Nov. 2 2011 12:00 AM

The underbelly of local politics


As Mark Twain wrote more than 100 years ago: “… when you are in politics you are in a wasp’s nest with a short shirt-tail ... .”

Ask Lansing City Council candidates,
particularly in the 1st Ward and At-Large races, and they might liken
the past few weeks to living and campaigning in a wasp’s nest.

Over the past two weeks in the At-Large
race, a campaign consultant for At-Large incumbent Derrick Quinney, a
labor-backed, labor-employed candidate (he’s an executive with the
state AFL-CIO), accsed the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce of
“bigoted” and “racist” political strategies. In the 1st Ward, one
candidate, Jody Washington, said her opponent, Lynne Martinez, is
taking advantage of “tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars” to consult
on Ingham County Land Bank initiatives, which turned out to be about
half that. (Washington corrected herself, but said the dollar amount
was immaterial.) And at times, some candidates have been left in the
awkward position of being affiliated with their endorsers’ dirty
campaign tactics after having pledged to run positive campaigns

Is it any surprise that, with less than
a week to go before Lansing residents elect candidates to fill four
positions on the City Council, the races have been divided between
business- and labor-backed candidates? Not really. It might be argued
that it’s a predictable political narrative for this town.

And perhaps it’s getting so heated because, as one Democratic political strategist said, all of the races are close.

“The only thing I’d be surprised about
is the idea that someone will pull away from one of these races,” said
Todd Cook, of Lansing-based Main Street Strategies. And when you get
down to it, he said, candidates might have to renege on their
positive-campaign promises in order to distinguish themselves from
other candidates. “Elections are about differences. If you’re laying
out the differences between yourself and your opponent in an effective
manner, that benefits you.”

But what happens when, say, you don’t
agree with what those who endorse you are doing? Or you don’t agree
with positions they’ve taken on issues? 

“Endorsements used to be ‘validaters.’
If a group endorsed you, you must be OK because they endorsed you,”
Cook said. “That’s not the case anymore. If they’ve endorsed you,
they’re gonna put resources into this race.”

So, do endorsements even matter if they
don’t fully explain where a candidate stands on issues? “They matter in
terms of campaign resources,” Cook said. “If you’re gonna take
someone’s endorsement, that means you get the good with the bad. You
don’t get to cherry-pick — ‘I only like the good parts and all the bad
parts I don’t like’ — come on, give me a break.”

Cook is referring to the chamber, which
supports Tom Stewart and Rory Neuner in the At-Large race, A’Lynne
Robinson in the 3rd Ward and Martinez in the 1st Ward. The chamber also
supports the ballot proposal to sell nearly 13 acres of the former Red
Cedar Golf Course, but it opposes the 4-mill property tax increase for
police, fire and road services in the city. All of the chamber’s
candidates support the millage. 

Over the past few years, campaign
finance records show that the chamber has contributed to both
Republicans and Democrats (the Council races are nonpartisan). That
includes Republican Rick Jones for state Senate, Republican Deb
Shaughnessy for the state House, and Steve Dougan and Andy Schor for
Ingham County commissioner — a Republican and Democrat, respectively.
In the 2009 city races, it spent $10,000 on Mayor Virg Bernero’s
campaign, $2,500 on At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar’s campaign and
$2,000 on 4th Ward Councilwoman Jessica Yorko. It 2007, it spent $5,000
on Gina Nelson’s failed At-Large campaign.

Cook, who worked at the chamber from
2003 to 2007, said the chamber is spending much more on local elections
than it did in his four years. Kristin Beltzer, who has Cook’s former
job as senior vice president of government affairs and public
relations, said it’s true the chamber has increased the amount of money
it’s put into local elections. “I think we’ve worked very hard on that.
Our membership looks at us for a voice of reason. We’ve worked hard to
build a strong PAC,” she said.

Beltzer also said the chamber
“absolutely” realizes that its candidates may not agree with every
position the chamber supports. “We know these are independent thinkers.
We don’t expect people to line up with us all the time. We do expect
people to be open-minded and straight with us. Sometimes we run into

At-Large: Politics is a contact sport

An e-mail Friday landed in my inbox from
a campaign consultant for Quinney, a black man seeking re-election for
his At-Large Council seat, accusing the chamber of “race baiting” and
“bigotry” in its latest literature against Quinney’s record on medical
marijuana dispensaries. Joe DiSano, the consultant from Main Street
Strategies (the same firm as Cook), accused the chamber of darkening a
photo of Quinney, which chamber President Tim Daman adamently denies.
The campaign literature was distributed by the group Greater Lansing
Progress, which Daman called an “effort and initiative within the
Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce.”

Quinney said Sunday he’ll let residents
decide for themselves if the photo was actually darkened and that he
doesn’t want to make it a “race issue.”

“They’ve (the Chamber) certainly gone
above and beyond with all the blatant lies and trying to paint me as a
drug dealer,” he said referring to the medical marijuana literature.
“I’m really disappointed but not surprised as to the depths the chamber
folks will go. Do I think (the photo) was doctored? You can be the
judge of that.” Quinney emphatically agrees, though, with the notion
that the chamber has been trying to suggest he is a drug dealer.

In fact, Quinney’s position on medical marijuana
dispensaries was basically lock-step with that of the mayor’s. Both
supported allowing dispensaries in any zoned property in the city,
except for residential and parking. Both were against capping the
number of them and believed the buffering requirements between
businesses would have sufficiently solved a clustering problem. Both
believe that without dispensaries, the medical marijuana trade would
revert, illegally, to neighborhoods and from people’s homes. Bernero
even had City Attorney Brig Smith draft an ordinance outlining these
rules, but that received little to no attention in the media and at
City Hall. 

Quinney’s campaign also released a radio
ad Tuesday that will run through Monday. In the 60-second spot, Quinney
says the “Chamber of Commerce is spending thousands of dollars to
distort my voting record.” He also says, in light of Bernero supporting
Neuner: “On Council issues, Mayor Virg Bernero has a right to his
opinion but he is not my boss. The people of Lansing are.”  

Quinney said the negative campaigning
“was not this bad at all” when he ran for Council in 2007. Carol Wood,
who’s seeking her fourth term as an At-Large Council member, agrees and
had this to say in a City Pulse questionnaire: “Having been involved in
four campaigns for Council, this has been the most negative,” citing
“five robo calls and six negative pieces of literature” against

The chamber’s Daman said Friday in response to DiSano’s claims: “To step out and call us a racist organization is appalling.”

Daman said the claims about the photo
darkening are “not factual and not true. I’m deeply offended. They have
a candidate in trouble and this is what they’re stooping to.”

But Daman defended the general tone of
the mailings. “It raises the level of awareness voters of Lansing need
to be educated on as they vote to re-elect candidates.”

(The chamber’s fliers also appropriated
a photo of Quinney from City Pulse, whose attorney has sent the chamber
a cease and desist order; Daman said Tuesday any future fliers will not
use the photo.)

The mailing, which comes from Greater
Lansing Progress, is the latest in a series of fliers that attack
Quinney’s record on medical marijuana dispensary regulations. For the
At-Large candidates whom the chamber endorsed — Rory Neuner and Tom
Stewart — the Quinney mailings have been nothing short of disappointing
and awkward. Both have said recently that their intent all along was to
run positive campaigns. Both have used the word “disappointed” when
asked about the Chamber’s … er, Greater Lansing Progress’ … tactics.

“I’m trying to run a campaign based on
rising above (negative politics),” Stewart, who’s in his first bid for
an elected position, said Sunday. “It’s a little discouraging to have
that happen.”

But Stewart said it goes both ways — he
mentioned campaign literature that surfaced before the Aug. 2 primary
election that targeted him, Neuner, then-1st Ward candidate Joe
Manzella and 3rd Ward incumbent A’Lynne Robinson “because of their
support for developers using Lansing’s tax dollars to hire non-union,
scab contractors,” the mailing — paid for by the Greater Lansing Labor
Council, said. Stewart said the labor group used a “drunk picture” of
him from Facebook and other not-so-flattering photos of Neuner,
Manzella and Robinson, compared to the Labor Council’s candidates —
Quinney, Carol Wood, Jody Washington and Jason Wilkes. “There have been
dirty tactics back and forth,” Stewart said.

However, the At-Large race to most
observers is for second between Neuner and Quinney. Wood swept the
primary with more than 31 percent of the vote out of five candidates,
leaving doubts both Quinney and Neuner could pass her.

“It’s made my life difficult because
people are torn who want to support my campaign and Derrick’s and they
feel alienated,” Neuner said last week.

Neuner said she “made it clear” in
candidate interviews with the chamber that she does not agree with
state legislation that proposed to take away prevailing wage and
project labor agreements. She also does not agree with the chamber’s
position of not supporting the millage. And as for a descriptor on
Greater Lansing Progress’ website that says “Ingham County recently
adopted a so-called Pollution Prevention ordinance that imposes costly
and duplicative regulations on businesses that handle hazardous

“I work for an environmental
organization,” Neuner said of her employer, the Transportation for
Michigan. “There’s very clear evidence that every dollar we spend on
reducing pollution has a positive effect on quality of life and well

“I hope voters will see I’m trying to
stand on my own two feet with this. They’re not voting on whether to
elect the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce, but me,” she said. “The
thing I’m most concerned about is this distance between the labor
community and the business community. Right now this community is

1st Ward: ‘I don’t think informing people is negative’

Jody Washington, in a Sunday evening
phone interview, said the media — particularly City Pulse — is devoting
questionable coverage to her race against Martinez. Washington said
she’s “being hammered on” for one mailing her campaign sent out against
the Ingham County Land Bank paying Martinez “tens of thousands” of
dollars for consulting work.

“I’ve made one sentence and you said
I’ve been running a negative campaign and that’s what this is about. I
think you’ve been fair but you’ve got to understand my frustration in
all of this. You have not asked her any tough questions,” she said.
“(Martinez) has not been held to the same standard as I have. I want
you to be tough on me, but ask everybody the tough questions.”

A second mail piece from Washington
calls herself “The New Voice” and Martinez “The Career Politician.”
Like the first mailer, Washington cites Martinez’s Land Bank contract
on a bike-sharing program: “At a time when crime is rampant and people
can’t find work, Martinez’s job is to use taxpayer dollars to launch a
county program for people to share bicycles.” Washington also says
Martinez is “not supported by any police and fire organizations.”
Washington landed endorsements from both of the local police and fire
unions, while Martinez announced Tuesday the support of Ingham County
Sheriff Gene Wriggelsworth.

Martinez defended the contract on “City
Pulse on the Air” by saying her job was to “facilitate a variety of
stakeholders and bring them together and build consensus. … Eric
Schertzing trusted me to facilitate those meetings and get the job

Washington also criticized Martinez on
the same radio show for accepting the chamber’s endorsement. Martinez
said on the Oct. 19 show that “I’m really saddened and disappointed in
the conversation that has begun to go on in this race. This isn’t about
business versus labor. … It isn’t about personalities bickering,” she

Martinez added that she’s “pleased to
have the chamber’s endorsement.” She does not agree with the chamber’s
support of Gov. Rick Snyder’s tax cuts for businesses and cuts to
public education funding. Martinez also supports the millage proposal
in the city, but she incorrectly stated on the Oct. 19 radio show that
the chamber is too. “The chamber is well aware that I support labor, I
support collective bargaining, prevailing wage,” she said.

The major campaign contributions,
though, show that it really is business versus labor, whether Martinez
wants to admit it or not. Martinez received $5,000 from the chamber’s
PAC this election, while Washington received $4,500 between the UAW,
Operating Engineers Local 324 and Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 333.
Washington’s landed the endorsement of most union groups in Lansing,
including the Michigan Education Association.

3rd Ward: The quiet candidates

The race for the southwest side of town,
however, is comparatively quieter and less contentious than what’s
played out in the 1st and At-Large races.

A’Lynne Robinson, who’s seeking her
second term as 3rd Ward Councilwoman, mentioned in a City Pulse
campaign questionnaire that “neighbors, family and friends have
expressed concerns” about a robocall portraying “an extremely negative
and false message about me. To that end I am saddened that they had to
be exposed to such a call. However, I am encouraged by the enormous
amount of support I have received and appreciation for the high and
positive road my campaign has chosen to take.”

Robinson’s opponent, Jason Wilkes, was
asked the same question about whether he thought his opponent was
engaging in a positive campaign. “To this point, my opponent and I have
engaged in discussion on the issues. I pledge to run a positive and
clean campaign; I would expect the same of my opponent.”

In an interview, Robinson said “I think
3rd Ward residents expressed very, very clearly that is nothing they
want to see and it would bode very negatively for the individual who
chose to go that route.”

However, you could argue that none of
the Council candidates are engaging in dirty politics — it’s their
endorsers. Robinson — who’s endorsed by the chamber — said it’s
“cowardly” to not own up to the claims made in robocalls or mailings.
“Certainly if I was going to point out somebody’s shortcomings, I would
own it. Those would be places I depart from anyone using those tactics,
both the chamber and organized labor.”

Robinson said particularly the At-Large race has taken on “a life of its own.”

“Individuals endorsed by both camps (the
chamber and organized labor) are pawns at this point,” she said. “That
is now a race between those two camps and individuals are caught up in

Wilkes could not be reached for an interview for this story.

Cook, of Main Street Strategies, summed up why the 3rd Ward “has been the quietest of all the Council races.”

“In the 1st you have Lynne Martinez, who
is a known quantity and has been around. Jody Washington is very
aggressive, with strong endorsements from groups considering she’s a
first-time candidate. In the At-Large you have some interesting
personalities there. The 3rd Ward has an overall theme of a couple of
candidates out working the community and shaking hands along the way,”
Cook said. “There’s not as much heat coming out of that. … You haven’t
seen this sparring back and forth between the two camps, either, which
is another thing that drives attention. When there’s no conflict, it’s
hard to write about.”

Campaign literature

From top: Paid for by the Greater Lansing Labor Council;
Paid for by Greater Lansing Progress; Paid for by Jody Washington for
City Council.