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Schuette, Schuitmaker get boost from free billboards

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker are benefiting from free, apparently independent billboard advertising worth thousands of dollars a month as they consider campaigns for higher office.

Twin billboards along Interstate 96 near Howell tout both prospective candidates. Because they were erected on private property and do not advocate for the election of either politician, they are not governed by traditional highway advertising or campaign finance disclosure laws.

Schuette, a Midland Republican, is widely expected to run for governor in 2018. Schuitmaker, a Lawton Republican, is strongly considering a bid to succeed Schuette as attorney general.

Genoa Township and state records reviewed by The Detroit News indicate the land is owned by local attorney Neal Nielsen under the umbrella of his real estate company, Nordic Realty LLC.

Nielsen did not return multiple calls seeking comment, so his motivation for the billboards remains a mystery. He has given roughly $10,000 to Michigan political candidates since 2003 — almost all to Republicans — but has never made any direct contributions to Schuette or Schuitmaker, according to campaign finance reports.

Schuette and Schuitmaker say they have nothing to do with the I-96 billboards and do not control the messaging. But the high-visibility signs — located alongside one of the state’s most trafficked arteries — are a boon to both.

“I can confirm that we’re not involved in the billboard at all, but Bill certainly appreciates the support,” said Schuette spokesman John Sellek. “It’s very kind of whoever’s doing it.”

The Schuette billboard previously championed Gov. Rick Snyder and includes a left-over slogan declaring the attorney general a “relentless positive leader who can be trusted,” a play on Snyder’s mantra of relentless positive action.

Schuitmaker is a “proven leader and representative of the people,” according to a more recent billboard erected at the same mid-Michigan location, which is more than 100 miles outside the nearest portion of her Senate district.

“It’s no coordination with any campaign I have,” Schuitmaker told The News. Asked about the free advertising, she added: “I’ll take it.”

Schuitmaker and House Speaker Tom Leonard are considered likely contenders for the Republican nomination for attorney general, which will be decided at a party convention next year ahead of the November general election.

The two-term state senator is making it clear she’s interested in the position but has not formally declared her candidacy.

“I’ve always focused on law issues in the Legislature, and I’ve been a practicing attorney,” Schuitmaker said. “I think I have a wealth of experience and certainly would be a good defender for the people of the state of Michigan.”

Nielsen, who did not return calls for this story, is a Republican who served as a University of Michigan regent from 1985 to 1992, according to school records.

His political contributions include $3,255 to the Livingston County Republican Party between 2007 and 2015, along with $2,000 to 52nd District Court Judge Brian MacKenzie in 2014.

Nielsen’s billboards are exempt from regulation under the Michigan Highway Advertising Act because they are on personal property, express personal opinion and do not contain website addresses or telephone numbers, said Michigan Department of Transportation spokesman Jeff Cranson.

Because the signs do not tell viewers to vote for or against Schuette or Schuitmaker, Nielsen is not required to disclose any of his spending on the billboards as a political contribution.

“Messages that don’t expressly advocate for or against a candidate generally are not regulated by state campaign-finance disclosure laws,” said Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams, who spoke in general terms and did not want to comment directly on billboards the Bureau of Elections had not reviewed.

But the billboards have “great value” for Schuette and Schuitmaker, said advertising expert Robert Kolt, a Michigan State University professor and president of Kolt Communications Inc.

Billboard companies typically sell advertisements by “impressions,” meaning the number of cars that drive by a particular location, he said. Kolt estimated billboards along a major highway like I-96 could cost anywhere from $5,000 to $7,500 a month.

“It’s a very good deal for the politicians,” Kolt said of the free advertising, adding that billboards are an “awareness medium” that can boost name identification, a key factor for prospective statewide candidates.

“It’s not a persuasive medium where you would change someone’s attitude or opinion or even their behavior,” he said. “It wouldn’t necessarily get people out to vote, but they’ve got to know the name before they vote.”

Livingston County Democratic Party Chairwoman Judy Daubenmier filed a campaign finance complaint against Nielsen in 2008 over a sign he had on a nearby property touting then-Congressman Mike Rogers, R-Howell.

In that case, the sign was on Genoa Township property next to a Brighton Area Fire Authority station. Nielsen had deeded the land to the township with the stipulation that he be allowed unrestricted usage of the sign. The state dismissed the complaint.

Daubenmier said this week she has no problem with the newer billboards because they are on Nielsen’s private property, but she acknowledged the messages are probably a big benefit to Schuitmaker and Schuette, whom she called “a lightweight” and political “climber.”

“It’s mostly pass-through traffic, though,” Daubenmier said of I-96. “I don’t know how much of it is actually Livingston County traffic.”

Nielsen also previously put up a billboard to tout state Sen. Joe Hune, R-Fowlerville, who said he knows the attorney from interactions in Livingston County but also made sure not to coordinate with him in any way on the advertising.

“He’s a good egg, a good friend and literally a strong philanthropist involved in the community,” Hune said. “He’s involved with law enforcement issues, benefits and veteran’s organizations. Just a good egg.”

The billboards are a form of “issue advertising” that do not require disclosure in Michigan. Even states with tougher disclosure laws would not likely require Nielsen to disclose spending on politically related billboards this far out from an election, said Craig Mauger of the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

But anonymous spending to support politicians, even those who are not declared candidates for any office, can be problematic, Mauger said, noting the backer could theoretically have business before Schuette’s office or an interest in legislation Schuitmaker is pursuing.

“There are very real scenarios in which there would be a public need to know,” he said. “The public deserves to know who’s trying to tout a public elected official.”

joosting@detroitnews.com