Michigan Sen. Mallory McMorrow speaking with The 'Gander last week.
Michigan Sen. Mallory McMorrow speaking with The 'Gander last week.

“What I try to say to people is: Right now, there’s a choice between people who believe in our country and our system and want it to work, and people who don’t. And that’s it.”

For many people, Michigan’s Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) became headline news after calling out Republican Sen. Lana Theis in a speech on the Senate floor. But for many in McMorrow’s district, the video by their first-term senator only confirmed what they already knew: Mallory McMorrow will not tolerate a bully.

“I am the biggest threat to your hollow, hateful scheme,” McMorrow said, in the now-viral video. She was referring to a fundraising email Theis had sent to supporters, accusing McMorrow of being a “groomer” who sexualized children.

Since then, McMorrow’s been working double time — campaigning for her seat in the state’s 8th district, and making national media rounds to talk about why she hopes her infamous speech becomes just one of many that call out political bully tactics.

Last week, Sen. McMorrow sat down with The ‘Gander’s Managing Editor, Lisa Hayes, and Senior Accountability Reporter, Keya Vakil, to discuss how it’s been going.

The interview below has been edited for brevity.

LISA HAYES: You’ve been willing to call out the motives behind political tactics, and to take on the role of explaining what’s really going on in politics. And I’m curious: Is this what you thought the job was going to be like?

MALLORY MCMORROW: No, I mean, nobody thought this is what the job was going to be like. I mean, you run for office and you want to work on legislation and you want to help people, and you run on a platform — I’ve been in the job for almost four years now and I’ve introduced about 40 pieces of legislation, and not a single one has ever gotten a hearing. It’s just responding to nonsense. And I think that’s the most frustrating part, you know, whether or not you’re the parent of a trans child or whatever the attack is this week, it hurts everybody ‘cause we’re not actually doing the work of solving anybody’s real problem. Everybody loses. So no, it’s not what I thought the job would be.

LH: I’m wondering if that’s changing — if the job description is changing now.

MM: I think it is. And I think it is in the way people want to engage with the people who represent them. For better or for worse — and in my mind, certainly for worse — a lot of people were really attracted to Donald Trump’s style, which really was, you know, a media personality. People were attracted to a character from “The Apprentice” and liked somebody who spoke really bluntly and didn’t have a filter. 

And I think we have to pay attention to that. I think there’s a reason why younger elected officials are doing well. Some of us who are in the generation where there isn’t really a difference between our personal lives and our work lives, because we’ve kind of grown up with social media, we’re comfortable sharing more of our personality. And I think that that is what people are attracted to now. 

So my hope is if we can kind of lean into people wanting to get to know their elected officials, then we can get back to the actual work of legislating, which is why we’re supposed to be here.

LH: Meanwhile, you’re so busy trying to fight this other battle that it’s hard to get to know people.

MM:  Yeah. I came into this job, I ran against an incumbent who had kind of become known for not putting in the time with constituents. He had a restaurant, he had an insurance agency, and he was really perceived as being too busy to do town halls and coffee hours. And so I think that part of what I wanted to do is rebuild that connection. So we’ve done a lot of in-person events. We do a weekly live stream. You’re going to vote for somebody if you like them and you trust them — I think more so than, “This person checks my boxes and all of my policy priorities.” I think that’s not how people think. At the end of the day, it’s about connecting with your constituents and being available for them.

“My case to voters is that you deserve somebody who recognizes the urgency of this moment and is going to fight with that urgency every day.”

SEN. MALLORY MCMORROW

KEYA VAKIL: Over the last couple decades, there’s been a huge decline in participation in social institutions. Church membership’s down, civic groups aren’t really a thing anymore in the way they used to be. Our common bonds are fractured and there are these groups on the right — militias, Trump supporters — that are really capitalizing on that isolation and developing extremist communities rooted in political ideology. Where does our society go from here? And what is the return to normal, or is this just the new normal?

MM: That hits on something I think about all the time. Because fundamentally people want somewhere to belong, and it’s like, you know, what is our hierarchy of needs? It’s definitely been challenged by the decline of, as you mentioned, membership in traditional social organizations and houses of worship, but also throughout the past few years with the pandemic. They’ve both accelerated online radicalization, because if we couldn’t get out and see each other, people were going down rabbit holes on YouTube and finding QAnon. You read this “manifesto” from the Buffalo shooter, and he laid exactly that out, right? It’s like, if you’re isolated and lonely, you’re gonna wanna find somewhere where you belong. 

There’s a book I recommend to just about everybody, called “Politics Is for Power.” It’s really critical of a lot of the ways that more people on the Democratic side engage in politics, which is very online, in social media, on Twitter, in the echo chamber, versus — there’s an anecdote in the book about how the KKK really gained members because they had a program that would reach out to people who were suffering with opioid addiction and offer them housing and resources. And if you’re the only person that reaches out to somebody in a time of crisis, and [the person you’re reaching out to is vulnerable], that’s how you get membership. [That person] is going to look around and say, everybody abandoned me except this group, so I’m a member of this group now. And I think that’s something that anybody who does work in this space has to grapple with. We’re [supposed] to change policy and to make people’s lives better, and that has to happen in real life and in the ways people want to engage. So how can we create that space for people that’s a force for good and not a force for evil? Because I think we’re seeing the really damaging effects of people who are lonely and isolated, and who are being radicalized.

KV: Your clip that I’m sure changed your life a little bit overnight – 

MM: <laughs> Yeah.

KV: To put it mildly. Over the last decade, Republicans and a lot of right wing media figures have created one controversy after another out of thin air, whether it’s Sharia law, migrant caravans, CRT, the transgender bathroom bills, and so on. They’ve been really successful at creating divisions and exploiting them. But you’re one of the few lawmakers who seems to have really called it out for what it is. Why do you think so many folks are reluctant to do that and call out these boogeymen?

MM: I think a lot of it is the idea that if you ignore a bully long enough, they’re just going to go away, right? Fundamentally, bullies want attention. You feel this about online trolls, that if there’s a random person coming at you on Facebook or Twitter, what they want is attention. They want a response, they want to engage. And I was someone for a long time who…there’s this question of, well, if I give this theory or this idea air, does it gain life that it didn’t have before? You know, a lot of these accusations of grooming in particular came out of QAnon. This was a conspiracy theory from the darkest corners of the internet, but we have to recognize that ignoring it certainly hasn’t made it go away. It’s only become louder and it’s been pulled out into the open. This is no longer, you know, conspiracy theories somewhere online. It’s being leveraged by one of our two major political parties and weaponized to hurt people. And that definitely changed my mind about it.

I also represent a fairly moderate district. I flipped a Republican district when I ran for the first time and we get phone calls. One phone call that we get fairly regularly from an older woman who must be on the GOP mailing list and might listen to Fox News all the time, she fundamentally believes that the election was stolen, that her vote doesn’t count, that trans athletes are ruining women’s sports…. And that’s the thing that really hurts me is — again, if you’re vulnerable and susceptible to this messaging, it’s taking advantage of her, too…. They’re lying to her, too. 

And I think that is where we can call it out for what it is, to blunt the attack, but also just pull the veil off of it and say, this doesn’t help anybody. It’s just covering up the fact that there are no solutions being offered to help you. It’s scapegoating in the most literal sense of what that has meant, from Nazi propaganda on forward, to somehow make you believe that your problems are somebody else’s fault, when they’re not. And it hurts everybody. Everybody loses.

LH: With that idea in mind, how do you — when people genuinely believe these things, they are genuinely afraid — how do you handle that? How do you address those fears while not disregarding or devaluing other members of our society? What’s the plan for that?

MM: We have to show that this is a political strategy, and the only way that it ends is if there are political losses. I mean, that’s why I feel very, very strongly about, I’ve kind of taken up the mantle of, “hate won’t win.” And I say that very intentionally. I think the only way to, frankly, pull people out of it is to change who’s in power.

LH: I imagine you’re seeing a group of those folks on one end of the spectrum, and then your typical supporters on the other end, but then there’s this new sort of middle ground. And I’m wondering, for people who don’t identify as Democrats but they’re not behind what’s going on in the extreme areas of the Republican party, what do you want them to know about you?

MM: Well, I was very intentional in the speech that I gave that went viral. I didn’t say Republican or Democrat once in that speech. If we’ve got people who I represent, who maybe are lifelong Republicans but they don’t recognize this version of the Republican party, I don’t want them to go on the defensive and think that I’m saying something about them when really I’m talking about the leadership of this current Republican party, which has moved so far away from  — you know, I represent Mitt Romney’s hometown. This is no longer Mitt Romney’s Republican party. This is something much darker.

So what I try to say to people is: Right now, there’s a choice between people who believe in our country and our system and want it to work, and people who don’t. And that’s it.

And maybe after this cycle, or after a few cycles, we can get back to a place where it’s a little more normal and we’ve got Republicans and Democrats debating tax policy, but that’s not where we are right now. 

I think a majority of people want it to work. And it’s still this very vocal, scary minority who is out there screaming and trying to sow chaos. And the strategy really is to wear you down so much that you quit, but we can’t quit.

And we also have to give people space to engage with us. I think Democrats sometimes struggle with that. At the end of the day, governing in politics is about numbers — you need more people to vote with you than vote with the other side to move forward. We have to give people some grace and recognize that not every single person is going to agree with us on every single thing, but there are more of us who believe in this country and want it to work, and we all have to work together.

KV: Going into the election, what issues are you focusing on as part of your platform, and did going viral change that and impact who you’re getting support from now?

MM: I don’t know that it changed what I was running on. I mean, the speech I gave didn’t happen in a vacuum, and being in Michigan, we’ve seen this trend of attacks on voting rights and democracy, and these are all issues that I’ve been active on for years. So what my message to my constituents is, and has been, is that there’s a lot on the line right now.

It’s common to be advised to sort of stay under the radar if you’re in a marginal district, and not rock the boat too much. But that’s not who I am, fundamentally. So I’ve always been really vocal about what I believe in, wanting it to work, and and wanting things to move forward. My case to voters is that you deserve somebody who recognizes the urgency of this moment and is going to fight with that urgency every day. I think that’s only been buoyed by the response to my speech a few weeks ago, because so many people said, “I’ve been waiting for somebody to express the feelings that I have, instead of kind of tamping it down.” So I don’t know that it’s changed anything; it’s just really reassured me that I’m on the right path. 

One of the coolest things, as more people nationally know who I am, is seeing my constituents pop up on Twitter, on Facebook, and seeing them be really proud of me, telling people in threads, “This is who she’s always been.” And I hope to come back to keep doing it.