The Gongwer Blog

by Alethia Kasben, Managing Editor

GOP Sees Chance In Marquette's 109th House

Posted: November 7, 2022 10:33 AM

House Republicans are attempting to seize an opportunity in the open seat in the Upper Peninsula that Democrats have held since the 1950s with nearly $1 million spent so far between the two caucuses.

Republicans are attacking Marquette City Commissioner Jenn Hill as too liberal for the seat. Meanwhile, the GOP candidate – Melody Wagner of Gwinn – has run and lost multiple times.

But the GOP is pulling out all the stops to complete a sweep of all four House seats with U.P. territory. An ad that started running late last week boosts her profile with an endorsement from Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan). The House Republican Campaign Committee has spent upwards of $620,000 on the race so far.

Ms. Hill appears a somewhat stronger candidate in a head-to-head matchup with the ability to raise more funds and a background organizing charities and as a city commissioner. Between her own spending and that of the Michigan House Democratic Fund, there has been $462,000 spent on her behalf.

Surely outside groups are spending as well.

While Republicans think they have this seat in the bag, Democrats push back on that, saying the race will likely be close. But Ms. Hill is a good candidate who has been working, is smart and a good fit in the district.

The presence of Northern Michigan University and the largest city in the U.P., with a solid organized labor presence, has long helped Democrats ward off the Republican takeover of the U.P., but population loss meant this district had to grow in size and thus take in more conservative territory.

In an interview this week, Ms. Hill said she is hearing support from all areas of the district.

"I am hearing an enormous amount of support on the doors," Ms. Hill said. "The question of reproductive rights is top of mind. … People are also concerned about truthfulness and taking your seat when you say the election was fraudulent. We need to protect voter rights (and focus on) real economic issues."

She criticized what she called "manufactured divisiveness" on issues that don't directly impact our region.

"People are tired of the attack ads," Ms. Hill added.

One thing Republicans are knocking Ms. Hill for is opposing Line 5.

Ms. Hill said there is nothing she can do about the tunnel, and it will be built or stopped by a court. On the oil pipeline itself, as a member of the U.P. Energy Task Force, she said Enbridge itself has said the pipeline won't last long and the state needs to look to the future.

She pointed to things like replacing water lines in homes in the region and making homes more energy efficient.

Energy costs are a big issue, she said. Ms. Hill said she is also hearing from voters about reproductive rights and housing.

Ms. Hill said there is not enough housing in the district for a variety of reasons. She said the area can't fill jobs because there often isn't suitable housing for those who would be willing to move there to work.

She has heard of people sleeping in barns, she said.

"I am bringing decades of experience and at this state of my career what I am most interested is going in and making an impact," she said. "Solving problems is really important to me. It takes time, it takes collaboration. And I have again the experience and the patience to help make these things happen."

Ms. Wagner did not return a request for an interview.

In a segment with WNMU-TV at Northern Michigan University, Ms. Wagner described her upbringing on a dairy farm before moving to Michigan. She then worked as a law enforcement officer in a few different capacities and is now working as a substitute teacher and security guard after giving up a federal law enforcement job to run for the House.

Ms. Wagner said she wants to try again after running in 2016 and not making it out of the primary then again in 2018, 2020 and now.

"Serving the public as a law enforcement officer, you are enforcing the laws," she said when asked what brought her back for another try. "I couldn't believe folks who don't know Legislature is about writing laws, getting some off the books, fixing laws. That knowledge I have gained the last five years in dedicating to this run, that itself I have learned more than most people who have been here."

She said she has broad knowledge on elections as well as the knowledge from the industries where she has worked.

A top priority for Ms. Wagner is opening up records from the Legislature and governor's office.

"We have got to work on bringing sunshine laws in our state that work," she said.

Ms. Wagner was also critical of the state's pandemic response, concerned about health care – particularly for mental health – and filling jobs in the region.

"We have got to get people back to work. We have to get the mentality out there that it is OK to work. You can have difficulties with something with your body or something with your mind, but you can work," she said. "We have to engage people. We need to engage all of departments to work together with our mental health crisis."

As to why she is the best candidate, Ms. Wagner said she is not a politician and is a real person. She said she has been knocking on doors non-stop since her first run.

Similarly, Ms. Hill said knocking doors has been the biggest gift.

"I am excited about what is coming," she said. "That folks want to get together and have constructive conversations about how to fix issues."

CRA Readying Efforts To Expose Illegal Product In Regulated Market

Posted: October 31, 2022 10:19 AM

The new Cannabis Regulatory Agency leader said Tuesday the regulatory body is planning to crack down on illicit product it suspects is making its way into the legal market, though the level of illegal marijuana potentially making its way through the system has not yet been quantified.

CRA Acting Director Brian Hanna told reporters he has heard from stakeholders about illegal product making its way to the regulated market and then being sold there. However, he could not say if the agency has found any illegal product or how many investigations might be ongoing.

Asked if he could quantify the level of illicit product, Mr. Hanna said he could once they find it. Asked if the agency has found illegal product, he said he can't talk about open investigations.

"I would say stay tuned," Mr. Hanna said.

But he did outline rule violations the agency is suspicious of, like camera malfunctions. Every licensee is required to have cameras in their operations and hold onto 30-days' worth of footage. When CRA employees ask for that footage, they often hear it is unavailable. The fine for noncompliance is $5,000.

Recently, the agency reached a consent agreement with a Detroit dispensary, which received a $75,000 fine and a 30-day suspension. It took a year and a half to reach that agreement. Investigators originally found untagged product only to return to the dispensary to see the product destroyed and no footage available.

"It begins with noncompliance with the rules. That's the most important thing and with that, the product has to be tagged. It has to have METRC tags on the product, it has to be identified the statewide monitoring system," he said. "If we identify those anomalies, there's going to be a lot of questions as to why is it this way? Where did this stuff come from? And that's really important. You know, we're hearing things. ... Rumors of trucks driving around with oil going licensee to licensee offering illicit oil at a cheaper price. That's the kind of stuff that we're looking for."

In his first 90 days – which he is about halfway through – Mr. Hanna is working with stakeholders to determine what is working well within the agency and what is not. His second priority is to expose the illicit product in the industry and work to support those who are following the rules.

CRA is a regulatory body, so it cannot enforce criminal penalties or conduct criminal investigations. Mr. Hanna said there is constant communication between the agency and the Department of State Police.

The agency has also hired six new investigators and two inspectors along with analysts and a laboratory scientist.

It will additionally be working to conduct more unannounced inspections, Mr. Hanna said.

Mr. Hanna was appointed to lead the agency a little more than a month ago after former director Andrew Brisbo, who had led the marijuana regulatory effort in the state since its inception, left to head up construction codes.

Previously, Mr. Hanna worked for State Police and was an investigator in the marijuana industry early on. He also has a military background.

His focus on the illicit market comes as complaints are increasing among stakeholders, particularly as prices for marijuana are plummeting. A year ago, the price of an ounce was about $203. Now it is $109.

Still, sales are increasing. In September 2021, the recreational market recorded $124.9 million in sales. In September 2022, it recorded $195.4 million.

Mr. Hanna said the industry-wide complaints, however, warrant the agency looking into the issue and taking strong action.

"If there's anybody cutting corners or cheating, we want to expose that and take a strong enforcement approach on that," he said.

Legislature Poised To See Slight Uptick In Women Lawmakers

Posted: August 29, 2022 8:03 AM

Both the House and Senate appear likely to have more female lawmakers serving in the 2023-24 term depending on the outcome of the November election, though the increase won't be nearly as steep as after the 2018 elections.

Michigan's Legislature, along with others nationwide, has seen increases in women lawmakers in recent cycles, particularly since 2018 when female candidates – mostly on the Democratic side – ran more and won more.

For the first time in 2022, Michigan has two women running as candidates for governor for the major parties. Governor Gretchen Whitmer is not the first Democrat to serve as governor (and get the nomination), but Tudor Dixon is the first female Republican in the state to get her party's nomination.

The Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which works to advance women's equality and representation in American politics, noted this month that there are five woman versus woman gubernatorial races across the country, including Michigan.

Prior to 2022, there had only been four such contests nationally, ever.

Michigan saw a big jump in the number of women lawmakers during the 2018 cycle, going from 37 women to 53. House Democrats boasted gender parity in early 2020 when the results of a special election meant the caucus was made up of 26 men and 26 women.

Now, the House Democratic Caucus has 28 women members and 25 men. The House Republicans have 14 women serving.

In the Senate, 11 total women are serving in the chamber, with eight Democrats and three Republicans.

Next term in the Senate, the total number of women serving could be as high as 17 or as low as 10. Republicans could have up to five women members and Democrats could have as many as 13.

The House could have as many as 52 women serving, though it's more likely the high point is around 48. Three hotly competitive House races are between two women as well.

Michigan currently ranks 12th in the nation – tied with several other states – when it comes to the number of women serving in the Legislature, according to the Center of American Women In Politics.

While 35.8 percent of Michigan's legislators are women, nationally, 31.1 percent of the country's 7,383 seats are filled by women. Since 1971, the number of women serving has quintupled, the center said.

Stivers, Tsernoglou Trade Jabs In 75th After Attack Mailer

Posted: July 8, 2022 7:52 PM

A flyer that hit mailboxes across the 75th House District this week goes after Penelope Tsernoglou of East Lansing for her firm's work with various Republican candidates and set off statements between competitors attacking each other for perceived slights.

The mailer says Ms. Tsernoglou "sold her values" and that her firm was hired by people including former House Speaker Lee Chatfield and fringe House candidate Robert Regan.

Ms. Tsernoglou in a Facebook post responding to the attack stated Practical Political Consulting, the firm she now owns, is nonpartisan and sells voter lists to candidates affiliating with both major political parties.

The mailer sent in the 75th House District attacking candidate Penelope Tsernoglou.

She also criticized her opponent, Emily Stivers of Haslett, saying the mailer came from her supporters: "This is what candidates do when they don't work well with others." Ms. Stivers hit back in her own statement.

Ms. Tsernoglou said her firm has been hired by many Democrats, including Rep. Julie Brixie, who defeated Ms. Tsernoglou in the 2018 primary and supports Ms. Stivers.

It is unclear where the ad originated. The PAC that sent the mailer, Mid-Michigan Democrats for a Well Informed Electorate, is registered by Phil Deschaine, the Meridian Township treasurer. Mr. Deschaine is a supporter of Ms. Stivers.

In an email responding to a request for comment, Mr. Deschaine said all information in the piece came from publicly available information. He said Ms. Tsernoglou's work with Mr. Chatfield was of particular concern.

Sources speaking on background – as well as Ms. Tsernoglou in her response to the mailer – indicated though that Mr. Deschaine did not facilitate the mailer and is just the name on the PAC.

As to who was responsible for the mailer, sources pointed to Ms. Brixie and Dan Opsommer, who once worked for Ms. Brixie. Neither could be reached in time for publication.

Ms. Tsernoglou said the attack piece is "the sort of thing candidates do when they don't want to put in the work to meet voters at their doors and raise funds to send out mail focusing on issues and accomplishments."

"People that sell their values don't get endorsed by folks like Barb Byrum, Sarah Anthony, Bus Spaniola, organized labor, other progressive groups, and nearly 200 others. I know voters in our community aren't going to be swayed by a deceptive mailer when they compare it to my 20 years of service," she said. "We know this won't be the last attack mailer sent out by Emily's supporters. It's what candidates do when they know they are losing (maybe they knew we were going to release the results of our polling next week and got nervous? Hint: it's not looking very good for her.)"

Ms. Stivers said she did not put out the piece, was not consulted on it and doesn't condone it. However, she also said her team has verified the information in the mailer and said it is available through public records.

She also revealed she has been diagnosed with long COVID-19, was hospitalized earlier this year with pneumonia and has depression and anxiety, all that to say to her opponent: "How dare you say I don't care enough to work hard."

"If you want to attack me on my record, my accomplishments, the content of my campaign finance reports, or from whom I've taken money and worked to help elect, that's fair game. But personal attacks have NO PLACE in politics, especially in a Democratic Primary," Ms. Stivers said. "So to sum it up, I don't condone negative personal attacks. I have not made negative personal attacks. I think public records should be examined in this election. You should consider the good and the bad about any candidate, and you should hear both sides to any story."

Payday Lending, Abortion, Scholarship Program Props Spending Big

Posted: May 2, 2022 10:47 AM

Ballot proposals to change payday lending regulations, legalize abortion and establish tax credits for grants to nonpublic school students are spending big as they seek to collect sufficient signatures to move their initiatives forward.

Campaign finance reports for ballot committees were due Monday for the first quarter of the year.

Several proposals, some on the progressive side and another championed by conservatives, reported spending serious money on signature gathering. Others did not appear as serious as the deadline to turn in signatures looms for those that want to make the November ballot (see separate story). Those hoping to have the Legislature certify an initiated act have more time.

One proposal, from Voters for Transparency and Term Limits, to change term limits and require financial disclosure from elected officials, does not have to file a report until May 2.

Let MI Kids Learn reported $1.64 million in contributions, making its overall funds raised this election cycle upwards of $3.3 million. It is ending the period with just over $1 million still on hand.

It also spent nearly $1.9 million during this same window and noted about $27,596 in in-kind contributions. Virtually all its expenses were on paid signature gathering services, though it did shell out at least $37,438 in radio advertising and $29,346 in video production.

Four ranked among Let MI Kids Learn's top donors, each of which gave $250,000: The financial services firm Oberndorf Enterprises, Autocam Medical Chairman John Kennedy, Founder and Chairman of 42 North Partners Michael Jandernoa and the State Government Leadership Foundation, a group based out of Washington D.C.

The foundation also gave an additional $140,000 donation during this period as well, making it the top donor of Let MI Kids Learn for the first quarter of the year. Additional high-dollar donors include: Dan DeVos, brother-in-law to former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and chairman of the NBA's Orlando Magic; Tony De Nicola, chairman of the private equity firm Welsh, Carson, Anderson and Stowe; Richard Haworth, chairman emeritus of the furniture manufacturing company Haworth Inc.; and David Fischer, chairman of Suburban Collection Holdings.

Each gave $100,000 to the initiative. Altogether, Let MI Kids Learn raised more than $1.6 million off just 32 donations.

Michiganders for Fair Lending is sitting on $1 million as it continues to collect signatures in an effort to cap payday lending annual interest rates at 36 percent.

With quarterly campaign finance reports for some committees due Monday, the ballot committee reported raising $2.6 million.

Of that, the committee reported spending $1.5 million so far, leaving it with roughly $1.1 million on hand as it works to collect the 340,047 required signatures by June 1. It also has a $12,000 loan and reported $45,728 in in-kind contributions.

Most of its spending has been on signature gathering.

The ballot proposal's money came from the national American Civil Liberties Union and the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which supports progressive causes and does not have to disclose its donors.

The ACLU has contributed $1.7 million, and the Sixteen Thirty Fund has provided nearly $1 million.

Supporters of the effort have said payday lenders are currently allowed to charge interest rates that exceed 370 percent APR.

There has been a legislative effort to reduce the interest rates, but they have not gotten traction.

Promote the Vote 2022 is also raising and spending millions. The coalition seeking to put a constitutional amendment before voters that would enshrine the current voter identification rules within the document along with other things, like requiring early voting, spent $1.4 million this quarter.

In all, it raised $2.5 million and has $1.3 million on hand. Its top donors include the Sixteen Thirty Fund and Lynn Schusterman, a billionaire philanthropist.

Reproductive Freedom for All, the organizers of a petition initiative seeking to legalize abortion under the Constitution, raised $1.4 million, spending most of it in the first quarter of the year on signature gathering.

The group has about $200,000 on hand, according to its latest campaign finance report, which was due Monday.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and Michigan Voices is leading the effort to collect 425,059 signatures to put the constitutional amendment before voters. Those signatures are due July 11.

The effort to legalize abortion in the state stems from the anticipation that the U.S. Supreme Court might overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. That ruling mostly nullified Michigan's 1846 law banning abortion and making it a felony for anyone to perform one on a woman. Should Roe fall, the question of abortion will return to the states and Michigan's ban will come back into full effect.

Mainly, the proposal would put into the Constitution that "every individual has a fundamental right to reproductive freedom." That includes making decisions about pregnancy.

The national branch of the ACLU and the Center for Reproductive Rights were two key contributors to the effort, as well as the ACLU of Michigan.

The opposition group, Citizens to Support MI Women and Children, reported raising more than $100,000, nearly all of that from Right to Life of Michigan.

Most of that was spent on polling and consulting.

The proposal to raise the state's minimum wage is spending heavily, $1.8 million so far this year, nearly all of that to the company K2K Consulting to pay for collecting signatures.

The source for Raise the Wage MI's funds is One Fair Wage Action, which has pumped $1.8 million into the campaign. Their proposal would raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2027 and bring the tipped minimum wage to $15 by then as well. There would be an inflation-adjusted annually for the wage after 2027.

Michigan's minimum wage is currently $9.87 per hour and under existing statute schedule to rise to $12.05 per hour by 2030.

What Can Lansing Get Done In Early 2022?

Posted: January 5, 2022 2:10 PM

2022 is an election year, and as such we are entering the relatively brief window where legislators will be more focused on working inside the Capitol before the filing deadline in April kicks off a summer campaign season.

So, what could the Legislature do during the first half of 2022 when it returns to session next week?

We are in the dynamic of shared power where Republicans in the Legislature are unlikely to want to give Governor Gretchen Whitmer large amounts of policy victories ahead of her reelection campaign. Even without that dynamic traditionally, election years can be a bit sleepier.

There were 168 public acts in 2021, a record low since the adoption of the 1963 Constitution. In 2020, there were 402, in 2019 there were 178 and in 2018, the activity-filled lame duck led to 690 public acts for the year.

Heading into 2022, the governor and Legislature already agreed to a $1 billion economic development package and some supplemental spending.

If lawmakers and Ms. Whitmer can agree on how to spend a larger chunk of the federal and state surplus dollars in the early part of the year is a key thing to watch.

I am also looking at how the budget will play out this year. The last several years the budget has mostly come together close to the deadline at the end of September. Of course there is a July 1 deadline in law but that has no teeth.

All parties are starting from a very different place this year than they were in the beginning of 2021 so we might see a more traditional budget cycle in 2022. Lawmakers might also want to finish it up before summer campaigning.

On policy, it is unclear if there might be some common ground on anything super significant until later in the year. But the economic development bills sort of came out of nowhere and certainly that could happen again.

Ms. Whitmer will have some asks during her State of the State address, and the Republican reaction to her priorities will be a big hint in how the months ahead may shake out.

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