Gamrat goes on offensive in bid to win back House seat

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Former state Rep. Cindy Gamrat is trying to win back the Michigan House seat from which she was removed last month by campaigning against a familiar political foe: the GOP establishment.

The Plainwell Republican, who was expelled for misconduct related to her extramarital affair with former Rep. Todd Courser, R-Lapeer, suggests there’s a correlation between the scandal-plagued departures of herself and Courser and a recent House vote to raise $600 million in new taxes for road funding.

Her opponents in the Nov. 3 primary say she is trying to create a diversion so Allegan County voters discount her misconduct, which included misuse of taxpayer resources for personal and political reasons.

“Imagine that, you know, that they remove two of the strongest opposition voices against raising taxes and then passed a bill to raise everybody’s taxes,” Gamrat said in an interview with The Detroit News. “And getting rid of us made it a whole lot easier to do it.”

Courser’s and Gamrat’s empty seats lowered the minimum vote for passing a bill to 55 House members — the exact number the House mustered last week to narrowly pass a 40 percent vehicle registration fee increase.

She argues her leading opponents in the eight-candidate field — Mary Whiteford of South Haven and Allegan County Commissioner Jim Storey of Holland — will “vote to raise your taxes” to fix roads.

But both Whiteford and Storey say Gamrat is trying to use the ongoing road funding debate in Lansing to distract voters from the misconduct that led to her ouster.

“It’s a desperate attempt for her to have credibility,” said Whiteford, a former emergency room nurse and co-founder of a wealth management consulting firm in South Haven.

“She’s made a number of statements about me that were either not true or an exaggeration — and I think that’s part of the business, unfortunately,” said Storey, who favors redirecting existing state tax revenue toward road repairs.

Gamrat is following in the footsteps of the state’s last ousted legislator, former Macomb County Sen. David Jaye, by trying to immediately reclaim her lost seat. Four months after being booted from office for personal and official misconduct, the maverick Republican Jaye finished third in a September 2001 special primary — and was never heard from again in Michigan politics.

Much like her eight-month tenure in the House, Gamrat is quarreling with the two opponents who are politically connected in GOP circles and running better-funded campaigns than the other five candidates.

Whiteford, who finished second to Gamrat in a primary last August, has emerged as the favorite for the 80th District seat among a set of powerful outside groups. Gamrat defeated her 41 percent-29 percent in a four-candidate field.

The political action committees of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers each contributed $5,000 to Whiteford’s campaign last week, according to campaign finance reports.

The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce endorsed Whiteford and donated $1,000; Rep. Al Pscholka — one of Gamrat’s chief GOP enemies — chipped in $500 from his leadership political action committee, records show.

The Michigan Farm Bureau and the Great Lakes Education Project, the school choice advocacy lobbying arm of the DeVos family, also have endorsed Whiteford. GLEP has independently sent mail to voters in the district praising Whiteford and highlighting an internal House report that concluded Gamrat engaged in “deceptive, deceitful and outright dishonest conduct” while in office.

Gamrat portrays Whiteford’s endorsements as evidence that she’ll be beholden to groups that have supported raising taxes to fix the state’s crumbling infrastructure.

“There’s a lot of pressure to play ball when you’re being endorsed and supported by those organizations, especially when you start your campaign off $70,000 in debt,” Gamrat said, referencing Whiteford’s campaign debt from the 2014 race. “She’s running on a campaign of primarily wanting to go to Lansing getting along with everybody.”

Whiteford dismisses Gamrat’s charge and says she will take a less hostile approach than Gamrat did to crafting legislative compromises in Lansing.

“I appreciate their efforts to help me spread my message,” Whiteford said of her supporters. “But I will always vote for the conservative people of my district.”

Storey, a veteran of local and state government, has largely tried to ignore Gamrat and distinguish himself from Whiteford’s support among groups with deep pockets.

“I’m certainly not a part of the establishment,” said Storey, who is endorsed by former lawmakers from Allegan County as well as former Gov. John Engler. “I haven’t gotten any PAC money. I don’t think I’m a pawn of anybody but the people of Allegan County.”

Steve McNeal, the Allegan County Republican Party chairman who supports Storey in next Tuesday’s primary, said Gamrat’s attacks on her opponents are her only campaign option.

“It’s the only way she can approach it — play the victim,” he said.

Gamrat is trying to repair her scandal-torn image by claiming she never admitted to misusing taxpayer resources to cover up the affair with Courser — even though her testimony under oath strongly implied that she did.

She also maintains she never shared an office with Courser.

“I had my own office and my own budget for my office, and we had staff that had shared responsibilities,” Gamrat said.

Gamrat shared House employees with Courser who have said they largely worked out of her office, not Courser’s office, which is on a different floor in the House’s office building in Lansing.

Courser had a key to Gamrat’s office and would hold meetings and nap there, according to former employees.

Gamrat’s office staff answered telephone calls for Courser and the employees worked on legislation that both lawmakers would decide between themselves who would introduce. The employees and both representatives would communicate legislative strategy and joint scheduling via email, according to public records accumulated in a House misconduct investigation.

Gamrat and Courser’s former aides Keith Allard, Ben Graham and Josh Cline have said their bosses relationship was intertwined in the daily operation of the combined office.

House Speaker Kevin Cotter disbanded Gamrat and Courser’s combined office three days after The News first reported Aug. 7 on Courser’s attempt to cover up the affair with an anonymous fictional email about him having sex with a male prostitute as a red herring. Gamrat has admitted she knew Courser was going to send fellow Republicans an “over-the-top email,” but claims she had no role in writing it.

Allard and Graham are now suing Gamrat and Courser for wrongful termination, arguing they were fired for refusing to conceal their bosses’ affair.

In an interview, Gamrat refused to address Allard and Graham’s allegations that Courser had a daily presence in her office.

“I really can’t talk about those details,” she said. “Because of the lawsuit.”

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80th District GOP candidates

Candidates in Nov. 3 Michigan House District 80 Republican primary:

■ Eric DeWitt, Holland, chemist

■ Cindy Gamrat, Plainwell, former state representative

■ Bill Sage, former Allegan County commissioner and tea party activist

■ James Siver, Fennville, attorney

■ Jim Storey, Holland, Allegan County commissioner

■ Shannon Szukala, Martin, tea party activist

■ Kevin Travis, Hopkins, a law clerk

■ Mary Whiteford, South Haven, co-founder of a wealth management firm

Note: The GOP primary victor will face Democrat David Gernant, a retired federal judge, in a March 8 special general election to finish the two-year term.