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Women In Michigan's Political Scene Seek Accountability From Men In Power

picture of the Michigan Capitol Building

When it comes to Michigan politics, the environment is largely male dominated. It’s something some legislators, reporters and political consultants say has contributed to what they call an unsafe climate for women.

In March, Ron Weiser, a Michigan GOP leader who is also a University of Michigan regent, referred to Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel as witches during a speech at the North Oakland Republican Club.

“The GOP's job now is to soften up those three witches and make sure that when we have good candidates to run against them, that they are ready for the burning at the stake," Weiser said. 

That wasn’t the first time women in Michigan politics have been targets of blatantly sexist remarks from male colleagues.

Democratic Representative Laurie Pohutsky of the state’s 19th district said she was first exposed to what she calls a misogynistic environment at the Statehouse in 2018.

It was during her orientation, a few weeks before she was even sworn in.

“A state senator looked at me and said, 'And how often do you go to topless pools in Las Vegas?' And like, I just like looked at them and I went, 'I don't.' And I went up to them after the fact and I said, 'What you said was inappropriate, and I don't want to start my political career letting things like that go.'”

Pohutsky is a microbiologist by trade. She said she has spent most of her career in a male dominated field but wasn’t prepared for the kind of aggressively sexist environment at the Capitol.

“People are much more aggressive, much more open with it. I mean, I was at an orientation before I even officially took office, and a state senator made a comment about my breasts. So it's definitely been a little jarring," Pohutsky said.

As far as holding people accountable for their sexist behavior, Pohutsky said she feels that as a legislator, she has the power to call it out. But the onus shouldn’t have to fall on people like her.

“My bigger disappointment has been other men knowing that it's happening and allowing it to happen," she said. 

Political consultant Emily Dievendorf said it's that climate that contributed to what happened to her while working on a gubernatorial campaign in 2010 with T.J Bucholz.

Bucholz is the CEO of Vanguard Public Affairs. The Lansing-based public relations firm focuses on Democratic and left leaning candidates, organizations and issues.

Dievendorf recounted there were several times Bucholz would call her to his office during work hours, show her photos of his wife in a bikini, and ask her if she would be interested in having a threesome.

“He also proposed to me whether I would be interested in having a threesome with him and other political consultants that were women, or other people in politics that were women. That was a regular thing," she said. 

Dievendorf’s experiences didn’t happen in a vacuum. Since writing about her experience with Bucholz on social media in March, dozens of women have spoken up about being subjected to similar kinds of harassment from Bucholz over the years.

“Our male colleagues that say they recognize it as wrong and also toxic are not saying anything stopping it," she said.

Since Dievendorf and multiple other women brought forward allegations against Bucholz, Vanguard has gone silent and several top level members have quit the firm. Bucholz has not responded to multiple attempts for comment.

Michigan political reporter, Allison Donahue, said the culture in Lansing is not centered in believing survivors of sexual assault and harrassment.

In January of 2020, Donahue attempted to interview former Republican state Senator Peter Lucido outside of the Michigan Senate chamber.

He made what she called a sexually inappropriate comment to her in front of a group of highschoolers.

“He said, quote, 'you should hang around these boys, you could have a lot of fun with these boys. Or, they could have a lot of fun with you.' And I have all this written down," Donahue explained. 

In a statement on Twitter, Lucido apologized to Donahue and called it a misunderstanding.

She said she doesn’t see it that way, but the fact that Lucido does demonstrates the lack of accountability there is for those holding positions of power in Lansing.

“You can't have a culture where women are accepting poor treatment because they have nowhere to turn," Donahue said.

After serving out his term, Lucido is now serving as Macomb County’s prosecutor.

For Representative Pohutsky, Dievendorf, and Donahue, the step to changing this misogynistic environment is clear — expecting men in power to hold one another accountable for their behavior.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
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