How secret donors tried to shape Michigan’s next House GOP caucus

LANSING — Republican Bill Hirsch describes the piece of glossy mail with his photograph on it as a “punch in the gut.” The dairy farmer from Caledonia admits even a few days after Tuesday’s primary election, it’s still difficult to talk about it.

Hirsch, a GOP candidate in Western Michigan’s 72nd House District, raised just $1,408 for his campaign. Still, a mystery group, the 21st Century Leadership Fund, decided to attack him, sending out a mailer that stated Hirsch had been delinquent on his taxes for 15 years. The mailers asked voters to contact him. But the phone number listed was wrong. And the number on the mailers had been disconnected.

“They put the wrong number on there intentionally,” Hirsch maintains, explaining that he believes it was meant to signal that he hadn’t even paid his phone bill.

The mailers against Hirsch, who finished in fourth in a five-way race, are one example of vicious attacks levied in the final days before last Tuesday’s primary by two dark money-funded groups. Combined, the two groups attacked at least seven Republican House candidates across five House districts, potentially impacting at least one-fifth of the races for open seats currently held by the House GOP.

They’re all seats that Democrats have little hope of trying to win in November.

Dark money groups also played a role in Democratic primary races for House seats this summer. But those groups were focused on individual races. On the GOP side, the groups seemed to have broader intentions. Their attacks tended to focus on candidates who were the more conservative options in competitive races and who were already at a fundraising disadvantage.

One of the groups, Michigan’s Responsible Taxpayers, attacked at least four candidates across three different GOP primary races. The other, the 21st Century Leadership Fund, attacked at least three candidates across two different races. Both groups appear to be nonprofit organizations.

Because the groups didn’t explicitly tell voters to vote for or against a candidate, their actions don’t fall under Michigan’s loose campaign finance disclosure requirements. So it’s impossible to know how many races the groups played in total or, more importantly, who funded the attacks.

Michigan’s Responsible Taxpayers, which is connected to a former Democratic House staffer turned political consultant, alleged one candidate in a Macomb County race “had no real work experience.”

Across the state, in Western Michigan, the 21st Century Leadership Fund urged voters to call another candidate and “ask if her ethics are Clinton-like.”

In the Northern Michigan 97th District, Michigan’s Responsible Taxpayers ran radio advertisements against Jacob Link, a conservative running in a five-way race. Link said the radio ads attempted to tie him to the Black Lives Matter movement and indicated that he wanted to disarm law enforcement.

“This group is so worried about me winning that they are now airing ads on another set of radio stations,” Link posted on Facebook before the election. “Please ignore the ads and tell everybody that I am fully supportive of our law enforcement officials.”

In that same Facebook post, Link described the nonprofit as “anti-conservative.” Link ended up finishing second to Jason Wentworth, of Clare, who had raised the most money of the candidates in the race.

Michigan’s Responsible Taxpayers also attacked a conservative candidate in the 83rd District, which covers Sanilac County and portions of St. Clair County. There, a mailer that alleged candidate Shane Hernandez, of Port Huron, was friends with “a felon and a pervert” arrived in mailboxes on the day before the primary election, Hernandez said.

Hernandez was locked in a competitive race. His top opponent was Matt Muxlow, of Brown City, the son of the district’s current representative.

The nonprofit group also ran a robocall against Hernandez. Both attacks attempted to tie him to a GOP official with criminal convictions on his record and also to former Rep. Todd Courser, who was forced out of office in 2015 after a sex scandal.

“Our campaign just didn’t react to them,” Hernandez said of the mailers and robocalls. “They were ridiculous and baseless.”

Hernandez ended up winning the three-way race in the 83rd with 46.8 percent of the vote.

Over in the 33rd House District in Macomb County, Michigan’s Responsible Taxpayers attacked two candidates who had campaigned as conservatives. The group sent out negative mailers against Colleen Carl, of Armada, and Mel Koch, of Macomb. The mailers alleged Koch was connected to special interests and personally jabbed Carl, the daughter of a former state senator.

“What does Colleen Carl really care about?” one of the pieces read. “Colleen Carl. That’s what Colleen Carl cares about.”

Carl and Koch finished in second and third place in a six-way contest in the 33rd. Jeff Yaroch, of Richmond, won.

Michigan’s Responsible Taxpayers is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, allegedly based in Lansing.

According to public filings, its authorized officer is Adrian Hemond, a political consultant whose firm Grassroots Midwest works with many incumbent House lawmakers and House candidates, both Republican and Democratic, according to campaign finance filings. Hemond was previously a Democratic staffer working under House Minority Leader Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills).

Hemond declined to comment on this report.

This isn’t Michigan’s Responsible Taxpayers’ first attempt to impact elections. The group has intervened in a variety of races across the state previously.

Under Michigan law, despite its attempts to spend money against candidates, its donors can be kept secret, and it’s impossible to know who funded the latest round of attacks aimed at conservative candidates.

While the details of who’s behind Michigan’s Responsible Taxpayers are fuzzy, they’re even fuzzier with 21st Century Leadership, which used similar strategies to attack Hirsch and at least two other House candidates before Tuesday’s primary.

On its mailers, the 21st Century Leadership Fund listed its address as that of a Grand Rapids packing and shipping store. While there is no political action committee on file with the state by that name, a nonprofit with the name 21st Century Leadership Fund was incorporated in Michigan 10 years ago. For many of its annual filings with the state, the nonprofit has also listed Grand Rapids addresses.

For its 2015 annual filing, prominent Republican attorney Eric Doster, who also serves as general counsel for the Michigan Republican Party, was listed as the nonprofit’s authorized officer. In 2014, the 21st Century Leadership Fund’s board president was listed as William Jackson, who works for the multi-client lobbying firm McAlvey, Merchant & Associates. The nonprofit’s address on its 2014 filing was similar to the address Jackson has listed on lobbying disclosures.

MCFN couldn’t reach Jackson for comment. And Doster said Jackson would be unavailable to answer questions for about a week or so. Asked whether Jackson was the only person able to answer questions about the mailers, Doster indicated that Jackson would be the person in the "best position" to do that.

The organization’s 2014 filing says its mission is to “engage in social welfare activities.”

In addition to Hirsch, the 21st Century Leadership Fund sent out mailers against attorney Katherine Henry, of Belding, a self-described conservative candidate running in the Western Michigan 86th District.

The mailers attempted to tie Henry to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama. In one mailer alone, Henry was said to be suspected of bribing a public official, to have been investigated by the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission and to have “controversial bill practices," Henry said.

“Call Katherine Henry and ask if her ethics are Clinton like?” the mailer said.

Henry lost her GOP race by 851 votes to Thomas Albert, of Lowell.

In an interview this week, Henry described the attacks in the mailers as “libel” and mischaracterizations. For instance, she said one of her political opponents filed a complaint with the attorney grievance commission about her. The commission ultimately decided not to investigate it, she said.

The 21st Century Leadership Fund also attacked Republican Steven Johnson, of Wayland, who was in the same five-way race in the 72nd District that Hirsch was in. For Johnson, the fund tried to connect him to former Rep. Cindy Gamrat, who had an affair with Courser before the two were forced from office in 2015.

Johnson reportedly was previously an intern for Gamrat. “Steven Johnson got an education working for Cindy Gamrat,” as the mailer described it.

Johnson ended up winning the primary despite the attack.

Of the attack against him, Hirsch noted that he’s a dairy farmer and milk prices have been problematic. Hirsch said he pays $8,000 in property taxes each year but has been one-year behind on his taxes. That’s where the mailer came up with the attack line that he’s been delinquent for 15 years.

“The way you read it I haven’t paid taxes for 15 years,” Hirsch said.

Craig Mauger is executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts research and public education on money in Michigan politics.

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Tue, 08/09/2016 - 10:09am
Great story. I'm not sure that there is any way to "disconnect" money from politics. After all, in a free society where political and regulatory decisions direct the flow of huge amounts of cash, costs and benefits, you can't expect folks either filling the trough through taxes and fees and/or drinking from the trough of benefits to just sit back and not organize to change the direction of the trough in their favor now can you? However, you can more easily force those who attempt to push the trough their way to fess up about their efforts. Light, light bring us more light. Make'em say who they are by name and how much they spend to influence government.
Tue, 08/09/2016 - 4:58pm
Thanks Peter. - Craig
Tue, 08/09/2016 - 10:34am
We may not be able to get all the money out of politics, but in a free society we sure should be able to know who is spending it. Freedom of speech should include the right to know who is speaking. The law needs to be changed.
David L Richards
Tue, 08/09/2016 - 10:42am
Absolutely. Not only is this anonymous mudslinging unfair to the candidates, it is damaging to democracy.
Sun, 08/14/2016 - 3:17pm
Absolutely. Sunlight is needed in our elections.
Thu, 08/25/2016 - 8:41am
dear dave, u r dreaming,it's the lib's u r talking about. u should do some homework.
Kevin Grand
Tue, 08/09/2016 - 1:41pm
Mr. Mauger, have you tried contacting Stephen Linder regarding the Michigan's Responsible Taxpayers PAC or John VanFossen about the 21st Century Leadership Fund?
Tue, 08/09/2016 - 2:58pm
I haven't reached out to those two individuals yet. I am aware of Mr. Linder and I know Mr. VanFossen has been listed on some official state filings for the 21st Century Leadership Fund. Thanks for the tip. - Craig
Lorraine McGoldrick
Wed, 08/10/2016 - 5:04pm
Check out the case of Taxpayers for Accountability the only case to go the full distant in Michigan. Fines of almost $10,000 were given on these same MO. Great story and keep the pressure on so this stops happening in our State.
Jay Charles
Tue, 08/09/2016 - 4:19pm
Until the legislature changes it's osition on hiding the money providers for these attacks and opens up transparency, it isn't going to change.
Tue, 08/09/2016 - 10:46pm
Maybe they should talk to Arlen Meekhof about his 616 PAC. He's involved in a lot of shady deals. He was responsible for smear campaigns in Ottawa County.
Wed, 08/10/2016 - 8:29am
Doster needs to go
Elizabeth Sadowski
Wed, 08/10/2016 - 2:13pm
Hey, I'm a Democrat and one might think I'd be pleased as punch to see Republicans savaging each other this way, but I'm not. This type of stuff turns my stomach. It is reprehensible, and the ones responsible should be exposed. Don't these people have a conscience? Rotten cowards.
Alex Kassel
Thu, 08/11/2016 - 6:44pm
I could be wrong but, as I recall things, a few decades ago there were tougher campaign laws including laws about lieing on the air waves. I can not recall much about the enforcement, if any, of those laws. Regardless, I do not think there are any such laws now. Furthermore it seems pretty clear that the enforcement of such laws is anathema to our free speech legal system. Now we have candidates willing to endorse violence against their rivals and their rivals supporters. This can not have any happy ending. Someone is going to get hurt with campaign rhetoric like that. Gabby Giffords was targeted by Sarah Palin campaign literature that put Giffords' image in the cross hair of a rifle. That was just a couple weeks before another 2nd Amendment nutjob shot Giffords and several others, killing a few. If this keeps up someone should spend a little time in jail if they choose to use such violent rhetoric. And this should especially apply to the candidates themselves.
Fri, 08/12/2016 - 10:58am
Good insight into the dirty side of politics. Our state govt is so demonstratably corrupt, and full of low end individuals like the ones that made these flyers. Look at the lcc, and the state rep that passed a midnight law prohibiting buying wine from out of state over the Internet. Quit the next term and became a "lobbyist" for the group she did her dirty work for. I'm sure it's this way all over. There will be plenty of room in hell for these types. (I hope)
Patrick Shannon
Sun, 08/14/2016 - 12:09pm
I doubt if Ms Henry's defeat by 851 votes was due to the use of dark money. Ms Henry was defeated in the Republican primary along with two other candidates by Thomas Albert a young father who is a Marine combat veteran, UofM bachelors, MSU MBA, born and raised in the district to German, Irish, Catholic farming families. Sometimes in rural communities ones families, friends, and experience "trumps" dark financial political influence. Good excuse but it doesn't fly in this house race.
Sun, 08/14/2016 - 3:20pm
Well, let's see... the GOP loves the existing situation where no one knows who's behind the smears, etc. Now that it's being directed at them let's see if they do something about it. I bet they do nothing except go chasing more dollars from the wealthy and corporations (whose interests are all that matter to the GOP).