Michigan GOP chair Weiser rebuffs attacks on assassination, 'three witches' quips

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News
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Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser labeled the state's top Democratic officeholders "witches" and referenced "assassination" when pressed Thursday for answers about how to remove two sitting GOP congressmen.

After the remarks were reported by The Detroit News on Friday, prompting a firestorm of criticism mostly from Democrats and calls for his resignation from the University of Michigan's Board of Regents, Weiser said on Twitter that his comments "are clearly being taken out of context." But he admitted he should have "chosen my words more carefully," while saying he wouldn't resign from the UM board.

In a video obtained by The News, Weiser made the original comments while taking questions from the audience at a North Oakland Republican Club meeting.

Watch the video here

Someone in the crowd asked how to unseat U.S. Reps. Fred Upton of St. Joseph and Peter Meijer of Grand Rapids Township, who were among 10 House Republicans to support the impeachment of former President Donald Trump in January. The Senate voted to acquit.

Weiser responded the party is focused on beating the "three witches" in 2022, apparently referring to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson — the three statewide Democratic leaders who are up for re-election next year.

Then someone in the crowd can be heard asking about the "witches in our own party."

"Ma'am, other than assassination, I have no other way ... other than voting out. OK?" Weiser said. "You people have to go out there and support their opponents. You have to do what you need to get out the vote in those areas. That's how you beat people."

Ron Weiser, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, left, and Ronna Romney McDaniel, National Republican Committee chairwoman in August.

Democratic UM regents Mark Bernstein and Jordan Acker, who serve with Weiser, called on him to resign.

"Ron Weiser's reckless and dangerous language does not reflect the values of our board and our institution," said Acker, the board's vice chair. "Comments about removal by 'assassination' are a literal attack on our democracy, and are incredibly dangerous in light of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol."

Bernstein condemned the comments as "blatantly sexist," "dangerous" and "damaging to our state and the University of Michigan."

"Our job as regents is to be responsible stewards of the University of Michigan," he said in an email. "In doing so we must protect democracy, honor public service and support our students. Regent Weiser has failed to do so. Our university and the people of this state deserve better. He should resign."

But Weiser defended himself without apologizing.

"While I should have chosen my words more carefully, anyone who knows me understands I would never advocate for violence," he tweeted.

"I’ve spoken with Rep(s) Upton and Meijer personally. My off-the-cuff comments received more scrutiny from the media and leftists in the last 24 hours than the governor’s handling of COVID, the deaths she caused in nursing homes and unemployment issues impacting too many hard-working Michiganders to this day."

Asked Friday about Weiser's comments, a spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party said Weiser and the party's executive director, Jason Roe, who also spoke at the event, made clear it is up to the voters to determine the nominees of the Republican Party.

"The chairman has personally donated to all Republican congressmen in Michigan and is focused on defeating Democrats, rather than involving the party in primary fights," party spokesman Ted Goodman said. 

"The chairman was making it clear that the primary election process is how we decide our nominees for office," Goodman added. "To suggest anything else is dishonest and irresponsible."

Weiser repeatedly used the phrase "the three witches" during his speech on Thursday night.

“Our job now is to soften up those three witches and make sure that when we have good candidates to run against them, that they are ready for the burning at the stake,” Weiser said at one point. "And maybe, the press heard that, too."

Nessel responded Friday afternoon on Twitter, questioning whether she, Whitmer and Benson were "witches who magically decrease Covid spread, increase voter turnout and hold sexual predators accountable without any help from the legislature?"

"Sign me up for that coven. Do better, Michigan GOP," Nessel tweeted.

Benson's Department of State spokeswoman, Tracy Wimmer, said it was "horrifically reckless and unconscionable" that anyone in a position of leadership would make such incendiary comments targeting public officials after the Federal Bureau of Investigation thwarted a plot to kidnap Whitmer last year and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

"Yet, it is a sad and desperate continuation of what we’ve come to expect from the leader of a party that sent busloads of people to that insurrection, and whose colleagues met with the very militia group that attempted the kidnapping," Wimmer said.

Whitmer tweeted a photo of herself with the book "The Witches Are Coming" by Lindy West.

"For a long time, a certain set of men have called women like me 'witches' to silence and discredit us," posted Whitmer, quoting the author.

Threats against members of Congress jumped 94% in the first two months of the year over the same period last year, according to U.S. Capitol Police.

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lavora Barnes called on Weiser to resign from UM for emboldening "the fringes at all costs."

"As a member of the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents, he oversees millions of taxpayer dollars. It’s clear his comments do not reflect the values of the university’s board, faculty, and student body. His statements are not only sexist, but markedly dangerous and will only serve to damage the institution's reputation. We call on him to resign immediately," Barnes said in a statement.

Meijer, who won a competitive race for a seat in the U.S. House in 2020, has publicly discussed threats he's received after voting to impeach Trump and the Capitol insurrection. Meijer has said he was looking to purchase body armor, changing his daily routines and taking other security measures in response to the threats.     

"We are living in unstable times. There are 10 of us (Republicans) who voted for impeachment, and that puts a target on our backs both literally and figuratively," Meijer told The Detroit News in January.

"It’s something that I’m very mindful of. We're trying to downplay this, but there's escalating rhetoric. At the same time, where I come down is we need to press for accountability before we can truly heal these divisions." 

Spokespeople for Meijer and Upton declined to comment on Weiser's statements.

Upton is Michigan's senior Republican member of Congress, having served for more than three decades. Both Meijer and Upton have gained primary challengers and censure votes from county-level Republican parties since backing impeachment.

Upton has previously said he would support Trump when he agreed with him and disagree when he thought Trump was wrong.

"Congress should not tolerate any effort to impede the peaceful transfer of power. I’ve gone to bat for southwest Michigan every day I’ve been in Congress, bringing jobs, economic growth and opportunities to our region of the state," Upton has said. "And that is exactly what I’m going to keep doing.”

Asked at the Thursday event about the futures of Meijer and Upton, Weiser said it's up to the voters.

"The primary voters are going to determine if they're going to be on the ballot," he said.

"We happen to live in a democracy where officials are elected by the people," Weiser added later. "The only way you can change the leadership is to get out and vote."

During the Thursday night event, Roe said if people are upset with Meijer and Upton, they should give money to their opponents. The state Republican Party doesn't get involved in primaries and is focused on winning elections in November, he said.

"We don't win by subtraction. We win by addition. And I don't know how we can go to minorities, to Democrats, to independents and say, 'Hey, come with us, come with us to change this country. We want you with us,' when we are assassinating our own," Roe said.

Weiser, a businessman, became the chairman of the Michigan Republican Party for the third time in February after defeating the previous chairwoman, Laura Cox, in a convention race.

In response to Weiser's comments, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, tweeted words have consequences and "people have died because of inexcusable statements like this."

But Weiser's party co-chair, Meshawn Maddock, defended him. 

"Too bad all the snowflakes in the mainstream media see misogyny where it doesn't exist. Calling someone a witch is NOT misogynist," Maddock tweeted. "This is more of the same from the left — instantly label everything as 'misogyny' or 'racist.' This hurts real efforts to become a more just society."

cmauger@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.

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