The Gongwer Blog

by Ben Solis, Staff Writer

Attacks On Trans People Become Major GOP '22 Talking Point

Posted: June 19, 2022 9:27 PM

A new front is forming in the culture wars between Michigan Republicans and Democrats, as several running for statewide and local office have turned their 2022 efforts toward transgender issues in sports and education – with two of the more vocal candidates for governor making those talking points central to their campaigns.

In Michigan, the past week served as something of a crescendo, so far, on Republican efforts to attack Democrats for their support of transgender persons, especially after Attorney General Dana Nessel joked that there should be a drag queen in every school.

When coupled together, Ms. Nessel's comment, the response that followed and the existing push from Republican gubernatorial candidates Tudor Dixon and Garrett Soldano to campaign on these issues, the situation becomes a key flashpoint in the 2022 election – one that could have major implications not just for the race but how the state views and accepts members of the LGBTQ community in the future.

Attacks from Republicans on the issue have included everything from comments railing against transgender inclusion in sports, the teaching of transgender issues in schools and the deeming of those who support such measures (whether they are members of the LGBTQ community or not) as pedophiles and groomers.

Mr. Soldano, whose latest campaign ad also wades into calling leftwing politicians and their ilk a "woke groomer mafia," described in an interview his position on the trans inclusion and education issue as one of parents' rights, protecting kids from harmful intrusions of those issues in schools and as a way to keep kids safe while they endure ongoing mental health concerns that in many ways predated the current conversation.

The candidate also said that he did not view himself, his supporters and potential voters as homophobic or transphobic, and that he supported those individuals' choices and rights. What he does oppose, however, is forcing those conversations in academic settings and mandating that transgender-identifying children play sports with non-transgender boys or girls.

Requests to interview Ms. Dixon, who has granted few interviews as a candidate, were received by her staff, but her campaign handlers did not respond after that initial interaction.

Meanwhile, Democrats have had a mixed response to the attacks from Ms. Dixon, Mr. Soldano and other Republican organizations.

Some, like Ms. Nessel and Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak), who were also interviewed by Gongwer News Service for this story, have said that they stand firmly with all members of the LGBTQ community, of which Ms. Nessel is a member. Both also questioned the GOP logic and fears surrounding the transgender sports issue, seeing as how the stats on trans people seeking waivers to participate in gendered high school sports is infinitesimal.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer has etched out a reputation as a strong advocate for LGBTQ rights and inclusion, and that remains true even as her reelection campaign spokesperson, Maeve Coyle, called Republican attacks on gender identity a distraction from real campaign issues.

"Governor Whitmer supports every Michigander's ability to live as their full, authentic self," Ms. Coyle said in a statement to Gongwer. "In these challenging times, she's focused on making lives a little easier by expanding free community college and job training, getting $400 auto refunds for every driver, and cutting taxes for small businesses. Republicans are doing their best to distract from their dangerous plans, but Governor Whitmer is laser focused on the issues she's hearing about from Michigan families."

But other allies in Democratic politics have been quieter. It's not clear whether that's because they think they have political vulnerability on the issue, they see it as a political stunt designed to get them off-message or just dismiss it as an outrageous attack not worthy of a response, or some combination.

Leading some of the controversy around this discussion in Michigan is the fallout from Ms. Nessel's comment, which she told Gongwer should have been taken as nothing more than a joke and chided those who allegedly blew it out of proportion.

Still, Ms. Nessel said this continues a trend over several decades as trans people have traditionally been one of the most vulnerable groups in society and have also been one of the least protected groups by society's laws.

"In addition to that, they are subjected to the most discrimination in employment, and they, whether it be housing, education, etc., (are subjected to that more than) any other that one minority group would seek protection under," Ms. Nessel said. "But also when it comes to hate crimes. I started here in Michigan where we exclusively focused on hate crimes committed against the LGBTQ community, and what we saw time and time again, is, generally speaking, the worst, the most violent, and the most heinous crimes were reserved for trans women. And I could go case after case after case of trans women whose only crime was walking down the street, and somebody would start shooting at them with an assault rifle. These individuals just been absolutely brutalized for no other reason than who they were."

Ms. Nessel said that the controversy several years ago over transgender persons entering their identified bathrooms was also puzzling in that same context, as she had never seen in all of her time as working sex crimes cases one where a transman or transwoman ever assaulted a child. She had seen, however, "hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cases, lots of cases with, you know, straight white married men who assaulted kids."

She's posed the same questions regarding these types of cases to other prosecutors, like Wayne County's Kym Worthy, and she's gotten similar responses, Ms. Nessel said.

As to why this was now in focus again on the Republican side of the campaign trail, she said it was no different than alleged GOP attacks on education over the past several decades. Teachers appear to be foils for Republicans over the last few years as well, as Ms. Nessel said they've been demonized and this was just the latest attack on them, in addition to the LGBTQ community.

"It's just another wedge issue, another way to try and get the public to hate public schools and public-school educators," she said. "To create enemies out of people who have only ever been our friends, from a societal standpoint, and have only ever been there for our kids."

Asked if she had given thought to how her comment on drag queens, while kidding, may have hurt the situation for teachers but also transgender kids, Ms. Nessel said she puts the onus for that back on Republicans.

"The larger point to me was blaming the massive issues we have in our education system on, of all things, drag queens," she said. "What do drag queens have to do with the harm that's been done to our kids? And I find it to be ironic. Here I am and have been more proactive in terms of these large-scale investigations in terms of sexual abuse against children than any attorney general in the country, in the history of our state. I've charged more clergy members with abuse of kids."

She also cited the party's woes with former House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who is being accused of sexually assaulting and potentially grooming his sister-in-law for abuse.

"He was the highest-ranking member of the Republican Party, and we know what the allegations against him were by his own sister-in-law," she added. "You don't hear them saying, 'well, we can't have white male Evangelical Christians serving in the state house because, look, they're groomers.' So, they're not taking actual issues with where we do have incidences of sexual abuse, they're making them up."

In an interview, Ms. McMorrow, who was one of several lawmakers in the state's Democratic caucus taking a stand against such attacks when they arose within its own chambers, said that fear is a powerful motivator, and that it was easy for politicians to punch down on marginalized communities they don't necessarily understand.

"It's sort of terrifying to think that if you believe all this messaging, that that second your child walks out the door in the morning, there are people who want to do terrible things to them. And it's placing it on the backs of, again, a very, very small percentage of residents, which is I mean, it's the classic definition of scapegoating," Ms. McMorrow said. "It's trying to convince people that all of their problems are somebody else's fault. At the end of the day, everybody loses because if, let's say, for example, the bills go through to ban trans kids from playing on the sports team that matches their gender identity, that's what two kids per year in Michigan that apply for that waiver."

If those two kids are banned from playing sports, she said, that doesn't help bring health care costs down, nor does it help Michiganders open a small business or fix the roads. It just hurts two kids, she said.

In what had all the hallmarks of a coordinated response against Ms. Nessel, Michigan Republican Party Chair Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock, the Michigan Freedom Fund, Michigan Rising Action, the Republican National Committee and Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser all put out statements slamming the incumbent attorney general. Some groups did not overtly attack drag queens or transgender persons in their statements, instead saying bringing drag queens to schools would do nothing to improve K-12 schooling.

Ms. Maddock called it "the most INSANE comment of the year" and "downright SICK" that Ms. Nessel would want to "inject an incredibly inappropriate DRAG SHOW into every Michigan school!"

DEMS SAY CAMPAIGN RHETORIC FUELING THE FIRE: The conversation on the societal inclusion of gay, lesbian or transgender communities is far from new, but it has recently taken on a novel tone. The attacks from the right have also hit a fever pitch during the height of Pride Month – a time when the nation continues to grapple with the concept of LGBTQ rights and what some have called the ongoing persecution of that community at large.

Similarly, the question of transgender persons, particularly children declaring they identify as a gender different than their biological sex, had become a major Republican emphasis well before Ms. Nessel's remark on drag queens.

Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, said what's been happening in Michigan tracks with what's happening nationally. There has been an uptick in what she called hurtful rhetoric from "MAGA extremists," she said.

"It's our opinion that this is happening to score political points, and unfortunately what's happening is it's creating a harmful environment. It's legislating death," she said.

Transgender children are four times more likely to commit suicide, Knott said. The organization began airing this month cable television advertisements featuring mothers of transgender daughters warning that demonizing transgender people, particularly children, is dangerous and harmful. They are running in the Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids TV markets.

In Michigan, the most prominent Republican elevating and attacking the concept of a person identifying as a gender different than their biological sex is Ms. Dixon, who has regularly used her Twitter account to attack the idea of introducing children to the idea of being transgender. She has denounced something she calls "Trans Supremacy."

She has echoed some of the same attacks Republicans have pushed nationally, such as on the idea of transgender girls competing in girls athletic competitions, though in practice these situations are exceedingly rare.

Geoff Kimmerly, spokesperson for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, which determines whether transgender girls can compete in girls athletic competitions, said this week that the MHSAA has received an average of two such requests a year for the last five years and approved them all. In the most recent academic year, there were three, he said.

Ms. Nessel and Ms. McMorrow also said such instances were rare, yet their Republican counterparts believe such waivers are proliferating with little evidence.

"Liberal elites have created a culture of Trans-Supremacy at the expense of little girls & young women everywhere," Ms. Dixon tweeted earlier this month. "The glass ceiling is being laid back into place. Title IX must not be reinterpreted and give permanence to this gravely unfair trend."

Ms. Dixon has tweeted that term, "Trans Supremacy," at least twice. It does not appear to be a term in general circulation. Asking her for an explanation as to what that meant, exactly, was on the top of the list had she accepted Gongwer's request for an interview.

In a different tweet, Ms. Dixon highlighted what she said were the differences between her and Ms. Whitmer. One of those differences, Ms. Dixon termed as "Parents' rights vs. Pervert's rights."

Ms. Dixon also slammed Ms. Nessel for her "every school should have a drag queen" remark. She said she would "sign a bill that creates severe criminal penalties for adults who involve children in drag shows." Republicans have highlighted a drag show in Dallas, Texas, that encouraged children to attend.

Republicans have labeled drag shows as "sexualized," though the history of drag is one focused on entertainment, not sex. The first drag appearances were generally of straight men, like Milton Berle or Flip Wilson, among many others. Nonetheless, the image of men, wearing heavy makeup, with extravagant wigs and dresses, has prompted some Republicans to equate them as inherently sexual.

Another candidate, Kevin Rinke, also has been discussing transgender issues. He retweeted a Fox News Channel story in which a Michigan school district chose not to disclose to a pupil's parent that the child born a biological boy was identifying as a girl and using a female name in school to avoid outing the pupil to the parent. Mr. Rinke called the situation infuriating and said as governor he would have such situations investigated.

Of Ms. Nessel's remark, Mr. Rinke said: "If Dana Nessel loves drag, fine. That's her business. But we don't need grown men dressed up as hyper-sexualized women dancing around for our kids. These people need to get a grip."

SOLDANO BELIEVES HIS MESSAGE IS RESONATING: Separately, Mr. Soldano had apparently already cut an ad, which debuted the day of Ms. Nessel's remark, scorching the idea of bringing any type of gender identity discussion into schools.

In his ad, Mr. Soldano claims "the woke groomer mafia wants to indoctrinate and subjugate our kids through warped fantasies" – that then shows a drag queen reading to a school class – and declares he will "transition woke Whitmer out of office."

When asked why he believed this issue had become a central component of his and other candidates' campaigns, he said it was because parents are "fed up" with schools coparenting their children and providing information on sex and gender that were better left for family discussions at home. The transgender issue was just one aspect of that phenomenon.

"We see these parents who are just fed up with this 'woke groomer mafia,' as we call it, one that indoctrinates and subjugates our kids into their fantasies, and I think parents and most Michiganders, and Americans, are just sick and tired of it," he said. "We need ordinary people now to do extraordinary things and get involved at all levels to stop the indoctrination that's going on with kids."

Pressed further on why Republicans were so opposed to these concepts, like critical race theory but especially the transgender sports issue, Mr. Soldano, a former Western Michigan University football player, said it was "just plain wrong." He expounded by saying supporters of Title IX and women's sports fought "tooth and nail to get rights and good, equal representation" and that struggle was being basically swept under the rug.

Asked about Mr. Kimmerly's assertion that sports waivers in this instance were rare, Mr. Soldano pivoted to an argument for greater mental health care for struggling kids. He then equated the forcing of non-transgender kids and transgender kids together on the sports field to just another barrier in their development into healthy adults. The same goes for his argument of keeping discussions of sex and gender out of elementary and middle school classrooms.

"When you're talking about these issues to very young kids, you're going to confuse them," he said. "And these kids don't have any idea what's going on with sex or everything else, especially these young kids. Let's focus on the basics (in education) and let the parents deal with that stuff."

While childhood mental health has taken on a renewed focus in the wake of COVID-era learning loss and the Oxford High School shooting, Mr. Soldano said he believed the current mental health crisis could be blamed on the policies of Ms. Whitmer. Adding conversations about transgender issues would only serve to confuse kids further, he surmised, and Ms. Nessel's joke about drag queens has only deepened parents' concerns.

"I've talked to a lot of teachers about this, and that's what they're afraid of right now," he said. "They're saying these kids are confused and they may want to do this stuff for attention. And now you've got legislation in some of these states (allowing) blocking hormones and gender reassignment surgeries and everything else that we're going to screw up these kids with. Let the parents and the counselors deal with this. These teachers should not teach this and they should not be reading this type of garbage."

Mr. Soldano said that should he be elected governor, he would seek to lobby the Legislature for a law that bans sexual and gender theory from being taught in schools, much like in Florida, and a Texas law that labels efforts to help kids transition from one gender to another as child abuse.

"When you said that it might just be a couple of cases of (kids in sports transitioning), Whitmer is fueling a narrative now and these kids who obviously are confused are just going to continue to get worse," he said. "We need to get a sense of normalcy back in these kids' lives, and to push this kind of progressive, left agenda is wrong. Where does it stop?"

Despite what some might view as homophobic and transphobic rhetoric, Mr. Soldano said he was far from either, and that he has transgender and homosexual relatives in his family whom he loves. He also said that he was bound to preserve the rights and dignity of all Michiganders and that includes young people who do decide to come out as transgender or any of the various identities on the LGBTQ spectrum.

"We are also going to honor kids that want to do those things," he said. "This is America, and this is not a hit on the LGBTQ community. In America, everybody has rights and I support those rights. However, when you're putting these things at a very young age and confusing kids, that's where we have to draw the line and not allow it to happen."

For Ms. Nessel, the issue is personal, as she views these attacks as another way for Republicans to hold her community back and could have an impact on how safe young LGBTQ people feel about coming out to their families and loved ones.

The incumbent AG said that her own coming out experience was awful.

"I lost family, I lost friends. I had family members that didn't speak to me for 15 or 20 years. I had a number of legal issues, whether it was me and my partner having to pay for multiple health insurance policies where … we paid way more money than an opposite sex couple would have," she said. "Things that should have been really simple, like a doctor's appointment, became like a nightmare. One of our kids got sick and was in the hospital, only one of us could be there. These are things that maybe a lot of opposite sex couples don't ever have to think about. I couldn't even get a gym membership with my partner, we couldn't even get a gym membership as a family, because they didn't recognize us as a family. I don't want other people to have to go through that."

Asked if she believed that Republicans would rather not have more youth come out, and if she saw these attacks as furthering that end goal, Ms. Nessel said yes.

As expected, both Ms. Nessel and Mr. Soldano said their respective party's values were the ones that are shared by Michigan's electorate, and with LGBTQ issues now on the ballot in the form of executive office races, those assumptions would likely be put to the test.

Ms. Nessel pointed to what she believed to be a statewide ethos of protecting education amongst the electorate, and that because voters have time and again rejected the charter and private education policies of, say, the DeVos family, that shows her that voters are likely more aligned with her on this issue.

Mr. Soldano, to the contrary, said his campaign momentum is evidence to him that voters resonate with his messaging, particularly his stances on education policy.

Ms. McMorrow recently gave a floor speech that garnered nationwide attention when she addressed a campaign email from Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) which had also called Democratic colleagues groomers. Since then, she said she's seen an outpouring of support not just for her but members of the LGBTQ community and their advocates – evidence that people are listening to Democratic lawmakers and their efforts to help transgender kids are being recognized.

Knott, in turn, said the data her organization has shown no public differentiation in acceptance and support of people based on their sexual orientation vs. gender identity. The organization, others like it and allies have won the argument with the general public on marriage equality and non-discrimination, she said.

"So, what's left? They've basically turned into bullies," she said. "And what does a bully do? They pick on vulnerable people. And our most vulnerable people are our trans and nonbinary youth."

How other Democrats will respond is not exactly clear. Some have denounced the moves as transphobic and dangerous. The Michigan Democratic Party, in its written response to the Soldano ad, called the ad a distraction from his "disastrous agenda." A lengthy written response from the Democratic Party goes through various positions on Mr. Soldano has taken on other issues but never mentions the content of Mr. Soldano's ad or pushes back on its attack against transgender persons.

When asked for a clarifying response, MDP spokesperson Rodericka Applewhaite sent Gongwer a new statement.

"Garrett Soldano and the entire field of Republican candidates are peddling radical and divisive rhetoric to distract from their wrong-for-Michigan plans to slash billions from public schools, hurting students, parents, and teachers alike," she said. "This is just the latest way the GOP primary has turned into a chaotic brawl about issues out-of-touch with the everyday lives of Michiganders. Meanwhile, Governor Whitmer has been working with anyone to keep all Michiganders first."

Ms. Applewhaite did not respond to a question, however, on why the party did not directly challenge the Republican messaging on transgender people in its initial response.

– Zach Gorchow contributed to this story

Craig, Johnson Campaigns At End After MSC Ruling

Posted: June 6, 2022 8:40 AM

The Michigan Supreme Court said Friday it would not hear the last-ditch appeals from three Republican gubernatorial candidates seeking access to the August 2 primary ballot after the state disqualified them for lack of valid signatures, each of which they said were being denied because the court wasn't persuaded to hear the questions presented.

The decisions across each of the orders issued Friday culminated in 6-1 decisions with Justice Richard Bernstein writing solitary dissents in Johnson v. Board of State Canvassers (MSC Docket No. 164461), Craig v. Board of State Canvassers (MSC Docket No. 164475) and Markey v. Secretary of State (MSC Docket No. 164468).

Mr. Bernstein wrote that he would have heard oral arguments in the cases.

It was a remarkable conclusion that ends the bids of Mr. Craig, who a year ago at this time top Republicans touted as the likely nominee, and Mr. Johnson, who got into the race late but had spent the most money so far. It was a script Hollywood could not have written. Mr. Johnson, the self-proclaimed "quality guru" watching his campaign implode for shoddy petition work. Mr. Craig, once seen as the frontrunner and still the polling leader, failing to even make the ballot.

Both candidates also had major assistance from the Republican consultant John Yob, who had an ugly breakup with Mr. Craig late in 2021, and then quickly moved to the Johnson campaign.

"Lesson to be learned: You can and will screw up nearly everything in politics and still win," Republican consultant Jamie Roe tweeted. "But you can NEVER screw up ballot access. Get valid signatures and file your reports because the court won't and shouldn't save you."

The court's action leaves the Republican field at Tudor Dixon, Ryan Kelley, Ralph Rebandt, Kevin Rinke and Garrett Soldano. It would seem only a last-ditch write-in bid could offer a possibility for Mr. Craig or Mr. Johnson.

And while there was fairly wide agreement with the decision across the bench, several wrote concurring opinions to either highlight deficiencies in the cases or to request that the Legislature amend election law to allow the judiciary more time to complete a more meaningful review of ballot access challenges such as these.

While the high court released separate orders regarding each case, the Johnson order appears to be the controlling decision as it expounds on the majority's reasoning (and Mr. Bernstein's dissent) while the other two were relegated to a single page, pointing to the reasoning in Johnson.

After losing his bid for ballot access in the Court of Appeals, Mr. Johnson was the first in the lot to ask the high court for immediate consideration and issue a decision on the merits of case by Friday. Without consideration, Mr. Johnson said he would suffer irreparable harm if his name were not placed on the ballot.

Mr. Johnson further argued that the Court of Appeals opinion issued in his case conflicts with sections of Michigan election law, misreads statute regarding the canvassers' role in determining the genuineness of signatures and claimed his disenfranchisement could lead to "catastrophic consequences for Michigan voters."

Mr. Craig and Mr. Markey proffered nearly similar arguments, all of which the high court's majority faulted.

The majority's order is unsigned, however, Chief Justice Bridget McCormack (joined by Justice Brian Zahra) wrote a concurring opinion that said there was nothing in Mr. Johnson's case "meriting our further time or attention."

"The plaintiff's mandamus action plainly lacks merit because he cannot show that the Board of State Canvassers had a clear legal duty to certify his name to the ballot," Ms. McCormack wrote. "A finding that the signatures supporting the plaintiff's petitions were sufficient is a matter of the Board's judgment that requires some expertise. Therefore, it is not a ministerial task subject to mandamus."

She further stated that Mr. Johnson appears to quarrel with the canvassers' methodology in flagging the allegedly fraudulent petition sheets, but did not claim that the board's decision was ministerial per election law – or rather, an act the law prescribes and defines as the duty to be performed with precision and certainty, as to "leave nothing to the exercise of discretion or judgment."

"Oral argument won't change this deficiency in his application," Ms. McCormack concluded.

Mr. Zahra wrote separately (a statement joined by Justice David Viviano) to request that the Legislature amend state election law to move up the filing deadline, which this year was April 19, at least six weeks earlier than currently prescribed by law. He wrote that doing so would provide the judiciary "a better opportunity to provide meaningful judicial review to those allegedly aggrieved by decisions of the Bureau of Elections and the Board of State Canvassers."

The filing deadline just a few cycles ago was in early May but moved up to build more time.

"Election-law cases have very concrete deadlines that are necessary to facilitate the printing and distribution of ballots. The current process provides very little time between decisions of the Board of State Canvassers and the date ballots must be finalized for printing. In the present case, there were only eight days between the vote of the Board of State Canvassers and the date a disposition was needed from this Court. These cases can present substantial and complex questions of law, which generally require extensive briefing and cannot properly be resolved in a matter of days."

Mr. Zahra added, however, that Mr. Johnson's case was plainly deficient. Even if Mr. Johnson was correct that the bureau erred by failing to check every signature against the Qualified Voter File, he would only be entitled to that relief, and not the placement of his name on the ballot.

That both justices nominated by the Republican Party scoffed at the legal arguments of Mr. Johnson stood in stark contrast to the attempts by the Johnson campaign and the Michigan Republican Party leadership to claim the Bureau of Elections kept him and Mr. Craig off the ballot at the behest of Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

The next case of this nature, however, may not be so easily resolved.

"The people of Michigan deserve thoughtful, cogent and well-reasoned decisions from this court," Mr. Zahra wrote. "The Legislature should amend the Michigan Election Law to ensure that the judicial system has ample time to meaningfully review such matters, which are vitally important to the people of Michigan."

Mr. Viviano also wrote separately to highlight that while he believed the canvassers may disqualify obviously fraudulent signatures without checking them against local registration files, he believed the Court of Appeals may have erred on the board's duty under law to check petition signatures against the QVF before disqualifying them for lack of genuineness.

He added that election law prescribes the QVF may be used to determine validity but shall be used to check the genuineness of signatures.

"I question whether this interpretation is correct," Mr. Viviano wrote. "If this interpretation is correct, the Court of Appeals erred to the extent it held that the board has discretion to dispense with the statutory requirement to verify petition signatures by comparing them to the digitized signatures in the qualified voter file. In short, it does not appear that the board complied with the statutorily mandated process for disqualifying signatures for lack of genuineness."

That said, deciding the interpretive question in Mr. Johnson's appeal was unnecessary because, "Even if the Board lacked authority to disqualify the signatures without verification against the qualified voter file, this conclusion would not entitle plaintiff to the relief he requests, i.e., placement of his name on the ballot."

That was because Mr. Johnson did not provide supporting evidence that indicated a proper review of all the signatures that he submitted would lead to a determination that he had the requisite number of valid signatures.

Rulings in Mr. Craig's and Mr. Markey's case say about the same in much shorter order. The court did not issue an opinion yet related to a complaint filed by Donna Brandenburg, who filed late Wednesday evening.

BERNSTEIN WOULD HAVE HEARD ORAL ARGUMENTS: Mr. Bernstein in a dissenting statement would have instead given the cases their day in court and expediated them as such.

"I take no position on the merits of this case. However, plaintiff raises serious concerns about ballot access and whether the current process implemented by the state appropriately balances real concerns about fraud against the possibility of disenfranchising both candidates and voters," Mr. Bernstein wrote. "Although the secretary of state must certify eligible candidates by June 3, a swift decision by this Court could allow for a certification decision to be reversed in time for county clerks to receive corrected absentee ballots by June 18."

Believing the cases presented significant legal issues worth further consideration, Mr. Bernstein would have instead ordered a full briefing schedule in the cases and hold arguments a week later "to ensure that the interests of Michigan voters are fully considered."

Neither Mr. Johnson's, Mr. Craig's or Mr. Markey's respective campaigns immediately issued statements reacting to the news as of publication.

Post-Debate Spin Shows Diverging Views On GOP Gen Election Success

Posted: May 13, 2022 1:08 PM

The eight-person Republican gubernatorial debate hosted by Livingston County Republicans on Thursday evening gave GOP primary voters and general onlookers their first taste of how the candidates act, think and what they would prioritize should they be elected to office in November.

But like most primary contests, especially in the post-Trump age, the debate was in some ways a purity test of who was most loyal to the former president and who was most aligned with the current sentimentalities of grassroots Republicans in Michigan.

Topics ranged from COVID-19 policy, potential investigations into Governor Gretchen Whitmer, whether Donald Trump won the 2020 election and abortion. It was clear based on the crowd response who was resonating and who was not (See Gongwer Michigan Report, May 12, 2022).

Whether any of those points will play well with general election voters was left to interpretation.

In the fast lane based on crowd response were candidates Garrett Soldano and Ryan Kelley, who have built grassroots operations staked on investigating Ms. Whitmer over pandemic decisions. Both seemed to elicit nods, shouts of agreement or applause. The same goes for pastor Ralph Rebandt, who was also able to raise his status with at least this crowd in Livingston.

The candidates considered to be the higher echelon in the field had middling performances, with Tudor Dixon making only a handful of splashes, Kevin Rinke waffling on a question about whether he believed Mr. Trump won the 2020 election and with Perry Johnson fumbling through several responses rife with personal anecdotes.

Michael Brown played it straight through the debate and had few flashy moments, although his response to the Trump election garnered some scorn form the crowd as he would not say that the former president won the last election (Mr. Trump lost Michigan by some 150,000 votes). His most memorable moment came here when he compared those having a hard time answering the question to a flopping fish out of water.

Michael Markey had a harder time gaining traction with this crowd as he staked out a moderate route.

Following the debate, political strategists Adrian Hemond of Grassroots Midwest, a Democrat, and Tori Sachs, a Republican, with the Michigan Freedom gave alternating views on how the candidates did last night.

For Mr. Hemond, the obvious standout was Mr. Soldano while Mr. Johnson faltered.

"(Soldano) got a lot of applause from the crowd. They seemed to really resonate with him," he said. "Perry Johnson had kind of a rough time, and his answer about Trump winning the election was not satisfying to the crowd. But also, it wasn't much of an answer."

Ms. Sachs, however, said the big winner of the evening was not one of the candidates themselves, but voters across Michigan concerned with the state of education, as K-12 learning loss and university funding were major focuses in the debate.

"The biggest winners tonight were Michigan parents. Every single person on that stage supports giving parents the tools needed to make sure their child gets a good education," she said. "Every single person on that stage is going to put parents and children first."

That said, Mr. Hemond believed Ms. Whitmer had a good night as "none of what was said on stage tonight is palatable to a general election electorate." To those who tried to walk the line, he said that there was no walking that line with this crowd.

"They want red meat and they were very happy with the candidates that gave it to them," he said. "Literally none of it (will translate into votes from independents or moderates). There was shockingly little take about the rampant inflation in the economy. That's a leading issue for Republicans and they barely mentioned it. That's shocking. That's not what this crowed wanted to hear about and so that's not what they were talking about."

Ms. Sachs said she disagreed with that assessment, as Republicans appear giddy to retire Ms. Whitmer with any candidate that ends up on the ballot.

"We had 700 or 800 people here and Republicans are obviously fired up. It's a Thursday, a school night, in Livingston County … the energy for anyone to take on Gretchen Whitmer is super high," she said. "The best thing about the Republican Party is that we appreciate diversity of thought. We show up and hear people whether we agree with them or not. And I think whoever wins this primary, from what and who we saw on this stage tonight, Republicans are going to be fired up to support that person and fired up to fire Gretchen Whitmer in 2022."

When asked if their stance on the 2020 election would hurt the general election chances of either Mr. Brown or Mr. Markey if they eke out wins in the primary, she said no, and that Republicans all agree that there were problems in the 2020 election regardless of if that leads to the conclusion that Mr. Trump won.

"There's a great amount of support for things like voter ID, all the reforms that are in the Secure MI Vote initiative, we all agree on that," she said. "And we're fired up for whoever takes on Gretchen Whitmer to get those things done."

Asked about the lack of talk about inflation issues, Ms. Sachs said talk about economic woes in the debate focused on ways to give relief to people.

"We all know inflation is a problem. The number one issue when you're at the grocery store or at the gas pump, whatever it is that you're buying in this country, you know and especially in Michigan that inflation is hurting you," she said. "What we heard tonight from every Republican … was how they're going to give relief at the state level to taxpayers. … I feel confident that every Republican up there talked about returning tax money to the people. It's a great first step to give people more buying power."

James Craig, the one-time frontrunner in the race who has since fallen in stature after multiple mishaps and a lingering challenge to the validity of his ballot signatures, did not appear at Thursday's debate.

When asked about the state of Mr. Craig's campaign, who was speaking at a trade association dinner instead, Mr. Hemond said the question is when he'll bow out of the race as opposed to if he'll bow out.

"It's my understanding somewhere (in Detroit) right now, which is good because he needs a job and it's not going to be as the next governor of Michigan," he said. "I think that much is clear, or even as a candidate for governor of Michigan."

Bridge Michigan reported that Mr. Craig's campaign early Thursday said he had a prior commitment and disputed reports of him pulling out of the debate. But Livingston County GOP Chair Meghan Reckling told the outlet that he had been confirmed for weeks and that he was one of the first candidates to commit.

Mr. Hemond said that signals the end of the road for Mr. Craig's gubernatorial ambitions.

"We're at the end game," he said. "I'm sure he's giving a speech to this nice corporate group because he's going to need money, first of all, to pay the consultants that he still has because he's burning through money so fast. It's time to wrap it up."

On whether some of the candidates shined more without him there, Ms. Sachs said voters and members of the media should focus on who was actually there.

"We need someone who is going to stand up for their beliefs and take on Gretchen Whitmer," she said. "I feel the people who were here tonight will be capable of doing that, absolutely more than capable of taking her on and returning the governor's office to Republicans."

Nessel Hits DePerno On Abortion; He Says Video Lacks Context

Posted: May 9, 2022 10:22 AM

Attorney General Dana Nessel this week shared an edited video of her 2022 election opponent, Republican attorney Matthew DePerno, which detailed what she framed as the GOP candidate's absolutist stance on abortion.

However, Mr. DePerno told Gongwer News Service that the video shared by Ms. Nessel lacks context and detailed only a short bit of the conversation he was having with would-be supporters on abortion.

The video shows Mr. DePerno at a speaking event saying that he doesn't believe there should be a viable medical exemption for abortion even if it could save the life of the mother – a stance that not even Right to Life of Michigan holds.

Neither does the 1931 abortion ban currently on the books in Michigan, which would become law again once the U.S. Supreme Court finalizes a leaked draft opinion that signaled the court has the votes to overturn Roe v. Wade. The law, if and when it should go back into effect, allows abortion if the mother's life is compromised during pregnancy.

"And (Right to Life of Michigan) then said, 'Well what about the life mother? Okay. Do you have an exemption for that?'" Mr. DePerno is shown saying on the video, apparently detailing a conversation with the organization. "I said, 'I do not.' Because there is literally no medical diagnosis that says that if the mother's life is in danger, abort the baby. The medical diagnosis is always deliver the baby in every single instance. You cannot find anywhere in the medical book, a diagnosis that says abort the baby. It doesn't exist."

Notably, the video is interspersed with news article headlines from Reuters and USA Today in which doctors and various fact checkers say that the termination of a pregnancy can be necessary to save the life of the mother in some situations.

Also notable is the fact that Right to Life of Michigan endorsed Mr. DePerno's chief GOP opponent, former House Speaker Tom Leonard, before Michigan Republican Party delegates voted to endorse Mr. DePerno at its first of two conventions in 2022.

In response, Ms. Nessel tweeted saying Mr. DePerno "cites a lack of medical evidence, but experts seem to disagree. If he wins, he will have authority to charge doctors and women in every MI county."

In another tweet, Ms. Nessel said recent polling shows her race with Mr. DePerno for attorney general is in a "virtual dead heat." This tweet also came with an ActBlue campaign donation link.

That said, Mr. DePerno in an interview said the video lacks context and that what was provided in the video doesn't represent his view on abortion.

"It's trying to say that I do not believe in any exception to abortion for the life of the mother, and that's not true," he said. "I do. I think Right to Life, I think the (Christian) church still believes in an exception for the life of the mother, and I do as well."

When asked how what he said in the video squares up with what he told Gongwer, Mr. DePerno said the whole conversation not shown in the video focused on whether, in those emergency situations, was abortion the go-to procedure to save the mother.

He said it was his belief and through his conversations with medical practitioners that aborting the child was not the first option, nor the preferred option when the mother finds herself in medical distress. Mr. DePerno also said he has posed the question to Democrats he's spoken with, and they, too, have not been able to give him an answer aside for two situations – preeclampsia, a serious condition which usually occurs later in a pregnancy, and in the event of a car crash. Even still, Mr. DePerno said it was his understanding that the preferred route is to try and deliver the baby.

A message seeking comment from Ms. Nessel on whether she believed there should be any restriction on abortion was not returned at the time of publication.

Former U.S. Attorneys Talk Whitmer Kidnap Plot Ahead Of Trial

Posted: March 14, 2022 9:06 AM

The long-awaited trial of alleged conspirators in the plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer began last week, more than a year since state and federal charges were issued against the accused.

Ahead of the trial's state date, two former U.S. attorneys discussed the case with Gongwer News Service.

Defendants Adam Fox as well as Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft and Daniel Harris are standing trial for their involvement in the plan, which federal prosecutors aim to show was devised in response to coronavirus restrictions put in place by Ms. Whitmer and her administration, and that while the group did not achieve its goal, it did take several steps to further the plot. That includes training, creating explosives, planning to use them on infrastructure, surveilling the governor's vacation home and other actions.

That excludes, however, conspirators Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, both of whom have since agreed to plead guilty while also offering to cooperate with federal investigators.

The four men are being tried before Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker of the Western District of Michigan at the federal courthouse in Grand Rapids. Public access to the trial has been granted with in-person options for limited seating and an audio-only feed via telephone.

While the federal government, through the use of a confidential informant, believes it has gathered sufficient evidence to show that criminal conspiracy took place throughout 2020, the defendants are leaning heavily on the First Amendment, arguing in previous hearings that communications shared between and planning done by the group amounted to tough talk but was just that. Their attorneys emphasized this argument in briefs and proceedings before the judge that also noted they did not go through with the plan.

Investigators have indicated that they arrested the six men when they did because the plan's execution was imminent.

The defense has also raised an entrapment claim, arguing that they were led down the path toward kidnapping Ms. Whitmer by the very informant who helped crack the case – another argument that the federal government said was preposterous.

One of those on the case when it started was Matthew Schneider, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District and now an attorney with the Honigman law firm.

In an interview with Gongwer News Service, Mr. Schneider was asked at what point does tough talk cross the line and become a criminal conspiracy, or rather, what element would be needed to show that was the case. The attorney said displays of overt action are the key.

"This certainly isn't the first time that either that type of charge or that type of defense has been raised … and what the government is going to try to show is what the actual overt acts were. So if you look at the superseding indictments, it says there was a conspiracy, there was an agreement and you took these certain steps," he said. "(The federal government) is saying, yes, but you did do surveillance on the governor's house. You did go and look at that bridge. And those are overt acts. … When you get out of your car, and you drive to her house and observe it, that's not talk. That exceeds talk."

That kind of defense has been used in cases across the spectrum of violent crimes or even in drug cases, with Mr. Schneider pointing out that one might argue they never had an intent to distribute cocaine or rob a bank, but they had possession of five pounds of the substance or had a gun in their hand as they approached the hypothetical bank. Even if one chickened out, so to speak, the intent and agreement to commit a crime still existed.

On the entrapment claims, Mr. Schneider said those same claims did not work in the state case – which involves a different group of men who provided support to the plot and were aligned with domestic terror group Wolverine Watchmen – as the judge overseeing that case in Jackson County said the defendants hadn't satisfied elements of entrapment.

However, Mr. Jonker is allowing that defense to be raised.

"There's a lot of different parts to that, and there are some parts that are helpful to the defense and some that are helpful to the government. But I have to tell you, where the idea came from, I mean, that's a very critical part, but it's not the only part," Mr. Schneider said. "There's other parts of the entrapment instruction. Just one of them is who came up with this idea. They can argue their case however they want and if they want to argue this entrapment defense, they can do it. So that's what's going to be interesting and what remains to be seen. Will they do that? Or will they try some other defense?

In a separate interview, former U.S. attorney Patrick Miles, who now works with firm Barnes & Thornburg, said much of the same when asked what element was essential to prove a criminal conspiracy and distinguish it from "tough talk."

"The two key factors in the charge of an attempted kidnapping, or any attempt to commit a felony, are having the intent to commit the crime and taking a substantial step toward committing the crime. So the government brought its criminal case because these defendants did more than talk about kidnapping the governor and committing violent acts," Mr. Miles said. "They took substantial steps to do those things such as planning, scouting, practicing, gathering weapons, and perhaps assigning tasks. We will see that evidence come out at the trial. Federal agents monitoring and working on a case like this must be careful to gather evidence of the intent so the prosecution can get a conviction, but of course not let it go so far as the violent acts occur and someone gets hurt."

When asked about the entrapment claims, Mr. Miles noted as Mr. Schneider did that while the judge overseeing the case denied the dismissal of charges on those grounds, he did allow for that defense to be raised before the jury. The question becomes, did law enforcement "plant a criminal design in the mind of otherwise law-abiding citizens" or did law enforcement merely provide an opportunity to commit a crime they were already predisposed to commit?

"Because two of the defendants, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, pled guilty before trial, we can reasonably presume as part of their plea agreement they are cooperating with the prosecution and will testify that the other defendants in this trial both had the intent to commit these crimes and took substantial steps to fulfill the intent of the conspiracy regardless of the undercover agents' involvement," he said. "Their testimony will help show it was more than these guys talking or texting about wanting to do something bad, it will show they were taking meaningful steps and what those were."

Soldano Extolls Campaign Platforms Amid Delivery Of Ballot Signatures

Posted: January 20, 2022 2:27 PM

Garrett Soldano was among the first, if not the first Republican gubernatorial primary hopeful to announce his bid for the nomination, and now, he is counted among the first of the lot to deliver the requisite number of signatures for access to the ballot.

Those signatures still need to be analyzed by the Bureau of Elections to see if at least 15,000 of his 20,000 collected signatures check out as valid and from registered voters, and if at least 100 of them are valid signatures in half of Michigan's congressional districts.

Notwithstanding, Mr. Soldano's campaign picked up steam Wednesday with the delivery of those signatures and his energy going into race this year was palpable during a press conference yesterday outside the Richard H. Austin building (See Gongwer Michigan Report, January 19, 2022).

And after nearly a year of being placed in the background of the primary stage, playing third fiddle to the likes of candidates like former Detroit police chief James Craig and millionaire Kevin Rinke, Mr. Soldano has moved up in the seriousness meter and others appear to be taking note. That includes the Michigan Democratic Party, which has focused some of its messaging of late to highlight what they call Mr. Soldano's extremist views with the same fervor it has on Mr. Craig and Mr. Rinke.

Mr. Soldano brushed aside those criticisms speaking to reporters Wednesday. He was not coy on what his campaign platform looks like or what he'd like to achieve if elected to Michigan's highest political office come November, either.

First and foremost, the candidate from Mattawan said that he would end mask mandates in public schools, much like Republican Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin did at the top of this year. While Mr. Rinke has been compared to more of a Youngkin-type candidate, Mr. Soldano also carries with him an outsider draw that's been igniting the grassroots Republican base. Mr. Rinke or Mr. Craig appear to be the preferred candidate of the party's insiders and elite.

He also said he would attempt to bring back fully in-person public education, adding to his mask rhetoric by saying that it wasn't just a health crisis or a teacher shortage schools were dealing with, but potentially a mental health crisis due to children not being to interact with their peers in the same way they had before. Mr. Soldano cited mask mandates as a part of the problem, saying he believed that children were no longer developing vital physiological and social awareness because their faces were mostly hidden from view. He specifically called that a catastrophic consequence of the pandemic and the state's various public health orders.

It is important to note there is no statewide mask mandate, and local schools or counties are setting those policies. Individual districts are also the ones deciding whether to go virtual or not.

Election integrity is also on the top of his list, whereas Mr. Rinke and Mr. Craig have focused more on education and Michigan's economy. He told reporters that he was for voter identification requirements, as well as auditing past elections like 2020 and future elections. He said it should be a bipartisan issue because "we the people want to know that our votes are going to count."

Local election officials have conducted audits on the 2020 election, and they have confirmed the results.

While Democrats in the Legislature have largely panned or condemned as voter suppression the 19 bills fashioned last year by the Republican majority, Mr. Soldano said the respective chambers have done their jobs focusing on election integrity despite Governor Gretchen Whitmer vetoing those efforts.

Mr. Soldano also touched on situations over the years where he felt Ms. Whitmer was less than transparent on policy issues, much like the science behind her decision making during the opening salvo of the COVID-19 pandemic, or on other issues like the Freedom of Information Act extending to the Legislature and governor's office.

On Wednesday, Mr. Soldano said that the governor and lawmakers should absolutely be subject to FOIA, and that he wouldn't kowtow to party leaders who opposed bills or measures to shine a light on the innerworkings of high-level state government. He also said he was not surprised to see that Lansing's Democrats and Republicans were mostly silent after he said he would push a transparency platform once spearheaded by Ms. Whitmer.

"Why is that? Well, I'm concerned about that. Why are they so worried about that? Just transparency and truth?" he said. "Well, we're going to get that all out. Look, I'm not here to make friends in Lansing. I don't work for them. I don't work for the party bosses of the establishment. These folks, I work for all of you."

Snyder Defense Team Creates Blog On Flint Litigation

Posted: January 6, 2022 12:56 PM

The team leading the defense of former Governor Rick Snyder in the Flint water criminal case has created a new adage in the application of criminal defense practice: When in doubt, create a blog.

And that's exactly what they've done with the Flint Legal Blog, which assembles less than a handful of news articles and opinion pieces to detail what it calls "the egregious prosecution" of Mr. Snyder on misdemeanor charges related to the Flint water crisis.

The about page notes that it is funded by the defense team to set the record straight, in its view, and to provide updated case information.

"The unprecedented prosecution of (Mr. Snyder) – who served two terms from 2011 to 2018 – has cost Michigan taxpayers millions of dollars, has done nothing to help the people of Flint, and has no end in sight," the blog says.

It features a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled, "A Political Prosecution in Michigan: The Flint lead-water indictments look worse all the time," and two additional posts that act as news releases with quotes from Snyder attorney Brian Lennon.

It is unclear on whether the blog was meant to be a source of information for reporters and news outlets or if it also serves as a public appeal to Mr. Snyder's innocence in the matter. The present gripe from his defense team is over the way the Department of Attorney General procured discovery items, as they have repeatedly claimed that several of those documents were held private under attorney-client privilege and a taint team to weed out those documents was not used.

As the blog notes, Genesee Circuit Judge Elizabeth Kelly has ordered the department from reviewing or producing any seized documents until such a team is established, which the department has since protested.

The blog appears to be focused on this matter as it is a key part of Mr. Snyder's defense prior to any hearings on the facts of the case.

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