How we make the call
Truth Squad assigns five ratings to the political statements we review, in descending levels of accuracy:
|Who||National Republican Congressional Committee|
|What||“Home,” 30-second video|
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.
(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.
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.