WASHINGTON — It is fair to say that until last month, Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow was not a figure of national political prominence. That changed on April 19, when she delivered an impassioned speech countering Republican accusations that Democrats like she were “groomers” for supporting the rights of gay and trans students.
The four-minute broadside immediately roused Democrats who had been huddled in a defensive crouch for months; one circulating version has been viewed more than 15 million times
“I’m going to start talking that way,” Democratic consultant James Carville told the Washington Post.
“A role model for the midterms,” read a headline in the New Yorker.
The speech came after months of charges from politicians like Ron DeSantis, the ambitious Republican Florida governor, that teachers who wanted to discuss sexuality and gender were, in fact, trying to indoctrinate children. The charges were baseless but effective, and books like “Gender Queer” suddenly became the targets of national bans.
“There was a hesitancy to want to talk about things, at least for me,” McMorrow told Yahoo News during a recent visit to Washington, D.C.
That changed on April 13, when Republican state Sen. Lana Theis gave an arresting invocation to open the Michigan State Senate session. “Dear Lord, across the country we’re seeing in the news that our children are under attack,” Theis said. “That there are forces that desire things for them other than what their parents would have them see and hear and know. Dear Lord, I pray for Your guidance in this chamber to protect the most vulnerable among us.”
McMorrow walked out of the legislative chamber along with two other Democrats, seeing Theis’s concern as a thinly disguised reference to the “grooming” line of attack. She did not think much of her response to what had seemed like intentional political provocation, a local Republican trying to replicate the rhetoric of Fox News.
“I guess she took offense to that,” McMorrow said of Theis.
Five days later, Theis sent out a fundraising email that seemed to confirm as much. “These are the people we are up against,” the email said. “Progressive social media trolls like Senator Mallory McMorrow (D-Snowflake) who are outraged they ... can’t groom and sexualize kindergarteners or that 8-year-olds are responsible for slavery.”
McMorrow said she was stunned to find herself a target of such attacks. “She’s a mom, I’m a mom, and being accused of, let’s be honest, befriending children for the purpose of molesting them, is horrific,” McMorrow recalled.
She and Theis were not exactly friends, but they had been friendly. “I have gone out for coffee in her district. We talked about our families, and she asks about my baby all the time,” McMorrow told Yahoo News.
“She likes my truck,” adds her husband Ray Wert, who accompanied McMorrow to Washington and is the former editor of automotive website Jalopnik. (Theis did not answer a request for comment from Yahoo News.)
The fundraising email had gone out on a Monday. On Tuesday came McMorrow’s response.
“I am the biggest threat to your hollow, hateful scheme,” McMorrow said from the statehouse floor.
Describing herself as “a straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom,” the 35-year-old New Jersey native and Notre Dame graduate positioned herself as precisely the kind of suburban voter whom the GOP “grooming” attacks were trying to court.
She addressed not only Republican attacks on gay and trans kids but also charges that schools were imposing divisive racial justice ideas that are broadly (and often inaccurately) deemed Critical Race Theory.
“No child alive today is responsible for slavery,” McMorrow said in her viral speech. “No one in this room is responsible for slavery. But each and every single one of us bears responsibility for writing the next chapter of history.”
Dismaying as it had been to be labeled a pedophile, McMorrow says she tried to imagine what it was like to be gay or Black in a climate she described as relentless “fearmongering” by Republicans. “You are targeted and marginalized,” she said. “Just for existing.”
Coming amid increasingly downbeat predictions for Democrats in next fall’s congressional midterms, McMorrow’s rebuttal proved a welcome surprise at a time when Democrats were still reeling from discontent over pandemic-related school closures, not to mention the gender- and race-related attacks that followed.
In Virginia, suburban frustrations helped power the Republican business executive Glenn Youngkin to an upset victory over Democratic candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe in that state’s gubernatorial race last fall. The suburbs hugging the Potomac — the same ones that had voted for Biden only months before — provided the crucial difference.
“Suburban moms who have left the Republican Party in big numbers came back,” a jubilant Bob McDonnell — Virginia’s last Republican governor before Youngkin — told the Washington Post after the latter’s unlikely win over McAuliffe.
In McMorrow’s Michigan and across the Midwest, Republicans now control nearly all of the state legislatures. Democrats in Washington have found their messages about a post-pandemic economic renewal unconvincing to a suburban and rural electorate uneasy about social issues like education and crime.
Democrats need to reawaken those voters’ sense of moral responsibility, McMorrow believes, while acknowledging the challenges they face. “Moms are tired after the past few years with COVID, with school closures, trying to balance work and school, and I've seen attempts to take advantage of that exhaustion,” she told Yahoo News. “What I try to say, specifically to other white suburban moms, is this is a moment to decide to take our own identity and back fight for the types of communities we want.”
Perhaps precisely because she is herself a straight, white suburbanite, McMorrow has served to remind Democrats of what they stood for when they marched in the summer of 2020 for social justice, what they hoped for when they voted for Biden that fall. “I think I felt the same way a lot of people did on Inauguration Day, which was, we all worked so hard in 2020 to help President Biden get elected,” she says. “And it felt like we could breathe a sigh of relief. And I don’t think that was naive.”
Despite a promising start, new variants of the coronavirus spoiled Biden’s promised “summer of freedom,” and a sort of pandemic malaise has settled in. A messy withdrawal from Afghanistan added foreign policy woes to domestic ones. Biden’s infrastructure plan passed, but his more ambitious raft of social spending programs, known as Build Back Better, didn’t. Inflation climbed ever higher, making it increasingly difficult for many people to afford groceries and gas.
McMorrow saw some of her conservative constituents give over to Trump’s false claims that the election had been stolen from him. That conspiracy theory has melded with a resistance to coronavirus safety measures and fears of demographic change to fuel a pervasive feeling of grievance and threat.
She describes herself as wanting to speak for other suburban moms: perhaps the ones who put up Black Lives Matter and Hate Has No Home Here signs in their yards, but have, in the last two years, grown successively more exhausted with school closures, reports of rising crime and inflation.
“The signs are a wonderful signal and reminder of who we are and what kind of community and country we want our kids to grow up in,” McMorrow told Yahoo News of front yard progressivism. “But the devastating reality is that Republicans are actively trying to dismantle that vision, and a sign isn't enough without action. Because they'll win unless we stop them.”
Almost exactly two years before she gave her now-famous speech, McMorrow watched as heavily armed anti-lockdown protesters invaded the Michigan statehouse.
“When you saw the photo of the four men and guns, what you don't see is I'm right below them. Like literally,” she says of that day’s iconic image. “They were above our heads, taunting us. You know, fingers on triggers.”
“There's ordinary Republican voters who see it as bulls***,” she says, even as she worries that many of them have bought into a strident and often false narrative about the country. “I've got a woman in my district who calls our office fairly regularly and leaves voicemails, and you can hear her voice like she's genuinely upset. She believes the election was stolen,” she recalled. “She asks how I, as a woman, could support ‘biological men’ playing in women's sports. When you know in Michigan, there's two kids per year who apply for the waiver for getting to play on a team to match their gender.”
After the massacre of 19 children and two adults in Uvalde, Texas, last week, Republicans in the Michigan State Senate ended sessions early, in order, state Democrats said, to prevent a genuine discussion of gun policy.
In response, McMorrow recorded a video from her office. She asked parents to dispense with the notion of a school shooting as “unimaginable” and to instead imagine the horror of their own children caught in the terrifying chaos
“Your phone rings. It’s the school,” They need you to come down to give a DNA sample,” a tearful McMorrow says into the camera. “The bodies are too mutilated to identify. So mutilated that they don’t even know how many kids there are.”
The video garnered hundreds of thousands of views, more evidence that McMorrow was hitting raw political nerves. Even before the new message, liberal commentator Keith Olbermann was touting her as a presidential candidate in 2024, positing a run with Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke. It was less a realistic ticket than a recognition that many Democrats feel that they need new people to say new things — and to say them more bluntly than their party elders have.
For the record, McMorrow said she isn’t going to seek the White House — at least not in 2024. “We’re in this mess because Republicans have known for decades to work from the bottom up,” she told Yahoo News. “What happens in the states is the most consequential thing on the ballot.”