GOP-linked mailer falsely implies Sanders backs Green Party hopeful over Whitmer

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont stumps for Michigan gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer in Ann Arbor.

Lansing — U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed Democrat Gretchen Whitmer for Michigan governor and campaigned with her in Ann Arbor, but a new political mailer from a group with Republican ties uses his image to promote a Green Party candidate.

The mailer encourages readers to "Feel the Bern" and vote for Green Party gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Kurland, who said her campaign did not authorize the mailer and does not accept money or assistance from super political action committees.

While encouraging voters to cast ballots for Kurland, the mailer depicts both Whitmer and Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Schuette as "corporate puppets." Green Party candidates typically run to the left of Democrats and often court Democratic voters, as presidential candidate Jill Stein did in 2016.

Campaign finance records show that funding for the group behind the mailer, the Michigan People for Progress super PAC, was transferred by and through multiple groups but ultimately derived from the Michigan Republican Party.

Michigan Republican Party spokeswoman Sarah Anderson declined to comment on the mailer and its funding, except to say “We would never authorize sending a mail piece that attacks our own candidate.”

Michigan People for Progress, the super PAC behind the mailer, registered with the state Oct. 23 and has so far disclosed a single contribution of $82,000 from another super PAC, Michigan Prosperity, on Oct. 27.

Michigan Prosperity, formed in early September, has disclosed a single contribution of $175,000 from the Hardworking Americans super PAC on Oct. 18. The Hardworking Americans group recently disclosed its first contribution in four years, a $175,000 donation from the Michigan Republican Party on Oct. 17.

Liberal website Eclectablog was the first to highlight connections between the groups.

The Hardworking Americans super PAC is run by Randall Thompson, a longtime GOP operative.The Michigan Prosperity super PAC lists Heather Cerone of Traverse City as its treasurer.

The Prosperity group's East Lansing mailing address is a home belonging to Scott Hagerstrom, according to Ingham County property records and campaign finance records. Hagerstrom is the former state director for Americans for Prosperity, was the state chair of President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign and has worked for a separate super PAC supporting Schuette for governor. 

Little is known about Michigan People for Progress, which lists a UPS store in East Lansing as its mailing address. The group's treasurer, Rifaat "Mike" Hacham, lists a different UPS store in Dearborn as his address. He is reportedly a GOP precinct delegate who made national news as a Muslim supporter of Trump. 

Neither Thompson, Hagerstrom nor Cerone returned calls for comment. The number listed for Michigan People for Progress was answered by a woman who said she was the group’s attorney, but could not comment on the group’s flyer.

Whitmer spokesman Zack Pohl suggested a direct link to Schuette and accused Republicans of resorting to “dirty tricks” in an attempt to sway the election.

“It won't work, because Michiganders are too smart to fall for this kind of garbage,” Pohl said, adding that Whitmer is “going to stay focused on getting things done for Michigan families, like fixing the damn roads.”

Schuette’s campaign said Sunday evening it was unaware of the mailer and declined to comment on it.

The Secretary of State's office has not received any complaints about the mailer and would not review the issue unless it did, said spokesman Fred Woodhams.

Kurland said she’s heard from people in Ypsilanti, Grand Rapids and Genesee County who have received the mailer. An advocate of campaign finance reform, Kurland said she does not take any money from PACs, super PACs or corporations. Though she supported Sanders in the 2016 election, she now believes he’s “playing along with the Democratic establishment.”

If the intent of the mailer was to pull votes from Whitmer, Kurland said she doesn't think the effort would accomplish much since her supporters range from liberal to independent to conservative.

“I don’t believe that Green-Party-is-a-spoiler theory,” she said.

Harry Anbender of Ypsilanti, a 30-year-old sports blogger who voted for Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary, received the mailer at his home on Friday and posted it to Twitter, calling it "ridiculously misleading."

"It mentioned Bernie up down and sideways, and nothing in there mentioned (Kurland) is not the candidate that was endorsed by him," Anbender told The Detroit News. "Regardless of who paid for it, it's misleading."

Ypsilanti and neighboring Ann Arbor are traditionally liberal areas of Washtenaw County, which Sanders carried by 12 percentage points two years ago in his surprise primary win over eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

"I have a pretty good idea of who I'm voting for, so I was about to toss it in the recycling when I noticed it wasn't Whitmer on the top," Anbender said of the mailer. "It struck me as pretty odd."

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