Laurie Pohutsky is a passionate progressive representing Livonia in Lansing, and during the coronavirus pandemic her voice is more important than ever.
LIVONIA, Mich.—When she was elected as the Democratic state representative from Livonia in 2018, Laurie Pohutsky had no idea how the world was going to look during her 2020 re-election. Pohutsky, a career microbiologist, suddenly found her profession more relevant to her work in Lansing than ever.
“This was not on my first term bingo card,” Pohutsky laughed, “There are times where it is extremely frustrating to have the background I have and be dealing with this in the political arena. But I am glad that I’m there.”
She said her background has been a benefit both to the legislature and to her constituents, as she was able to communicate the science to the people of Livonia on issues like how this virus is different from the seasonal flu and other issues.
Pohutsky won both her initial election and her re-election by narrow margins in the hotly-contested battleground of Livonia, but isn’t bothered by the numbers.
“This was not a seat that I ever took for granted,” she said. “At the end of the day voter turnout was so much higher across the country, across the state … So many more people came out to vote, and that’s the goal right? That’s what we’ve been asking people to do. So I don’t get to complain about what it looked like when people came out. So I’m feeling good. I’m very excited.”
And those issues are deeply important to her.
Tackling the Coronavirus
Every elected official in America is looking for the best approach to navigating the novel coronavirus, a pandemic disease so new that strategies for combating it were largely improvised during the crisis and so infectious that around 7,000 Michiganders a day are diagnosed with the disease. Worse, merely surviving the coronavirus is not recovery, as the road to getting well again can be long and rocky.
Pohutsky, though, comes from a background of science, and understands the importance of decisive action backed by research. Unfortunately, those efforts were hampered in October.
She sees a connection between the current spike of coronavirus cases and the state Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the laws Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used to address the pandemic earlier this year. If nothing else, she said, that ruling has hobbled the state’s efforts to respond to the current outbreak. She called on her fellow legislators to do their part.
“It’s been a minute now since that Supreme Court ruling came down, but we haven’t [acted],” she said. “It’s frustrating as a legislator to see this be one of those cases where the GOP didn’t like how the governor was handling it and had all these talking points about how they were being prevented from legislating around this issue they were not. We did not meet for months to introduce legislation and when we did the amount of it that was related to COVID-19 was miniscule.”
But it’s up to people to do their part, too.
“I know that people have pandemic fatigue and quarantine fatigue,” Pohutsky said. “The virus isn’t fatigued. And the virus doesn’t particularly care about your mood or whether you believe in it or whether you want to wear a mask or anything like that.”
But her personal experiences and commitment to health don’t begin or end with the coronavirus.
Making Mental Health Accessible for Michiganders
One of the major issues facing Michiganders with mental health issues is the difficulty in accessing services. As part of her broader health plans, Pohutsky is dedicated to helping ease the burdens Michiganders face in accessing those critical health services. She knows from experience what those challenges look like.
At 18, Pohutsky was helping a close friend navigate the often arcane system of mental health in Michigan, and the road they walked was rocky.
“My best friend from high school, she and I were in college together, and she had some very, very serious mental health issues,” Pohutsky explained. “Trying to navigate that system as essentially children … was a nightmare. She didn’t have health insurance so most people didn’t want to treat her because they knew they weren’t going to get paid.”
And ultimately, that led to the system failing Pohutsky and her friend. Student services at their college made the 18-year-old Pohutsky the caregiver of her friend.
“There’s a very good reason we don’t do that, because 18-year-olds are not good at taking care of ourselves, much less somebody else suffering from severe mental health issues,” she said. “And ultimately she ended up attempting suicide.”
Her friend didn’t succeed in the attempt, but when Pohutsky had her friend committed to address the concern, the facility her friend was committed to took Pohutsky to court. Because her friend lacked insurance, the facility was seeking to show that her friend was no longer a suicide risk entirely to relieve themselves of a patient who couldn’t pay, Pohutsky said. The court determined that Pohutsky’s suicidal friend was not a danger to herself and agreed with the facility’s request to release her.
“A shock to no one: Things didn’t get better,” Pohutsky said.
Seeing that ordeal, being a part of trying to save a struggling friend, deeply invested Pohutsky in mental health. She sees it as part of a whole package with physical and reproductive health.
Pohutsky is also focusing on a specific issue again in her second term that has massive repercussions for physical, mental, and emotional health: sexual assault.
Closing a Shocking Loophole
Marital rape is illegal in Michigan, with a glaring exception. Having sex with a spouse without their consent while thay are mentally incapacitated is perfectly legal in Michigan. And the state includes being drugged without a person’s consent as being mentally incapacatiated.
That means if a husband rapes his wife, he has broken a law, but if he slips her sleeping pills beforehand, his actions are lawful.
“That’s the law that is on the books,” Pohutsky explained. “And that law is very, very cut and dry. It’s not a gray area … this is not an area where two consenting adults went out to the bar and they both may have had too much to drink, the law is very clear. This is in cases where you drug someone without their consent, and if you are married to that person it is legal to rape them.”
Pohutsky introduced legislation in 2019 to close the loophole after it was highlighted to her by one of her constituents. The bill had over 60 co-sponsors and wide bipartisan support, but it never got a hearing. Pohtusky thinks it didn’t move forward because a freshman legislator from a flippable district couldn’t be seen as having a “win” to Republican leadership.
But she hasn’t given up on closing the loophole, and will redouble her efforts in 2021. This is an issue that’s personal for her.
“I’m a survivor of rape,” Pohutsky told The ‘Gander. “In my case, in both instances where I was raped, it was by a partner. It was not by anyone I was married to, but it was by a partner and there’s a certain stigma attached to that.”
She said that the stigma is rooted in how a person can be a victim of someone they’re in a relationship with. Beyond just closing a shocking loophole, Pohutsky wants to break that stigma.
“Obviously removing laws that allow for that and says it’s okay are so, so crucial in making sure survivors have a voice,” she said.
The Future Is on the Line
Pohutsky is also thinking long-term. On an individual scale, the coronavirus, mental health and protecting and destigmatizing survivors of rape are all critical health goals, but as the timeline stretches out, the environment becomes a core health concern.
Pohutsky pointed to how the environment is, for instance, making outcomes of coronavirus patients more grim. She cited PFAS in the groundwater in northern Michigan and the air quality concerns that loom over parts of Detroit.
“All of these issues are so inextricably linked together,” Pohutsky said. “I know that when people are trying to access the unemployment system or find a job in the wake of this pandemic or just make sure that they’re keeping their family safe and healthy or determining if their kid should go back to school in person or virtual, it’s not second nature to think about the environment here but I really, really don’t want us to lose focus of that.”
Environmental issues were concerning before the pandemic and will be after it, but during it we see the consequences of not having addressed them sooner, she explained. The things that mattered before still matter now, but she said we now have to view those older priorities through the lens of the pandemic.
As for her own future, Pohutsky said she’s uncertain. She’s interested in getting back to her microbiology career, but she’s had people suggest she stay in politics, perhaps even with an eye on the governor’s mansion in the future.
Pohutsky responds by saying she doesn’t envy Gov. Whitmer’s position during the pandemic and is impressed with her leadership, but she didn’t rule anything in or out.
“With term limits I’ll have to do something after this, [but] I’m just focused on doing this job right now,” she told The ‘Gander. “Maybe, I don’t know, but right now that sounds like a tough job.”