Political Insider: Stevens defends 'chief of staff' role on Obama's auto task force

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Haley Stevens, left, a Democrat, and Lena Epstein, a Republican, could become Michigan's first millennial rep.

Democratic U.S. House candidate Haley Stevens is defending her record on the federal auto task force after her GOP opponent this week accused her of inflating her resume.

Stevens, 35, of Rochester Hills has campaigned for Congress on her experience as "chief of staff" of the U.S. Treasury task force that that planned and oversaw the financial bailout and bankruptcies of Chrysler and General Motors from 2009-11. 

Republican Lena Epstein of Booomfield Township this week highlighted reports that Stevens' government title was "special assistant" or "confidential assistant" when she worked for the task force and not chief of staff.

Personnel records reflecting those positions were posted online in July by the conservative America Rising PAC, which tracks Democratic candidates. 

Epstein told WJR radio Tuesday that Stevens "mischaracterized" her role, accusing her of "lying to voters." 

She and Stevens are vying for the open seat in Michigan's 11th District to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham.

"It’s really wrong for candidates for office to inflate their resume. And I think it sets women in particular back in terms of success and breaking those glass ceilings that we need to break,” Epstein said on WJR-AM

Stevens' campaign dismissed the claim as a false, reaffirming her role as chief of staff.

"Now that she's down in the polls and running out of time, Trump campaign co-chair Lena Epstein is stooping to the lowest of lies to try to get herself elected," Stevens spokesman Blake McCarren said. 

"Haley Stevens was chief of staff to President Obama's auto rescue. She played a pivotal role in saving General Motors, Chrysler and 200,000 Michigan jobs."

Stevens has said her portfolio on the task force included handling political affairs, outreach to suppliers, dealers and unions, as well as office operations.

Epstein's claim is undermined by Stevens' bosses on the task force, who contemporaneously called Stevens the "chief of staff" and continue to affirm that title.

Steven Rattner, who led the auto task force, discussed in his 2010 book hiring Stevens and how he and Brian Deese, then a White House economic adviser, "quickly decided to make her our chief of staff." 

"We would come to find her tireless, cheerful and blessed with a social conscience and a talent for improvisation," Rattner wrote of Stevens. 

Rattner's deputy, Ron Bloom, said in a Detroit News interview this month that Stevens was the team's "chief of staff."

"She basically kind of made everything happen. Arranging everything from the mundane — making sure all the logistics were handled for visitors — to external stakeholder relations with dealers and unions and other constituents to the case. Making sure the staff internally functioned together," Bloom said. "She was chief, cook and bottle washer."

Other Obama alumni, including national economic adviser Gene Sperling, also have affirmed Stevens' role. 

Sperling tweeted earlier this year that he was "very proud my Obama colleague @HaleyLive — Auto Rescue Chief of Staff — is running for Congress in my home state, Michigan."

Bishop binder steals show

U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop’s binder returned to the debate stage Tuesday as the Rochester Republican traded barbs and policy jabs with Democratic challenger Elissa Slotkin at WILS-AM studios in Lansing.

The over-sized notebook, which he also brought to a weekend debate on WDIV-TV, fueled social media speculation over its contents and provided fodder for Slotkin, who mocked it during the radio debate after Bishop said she’d try to roll back federal tax cuts.

“To be honest with you, I mean I know Mr. Bishop’s reading his big notebook here that he’s got in front of him, but I would tell you that I’m a big believer in tax reform,” she said.

“We needed tax reform. I just can’t accept $2 trillion of debt over the next two years.”  

Bishop launched a vigorous defense — of his binder.

“This notebook that I have in front of me represents preparation — and you ought to try that some time because it’s helpful in debate processes,” he told Slotkin.

“I would also say when it comes to tax reform, this is something we’ve got to continue down the same path.”

As the incumbent lawmaker carried the notebook out of the studio, its cover message made clear that he had put considerable time into preparing for the Oct. 16 debate:  “U.S. Congressman Mike Bishop / August 2018 Binder.”

Missing disclosures 

Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones is poised to become Michigan’s newest member of Congress next month — if just for seven weeks.

But the potential congresswoman-elect failed to file her latest campaign finance disclosure with the Federal Election Commission by Monday's deadline. Her campaign did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment. 

Jones won the August special election to finish out resigned Rep. John Conyers Jr.'s term representing the 13th District in Congress, but she lost the election for the next two-year term to former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, whose term would start in January. 

Detroit Council President Brenda Jones.

It remains unclear whether Jones intends to step down from her seat on Detroit City Council before heading to Washington and whether the U.S. House would require her to do so. If the House requires a resignation and she doesn't, residents of the 13th District that includes parts of Detroit and Downriver potentially would not be represented in U.S. House votes if that chamber decided not to seat her.

Jones has not said whether she got a waiver under U.S. House rules to hold dual offices while serving in Congress. The Detroit council president said in late September she might make a decision within a few days, but has been silent since. 

Her term in the House would run from mid-November through early January.

New FEC complaint 

The Michigan Democratic Party and a resident of Muskegon last week filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga of Zeeland misused his campaign account for personal use — claims that Huizenga's campaign has strongly denied. 

The complaint points to travel, vehicle and Michigan meal expenses billed to the campaign and alleges improper reporting of certain reimbursements for family members. It claims Huizenga spent more in these categories than others in Michigan's delegation.

Jim Barry, chair of Huizenga's campaign and his half brother, called the allegations "a ridiculous attempt to smear Bill Huizenga." 

He said the campaign has never had a complaint from the FEC "on anything in our filings." 

"We’re three weeks before the election and — surprise — here comes the mud. They’ve got a candidate whose raised a lot of money, and he’s losing, so they come up with a Hail Mary," Barry said, referring to Huizenga challenger Rob Davidson, a Democrat. 

"You can’t lose the irony that the people making this complaint (the Michigan Democratic Party) have just about the worst history of following FEC regulations of anybody I can think of."

Contributors: Melissa Nann Burke, Jonathan Oosting