Former GOP House speaker quits new job after criticism

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KALAMAZOO — A former high-ranking Republican lawmaker quit Monday as leader of an economic development group in southwestern Michigan, days after his hiring was panned by leaders in the region.

Lee Chatfield said Southwest Michigan First needs someone with a “blank political slate that won’t bring about the division that I’ve unfortunately caused.”

Chatfield represented a House district in the northern Lower Peninsula for six years and rose to the job of speaker during the 2019-20 term.

Southwest Michigan First is a Kalamazoo-based economic group that assists companies in creating jobs in a seven-county area. Chatfield’s hiring as chief executive, announced Feb. 11, was criticized in the Kalamazoo area because of his conservative political views.

The city of Kalamazoo voted to withdraw from the organization. L. Marshall Washington, the president of Kalamazoo Valley Community College, said he was quitting the board of directors.

Critics pointed to Chatfield’s statements in 2019 when he said protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people would not be added to state civil rights law while he was running the House. He said he didn’t believe “people should be discriminated against” but expressed concern about infringing on the religious rights of others who disagree with LGBT protections.

In a statement, Chatfield said he had hoped he could land in Kalamazoo and “find ways to collaborate … despite some past disagreements.”

“But I was wrong,” he said.

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