Complaint: House Democrats paid for primary ad

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – The Michigan Republican Party on Tuesday filed a campaign finance complaint against House Democrats, alleging the caucus illegally paid for television ads backing a state House candidate who nonetheless lost her Aug. 2 primary.

Public records filed by television station WBKB in Alpena initially listed the Michigan House Democratic Fund as the advertiser of record on a campaign commercial touting 106th District candidate Erin Kieliszewski of Alpena.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Act makes it a misdemeanor crime for a legislative caucus to spend on primary candidates, punishable by up to 93 days in jail or a fine of $1,000.

Michigan GOP Executive Director Steven Ostrow, in announcing the complaint, accused Democrats of breaking the law “to pick winners and losers in their own contested House primaries.”

But House Democrat spokeswoman Katie Carey denied any inappropriate behavior by the caucus, chalking up the original filing to a paperwork mistake by the ad buying firm that was corrected.

“This was a mistake on the part of the vendor,” Carey said. “…This is a firm that’s worked with Democratic politicians in Michigan for a long time. They just accidentally used the wrong thing when they sent the paperwork in.”

An agreement the television station filed with the Federal Communications Commission was digitally signed July 21 by Robert Mushroe, a senior ad buyer at Mundy Katowitz Media in Washington, D.C., who declined comment. The document listed the Michigan House Democratic Fund and its treasurer, Jason Ellenburg.

Craig Mauger, executive director of the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network, first identified the FCC paperwork in question, which he called “very strange.”

“It may have been a mistake, but I haven’t so far heard a legitimate reason why Jason Ellenburg’s name was on the filing or why it listed the House Democratic Fund,” Mauger said Tuesday.

WBKB later posted filed updated documents listing the advertiser as Friends of Erin Kieliszewski, the official candidate committee of Kieliszewski, who lost in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary to Robert Kennedy of Harrisville.

State campaign finance records show Kieliszewski’s candidate committee paid $15,000 to the Mundy Katowitz ad buying firm in July for broadcast and cable airtime.

“She paid for the ad,” Carey said.

Kieliszewski was clearly the preferred candidate of House Democratic leaders, who pumped money into her primary campaign through their own candidate and political action committee funds.

House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, Floor Leader Sam Singh, and caucus campaign co-chairman Adam Zemke contributed a combined $22,600 to Kieliszewski, according to state records.

Kennedy raised a total of $14,477.

Even if the ad filing was a mistake, Mauger said Kennedy was at a “huge disadvantage” in the Democratic primary because “powers that be” had clearly rallied around his primary opponent.

While Kennedy won the primary, his campaign “is another example of how difficult it is for a candidate who doesn’t have the support of people in Lansing to win a race,” Mauger said.

Kennedy defeated Kieliszewski by fewer than 200 votes, winning 51.54 percent to 48.46 percent. He is running against Republican Sue Allor in the Nov. 8 general election.

Kennedy also won the 106th District state House primary in 2014 but lost to incumbent Republican Rep. Peter Pettalia, who could not run for re-election this year due to term limits.

In his 2014 campaign, Kennedy refused to accept contributions from political action committees, a stance he said he softened this cycle after “realizing the reality” that he may need outside funding to compete in the general election.

The former teacher, who continues to oppose “dark money” political spending by nonprofit groups, said he was too busy knocking on doors to follow whether the House caucus was supporting his primary opponent.

Kennedy expects the Michigan House Democratic Fund may help now him in the general election, when caucuses are free to support their party’s official nominees.

“It’s looking that way,” Kennedy said Tuesday. “I’m getting some indication that they want to work together, and I’m certainly open to that.”