Foul on GOP for innuendo on Johnson’s home

How we make the call

Truth Squad assigns five ratings to the political statements we review, in descending levels of accuracy:

No factual inaccuracies in the statement and no important information is missing
Mostly accurate
While the statement is largely accurate, it omits or exaggerates facts, or needs some clarification
Half accurate
Truths are interspersed with mistruths, or the speaker left out significant facts that render his/her remarks misleading in important respects
Mostly inaccurate
The major point or points made are untrue or misleading, even while some aspects of the claim may be accurate
The statement is false, or based on false underlying facts

WhoNational Republican Congressional Committee
What“Home,” 30-second video
The callFoul

Northern Michigan is remote and unassuming and its residents are proud of it. Upper Peninsula denizens call themselves Yoopers and downstate folks trolls (as in, those who live under the bridge). So it’s not surprising that the actual residency of two candidates seeking to represent this region in Congress has emerged as a campaign issue. Democrat Lon Johnson faces Republican Jack Bergman for the open seat. Both men stand accused of fibbing about their primary residence being in northern Michigan. The case against Bergman is examined in a separate Truth Squad.

Let’s first note that there is no constitutional requirement that candidates live in the congressional district they hope to represent (they only need live in the same state). The back and forth of these attacks then is less about eligibility for office than in trying to convince voters the other candidate is an opportunistic outsider.

The sprawling 1st Congressional District encompasses the entire U.P. and all or part of 17 counties in the northern Lower Peninsula.

In a 30-second video ad, the National Republican Congressional Committee suggests that Lon Johnson is a political carpetbagger, with his “real” residence a “penthouse apartment” in downtown Detroit.

Relevant statements

(Voiceover by Johnson in one of his own ads: “I made my choice. This is home,” showing Johnson in front of what appears to be his northern Michigan residence.) “That’s Lon Johnson.” (Johnson, again: “This is home.”) “Mm, not quite. Lon Johnson owns a fishing cabin, but does he live there? Or here, in his penthouse apartment? (Video shows a gleaming city building) Downtown Detroit. Valet parking, in-house catering, housekeeping. Must be nice.” (Johnson’s voice: “I made my choice. This is home.”) “That seems more like it. Lon Johnson – it’s all an act.”

Statements under review

“Lon Johnson owns a fishing cabin, but does he live there? Or here, in his penthouse apartment?... Lon Johnson – it’s all an act.”

Johnson, the former state chairman for the Democratic party, is indeed a property owner in Kalkaska County, east of Traverse City. Records show that he owns a house on East Bass Lake Road, in Blue Lake Township, with a state equalized value of of $32,500. He is also registered to vote at this address, and has been since October 2011, according to the state Qualified Voter File. His campaign says this is his home, which he shares with his wife of five years, Julianna Smoot. (They were married in Northport.)

Smoot is a Democratic political fundraiser with a national profile; she’s the co-founder and partner of the Smoot Tewes Group, based in Washington D.C. Smoot’s bio on the firm’s website states she divides her time between Michigan and the nation’s capital.

And it’s Smoot’s apartment in Detroit’s David Whitney Building that the NRCC ad suggests is Johnson’s true address. Jen Eyer, a Johnson campaign spokeswoman, says it isn’t, noting that it is leased in Smoot’s name and used by her “for occasional work travel purposes,” because Kalkaska County is so remote. Eyer would not say if the apartment is a penthouse, contending that as it is Smoot’s lease, the information would be intrusive. The David Whitney Building also houses Aloft Detroit, a hotel. As with similar buildings in downtown Detroit, apartment residents can use hotel amenities, which include valet parking, housekeeping and catering.

Eyer said Johnson’s home, glimpsed fleetingly and incompletely in the GOP ad, is not “a fishing cabin;” rather, it has been “fully renovated and updated” for year-round living.

Asked to defend the ad, NRCC spokesman Chris Pack emailed a statement to Truth Squad saying that “Lon Johnson’s own spokesperson admits that Lon Johnson lives in Detroit. Lon Johnson is insulting the intelligence of Northern Michigan voters by insisting that he and his wife live full time in a fishing cabin in the Kalkaska woods, especially when they were recently spotted walking into their ritzy Detroit penthouse in the David Whitney building.” The statement included links to a 2015 Bloomberg Politics story quoting a Democratic spokesman as saying “the chairman” of the party – Johnson, at the time – lives in Detroit, as well as a video showing a couple appearing to be Johnson and Smoot walking past, not into, the Whitney building.

The callFoul

Hey buddy, the NRCC is just asking questions. They don’t come right out and say Johnson is an Up North pretender, only that he might have a key to a fancy apartment downstate, and that his portrayal of himself as a northern Michigander is “all an act.” So, yes, it is accusing Johnson of lying about where he lives. But the evidence doesn’t match the insinuation, even if it’s true that Johnson and his politically active wife sometimes spend time at her Detroit pad. Foul.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Rick N
Tue, 09/27/2016 - 9:38am
This is why the average voter is thoroughly disgusted with the Democratic AND republican parties. NO FOCUS on what is best for the country, only supporting their own gang, with whatever lies and fabrications it takes to get elected. Once elected, it is damn the people.
Rita P
Tue, 09/27/2016 - 12:37pm
If people weren't more influenced by innuendo and nasty angry tones, such ads wouldn't work. They do work, or campaigns wouldn't pay millions for them to be filmed and aired. Voters need to be careful to check out the facts, as you try to help them do here.
Sat, 10/15/2016 - 12:58pm
WHY CARE? I say concentrate on the real issues. I lost a large percentage of my 401K when I retired in 2010 after the 2008 crash. Bergman wants to privatize S.S. so everyone can gamble with their financial security. If Washington worked together for US instead of for their party, S.S. could be on solid ground.
Tue, 09/27/2016 - 3:07pm
So where exactly does Mr Johnson hang his hat? It''s still not clear. How often does he actually occupy the Kalkaska residence?
Tue, 09/27/2016 - 7:29pm
Exactly right Jack. How many nights in the past say two years have Lon and his wife spent in Kalkaska? What was the last job Lon held in Kalkaska? Also the video in question shows Lon walking past the building, but his wife walking into it, as if he were trying to hide the fact he actually lived there. Northern Michigan gets one Congressman. People have a right to be concerned that slot is going to someone from Detroit. Frankly it's insulting to me that any party would think so little of us to pull this.
Nancy Derringer
Tue, 09/27/2016 - 9:56pm
Both candidates have had questions raised about their residency in the district, and our second Truth Squad today deals with the accusations against Jack Bergman.
Tue, 09/27/2016 - 8:32pm
This article doesn't say the Reoublicans are wrong. It goes from a story where the Johnson says he lives in Detroit just last year to acting like its a crazy question to ask if he lives in the district. They never actually confirm he lives there. Quick slight of hand.
Matthew Schoech
Sun, 10/02/2016 - 7:40am
If home is where the heart is, it may be more definitive to know where each grew up. Where were the primary and secondary schools located they attended? Who has more time in here (northern Michigan) apart from temporary job locations? What have they done with their lives apart from politics? etc
Wed, 10/19/2016 - 1:32pm
Maybe Lon could be more honest about where he really lives and where his kids are enrolled in school. Or, wasn't that his daughter that they tried to lead us to believe in the one ad? Surely he doesn't live separate from his wife and daughter. No, that's right his wife lives at the cabin too. It must be that just his young daughter lives separately??? Maybe he should release a copy of his electric and gas (heating) bills, and what did snow removal cost him over the last couple years? Lon could use some guidance with honesty and true disclosure. Also, Falsely declaring your residence for purposes of MI Election Law is a crime, a felony. That crime unlike campaign finance law which must be handled by the SOS, can have charges drawn by a state or county prosecuting attorney. Owning property, in and of itself is not the true measure of residence (MCL 168.11, 168.933, 168.936, 168.938). Many families own hunting/fishing cabins, that doesn't make the cabin a residence. Your cute little diversion to no Constitutional requirement, is silly and naive at best. There's no Constitutional requirement/restriction for speed on a roadway either, but drive 75mph down Blue Lake Road and see how that goes for you. He's "not one of us!" as he so proudly proclaims. I'm a Kalkaska County Resident.