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Lansing — Undercover audio recordings and secretive reconnaissance work have dominated a key Macomb County race as Democrats seek to pry control of the state House from the Republican majority.

Republican candidate Steve Marino has faced a tough battle in House District 24, where Democrats forced him to cancel a fundraiser by revealing it was scheduled at the house of a doctor who had been indicted for illegal prescription drug distribution. He later told the Macomb Daily he was unaware of the indictment.

A string of embarrassing recordings also led Marino to disavow claims he had made in audio recordings that he paid for powerful lawmakers’ bar tabs with a lobbying firm and supported outsourcing jobs to countries without strong labor protections.

But the 27-year-old Republican Macomb County commissioner says his campaign is “going very well” and voters he has spoken with seem to care more about more pressing political issues than the recordings and other Democratic attacks.

“I really think it’s a distraction. ... Obviously I think they’re pretty sad and pathetic attempts,” Marino said of Democrats’ attacks. “They’re not sticking to the issues.”

He said he wants to attract more jobs to the county and Michigan and further drive down the state’s unemployment rate. He added that he wants to do something about the political “complacency” about the real issues people face.

“I’m a product of Macomb County,” Marino said. “ ... Whether someone agrees or disagrees, I’ve always been willing to listen. Again, just trying to answer the call to public service.”

Marino is opposed by Democrat Dana Camphous-Peterson for the seat covering Clinton, Harrison and Macomb townships and held by term-limited state Rep. Anthony Forlini, R-Harrison Township. Camphous is an executive project coordinator in Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel’s office and has the support of Hackel, a fellow Democrat.

Camphous-Peterson said she wants to focus on increasing higher education funding and fixing roads in the county. She said she also wants to make college more affordable, which helps create a larger educated workforce that will attract more employers.

“You need to bring affordable education to our community because businesses are not gonna move into our community” without a reason, and cheaper education will help “attract new resources for our economy,” said Camphous-Peterson, who is a former county commissioner.

The 53-year-old Camphous-Peterson said she also wants to introduce legislation allowing open records requests for communications from the Governor’s Office and state lawmakers, although such legislation the House in September.

She wants to further scrutinize to ensure state government is not “wasting tax dollars” or allowing another water contamination crisis on the level of Flint’s to occur elsewhere in the state — an issue she said potential voters frequently raise in her door-to-door campaigning.

Race draws large cash influx

The 24th District races has drawn the fourth highest amount of political contributions among the 110 contests. Marino has loaned himself $50,100, comprising nearly half of the total $109,720 he has raised overall compared with $75,336 for Camphous Peterson through Sept. 30, according to campaign finance reports.

Marino’s top contributions included $9,000 from the influential west Michigan DeVos family, $7,500 from Speaker Pro Tem Tom Leonard’s Michigan Values Leadership PAC and $5,000 from Rep. Rob VerHeulen’s Leadership Fund. Camphous-Peterson’s leading donors were the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters PAC at $5,000, the United Auto Workers Voluntary PAC with $5,000 and Emily’s List with $4,000.

New campaign finance disclosure reports for state House candidates are due at the end of the month.

The controversy in the state House contest started when Democrats released clandestine audio recordings made with Marino during his commission constituent meeting hours.

As a registered lobbyist from 2013-15, he bragged that he got help to pay the wedding bar tab for the daughter of former Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw, and picked up the bar bill and getting a taxi for House Appropriations Chairman Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville. Marino quickly denied the events ever happened, and Kahn and Pscholka said they had never met Marino and the events never occurred.

Marino later called the claims “Lansing urban legends,” and said he only recounted the stories to illustrate the need for campaign finance reform.

The Michigan Democratic Party has since leased more audio on a website and attacked his candidacy by noting that Gov. Rick Snyder has not endorsed Marino even as he backs other Republicans in hopes of maintaining GOP control of the state House.

In other recordings, Marino brags about how he managed to lower his property taxes and criticized House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant.

“The people of Macomb County are not likely to think favorably of public officials that brag about not paying their fair share of property taxes, support outsourcing of our jobs to China, and want to raise the retirement age to 75,” said Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon said in a statement.

Parties debate prospects

Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, said he doesn’t think Marino has a chance after the Democrats’ attacks.

“I can’t imagine too many people voting for Steve Marino after the tapes that were released about him,” Zemke said, adding that the commissioner might only win if Republican presidential candidate remains more popular in the district than Democrat Hillary Clinton.

When asked if Republicans are still backing Marino, state Rep. Aric Nesbitt of Lawton, chairman of the state’s House Republican Campaign Committee, talked instead about Marino’s prospects.

“Steve has a great shot because Dana Camphous-Peterson is a Hillary Clinton liberal who voted for the largest property tax increase in Macomb County history and is a threat to our Second Amendment rights,” Nesbitt said.

He called Camphous Peterson “out of touch” with the area’s voters.

mgerstein@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @MikeGerstein

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