Feb. 22 2017 12:59 AM

Spending and dark money become hot button issues

Left: Brown Clarke; Center: Bernero; Right: Schor
Courtesy Photos

Lansing’s 2017 candidates and dark money groups could spend as much as a million dollars in eight months in a bid to elect a new mayor. Dark money — untraceable money ostensibly spent to educate voters about a candidate’s views — is already a front and center issue in a campaign that is still forming.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero said in a press release Friday that he was “prepared” to reapply for my job” for a fourth term. Today, State Rep. Andy Schor announced his run. And Lansing City Councilwoman Judi Brown Clarke confirmed Monday she is “leaning” toward a run for the top executive office.

Bernero’s press release attacked Schor for his “ties” to No Secret Lansing Deals, a group that claims to be made of small business owners and citizens fed up with “secrecy” in Lansing politics. The group’s spokesman, PR guy TJ Bucholz, is helping Schor roll out his candidacy.

Bernero’s attack piece accused Schor of adding Bucholz to his payroll , but both Bucholz and Schor said Bucholz is a volunteer, although they don’t rule out a paid position for him as the campaign progresses.

Bernero said the tie between Bucholz and No Secret Lansing Deals — which won’t reveal who its members are or how much money is being spent — was “an ironic twist.”

But Bernero appears to have his own ties to a shadowy dark money group, Capitol Region Progress. That group made headlines and racked up Federal Communications Commission complaints in 2015 with what neighborhood activists labeled improper robocalls. It also sent out mailers in the 1st and 3rd Ward Council races aimed at hobbling candidates not favored by Bernero. The group is a political education nonprofit, or a 501(c)4, which are not required to disclose donors. It’s been tied to the bipartisan political consulting firm of Grassroots Midwest, and that group’s communications director is identified in filings as the contact for the group.

Jody Washington, who was a target of those mailings in 2015 as she successfully sought reelection to represent the city’s 1st Ward, said developer Pat Gillespie confirmed to her, following the election, that Bernero had asked him to donate to the group.

Reached by phone Monday, Gillespie said, “I don’t know what she is talking about.” He promised to check his records for any donations to the group and call back. He did not call back.

An associate of a Lansing developer confirmed being approached by Bernero to donate to Capitol Region Progress. He did not wish to be identified out of concern for retaliation by Bernero.

For his part, Bernero has never confirmed or denied his involvement with the group. He did not respond to a request for an interview through his campaign consultant, Kody Vitale, for this story.

Previously, Bernero ignored questions in 2015 about whether he is involved in the organization. Instead, he responded with a statement: “Capitol Region Progress has been active in city elections for the past four years, so it is no surprise they are involved in this cycle. While I may not agree with all their tactics, I appreciate that they support a pro-jobs, pro-growth agenda and they care enough about metro Lansing to oppose candidates who they believe are an obstacle to progress.”

Schor has a history of introducing legislation to shine a light on groups like No Secret Lansing Deals, Reform Lansing and Capitol Region Progress. The latter two operate as political education nonprofits, which means the donors don’t have to be revealed. The groups can use the money raised to “educate” voters, as long as they don’t use the so-called magic words of vote for or against a given candidate. Those groups are governed by federal law.

Bucholz said that No Secret Lansing Deals is not a political nonprofit but a loose coalition of business owners and citizens who are raising awareness about Lansing area development issues. He won’t disclose who is funding the program, which has retained Bucholz to handle the “digital footprint” and communications. He said members fear retaliation from Bernero and City Hall.

Steve Japinga, director of government relations for the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce, said candidates need to disclose their ties to the dark money organizations, and that the organizations need to disclose their donors. The chamber is a major player in local politics through its political action committee’s endorsement.

He also expressed skepticism that the tactics of Capital Region Progress will work in this year's city elections.

“It didn’t work in 2015,” he said, “I don’t know why they think it will work in 2017.”

The candidates themselves will be raising cash to promote their visions as mayor. Schor said he expects to raise and spend $250,000 and he expects the mayor will raise and spend double that. Brown Clarke said if she runs for mayor she expects to raise and spend $150,000.

At stake are the keys to Lansing City Hall for the next four years and the $128,000 annual salary to the top voter getter. Most important,, whoever voters select in November will establish a vision for the city.

Schor can transfer the balance of his state representative campaign committee into a committee for his run for mayor. At the beginning of December, Schor had nearly $70,000 on hand according to campaign finance reports on file with the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office. He has since held his annual beer tasting fundraiser event so that nest egg is likely higher now.

On the other hand, Bernero’s end of the year campaign report showed he had nearly $142,000 on hand as of Dec. 31.

Brown Clarke’s campaign owes nearly $12,000 to her and her husband, 54-A District Court Judge Hugh Clarke. But she said that was a deliberate move on her part.

“There’s some things that I've done strategically that probably make me look like an underdog,” Brown Clarke said Monday afternoon. “But the bottom line is once I come out I'm coming out strong — just as I did athletically,” a reference to the Silver Medal she won in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.