Country club's Epstein snub fuels debate over civility in politics
Franklin — Republican congressional candidate Lena Epstein says the decision by her country club to cancel her political fundraiser in Oakland County has fueled support for her campaign for the U.S. House.
She said the fundraiser — instead held Wednesday night at an Italian restaurant in Bloomfield Hills — brought out twice as many as the maximum 50 people she was allowed at Franklin Hills Country Club before the board of directors canceled her event. She wouldn't say exactly how many attended.
"The outpouring of support has been humbling, to say the least," she said Thursday.
The controversy over Epstein's event comes amid a growing national debate over civility in political discourse after protesters publicly confronted prominent conservatives affiliated with President Donald Trump in recent days, including top members of his staff and cabinet.
Epstein, who strongly supports Trump, got a call Friday informing her that the country club board had voted to cancel her fundraiser because of her political views, she said.
Epstein co-chaired Trump's campaign in Michigan in 2016. She is seeking the GOP nomination in the 11th District, where Republican Rep. Dave Trott is retiring.
"It’s discrimination. Let’s call it what it is," Epstein said. "I'm a longstanding member. My family were longstanding members of the community. We've never experienced anything like this."
The Franklin Hills board president and manager have not returned calls from The Detroit News. At the club Thursday, a reporter seeking comment was asked to leave by a manager who would not provide his name.
Franklin Hills is a private club dating to the 1920s when it was founded by a group of Detroit Jewish leaders. It has a golf course and a clubhouse designed by renown Detroit architect Albert Kahn.
Despite the controversy, Epstein — a fourth-generation member of the club — said she will maintain her membership at Franklin Hills, which she called her "second home."
"Not at all. We have wonderful relationships at the club," Epstein said. "We had 17 co-hosts for our event last night. Nine of them are members of the club."
Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon said Epstein's complaints are typical of the "fake victimization of the people on the right."
"She’s is crying about having a swanky fundraiser at a private club canceled, but she has no problem when Donald Trump and his friends lock kids in cages or take health care away from people. Cry me a river," Dillon said.
Dillon said Franklin Hills is a private club with the right to ensure the events it hosts are consistent with what their members deem "appropriate."
"Lena is not a normal Republican. She has gone out of her way to latch onto the worst elements of the Trump phenomenon, including being a cheerleader for all the offensive things that Donald Trump has done — and taking the support of racists, anti-Semites and all sort of really ugly characters," Dillon said. "I have no sympathy for her whatsoever."
Franklin Hills' apparent cancellation of Epstein's event came a week after a Facebook post by Michael Simon, the son of a former president of the club, who raised concerns about Epstein's support for Trump's border and immigration policies.
“Franklin Hills was founded in 1927 because Jews were not permitted to be members elsewhere,” Simon wrote in the now-deleted post.
“My deep connection to this place is why I’m so heartbroken to see FHCC’s leaders affiliate themselves with the racist campaign being run by Lena Epstein to tear children from the arms of their parents.”
Simon called on Franklin Hills members and the wider Jewish community to disassociate themselves from Epstein's campaign and instead donate to the Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services that's working to reunite immigrant families separated at the border.
Epstein said what Simon published on Facebook was "hate speech."
Epstein said she wasn't going to go public about the club's actions until she considered it in the context of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders' call for civility after she was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant, the Red Hen, last week because she works for Trump.
Also last weekend, protesters confronted Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi outside a screening of a documentary about Mister Rogers. Some shouted, "Shame on you!" according to news reports.
"This issue represents a much bigger issue that we’re facing as a nation — the unfair double standards and targeting of Trump supporters and Republicans like Sarah Sanders, Pam Bondi and now myself," Epstein said.
"The hateful rhetoric coming out of the liberal left — such as Maxine Waters — is really dangerous to the American political process. We need to learn to have cordial discussions with those we don’t always agree with."
Epstein was referring to U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California, who urged supporters at a rally Saturday to "create a crowd, and you push back on them" if they see members of Trump's cabinet in public.
Waters later said she was calling for peaceful protest and not harm to anyone.
Trump called Waters an "incredibly low IQ person" and suggested she should "be careful what you wish for Max!"
Dillon said conversations about civility and political rhetoric should start with Trump and his bullying or rallies where supporters chant "lock her up" and wear shirts using a crude slur to describe Hillary Clinton.
“Confronting an elected official or someone who speaks for an elected official in public is fair game. They are public officials and are not to be insulated from people. And if Lena Epstein and others don’t like people criticizing them, then they should get in another business,” Dillon said.
“I don’t think there’s anything uncivil about how Democrats and others have tried to hold these people in power accountable for their really bad decisions and for essentially lying to us."
Suneel Gupta, who is seeking the Democratic nomination in the 11th District, also had no sympathy for Epstein.
"Decent Americans will never embrace a president who spews hate, or a candidate like Lena Epstein who publicly supports his hateful policies. The people of Michigan will never stand for it," Gupta said.
"Ms. Epstein said she was hurt by the discrimination, but her policies are discriminatory to entire groups of people."
Epstein's supporters rallied behind her on social media this week, calling for Trump supporters to cancel their club memberships and calling Franklin Hills the "Red Hen of Michigan," referring to the Virginia restaurant that asked Sanders to leave last week.
One of Epstein's rivals in the GOP primary, former U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, called for all Republican candidates in the 11th District race and their supporters to temporarily suspend their campaigns and join him for a peaceful protest near the club on July 2.
"This is yet another Intolerable Act from the left!" Bentivolio said in a statement. "We MUST fight back!"
Another candidate in the race, state Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, said he was "very troubled" by the club's decision to cancel the fundraiser, calling it an infringement on her First Amendment rights.
"Mr. Simon may not like President Trump or his policies, but the American people elected him as our President," Kowall said in a statement. "He is our nation’s chosen leader. and trying to muzzle a candidate because she supports our president is anti-American."
Meshawn Maddock, co-founder of the group Michigan Trump Republicans, said she was outraged that "radical" Democrats are trying to silence Epstein and other female conservatives.
"A female candidate is being denied access to an establishment because she supports President Donald J. Trump. How can this happen in America?” Maddock said in a statement.
Staff Writer Niquel Terry contributed.