In the annals of Michigan politics, it is difficult to find any figure as peripatetic as Jim Murray. The 48-year-old sprang onto the Republican scene in Lansing in 1992 and worked his way up to deputy chief of staff under House Speaker Rick Johnson. Murray’s second act, as a lobbyist, isn’t unusual, but he used his perch as president of AT&T Michigan to come out of the closet and lead the 2014 effort to add sexual orientation to the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. That push failed, he says, because liberal activists refused to accept any bill that did not specify protections for transgender people. Activists excoriated him for undermining efforts to present a united LGBTQ front.
Nonetheless, in 2015 Murray was appointed to the board of Equality Michigan, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, and in 2017, became the group’s chair. Last fall, Murray took another unexpected turn, becoming executive director of the Arab-American and Chaldean Council. The ACC is probably Murray’s least political gig; the organization provides social services to some 80,000 clients each year, many of them new immigrants. Still, the fascinating fact is that an openly gay, white, lifelong Republican is at the helm of ACC at a fraught moment for minorities and immigrants. To Murray, his hiring is “exactly what you want to see in organizations.”
Hour Detroit: You’re neither Arab-American nor Chaldean. You don’t need to be for this job?
Jim Murray: No, because at its core, you’re running a business. I’m not in the offices providing direct services to people. I’m not on the front lines. I have certain skills that I’ve picked up over my career that they find useful. At AT&T I did our philanthropic work, and ACC was one of the organizations I supported. When I left AT&T, they contacted me to do fundraising. Then they had an opening for executive director, and I got it.
How have the Trump administration’s recent efforts to curb immigration impacted the Arab-American and Chaldean communities?
It is slowing immigration from those areas, but it takes several years to legally migrate from the Middle East to the U.S. People who were in the pipeline before Trump are still coming. We’re also seeing immigration from other areas like the Congo and Eastern Europe. The work is still out there for us.
Do you hear from people served by ACC about hate crimes or discrimination?
No, because we’re not a political organization. People aren’t coming to us to speak out. And you’ve got to remember, when people are coming from overseas, most are fleeing their governments so they’re not about to come to a new, strange country and culture to get right back up there and start protesting the government. They’re more concerned about the clothes on their backs and food and shelter and those kinds of things.
You worked for the Republican caucus while in the closet and marshalled GOP votes in an effort to have the Legislature ban same-sex marriage. Was that uncomfortable?
You used the word “uncomfortable” correctly. I did always feel uncomfortable about being there, but I had a job to do. My job was to implement the House Republican caucus’ agenda and some of it I agreed with and some of it I didn’t.
At AT&T, you came out as a gay activist. What went wrong in the effort to expand Elliott-Larsen?
We had a window when the legislative Republican leadership was willing to take on the issue of adding sexual orientation to Elliot-Larson before they were term-limited out of office. But activists on my side had unrealistic expectations. They wanted certain words and definitions to be used when others would accomplish the same goal.
We’re talking about the transgender question?
Well, yeah. We could have redefined gender to include everybody without using the word “transgender,” which would have given a lot of the Republicans in tough districts cover. But activists preferred to blow it up than have something accomplished.
Can gay activists work with the GOP in this Legislature?
I think that window is closed. There are a couple of paths that we could go down, but a straight-up change to Elliott-Larsen isn’t going to work. But public sentiment, even within the Republican Party, is changing. If you administered truth serum to any one of those Republicans out there, they will admit that you should not be fired just because you’re gay. Now, can you win a Republican primary saying that publicly? Not in many areas. Not right now. Will you eventually? Yeah. The last few Republican leaders have been conservative on social issues, and we’ll have to wait them out.
Do you think Dana Nessel is going too far left as attorney general?
It takes somebody like Dana to temper the Republicans on legal issues. The Republican Legislature is the check and balance on Dana going too far and she is the check and balance from the Republicans going too far. They are probably perfectly suited for us to land in the middle on most things.
How’s the new governor doing?
I’m a big Gretchen Whitmer fan. I’ve known the governor for 20 years, and I think she is the right person at the right time to be governor.
Will she fix the damn roads?
Yeah. I’ve even heard some Republicans say, “Yes, we need more revenue.” That’s a huge, huge step. Is she going to get a 45-cent gas tax hike? No. Is she gonna get something? Yes.