July 13 2016 09:45 AM

Cites Orlando, local crimes as cause for change of heart

State Sen. Rick Jones (left) joins a June 12 vigil at the Capitol after 49 people were murdered in the Pulse gay bar in Orlando.
Todd Heywood/City Pulse

As the Rev. Nicolette Siragusa of the United Church of Christ in Grand Ledge prepared to deliver a meditation for a vigil at the Capitol the day 49 people were killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando, she was surprised to see here state senator, Rick Jones, in the crowd.

“I know his legislative history,” Siragusa, who is openly lesbian, said later, “and he has not always been a friend to the gay and transgender community.”

Indeed, Jones has been an ardent opponent of amending Michigan’s hate crime law to include sexual orientation and gender. And as the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, his opposition was a huge barrier.

But today Jones, a Grand Ledge Republican, will announce that he is cosponsoring a bill to amend the measure to include LGBT people.

His support breathes new life into the legislation after decades of disappointment for proponents.

His backing guarantees a hearing before the Judiciary Committee. This will be the first time the Legislature’s upper chamber has held hearings on hate crimes legislation, and the first time since 2008 either chamber has done so.

Last week, Jones signed onto SB1035 to amend the state hate crimes law to include gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes.

Jones and Warren Democrat Steve Bieda will take the lead shepherding the legislation through the Senate. Ingham County Democrat Curtis Hertel Jr. and Republican Tory Rocca from Sterling Heights have also signed onto the bill as sponsors.

“I have not been real supportive of adding more things to the law in the past because I didn’t feel there was a big problem,” the former Eaton County sheriff said during an interview at A&W in Grand Ledge, where he meets with seniors every weekday morning. “The shock of what happened in Orlando, and then to find out here in Mid-Michigan something similar happening — a hatred — really made me think about this. And I’m sold. I’m sold on adding this to a hate crime definition.”

He cited the sentencing of the sentencing of two men for a series of anti-gay pick up crimes in Lansing as helping open his eyes to the reality of anti-LGBT hate in the state.

The Mid-Michigan events to which he referred were the antigay Craigslist attacks reported by City Pulse June 27.

State statistics show antigay crimes have been an ongoing issue in Michigan. IIn 2014, the Michigan State Police listed 60 antigay bias crimes. That was out of 532 victims and 441 incidents. In 2015, the number of victims and incidents had dropped to 399 incidents and 495 victims. The MSP reports that 12 percent in 2015 were motivated by antigay bias, or 61 cases. The majority of bias crimes were perpetrated based on the victim’s race.

In order to be included in the Michigan Incident Crime reports kept by the state police, there must be “sufficient objective facts” that would “lead a reasonable and prudent person to conclude the offender’s actions were motivated, in whole or in part, by bias.”

That doesn't include crimes against a particularly vulnerable group, transgender people, which the state police do not track.

Equality Michigan, a statewide gay rights organization, reported in the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects 2015 annual report on hate crimes that the state had tracked three anti-trans murders.

The Craigslist anti-gay predator case reported last month by City Pulse meets the bias crime definition, said Lansing Police Chief Michael Yankowski. The perpetrators admitted to investigators they were targeting gay men because they were “sick” and “not likely to report to the police,” the police report said.

Despite those admissions, the case was not formally reported as a bias crime until June 23. That’s when it was discovered the incident had been incorrectly coded to reflect no bias motivation.

Yankowski said it has been corrected and will be counted as a 2015 hate crime.

Jones is not the only high-profile Republican senator making headlines calling for an amendment to Michigan’s hate crimes laws. State Sen. Mike Kowall of White Lake said last week, after news of the shooting of white police officers in Dallas, that he would introduce legislation he is calling “Uniformed Lives Matter.” That proposal would make a crime to target first responders for violent crime, as apparently happened when a gunman opened fired on Dallas Police last week during a Black Lives Matter march.

Kowall opposes amending existing hate crimes laws to include the LGBT community. Ironically, however, MSP reports on bias incidents show that in 2014, five police officers were victims of bias crimes, whereas 60 members of the LGB community were victims of such crimes. In 2015, eight police officers were victims of bias crimes, while 61 members of the LGB community were victims.

Kowall was unavailable for comment. Both Jones and Bieda said they were open to including first responders in their legislation.

Jones said he thinks this move is going to impact his political ambitions, which he declined to discuss on the record. But Kathy Hoekstra, a political communications specialist from Saginaw, said the former sheriff may actually be reflective of a new GOP.

“Any future office-seeking will include bragging rights of championing LGBT equality ahead of all of his peers in the state — Republican or Democrat,” said Hoekstra. “It's a sure political score, and a meaningful one to a growing number of Republicans and conservatives who want equal rights for and treatment of all, but have been long penned in by outdated policies and attitudes of long-gone predecessors.”

Nathan Triplett, political director for Equality Michigan, said Jones’ move is “very positive.”

“There’s no question Sen. Jones’ support advances a strategy to move this forward.”

He too thinks Jones will do himself some political good as more and more younger Republicans embrace gay rights.

As for Jones, it was just the right thing to do after Orlando and hate crimes at home.

“We just simply have to stand up and say this is not Nazi Germany, this is not the Soviet Union,” he said. “This is America and we don’t allow that kind of hatred in our country.”