Due to growing controversy, Michigan’s former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Lee Chatfield, resigned from his position as CEO of Southwest Michigan First on February 22.
Chatfield’s resignation comes in the wake of controversy surrounding his support for blocking protections for LGBTQ+ individuals in his former role of state representative. This included Chatfield blocking expansions to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act in the name of protecting religious freedoms, according to The Detroit News.
Many businesses and organizations associated with Southwest Michigan First considered leaving the organization due to Chatfield’s new position. The City of Kalamazoo planned to stop financially supporting the group by ending its membership in the organization in a unanimous vote. Commissioner Erin Knott mentioned in a city commission meeting that, “If you’re gonna do business in Kalamazoo, you’re gonna value diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Chatfield said in a statement on Twitter that although he apologized for the controversy, he added, “I can’t truthfully apologize for various conservative beliefs I espoused while in office, and I don’t think you wanted that. But many of my political opinions were causing an uproar. That much was obvious.”
Southwest Michigan First is an economic support organization based out of Kalamazoo with a goal of supporting local businesses and industries. In a statement, the group said that it accepted Chatfield’s resignation and wished him the best, but that as an organization they were committed to finding a new CEO.
Additionally, Southwest Michigan First vowed to have a renewed commitment to diversity and promised a more comprehensive and inclusive search for the next CEO. In their statement, the organization added, “We welcome the conversations, challenging questions and opportunities to listen, learn and grow. What is abundantly clear is that our search process fell well below the standard expected by our board, our community partners, investors, donors and importantly, our Southwest Michigan First team. As we renew and begin again our search process for our next CEO, we are committed to and will assure a process that is open, transparent and inclusive of those who depend upon us to improve economic development and employment opportunities for all we serve. We recognize that increased prosperity has not often been experienced by our communities of color, Latinx communities and our LGBTQ+ community.” Additionally, the organization expressed their continued support of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.
For some Hope students, the controversy hits close to home. “I live about 25 minutes from Kalamazoo, which is the largest city in Southwest Michigan First,” said freshman Carly Mursch. “I know that town and the wonderful people that live there. Lee Chatfield does not represent the views of Kalamazoo. I agree with Kalamazoo City Commissioner Erin Knott and her motion to de-invest in Southwest Michigan First due to Chatfield becoming CEO.”