Nov. 30 2016 11:18 AM

Mayoral campaign already framed by shadowy groups and hidden agendas

A screenshot of a video being promoted by the political advocacy organization Reform Lansing. The video targets Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and Lansing Economic Area Partnership CEO Bob Trezise for their involvement in the approval of the SkyVue development on Michigan Avenue. The group contends the deal was bad for Lansing residents because it gave $26 million in tax breaks to out-of-state developers, who then hired workers from outside of Lansing. The video is largely seen as the opening salvo in a proxy war between shadowy political "education" groups that will unfold during the 2017 mayoral election.

A proxy war of secretive “citizen” groups has begun shaping a nascent 2017 Lansing mayoral race.

They want to unseat Virg Bernero, expected to seek a fourth term, and have targeted the economic incentive programs he’s promoted.

One group, Reform Lansing, has a website, video and Facebook group assailing the $90-million, 823-bed SkyVue apartment block on Michigan Avenue.

The other, No Secret Lansing Deals, has raised concerns on its website and with its Facebook group about the proposed $370 million Red Cedar Renaissance development.

Expected to resurface as the mayoral race nears is Capitol Region Progress, a shadowy group with ties to Bernero and the political consulting group Grassroots Midwest.

Welcome to social media campaigning. All three deny political motives and claim their goals are advocacy and education. None are willing to discuss their backers or finances.

“We are not publicly funded, unlike the development projects Virg Bernero is spending our tax dollars on,” said Angela Wittrock, spokeswoman for Reform Lansing.

“Citizens have a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent. Citizens should know that Virg Bernero is giving our tax dollars to his campaign contributors with zero accountability.”

Wittrock said her group is in the process of filing the paperwork to become a federally recognized political nonprofit known as a 501(c)4. That designation allows the organization to solicit donations and spend that money on “issue advocacy.”

Capitol Region Progress is already a federally recognized political nonprofit. It has not disclosed its donors, and its representatives have declined to discuss the organization with City Pulse. However, City Pulse did report last year that some developers in the city reported Bernero had directed them to make donations to the organization rather than to his selected Council candidates in 2014. Bernero has denied influencing the actions of the organization.

No Secret Lansing Deals is fronted by Vanguard Public Affairs’ president, T.J. Bucholz. He too declined to identify his group’s donors, which he identified only as a coalition of “citizens and business owners.” He said the group has no intention of seeking a formal political nonprofit status.

“I think the climate in Lansing is such that some of my clients would be concerned about anonymity,” he said. The reason? They are worried about “bullying” by Bernero, who has made a name for himself as “The Angriest Mayor in America.”

Randy Hannan, Bernero’s chief of staff and spokesman, did not immediately respond to email inquiries regarding Bucholz’s allegations.

This is not the first time Bucholz has tangled with team Bernero. He ran the communications operations for former Michigan House Speaker Andy Dillon in his 2010 bid for the Democratic nomination for governor. Bernero won that primary and went on to lose against Republican Rick Snyder.

For her part, Wittrock is no stranger to the mayor either. She covered City Hall for City Pulse as well as before doing political communications for the Senate Democrats. Earlier this year she was hired by the liberal-issues advocacy issues group Priorities Michigan, a 501(c)4 founded in part by the Michigan League for Public Policy in 2014. Wittrock said her work with Reform Lansing is completely independent from her work with Priorities Michigan.

Despite calling for more transparency on development deals between Lansing and large developers, Bucholz said his group was focusing initially on the “shenanigans” in Lansing but will also shine a light on such activities across the state.

The group does appear to have ties to former Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox. Cox, who is in private practice, is representing Leo and Christopher Jerome in a federal civil lawsuit against Bernero and developer Joel Ferguson alleging racketeering in the awarding of the Red Cedar project. The Jeromes were originally partners with Ferguson on developing the old Red Cedar golf course in conjunction with adjacent property where the Jeromes operated a car dealership.

The group’s website was registered by Cox confident Stu Sandler in June of this year. Bucholz said Sandler “may” have had some role in the group “early on.”

Bernero is hardly unarmed going into this campaign proxy war. His ties to Capitol Region Progress have played out in City Council races, where local developers were directed to donate to the political group rather than Third Ward City Council incumbent A’Lynne Boles or First Ward City Council challenger Shelley Mielock.

The mayor issued a vague statement about the group in 2015.

“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,” he said in an emailed statement in 2015 as the group was flooding the First and Third wards with robocalls and mailers. “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.”

The group’s tactics were criticized in 2014 when it attacked Ingham County Commissioner Deb Nolan and former City Councilman Brian Jeffries. In 2015, Capitol Region Progress again appeared on the political scene with mailers accusing Adam Hussain, Boles’ challenger in the Third Ward, of being a puppet of his mother, Jody Washington, then seeking re-election to her First Ward seat. The group also released robocalls. Those calls resulted in complaints to the FCC by residents. Those residents said they still have not heard from the FCC on the status of their complaints.

Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said the groups should disclose their donors so voters have a better idea who is trying to influence their votes.

He said voters "can’t weigh the value because there is no transparency."

Don’t expect the groups to disappear, though, he said.

“This is the trend of what is going to happen in Michigan and nationally until an elected official stops it,” he said.

Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, said the groups were not impacted by Michigan finance laws.

“State campaign-finance law does not require anything from groups that do not explicitly advocate for or against a candidate,” he said in an emailed statement.

That’s something one potential mayoral candidate has tried to change.

Democrat Andy Schor, who represents a large portion of the city of Lansing in the state House chamber, said he has tried to make “so-called dark money groups or issue advocacy groups or whatever you want to call them” disclose their donors. He introduced legislation to force such disclosures, but the GOP-controlled Legislature passed a law exempting the groups from campaign finance disclosures.

“I’d say if I had my way, they would be required to disclose like any candidate committee,” he said.

And while he is calling for disclosure by all the groups on who is funding them, he said it is unlikely to happen.

“No one is going to want to unilaterally disarm,” he said.

Lansing Council President Judi Brown Clarke, who is considering a run for mayor too, said she was unaware of the groups and therefore “had no comment.”