clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

This Michigan Democrat wants her party to “call bullshit, bullshit”

State Sen. Mallory McMorrow on how Democrats can more effectively combat the GOP’s culture wars.

Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, center, before the State of the State address on January 29, 2020, in Lansing, Michigan.
Al Goldis/AP
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

As a fiery viral speech she gave earlier this year made clear, Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow isn’t one to mince her words — and she doesn’t want other Democrats to do so either.

McMorrow thinks her party can be a lot more explicit when fighting GOP attacks, particularly as they struggle to defend their congressional majorities and retake state legislatures this fall.

“A much more powerful response is call bullshit, bullshit,” McMorrow said.

McMorrow came to national attention after she confronted a Republican colleague who accused her of grooming young children and who fundraised off that claim. “I want every child in this state to feel seen, heard, and supported, not marginalized and targeted because they are not straight, white, and Christian,” she said in a speech that went viral in April.

Now, McMorrow is urging Democrats to take on Republicans in the same way, on everything from abortion rights to critical race theory to the economy. This past week, she sat down with Vox to describe exactly how they can do so.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Li Zhou

Why do you think your response to the false grooming claims you faced got so much attention?

Mallory McMorrow

I think for a long time there was this idea of grappling with the question of: if we talk about some of these conspiracy theories, especially from the darkest corners of the internet, is that giving them life that they wouldn’t otherwise have?

But what we’ve seen over the past year or so is between critical race theory, and then shifting into attacks on the LGBTQ community, particularly trans kids, that it was taking these attacks out of the darkest corners of the internet into the mainstream. And it was a mainstream attack from one of our two major political parties, on already marginalized groups of people.

I wanted to be very intentional about responding in a way that elevated it out of the typical Democrats versus Republicans. And a lot of what I wrote down earlier in the day talked about hypocrisy on the Republican side of the aisle. Here in Michigan, we had our previous speaker of the House, Lee Chatfield, [who] was actually accused by his sister-in-law of grooming and raping her starting when she was 15. And that investigation is still ongoing. I ended up taking it out because I recognize that, especially in this climate, if I even said the words “Republicans and Democrats” in my speech, nobody would listen.

The day of, or the day before I gave the speech, I was visiting a high school in my district. And the first question was from a girl who raised her hand, and she said, “I’m queer. Why does the state hate me?” And that really hurt, right?

I really recognized, like, I’m fine. But if you are on the receiving end of all of these headlines about how disgusting you are, and you basically aren’t allowed in places, that it hurts. So however bad I felt for one day, is how bad it feels every single day, if you are a queer 15-year-old trying to figure out why there’s so much legislation being introduced, targeting you for just existing. So, there was a lot that went into it.

I was mad, you know, there’s a lot to be said for just raw emotion. And I think that it has really struck a nerve for a number of reasons.

No. 1 is, I reclaimed my own identity. I really wanted to talk to people who are like me, who look like me, who are not the target of these attacks, who, frankly, are a member of the majority community. Because I think there’s a tendency to say, like, “Oh, these attacks are not about me, I’m fine. I’m not going to get involved.” But it only works when people in the majority group let it happen. It resonated in that it really was about my own values and my upbringing.

And I was just mad. I didn’t really care about trying to, you know, tamp it down and being super professional. I just really wanted to express what I felt.

Li Zhou

It can feel like the attacks that Republicans are making on a lot of these issues end up going uncontested because there is not a strong Democratic response. You mentioned there is a fear of elevating some of these claims, and I was wondering why you think Democrats aren’t willing to be more direct in countering these arguments?

Mallory McMorrow

Well, I think that is part of it is that we don’t want to give something credibility when it doesn’t have credibility. But I think we have to acknowledge that mindset is not working.

I also think that Democrats, and I’m one of those people, we love information and research and data. And I think sometimes we fundamentally believe if we show people enough information that we can convince them otherwise.

And I think critical race theory is a perfect example of how the strategy and the response were completely out of step. [Conservative activist and member of the right-wing Manhattan Institute think tank] Chris Rufo has flat-out admitted he created the fear around critical race theory. He has said he wanted anything related to The 1619 Project or diversity, equity, and inclusion, or Black Lives Matter, or really anything about an accurate teaching of history, he wanted everybody to think of critical race theory when they heard any of those things.

And the response from a lot of Democrats was to debate the merits of it, to say, you know, critical race theory is not taught in schools, that it is a graduate-level theory. But by doing that, you validate the false premise, instead of what I think is a much more powerful response is call bullshit, bullshit.

All of these culture war issues are manufactured to deflect and distract and scapegoat. And that doesn’t mean they’re any less terrible for the groups that are being targeted. But the reality is, they hurt everybody because they don’t actually solve issues that impact people’s everyday lives. So I know a lot of people say, “Well, we have to talk about the economy, we have to talk about inflation.” And that’s true. But people are never going to hear those things if we don’t blunt the attacks first.

Li Zhou

How satisfied are you with national Democrats’ response to the Dobbs decision, both when it comes to messaging and the actions that’ve been taken so far?

Mallory McMorrow

If there’s anything that I have been critical of Democrats about, it’s that we have not paid attention to state legislatures in the way that Republicans have for the past few decades. So the New York Times did a really well-done piece a few weeks ago, really highlighting the reason that Roe fell is not because of the Supreme Court or the federal government. It’s because Democrats lost 1,000 state legislature seats from 2007 to 2019. And you get more extreme chambers around the country who are passing these horrific laws that are designed to be challenged up to the Supreme Court.

So the silver lining is that there is finally a focus on state legislatures, and Michigan is a perfect example of that, where Betsy DeVos’s family — Dick DeVos ran for governor against Jennifer Granholm many years ago, spent a lot of money and lost the race. But they recognized that they could completely steer the direction of state politics by investing in the campaigns of every single Republican running for state House and state Senate. I saw this upfront when I ran for the first time in 2018. I flipped a Republican district. And I knew we were on the right track when probably two weeks before Election Day, I saw every single member of the DeVos family max out [donations] to my opponent.

And that is a willingness to build long-term political power from the ground up that Democrats have not necessarily done. A perfect example of this is last cycle, Democratic donors donated $96 million to Amy McGrath to try to defeat Mitch McConnell. Amy McGrath is wonderful, but there was no way that race was going to be won.

Comparatively, the DLCC [Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee], which supports state legislatures all around the country, their budget for the entire cycle for every single state legislature was $51 million. And the idea that somehow we’re going to change policy based on who’s in the White House or, you know, a few congressional or US Senate seats, is nonsense if we ignore the bottom.

Li Zhou

What do you make of activists’ concerns that asking people to vote isn’t enough?

Mallory McMorrow

I get people when they say, “We’ve been voting and nothing’s changed.” We also need to treat voters with respect. We’re all part of the same team, which is why I’ve been so intentional.

I want to make sure that people understand how important voting is, but also that I lay out a very clear plan, right? Like, here’s what we’re trying to do in the legislature, here’s what’s standing in the way, here’s what you can do with the ballot initiative, here’s what’s standing in the way.

It’s not just “vote,” it’s “here’s what we’re trying to do. If you vote, here’s what we’re able to do, if we flip four seats in the legislature,” which treats people with a level of respect that acknowledges this isn’t going to be fixed with one election, it’s just not.

Li Zhou

What was your experience like testifying at the House hearing on abortion rights this week, and your reaction to the misinformation that Republicans were spreading during that hearing?

Mallory McMorrow

It has become very apparent that Republicans, I don’t think, ever planned for Roe to be overturned, and they’re still living in this reality that’s based on rhetoric instead of the actual reality.

The fact that every time ectopic pregnancy came up, every single Republican said, “Oh, an ectopic pregnancy. That’s not an abortion.” Yes, it is — people will lose the access to care because abortion is banned, and women will die.

The fact that the story, this horrific story of the 10-year-old in Ohio who had to go to Indiana for an abortion, the fact that the first response was for the Republican operation to come out and say that that story was a lie. Instead of, you know, I saw some coverage out of Ohio that says that there’s about 52 of these cases a year, which means once every week, there is a 10-year-old who is getting pregnant.

And just the disrespect, to make jokes out of the situation. You know, watching [Sen.] Josh Hawley tried to do the gotcha question ... the day before or in our hearing, asking if a woman has ever given birth to a turtle or a taco — it’s just so flagrantly disrespectful, and they want to joke about it while women and girls and families and anybody who needs to access this care are already being driven into horrific situations and will die. That is the reality and you can no longer operate in a world of rhetoric. These laws have consequences, whether that’s what you intended or not.

Li Zhou

How do you think Democrats should be responding to Republican efforts to perpetuate some of this misinformation?

Mallory McMorrow

We have to respond very, very forcefully.

I am very intentionally saying: If you are somebody whose birth control fails, you don’t matter. If you are somebody who already has kids, and no, you can’t have any more, you don’t matter. If you are somebody like me — I had my daughter. And then I had an IUD placed that punctured through my uterus, which was horrific in and of itself. And it’s a very rare instance, but I had to have it surgically removed, which required being scheduled for a laparoscopy and a D&C. A D&C is an abortion procedure.

And we already know that medical schools are fearful about what they’re even going to be allowed to teach because they don’t want to lose funding. University of Michigan has already said that.

So like, being very upfront about that for anybody and everybody who’s concerned about this. This is going to impact every single person, whether you’re ever going to find yourself in the position of needing an abortion or not, just being blunt and telling them, to these Republicans, you don’t matter. They don’t care about you, and they don’t care if you live or die.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.