman was raped and became pregnant, she wouldn’t be able to have coverage. In a situation where there was a problem with the pregnancy, she wouldn’t be able to get coverage. I don’t think it’s the government’s role to do that, I think they well overstepped the government’s role.
Q. How far do you think the repeal for the bill will go? Do you think it will be repealed?
A. No, because I think this legislature is not going to pick it up. I think the legislature is much more conservative than the people in the state and I think that even though polls show this is an unbelievably unpopular legislation, the amount of members that have been endorsed and supported by Right to Life, who pushed the legislation will not allow this bill to move forward. At the same time, I think I have a responsibility to fight for what I believe in and what I think is important for the state.
Q. When you look at the amount of funding that Right to Life and Planned Parenthood have, Planned Parenthood got substantially more money than Right to Life in lobbying and campaign funds. Why is it that Right to Life still seems to still have such a powerful influence in the legislature?
A. What drives me crazy is that if people were being honest with themselves and wanting fewer abortions, Planned Parenthood is the place to go. It is the number one provider of birth control in the state. People are so focused on the abortion part, and it is such a small part of what Planned Parenthood does. Ninety-five percent of what they do has nothing to do with abortion and actually has to do with preventing unwanted pregnancy. In terms of the other point, we have a state that the districts are drawn by the parties they control and the Republicans were in control last time the lines were drawn. If you look at the state, 80 percent of your representation in the state is only voted into office by 20 percent of the people because the primaries are the only election that matters. They have to play to their conservative base and Right to Life’s endorsement is very important to them. In the same way that I am very democratic so my district is similarly the opposite. If districts were competitive and people had to run for more equal seats, they wouldn’t be able to take a lot of these extreme positions so there really are no consequences for them.
Q. Since it is so conservative has there been any other legislation that ‘s been proposed to interfere with a woman’s right to choose?
A. Well there has been bills introduced, I don’t know how far they have gone. There has been a bill introduced to limit abortion to a very early period, Cindy Gamrat has that legislation in the house. They just passed a Right to Life plate, which would allow state money to go to billboards. We had an amendment that allowed for a women’s health plate but they didn’t want to do that. They weren’t interested in a women’s health plate that would have gone toward promoting options like Planned Parenthood or adoption services. They wanted the money to go directly to 501C created by Right to Life. I have a bill on the opposite end. It’s the Doctor Patient Protection Act that would not allow for the state to interfere with relations between a doctor and their patients, in all cases not just abortion. We have all these situations where the government is interfering with this doctor-patient relationship, and you’d think with being so conservative it would be the opposite. They seem to be in favor of small government involvement only when they disagree with what you are doing.
Q. Do you think that has a lot to do with religion, since conservatives usually do favor less government involvement other than this one case?
It’s interesting because I am part of a religious group called Catholics for Choice, so I’m religious, I just don’t think my beliefs need to be put on other people. I think I have to live under my beliefs, they’re personal choices for me, but to pot those on other people would be wrong. I don’t see the point in trying for force someone to do that, I just don’t get it. I do think many of them are driven by religion and I think it’s a poor interpretation sometimes.
Q. At the national level the government seems to be a lot more pro-choice and the state level seems to be where all the pro-life limitations are put into place. Is that true? Why is that?
A. The religious fight has been really smart politically in the sense that they have gone after local school boards in the sense that sex-ed isn’t taught. They have had a long-term plan to take over the country one step at a time, and they have been very good at it. I’m not a fan but their strategy is right. We need to be smarter as liberals and progressives to actually do the same thing. We need to build on the grassroots levels and retake legislatures, then we’ll actually have a huge effect on the national level. They were able to take back Congress on the national level partly because they got to redraw the seats in 2010. So by controlling state legislatures and controlling the redrawing of the Congressional lines, they were able to go one more step up. We win elections by building coalitions and they don’t need that. We have to put together all these different coalitions of labor, workers, civil and women’s’ rights to win elections. I think we failed in many ways to build a grassroots coalition and we need to do better.
Q. Do you see it at any point becoming reversed, or that it will ever go so far as abortion becoming illegal?
A. I think that Roe vs. Wade is under attack. I think they have been smart in trying to make it a little harder and a little harder, moving to make it more and more difficult. I think that there certainly is that threat and that’s one of the things that we as voters need to wake up and do something about. There are so many people who don’t vote because a lot of us just don’t think it matters enough and it’s going to take something dramatic like that for people to do something about it. A majority of opinions on gay rights is positive, a majority of people believe in gay marriage, think discrimination is wrong and are pro-choice and we’re still losing because the only people passionate enough to show up to the polls are those trying to stop it. We need to get a strong message and a strong agenda out there. That’s why I put these bills out, knowing they are not going to pass, because we need to set a separate agenda than these people.
Q. Hilary Clinton has said that Republicans and Democrats can have some common ground as far as being conservative or liberal on the topic of abortion. Do you think it’s possible for the two sides to work towards meeting in the middle on some sort of common ground or do you just think their political agendas and ideals are moving farther and farther apart?
A. If we all started out with the goal that we wanted less abortions in this country, which is really wanting less unplanned pregnancy, I think that’s a goal that we could all work on. If we were willing to put the politics aside for a minute and just say, lets not make it about abortions, lets make it about unwanted pregnancy. The problem is that they would have to give on the abstinence education method, because that doesn’t work. It’s unrealistic. But they’re fighting us on that too. The problem is that I don’t see the intellectual honesty in saying, “I’m going to fight Planned Parenthood, and I’m pro-life.” I mean there could be room, it’s not impossible, but it would take a dramatic shift. I’m not going to compromise a woman’s right to choose, but I want less abortions, I don’t think anybody wants abortions.
Q. So you think it’s more of a political stance and ideals and people following the set principals of their party?
I think that because of how stressed it has become, it would be very hard, not impossible, to reach a compromise. But if you look two decades ago, I could give you examples of pro-choice Republicans in the legislature, I don’t think I can name you one now. It’s a dramatic shift over the last 20 years.
Q. Switching gears now, what other bills have you been working on and what issues do you feel are most important that the legislature look at right now?
A. We have a package of bills to guarantee pay equity to everyone. You as a woman only make 77 cents on the dollar, when you graduate, than the man does. I think the biggest issue that we have as a state is the dramatic loss of talent that we’ve had here in Michigan. Michigan has had 10 years of negative growth in college graduates, we lost another 2.2 percent last year. College people aren’t staying in Michigan. I have a student loan tax credit bill that would allow students to get a tax credit back on their student loans for the first five years that they graduate, to make it easier for young people to stay in the state and invest in the state, start a family, buy a house. All of those things are really hard to do when you have $35,000 in student debt. There are two ends. One, we have to make it easier for people to stay. Two, we have to be able to compete with places that are much more open to young people. Because we’re a state that is so discriminatory against gay and lesbian individuals, young people don’t want to live in a state like that. We actually have business owners coming to us now asking to change that because even they see that it’s a hindrance to keeping young people in the state. We need to do a better job as a state of actually keeping people here.
Q. It sounds like a lot of people want that then, what kind of opposition is it facing in the House and Senate?
They told us that the elections bill was not on their agenda this year, even though the governor asked for it. In fact they’re in the process of trying to move a religious freedom bill like you saw in Indiana, they just don’t get it. I think they are on the wrong side of history and economics on this. I feel morally justified in what we’re doing but I also feel like it’s the right thing for the state. We had a forum and one of the representatives said that he had never met anybody that was fired for being gay, but as I was walking out of that forum, a man came up and thanked me because he said he had been fired for being gay. It’s 2015, if you look at the issue generationally it’s pretty obvious what is going to happen. History has already decided, just like there were people on the wrong side of history in the civil rights movement. But it takes time, young people have to get mad and demand change because it’s shocking to me that we have to even make a law that says you cant’ be fired for being who you are, and we can’t even get that done.
Q. Do you see things like the religious freedom act getting proposed in Michigan? It seems like society is generally moving one way, and yet we still have acts like this.
Sociologically, progress is made and then the pendulum swings back a bit. It’s never a linear movement. It wasn’t like slavery ended and all the sudden everyone was treated equal. It wasn’t like the women’s suffrage movement happened and women were treated equal. It’s a constant fight and battle that’s going to have wins and losses. I think the religious freedom act is them trying to change the discussion and say they are trying to take peoples’ freedoms away. They are trying to say that if a restaurant owner doesn’t want to make a cake for someone who is gay, they shouldn’t have to and when you say things like that it makes it sound kind of frivolous. But it’s not about that, it’s about the adoption agency that won’t adopt to a gay couple or the landlord who won’t rent to them or the banker who won’t give them a loan. There are much more serious cases of discrimination. The idea that they are trying to make it into this frivolous discussion is ridiculous. We have religious freedom, it’s called the first amendment. A senator said to me that he is worried about churches being forced to marry gay people, but that’s just not possible. Churches can do whatever they want; there are still churches down south that refuse to marry interracial couples. It’s terrible, but you can’t force them to do it. What they are talking about individuals having a moral compass now and being able to decide what morality is for everyone else that happens to be in their area.
Q. Do you think there is a likelihood of it being passed in Michigan though?
I think it’s very possible. The governor said he won’t sign it though, so that’s very good. Give me an example of where someone who is religious, not in a discriminatory, would be protected by this “religious freedom.” It’s using religion as an excuse to discriminate. I don’t think they understand the unintended consequences of this as well. What if I am a Satanist who says they won’t do anything for Christians? There are all these other situations that they don’t consider. We had a doctor who refused to see a child of lesbian parents in Michigan, solely because the parents were lesbian. Who could discriminate against a child? We as a society should be able to say, “That’s crazy, that’s wrong.” For example, I’m divorced and remarried, why will they serve me? Why is one “sin” worse than another? Do you have to come in and fill out a questionnaire on your moral standing before getting served? It’s just crazy that they will pick one thing to discriminate against.
Q. So what do you think needs to happen on all fronts, for the government to move forward in a positive direction on human rights?
We need a new legislature; I think there’s no other way. These issues will probably go to the ballots at some point but what we really need more than anything else is a nonpartisan commission that draws the seats so that politicians don’t draw the seats and whatever parties are in power stay in power for a long time. If you had a nonpartisan district, then you’d have districts that were fairer, more representative and more competitive, so that would be helpful. I also think that, young people are going to have to stand up and fight. The gay rights movement, for example, is one of the fastest moving social changes in American history. The reason why I am so passionate about it is when I was in high school; there was a freshman that came out of the closet. The fact that he had the courage to do that, made it easy for the rest of us to stand up for him. The most courageous people are the people who came out when it wasn’t easy and changed peoples’ minds because they knew somebody. It’s so much harder to hate and stereotype it when you know somebody who is gay or lesbian.