Mysterious attacks escalate battle for Michigan House

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The battle for control of the Michigan House is turning nasty in the final weeks of the general election, with mysterious and misleading attacks escalating an already bitter fight.

Republicans appear to be using shadowy front groups to launch robocall attacks as they seek to retain their majority and stop Democrats from picking up the nine seats necessary to flip the House. And Democrats are being accused by top Republicans of running campaigns based on “clear and consistent lies.”

Robocalls targeting Democratic candidates in at least seven state House districts include disclaimers saying they were paid for by either the Better Michigan Fund or the Reinventing Michigan Fund, neither of which are registered with the state as political action committees.

The calls mimic Michigan Republican Party talking points, and at least one is voiced by Gideon D’Assandro, a spokesman for House Speaker Kevin Cotter and the House Republican Campaign Committee.

“Sorry, but HRCC does not discuss internal strategies or activities,” D’Assandro said when asked if he was working for or coordinating with the Better Michigan Fund.

The D’Assandro-voiced robocall attacks Democratic candidate Robert Kennedy of Harrisville, alleging he voted for tax increases to fund road repairs. Kennedy, running against Republican Sue Allor of Wolverine in northern Michigan’s 106th District, was not in the GOP-led Legislature when two different road tax plans were approved.

Asked earlier this week about both robocall organizations, D’Assandro said “any questions about the activities of those independent groups should be directed to the groups in question.”

But the Better Michigan Fund and Reinventing Michigan Fund are not easily identifiable beyond their names, and callback numbers given on the robocalls lead to identical pre-recorded messages saying “this line is being used for polling.”

Because the robocalls do not direct voters to back a particular candidate, they are considered a form of issue advocacy.

As a result, the groups behind them are not required to report spending or disclose donors to the state, a policy Gov. Rick Snyder and the GOP-led Legislature reinforced with a controversial 2013 law that also doubled campaign contribution limits.

Snyder, in signing the measure, praised new disclaimer rules requiring groups behind political robocalls, mailers and advertisements to identify themselves and provide either an address or phone number.

But the new Republican robocalls “show how easy these disclaimer rules are to avoid and get around,” said Craig Mauger of the Michigan Finance Network, a non-profit watchdog group that first reported on the mysterious groups.

“When these rules were put in place, they were touted as this great triumph of transparency, when now all anyone needs to do to get around them is create some sort of shell organization and it’s untraceable.”

A 2013 campaign finance report filed by the Ottawa County Republican Party listed a contribution from the Better Michigan Fund and named Natalie Stewart, who now works for the House Republican Campaign Committee.

Stewart “is no longer affiliated with that group,” D’Assandro said earlier this week, noting the filing was three years old.

Various robocalls from the shadowy groups criticize Democrats about the federal Affordable Care Act, energy costs, taxes and more. In many cases, they are nearly identical to attacks the Michigan Republican Party has launched via mailers and campaign websites.

One call in Wayne County’s 23rd House District targets Democratic candidate Darrin Camilleri of Brownstown Township, a 24-year-old teacher who is running for an open seat against Republican Bob Howey of Trenton.

The robocall, like a similar Michigan GOP mailer, refers to “political activist Darrin Camilleri” and suggests he “led a political organization dedicated to promoting massive tax hikes.”

Camilleri said the call, which his parents have received, is an “annoying” and “confusing” attempt to distort the truth. They appear to reference his past role as president of the Kalamazoo College Democrats and a 2011 protest against a conservative author who he said had “incited anger among millennials.”

There’s “clearly coordination” between Republican groups and the robocall organizations, said House Democratic campaign spokeswoman Katie Carey. “They’re using the exact same language.”

“This, in my opinion, could not be more clear and further illustrates the need for better disclosure rules on robocalls,” Carey continued. “To me this is just another example of Republicans trying to game the system in their favor.”

Despite any similarities, the party doesn’t have “anything to do” with the robocalls from the Better Michigan Fund or Reinventing Michigan, spokeswoman Sarah Anderson said Tuesday.

“We haven’t coordinated with any groups by that name,” she said. “It’s good messaging, so I can’t blame people for wanting to use it.”

Michigan GOP Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel this week blasted Democrats over television attack ads she called misleading and hypocritical.

One recent ad paid for by the Michigan Democratic Party criticizes incumbent Rep. John Bizon, R-Battle Creek, because he did not co-sponsor a pipeline safety bill, suggesting he is “protecting” Enbridge Energy instead of holding the company responsible for a massive 2010 oil spill on the Kalamazoo River.

Bizon, facing Democratic challenger Jim Haadsma of Battle Creek in the highly competitive 62nd District, was one of nearly 100 House members who did not put their name on the bill -- including dozens of Democrats -- when it was introduced with 10 co-sponsors.

“Politicians have to be prepared to answer for their record, but the kind of gross hypocrisy going on here is complete and utter nonsense,” Romney McDaniel said in a statement. “Here in Michigan, we’re better than this, and we owe the voters better than this.”

The GOP is also bemoaning Democratic ads attacking House members over the state Senate’s pending relocation to new office space in a Lansing building owned by political donor Ron Boji, a move the minority party has called “a symbol of all that is wrong with Republican-led Lansing.”

Senate GOP leadership approved the $134 million project in late 2014. The building lease never went before the House, but Democrats argue Republicans should have done more to stop the project through the appropriations process.

Anderson called the office building attacks “disingenuous.”

“The Michigan House did not vote on that,” she said, noting the Democratic ads attempt to tie members to the Senate project because they voted for the overall state budget. “They had no way to shut that down.”

Rep. Aric Nesbitt, who chairs the House Republican Campaign Committee, also bemoaned Democratic tactics as he spoke last week during a “Capitol Morning Brew” event in Lansing.

“It continues to be clear and consistent lies, because they cannot win on the issues in these districts,” said Nesbitt, R-Lawton, who did not return a call for comment on Wednesday.

While the battle for the state House is heating up two weeks before the election, the tactics do not appear unusual, said Susan Demas of Inside Michigan Politics.

“Certainly the presidential race has reached uncharted waters of absurd comments and tactics, but this is a pretty conventional fight for the state House,” Demas said. “You’ve’ got negative robocalls, negative TV ads, shadowy groups playing. It’s nothing new.”

Late-season attacks can have some impact, but they are increasingly less influential as more Michigan residents vote early by absentee ballot, said Republican consultant John Truscott.

“Unfortunately this occurs every cycle, and when you get two to three weeks out is when it gets very nasty because there’s very limited opportunity (for candidates) to respond,” Truscott said.