Kalamazoo, MI

Lee Chatfield Resigns From Southwest Michigan First

Ryan Nehring

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Kalamazoo residents sent a loud and resounding message in response to news that former Speaker of the Michigan House of Representative, Lee Chatfield, was hired as the new CEO of SouthWest Michigan First. Chatfield, a divisive figure in Lansing and statewide for his anti-LGBTQIA+ stances both personally and legislatively was seen as a remarkably poor choice by the widely progressive minded Kalamazoo citizens.

Citizens took to social media in disbelief at the announcement and began letter writing and phone campaigns to city commissioners and other local elected leaders denouncing the choice. In response, the City of Kalamazoo rescinded its membership to Southwest Michigan First, as did local brewery and city icon Bells Brewery.

In addition, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation withdrew, and the President of Kalamazoo Valley Community College resigned from the board of Southwest Michigan First.

Chatfield, in response to the overwhelming rejection by Kalamazoo posted a resignation letter, which was accepted by the board. In the letter Chatfield does not deny the allegations against him, but rather attempts to paint a picture of a politician serving both his constituencies wants, as well as the tenets of his religious faith.

"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,", Chatfield wrote.

He continued, "I thought I could come into a community and find ways to collaborate even despite some past disagreements, which I was very willing to do, but I was wrong."

The decision to appoint Chatfield in the first place was anomalous and widely viewed with incredulation by citizens of Kalamazoo. A notoriously blue region, with a strong Democratic and Progressive voting base, the idea of appointing a noted anti-LGBTQIA+ leader to a role of such critical significance was viewed as insulting and out of touch.

It's worth noting Chatfield also led a charge in the State House to allow for anonymity in donations to public foundations. This opened the door for the obfuscation of the sources of money flowing into the recently formed "Foundation for Excellence", a quasi-philanthropic organization advertised to be a solution to Kalamazoo's budget deficits, but widely seen as an end-run to a potential city income tax by Kalamazoo's wealthiest residents.

Many residents on Social Media have speculated Chatfields appointment and the unusually large salary it came with were in fact a reward for his efforts to help muddy the waters around the controversial Foundation for Excellence. Wide-ranging concerns over the function of the foundation were raised during its formation, many of which were tempered by promises of transparency and public control of the Board of Directors; promises that were eventually broken. Widely seen as a bad faith process by those who covered it from the Memorandum of Understanding to eventual adoption, the attempt to bring in Chatfield rings as a fitting coda to the Foundations tumultuous history.

Unlike the Foundation For Excellence, which was eventually adopted however, Kalamazoo's rejection of Chatfield was swift, organized and overwhelming. His removal from Southwest Michigan First helps to ensure one less divisive leader with antiquated thoughts on gender and social justice will wield power in our corner of the state.

An announcement on who will next be tapped to fill the role has not yet been made, however, residents are now watching very closely to see where the process goes. Chatfield's appointment may have been a bit of a litmus test to see how far to the right they could try and push, with the hopes of eventually appointing a candidate who will still be far to the right of the general Kalamazoo electorate, while seeming more tempered by comparison.

Concerned citizens wait at the ready to respond.

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