Two mudslinging political mailers that targeted mayoral candidate Kathie Dunbar hit mailboxes across Lansing last week. Both claimed that she plans to slash funding to the Police Department if she defeats Mayor Andy Schor in next month’s election.
Both Schor and Councilwoman Dunbar have criticized those mailers as “offensive” — specifically because they included a photo of Dunbar making a hand gesture in reference to oral sex, along with a tagline that labeled her a “failed comedian” and “failed politician.” They also referenced unsubstantiated claims of sexual harassment leveled against Dunbar this summer, both of which she has denied.
But aside from the gratuitous sexualization of the only woman in the race, is there anything factually incorrect with the mailers? Does Dunbar still support reducing funds to the Police Department? And if elected, how would she shift the budget to address public safety reforms?
This week, Dunbar said she would not allow the Police Department budget to increase if elected mayor. In an interview with City Pulse last week, however, Dunbar appeared to have some second thoughts about whether cops should have less cash.
“I don’t even want to talk about adding funding or removing funding,” she said. “That puts the onus of public safety on the amount of money spent. The metrics for public safety are not the number of officers or the amount of money spent on police. It is how resources are used.”
Dunbar also told City Pulse: “I don’t know exactly what I would do with the police budget. There would definitely be more funding for training — but it wouldn’t be bullshit training.”
And that’s a major shift from a candidate who wanted to halve the police budget last summer.
Dunbar partnered with Councilman Brandon Betz last July on a resolution that called for a 20% budget cut to the Police Department budget this year, as well as a $23 million cut over the next four years. Council eventually watered down the proposal to eliminate any specific percentage benchmark for a budget reduction, but even that failed to pass the Council, with only three votes for it.
Dunbar was also one of three mayoral candidates to voice continued support for police divestment at the primary debate in June. She continued to contend in July and August that more cops wouldn’t necessarily equate to safer neighborhoods, again describing plans to City Pulse to reroute large portions of the Police Department budget to other social programs and services.
But with less than a month until the general election, Dunbar’s tune hasn’t been consistent.
She also told City Pulse last month that more camera equipment and cops on traffic patrol would be “great” to curb reckless driving. At a press conference last month with parents of local teens killed in recent gun violence, she also called for more detectives to focus on cold cases.
When asked how her plans to aggressively hire more cops, buy new equipment and introduce new training squared with her past position on police divestment, Dunbar also recognized that additional funding was a possibility — just as long as that cash is spent “in the right fashion.”
“And when I say the right fashion, I mean what is the greatest return on investment,” she said, emphasizing how she wants to further analyze the budget before making any firm decisions.
Dunbar didn’t mention the term “divestment” at all during a 95-minute interview with City Pulse last week. And that turnabout suggests that defunding the police may no longer be in her mayoral playbook, or at least shows that her enthusiasm for police budget cuts may be waning.
Dunbar declined to specify whether the police budget would be increased, decreased or kept flat under her leadership on Monday — only demanding that our coverage “be changed” to address what she labeled as an “inaccuracy.” In a statement on Tuesday, however, she said that the police budget will not see an increase if she’s elected to the office in November.
She said that boosting funding for training while also reducing funding for other, unspecified portions of Police Department budget could still lead to an overall net budget decrease.
“Calling on the mayor to fill already funded positions is not a change of tune, nor does it equate to increasing the police budget. The money is already allocated, just sitting there,” Dunbar said, noting that she also never specifically targeted LPD’s investigative division for any budget cuts.
She added: “My point was, and always has been, that police budgets don’t correlate with crime and safety. What matters more than budgets or headcounts is how police are deployed.”
Schor — who opposes police divestment and ramped up funding for cops by 2.4% in his latest budget — told City Pulse last week that he had nothing to do with sexually suggestive political mailers that criticized Dunbar. And if he had his way, the mudslinging would stop immediately.
“These sort of disgusting tactics have no place in politics,” Schor said today. “This election should be about ideas for Lansing’s future, not personal attacks. I don’t engage in negative campaigning and I’m calling on all parties to keep focused on the issues facing our city.”
The mailer was funded by a 501(c)(4) nonprofit group called Michigan Deserves Better, led by local political consultant Joe DiSano. DiSano has refused to identify its donors and told City Pulse in March that the sole purpose of the group was to oppose former Mayor Virg Bernero’s fledgling mayoral campaign. Michigan Deserves Better was also responsible for a series of full back-page advertisements (among others) in City Pulse that have labeled Bernero as “America’s Horniest Mayor.” After Bernero left the race following sexual harassment claims against him, DiSano locked his sights on Dunbar.
The latest mailers also included Dunbar’s personal cell phone number and urged residents to call it. Dunbar said she has no plans to change her number, though she acknowledged that her phone has been “blowing up” with angry calls — mostly from “uninformed” people, she said.
The nonprofit group — not to be confused with the Super PAC with an identical name — is guided by a board with DiSano as its president, he said. While he won’t disclose any financial details, he maintains that “no money is coming in from outside the area.” He also said it has no ties to Schor or his reelection campaign. The IRS also doesn’t require it to report its spending.
The bookkeeper for the organization is Reid Felsing, an attorney who made headlines in 2019 for forming Michigan for Traditional Values — a nonprofit that orchestrated a series of failed political attack mail against State Rep. Matt Hall, a Republican candidate in the 63rd District.
The latest IRS 990 forms (from 2018) show that Michigan Deserves Better has collected at least $228,000 in grants and other contributions and also spent about $200,000 in the same year. It has not filed to run ads on any local broadcast TV stations and had a balance of about $48,000.
Schor said he saw the mailers last weekend but was not involved in their creation.
“Regardless of what others do, I’m going to continue to share a positive vision for the city’s future, because that’s what Lansing residents want and deserve,” Schor said in a statement.
According to IRS guidelines, DiSano’s 501(c)(4) can promote “social welfare” as described in federal law but it cannot be used for direct support or opposition to any candidate for public office. It can also engage in “some” political activity, as long as that is not its “primary” purpose.
In 2014, DiSano signed a public apology for 2012 robocalls that allegedly accused Democratic state House candidate Phil DiMaria of taking “dirty pictures in his basement” and “using the internet to lure young girls into nude modeling sessions at his home,” MLive reported.
In that race, State Rep. Sarah Roberts had also said she wasn’t linked to the robocalls against her opponent. She also said DiSano was hired by a third-party group with a personal vendetta.
In 2017, DiSano faced criticism for helping to create a mudslinging political mailer for 4th Ward City Council candidate Jim McClurken. That mailer included an image of six young men and women of different ethnicities and the phrase “Lansing’s criminals want Jim McClurken to lose.”
Some said the image used for that mailer was rife with stereotypes and fear mongering over criminals in Lansing. Former McClurken staffer Emily Dievendorf resigned from the campaign over the incident. She said the mailer was created without her knowledge or authorization. Then Lansing School Board member Peter Spadafore also said that McClurken mailer “offensive.”
DiSano ignored calls for this story, as well as for one that was published online last week.
Many political insiders have speculated that local labor unions have been involved in funding the recent political mail. Councilman Jeremy Garza, state political lead for the Michigan Pipe Trades Association, said that plumbers and pipefitters have not provided financial support to the group.
“It was disgusting, and I’m glad my daughters didn’t get a hold of that. I do not support any negative campaign attacks, especially sexualized ones such as this,” he said. “I’m focused on my own reelection. We’ve had beautiful weather for knocking doors and talking to neighbors.”