Politics & Prejudices: Heroes and horrors

Here's something you can wash down with your milk and cookies: The election provided evidence that Michigan voters may not be so bigoted against transgender people after all.

Consider this. John Austin, a two-term veteran who was the Michigan Board of Education's president, decided to risk his career to do the right thing. He successfully pushed his colleagues to embrace a new policy asking all districts to voluntarily validate and support transgender students.

The policy, which the board adopted, said any student had the right to use whichever bathroom and locker room matched their gender identity. This was a decision entirely up to them.

Parental approval was not required. School districts were asked to protect transgender teens from bullying and appoint a staff member to supply information and be supportive.

The religious right exploded with outrage. I thought Austin's only hope for survival was a Clinton landslide.

Well, he did lose — but by a margin even tinier than Donald Trump's unexpected victory over Hillary Clinton.

The top three vote-getters got almost the same number. Republican Nikki Snyder squeaked past Austin, 1,919,985 to 1,912,983 — less than one-fifth of 1 percent difference.

Yet more than 200,000 other people clearly refused to vote for the other Democratic candidate — even though he is one of the most qualified and best-regarded people in Michigan. Ismael Ahmed co-founded and then ran ACCESS, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services.

It grew to become the largest private welfare agency in the country, and was praised by members of both parties. Later, Ahmed was appointed to a Cabinet post — head of the Michigan Department of Human Services — in the Granholm administration, a job he performed well in a time of scarcity.

Following that, he became associate provost at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. We've seldom had a candidate so richly qualified on so many levels.

But he lost badly, polling only 1,698,927 votes, 214,000 fewer than his running mate. Why?

Ismael Ahmed is a Muslim with an Arab name. Now, you could not find a man who is more a model of exactly the kind of Muslim, not to mention, citizen, this nation needs.

Yet many Democrats evidently blindly and bigotedly refused to vote for him. Ahmed, a mild-mannered gentleman, doesn't want to put too much of the blame for his loss on his ethnicity, though he admits "that was a factor."

But it is hard to see why anyone would otherwise have voted against him. Anasie Tayyen, a young writer for The Huffington Post and other publications, feels all this acutely. She wears a hijab, but has a master's degree, is raising three children, and running her pediatrician spouse's office.

After the election, she was "stunned, frightened, angry, rejected." But while she seems a bit shy and demure, she isn't afraid to walk the walk. She stood up at a West Bloomfield Township commission meeting in January to protest racism and bigotry on the part of some residents and trustees.

She was nervous then. Not so much now.

"The election of Trump affected me in a way I didn't expect. It made me unapologetically Muslim," she told me.

"I no longer will allow the actions of a group of crazy extremists to make me feel guilt or shame, not when the voters in America chose a man supported by white supremacists."

She is going to do whatever she can to make this country — her country — safe for her children. Ahmed feels much the same way. "I'm a community organizer," he told me. What this means is more incentive to organize and work harder.

They would never say, nor even think this. But both of them are far better Americans than the creature who seems certain to get a majority of the Electoral College Dec. 19.

It's up to the rest of us to live down this shame.

How Betsy once helped the Democrats

There's been a fair amount of unease over Donald Trump's pick of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education. That's fairly understandable, given that she has spent her adult life trying to destroy public education, as witnessed by her efforts in Michigan for many years.

As her track record shows, Betsy couldn't care less about whether children learn anything or not. She doesn't need to worry — she married one of the major heirs to the Amway door-to-door soap-pushing fortune. It was she who successfully pushed for our state's current reckless and irresponsible charter school law, which establishes little or no oversight.

As The New York Times story on her appointment noted, "Even Republican supporters of charter schools say the law has allowed failing charter schools to expand."

What's even more damaging, it was her group, the misnamed "Great Lakes Education Project," which led the effort to kill Gov. Rick Snyder's attempt to establish an oversight commission that could have established standards for closing failing charter schools, both private and public.

She also pushed her lackeys in the legislature to deny Detroit the right to decide where any new schools, public or charter, could open. This, coupled with giving the schools less money than they needed to emerge from bankruptcy, was almost certainly part of a deliberate strategy to slowly kill the Detroit Public Schools, leaving the field wide open for charters.

Incidentally, she also opposes the common sense, Common Core education standards developed by the National Governors Association, most of whom are Republicans.

If you get the idea that she is just about the worst possible choice for education secretary in the world, you're right.

But what many people don't know about her — and what she would like to forget — is that DeVos is directly responsible for Democrat Debbie Stabenow being in the U.S. Senate.

Flash back to early 2000, when the 42-year-old Betsy DeVos was chair of the Michigan Republican Party. She was a rabid foe of public education even then, and came up with a scheme and a passel of signatures for a state constitutional amendment aimed at severely damaging public schools.

DeVos wanted to give every parent a "voucher" good for a certain amount of money they could take to any school, public or private, to buy their kid an education.

Today, that's the sort of thing we've come to expect from Republicans. But support for public schools was somewhat stronger then. John Engler, who had then been governor for nearly a decade, didn't want the voucher proposal on the ballot. He knew it would drive up turnout among Democrats and everyone in the education community. DeVos insisted.

The voucher proposal got on the ballot — but unable to get along with her powerful Republican governor, she was out as state party chair. Engler knew what he was talking about.

Freshman U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham, the only Republican to win a Senate seat in this state since Watergate, went into Election Day with a clear lead over Stabenow.

George W. Bush and Al Gore were locked in what was seen as an extremely tight battle for the state's electoral votes in that now-famous election. But just as Engler predicted, those who cared about public education swarmed to the polls.

DeVos's cockamamie voucher plan was swamped, losing by more than 2-to-1. Most of the new voters it brought out weren't friendly to the Republicans. Gore easily won Michigan, which would have made him president had he been allowed to win Florida. And Stabenow, who had been significantly behind in virtually every poll, ousted Abraham from office.

We're in a different world now, one far safer for the far right. But Betsy has, in her zeal, miscalculated before.

Let's hope that she does so again.