Aug. 17 2017 10:18 AM
Big interests playing big role as Council field shapes up

Without Virg Bernero at the top of the ticket this November, the city elections could revive suppressed factionalism.

“It looks like we’re in for an old-fashioned fight in the 2nd Ward,” said Susan Demas, editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics. She noted that outgoing Mayor Bernero has been very good at marrying union and business interests together. But with him out of the race, “it appears some of the old coalitions are reasserting themselves,” Demas said.

Bernero had been able to bring labor, business and developers together into a political machine, Demas noted. That machine he often turned loose to campaign for his chosen candidates.

In the 2nd Ward, incumbent City Councilwoman Tina Houghton is facing a challenge by political novice Jeremy Garza in a race shaping up to be one of union, versus developers. Houghton, one of Bernero’s longtime political proteges, cashed in on her ties to developers, and challenger Garza has cashed in on his union ties, particularly with plumbers and pipefitters. Garza is a union plumber.

That combination is spelling out big cash in a relatively small race, according to campaign finance records filed shortly before the Aug. 8 primary with Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum.

Garza raised 82 percent of his $25,409 from union PACs, mostly plumber affiliated ones. Houghton, raised just under 65 percent of her $14,260 from out of towners, most of them developers.

Houghton barely made it out of the primary, inching out neighborhood activist Julee Rodocker by only 35 votes. She got 22 percent of the primary vote, or 660 votes; while Garza got 41 percent of the primary vote, or 1,190 votes. In November, one-third of the voters cast ballots for Donald Trump in the general election.

City Clerk Chris Swope has predicted 25 percent of the 80,000 or so registered voters will cast votes in November. Each ward has roughly 20,000 registered voters, he said.

The November ballot will feature a battle between State Rep. Andy Schor and Judi Brown Clarke for mayor. It will also feature races for four Council seats: two at-large plus the 2nd and 4th Ward seats. With Brown Clarke not seeking a second term as an at-large member on the Council, that leaves her seat open. Jessica Yorko, the 4th Ward Councilwoman, is not seeking reelection either, leaving her seat up for grabs.

Demas also noted that Bernero’s notable absence from supporting Houghton and incumbent At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar either publicly or through campaign contributions could be a calculation “because he figures he’d hurt people more than help them.” But she is uncertain that will stay that way in the general, particularly if either candidate, longtime allies of his, are seen to be floundering in their respective races.

While Dunbar appears to be comfortably placed to retain her seat, Demas said “she can’t rest on her laurels” in a four-candidate race in which the top two vote-getters will be elected.

Dunbar, who finished first in the 2013 primary election, placed second this year, with 4,720 votes, to Lansing School Board member Peter Spadafore’s 5,110 votes. Guillermo Lopez, another Lansing School Board member, placed third with 2,947 votes, followed by Michigan State Police Trooper Kyle Bowman with 1,854. Demas said. Whoever knocks doors and engages in “retail politics” for the race could upset the expectation that Spadafore and Dunbar are the likely winners in November.

“It could mean one of them gets edged out,” she said.

Finances are a big deal as well, said Mark Grebner, a longtime political consultant who sells lists of voters to candidates.

He said any candidate that is going to make a move needs to have cash on hand.

“To be serious, you need about a buck a voter,” he said. “That’ll buy you one, maybe two mailings and some yard signs. More than that and you can spend money on the more lavish things, like cable television. Less than that and you’re not actually competitive.”

In the at-large race, the four finalists raised a combined $82,434. Just over half of that was raised by Spadafore at $44,097; followed by Dunbar, $17,290; Bowman, $15,527; and Lopez, $5,520.

In the 4th Ward, candidates Brian T. Jackson and James McClurken are battling for the open seat.

Incumbent Yorko tossed her support behind Jackson, as has a national political action committee.

Jackson finished 17 percent ahead of McClurken.

McClurken concedes Jackson knocked more doors during the primary.

“I started before he did,” McClurken said on Tuesday. “By the time I finished knocking doors in the ward one time, he was already coming around again.”

He’s promising a “better ground game” for the general election.

Even so, Demas, who is married to McClurken consultant Joe DiSano, noted that he is in for “an uphill battle.”

“I think the untold dynamic is this new national with a big Michigan presence,” Demas said of the Launch Progress PAC out of New York. That group, Jackson said earlier this year, was working to elect progressive candidates to local offices. “I think that organization was good for Jackson. It flew under the radar and helped his organizing.”

Campaign records show that of the $5,059 Jackson raised before the primary, just over 51 percent came from New York. Other donations from Chicago, Florida, Texas, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. McClurken raised $16,620, with 68 percent coming from people in Lansing.


Jackson went for broke in the primary, leaving himself 59 cents in his campaign war chest. McClurken had $2,312 on hand.

The impact of out of the city and union cash is part of a ”troubling” local, state and national trend in politics, said Craig Mauger, executive director of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Said Mauger, “There is a difference between who is funding the campaigns, and who it is the candidate wants to represent.”