Ex-CEO’s wealth factor in GOP race to replace Miller

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Wealthy businessman Paul Mitchell has opened his wallet again this year in a bid to win a hotly contested Republican primary in Michigan’s 10th Congressional District following the unexpected retirement of GOP U.S. Rep. Candice Miller.

Mitchell has already spent at least $600,000 of his personal fortune bombarding the airwaves with television ads in the Republican-leaning district that encompasses Michigan’s Thumb region and the northern half of Macomb County.

It is Mitchell’s second bid for a congressional seat in as many election cycles after he spent $3.6 million in a losing race in mid-Michigan’s 4th Congressional District in 2014 against John Moolenaar of Midland.

Mitchell’s largesse has become fodder for his rivals in the five-man Aug. 2 primary, especially since the former Ross Medical Education Center CEO moved back into the district about a year ago.

“He can say anything with millions of dollars. The voters aren’t going to buy into someone who’s looking to purchase a seat in Congress,” said Sen. Phil Pavlov of St. Clair Township.

The race also features former Sen. Alan Sanborn of Richmond Township, Rep. Anthony Forlini of Harrison Township and retired Air Force officer David VanAssche of Shelby Township.

“I’m putting my roots and a well-known Sanborn name versus his millions of dollars,” said Sanborn, who represented Macomb County in the state Senate from late 2001 until being term-limited in 2010.

Forlini, a term-limited state representative, said Mitchell’s residency and big campaign spending is the “elephant in the room.”

“That’s what everyone’s talking about,” Forlini said.

Miller, who is running for Macomb County public works commissioner, has said she will not endorse anyone in the race.

Pavlov hits Mitchell

Pavlov has run the most aggressive campaign to date against Mitchell. Pavlov’s campaign recently sent voters a mail advertisement critical of Mitchell declaring his candidacy a month after moving back into the district.

“Politician Paul Mitchell lived here just 28 days before he started campaigning for Congress. He had barely unpacked his moving truck before started trying to buy the election,” according to Pavlov’s mail flier. “Mitchell is so desperate for the the title of congressman that, after having been rejected by voters in northern Michigan just two years ago, he moved here only to run for office, not because he cares about us.”

Mitchell lived in St. Clair County and operated his former company there for nearly nine years until he moved to Saginaw in 2008 after marrying his wife. Mitchell said he had been searching for a farm in Lapeer County to purchase since the winter of 2014 — before he ran for Congress in the 4th District.

“My opponents suffer from a continual case of political amnesia,” Mitchell said. “I lived a mile and a half from Phil for the better part of a decade. ... It’s a political myth they want to create (that I) just suddenly moved here.”

The retired businessman has criticized Pavlov’s vote for extending Michigan’s income tax to pensions for younger retirees and a vote to authorize the Senate’s $134 million relocation to new office space in Lansing.

“At the same time they’re trying to get money to fix our roads, he’s involved and the Senate’s involved in spending $134 million on new Senate offices,” Mitchell said of Pavlov.

Mitchell spent about $167,000 last year running a successful campaign against the Proposal 1 sales tax increase, which 80 percent of voters rejected in a May 2015 statewide election.

In his quest for the seat, Mitchell has labeled Pavlov, Sanborn and Forlini as career politicians — a title they all dispute in a year when Republican voters have nominated outsider New York businessman Donald Trump for president.

“What the people said to me is they want someone to go to Washington and make change,” Mitchell said. “They recognize that simply electing a long-term politician isn’t the solution.”

But Mitchell himself isn’t a newcomer to politics, having launched a campaign for state Senate in 2013 before quitting and serving a brief stint as the Michigan Republican Party’s finance chairman before quitting the post to run for Congress in 2014. He also did a stint on the St. Clair City Council in 2008.

“It’s silly for someone to say ‘I’m not a career politician’ who has run several times,” Forlini said.

Campaign spending

As of March 31, Mitchell had loaned his campaign $1.6 million, nearly five times as much money as his opponents had raised, according Federal Election Commission records. The next quarterly FEC report is due Friday.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network’s television advertising tracking data shows Mitchell had spent $662,776 on TV ads as of June 28.

VanAssche is the politically unknown candidate in the race, having returned to Michigan in 2015 after a 27-year career in the U.S. Air Force that was capped by five years as chief mission director of the presidential plane Air Force One.

“I’m not running against those guys. I’m running because I’m of the people and for the people,” VanAssche said. “I don’t believe in buying the vote. I believe in going door to door.”

VanAssche emphasized that he served Barack Obama in a military capacity, but doesn’t agree with the outgoing Democratic president’s policies.

Because about 45 percent of the district’s voters reside in Macomb County, the candidates are jockeying for local endorsements and heavily campaigning in the Detroit suburbs.

State Sen. Jack Brandenburg, R-Harrison Township, has backed Pavlov after forgoing his own campaign for Miller’s seat. Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, is backing Mitchell in the race.

Sanborn dismissed VanAssche and Forlini as serious contenders for the seat and charged that Forlini is running only to boost his name identification so he can run for Brandenburg’s state Senate seat in 2018.

“I think it’s a three-horse race,” the former senator said.

Forlini called Sanborn’s comment “silly,” noting he has marched in parades in Algonac, Lexington, Port Austin and Sandusky — well outside of Brandenburg’s Macomb County district.

“If that was the case, I wouldn’t even spend all this time up there,” Forlini said.

Democrat Frank Accavitti Jr. of Grosse Pointe Shores will face the GOP primary winner in the Nov. 8 general election.

(517) 371-3661

Twitter: @ChadLivengood

Meet the candidates

Anthony Forlini

Age: 54

Hometown: Harrison Township

Occupation: Current state representative in Macomb County’s 24th House District.

Paul Mitchell

Age: 59

Hometown: Dryden Township

Occupation: Former owner and CEO of Ross Medical Education Center.

Phil Pavlov

Age: 53

Hometown: St. Clair Township

Occupation: State senator, 2011 to present in the 25th Senate District in Huron, Sanilac, St. Clair counties and northern Macomb County; three terms in the state House, 2005-2010; owned and operated family transportation business.

Alan Sanborn

Age: 58

Hometown: Richmond Township

Occupation: Macomb County probation officer; state senator, 2003-2010; state representative, 1999-2002.

David J. VanAssche

Age: 47

Hometown: Shelby Township

Occupation: Retired Air Force officer; spent last five of 27 years as chief mission director for Air Force One. Former vice president at lithium batterymaker Navitas Systems in Ann Arbor.

Source: Detroit News research

Debate set

When: 6:45 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Palazzo Grande, 54660 Van Dyke, Shelby Township