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Attica — Todd Courser is trying to make a special primary election next month a referendum on his eight months in the Michigan House of Representatives, while his Republican opponents say it’s more about what Courser didn’t do in office.

“Obviously this is a referendum on me,” Courser said at a recent public forum for the 11 GOP candidates seeking to fill the House seat he abandoned a month ago. His resignation averted an ouster by his legislative colleagues for what he has since nonchalantly called his “first worldwide sex scandal and cover-up.”

One of Courser’s opponents rejects the Lapeer-area Republican’s characterization of the Nov. 3 primary after two months of international attention to the cover-up Courser orchestrated of his extramarital affair with former Rep. Cindy Gamrat, R-Plainwell.

“I don’t think it’s a referendum on anybody,” said Gary Howell, who chairs Lapeer County’s road commission and intermediate school district board. “It’s an election to pick a competent candidate to represent Lapeer County.”

Howell and other Republican opponents argue Courser’s “demagoguery” of state government and refusal at times to learn and participate in the legislative process outweighs the scandalous events that led to Courser’s Sept. 11 resignation and Gamrat’s expulsion from the House.

Courser still has supporters who admire his bombastic approach of challenging welfare programs, taxpayer subsidies for corporations and a steadily growing state budget.

“I don’t love everything about him, but I think he’s definitely upsetting the right people,” said Mark Gillim of North Branch.

A House Business Office investigation found that Courser and Gamrat engaged in deceitful and deceptive conduct to “cover up an affair” and misused taxpayer resources for political and personal purposes. Courser and Gamrat agreed under oath to the report’s findings, but have since recanted their confessions.

Most candidates are running against Courser’s confrontational style, saying his spats with Republican leaders and frequent protest votes were an ineffective way to represent the 82nd District. Courser also gained a reputation for rarely attending local government meetings and being inaccessible to constituents.

“Simply going in there and pushing the ‘no’ button every time on every single vote does not mean you’re forwarding the needs of Lapeer County residents,” said Ian Kempf, a veteran Lapeer County commissioner. “If you can’t form alliances and solve problems, you cannot be effective in Lansing.”

Attempting a first

Courser is attempting something Michigan political observers cannot recall ever happening: resigning in disgrace in the middle of a House term and — within a week — asking voters for the job back.

“This is unusual and unheard of,” said Tom Shields, a Lansing-based Republican consultant. “It says an awful lot about his ego and his ability to somehow dissociate his actions with how he views his service in the Legislature.”

Courser’s enemies within the GOP establishment worry the crowded Republican primary ballot still gives Courser a slim chance of winning.

The district covers Lapeer County, a mostly rural area that is more economically developed in the cities of Lapeer and Imlay City as well as the townships south of Interstate 69. The district had a 57 percent Republican base in the 2014 general election, and Lapeer County voters haven’t elected a Democrat to the state House since 1996.

Courser’s plea to voters to excuse his behavior in office sometimes hasn’t struck a chord.

During an Oct. 2 forum with Republican and Democratic candidates, some audience members began chuckling when Courser said he rooted out the “corrupt” tactics of House leaders to force freshman members to pledge their votes to Republican Speaker Kevin Cotter.

“That’s what I did. If you send me back, I’m going to continue to do it,” Courser said. “If you want someone who will continue to expose it, that’s what I do.”

Courser’s critics say the only thing he exposed was himself when he was caught on tape instructing a House aide to send constituents an outlandish anonymous email claiming he had paid a male prostitute for sex — a scheme designed to minimize damage if his relationship with Gamrat became widely known.

“He’s totally discredited in this county,” said Bryan Zender, 45, of Almont, who is supporting firefighter Russell Adams. “I think the Lapeer County voters are going to show him that this election.”

Wendy Ross, of Imlay City, was among those who started laughing at Courser’s remarks during the Lapeer County tea party candidates forum.

“I think he lied; I think he cheated,” Ross said. “Because of him, it’s costing us $150,000 to have this (special) election. I think he needs to go.”

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Fight for endorsements

In a six-week primary campaign, candidates have scrambled to introduce themselves to voters in door-to-door campaigning, while lining up endorsements from elected Republican officials and outside groups seeking to ensure Courser’s defeat.

Courser is using the special election to argue he amassed a record that is “among the most conservative in a generation.” It included voting against the $53 billion state budget and sponsoring anti-abortion and pro-gun-rights legislation that never got hearings.

Right to Life of Michigan did not endorse in the primary.

His opponents say Courser is overstating his accomplishments.

“If you’re saying ‘no’ to everything, then you’re going to have the most conservative voting record,” said Russell Adams, a firefighter and paramedic in Southfield who lives in Lapeer.

Adams said he was motivated to run after becoming “disgusted” by Courser’s affair since Courser ran for office on a family values platform.

“Either it’s a bald-face lie or he’s a hypocrite,” said Adams, who called Courser’s “conspiracy theories” about GOP leaders “a little psychotic.”

Nurse Jan Peabody, who lost the August 2014 GOP primary to Courser 37 percent-33 percent or by 351 votes, recently issued her “Peabody Code of Conduct.” Some of her pledges were indirect jabs at Courser’s conduct.

“I will not add to the taxpayers a $100,000 financial burden for a special election resulting from my actions and conduct,” Peabody wrote. “I will not misuse taxpayer dollars for personal or political gain.”

Howell, a farmer and retired lawyer from North Branch, is touting his leadership experiences in local schools and government that included a career as the municipal attorney for Lapeer County’s townships.

“No other candidate has that kind of background,” said Howell, who was endorsed this week by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Farm Bureau.

Peabody’s campaign has been aided by an endorsement and favorable mail advertisements from the Great Lakes Education Project, a school choice group founded by the powerful DeVos family.

Arcadia Township Clerk Sharna Cramer Smith finished last in the four-candidate August 2014 GOP primary and is running again on a platform of restoring “accountability, transparency and honesty.”

“I’ve been told that I’m too nice for this position,” Smith said at the Oct. 2 candidates forum. “Please don’t mistake being nice as a weakness.”

Before The Detroit News first reported Courser’s attempt to cover up the affair, some Republicans were planning to challenge him in a primary next August.

Jake Davison, 36, moved back to the district in February to launch a 2016 campaign over the summer after working in Lansing for more than 15 years as a legislative and campaign aide. The Lapeer native touts the experience and knowledge of lawmaking and lobbying.

“I have more experience at this table than the state representative before,” Davison said at the candidates forum, with Courser sitting next to him. “... I’m not going to apologize for being experienced in the ways of Lansing. I think that’s a good thing to get things done for Lapeer County.”

Courser questions what effective representation means.

“Is effective going to Lansing and cutting deals and making sure you’re part of the crowd, and that you’re willing to be friends with everybody to give them the votes on the bigger budgets and more taxes?” he asked.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

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