The Gongwer Blog

by Ben Solis, Staff Writer

New Maps Saw Increased Competitiveness Even As Dems Swept

Posted: November 29, 2022 10:45 AM

Michigan's new political geography by way of independent redistricting made several races in the November election more competitive and were a key factor in Michigan Democrats' historic gains, several sources said, ultimately helping the party sweep the executive offices and control of both chambers in the Legislature for the first time in decades.

The feat was not lost on all those who observed and later analyzed the 2022 midterm election results, and a Gongwer News Service analysis shows that the number of seats with tight margins increased across the board when compared to maps used in 2020 – which were drafted during 2010 decennial census and 2011 redistricting cycle.

An analysis of unofficial election results for the House in particular show that there were 20 state House seats with a margin of less than 15 percent in 2020. That number rose to 33 in the 2022 contest. There were 14 state House seats with margin of less than 10 percent in 2020 but that rose to 20 this year. Seven House seats had a margin of less than 5 percent in 2020, but that rose to 10 this year, as well.

Several told Gongwer in interviews that they believed the maps and the new process performed as intended and shows continued hope for fair elections in the future, no matter which party wins the majority in those yet undetermined contests.

"This election was a huge referendum on citizen-led redistricting, and our reforms performed with flying colors," said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, which helped pass and write the constitutional amendment that created the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. "It really emerged (in a way) that mattered and showed that it works for voters. And that is the whole point. Some years with different candidates could very easily see the balance of power shift in Lansing. That's to be expected in a purple state like Michigan, and that's kind of what political maps are supposed to be. They're supposed to be responsive and allow election results to be responsive to the will of voters."

Michigan is among a few states that passed a constitutional amendment to have an independent commission draft its maps following the decennial census. The process was previously undertaken by the Legislature. With Republicans in control, they were able to create maps that benefited the GOP in many cases.

The new process effectively rested control of how the districts were drafted away from legislators and placed it in the hands of 13 randomly selected state residents. The formulation of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission and its year-long work was controversial from the beginning and few paid close attention to the exercise in administrative sausage-making. But many more had their eyes on how the maps would perform and affect the political makeup of the U.S. House, state Senate and state House of Representatives.

On November 8, that question was answered to a degree, as Michigan Democrats won a majority share of votes cast and in effect control of the state's Legislature. Some in the Michigan Democratic Party saw an opening to either take the Senate or achieve a tie in the upper chamber, but few prognosticated a total sweep of both chambers.

Party leaders on the Democratic sides of the aisle have chalked up the gains to different factors and did not specifically cite the ICRC's work as being one of them (however Sen. Jeremy Moss was among those who acknowledged post-mortem that redistricting played a larger roll).

The head of the Michigan Democratic Party in a recent interview with Gongwer highlighted the obvious enthusiasm to reelect the triumvirate of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. The party has also said that constitutional abortion access being on the ballot in the form of Proposal 22-3 was a major driver for Democratic turnout.

Others cited candidate quality and their respective efforts to reach voters and mobilize them on election day. Republicans have said similarly but in the opposite context, adding that poor candidate quality and the abortion proposal doomed the party's plans to retain both chambers and hopefully unseat Ms. Whitmer, Ms. Nessel and Ms. Benson with their candidates in Tudor Dixon, Matt DePerno and Kristina Karamo. Voters rejected the trio by resounding margins. In the case of Ms. Whitmer versus Ms. Dixon, the incumbent governor beat her opponent by 10.5 percentage points, according to unofficial election results.

That all said, those like Mr. Moss, members of the commission itself, stakeholders like Ms. Wang and analysts who followed the redistricting process closely in 2021 have all pointed to the work of the commission as being one of the biggest factors in leveling the 2022 playing field.

The tightening of many races showed, Ms. Wang said, that the process worked to end the state's glaring generational gerrymandering problem. She added that Voters Not Politicians was as surprised as anyone to see the Democrats win big earlier this month.

"The interesting thing about ending gerrymandering is it doesn't determine which party holds power. So of course, like everyone else in the state, we didn't know what the composition of the Legislature would look like," Ms. Wang said. "We were confident that it would come down to voters on Election Day, and with gerrymandering, that's not true. You had election results that were pre-ordained before Election Day, and whether you vote or not, depending on what district you're in, (your vote) probably didn't count."

She also noted as others had that the latest election cycle included several key districts that became more competitive by proxy of the new process.

"You could say that even before Election Day, we knew that our redistricting reform had worked, and that it was successful, and that was regardless of who won their races on election night," she said.

Asked if a feeling that the maps would more accurately reflect the will of the state's voters had a hand in driving turnout on Election Day in the same way that the abortion measure had, Ms. Wang said it was a huge factor in this election and would impact future elections, as well.

"We'll see increased voter turnout, I think, with each year now. Once you see that your vote does count, you have a greater incentive to vote," she said. "Now, for the first time in decades, your vote will actually count. You can choose your politicians, not the other way around, and that's an exciting thing for all of us. I do expect greater voter participation and that is one of the goals of redistricting reform."

ICRC Chair Dustin Witjes (D-Ypsilanti), as well as commissioners Rebecca Szetela (I-Canton) and Doug Clark (R-Rochester Hills), said similarly, with Mr. Witjes in particular noting similar anecdotes of friends and neighbors felling like they actually had a say in who controlled the Legislature in this round.

"I feel like for the first time in a long time, if ever, individuals may have actually felt that they had a say because of this whole process," he said. "I don't know if voter turnout was higher or not than what it normally is, but I have a feeling that the people did go out and vote … and actually felt that their voice mattered more in than it did in the past."

Asked how they thought the maps performed, Ms. Szetela said while there is always room for improvement, she was happy with the results and that it gives a future commission a good starting point.

"My concept of a fair map is a map that reflects the choices of the voters. We saw a strong Democratic turnout in this election where we had for the statewide races at 53 to 55 percent votes (for Democratic candidates), and the maps pretty much reflect that balance in terms of the results going down through the state House, the state Senate, and then the U.S. House seats, as well. So, I think the maps performed as intended. They're fair maps."

Mr. Witjes went further by stating his belief that the methods used in Michigan should be the poster child for citizen-led redistricting in every state, differing vastly from legislative-led mapmaking or hybrid commission efforts that see lawmakers make mapping decisions alongside political appointees acting on behalf of citizens.

For all of their considerations, fair maps overall took precedence over considerations like making individual districts in certain regions more competitive on paper than they were 10 years ago. In fact, the commission repeatedly eschewed attempts from outside stakeholders to influence decisions at the district level as a way to focus on balanced maps overall.

But, as Mr. Witjes said, more competitive districts were a sort of unintended byproduct of the commission's grappling with the process and the seven ranked criteria outlined in the Constitution.

Ms. Szetela put a finer point on that consideration, or lack thereof, saying that the commission followed the mantra that voters handed them.

"As we worked through that, yes, we ended up with maps that seem to be more competitive in some districts, but that was a side effect. That was not the intention of the commission when we were redrawing those maps," she said. "Particularly with some of the U.S. House races, we had enormous amounts of money coming in from out of state, and I feel that is actually a reflection of the realization that people had, that these maps were actually more fair, and there was a chance that their candidate could be elected."

People were more invested in the races, Ms. Szetela said, because the cycle no longer saw near pointless efforts to advance candidates that were built in losers because the district was slanted in such a way that made it impossible for them to win.

MAP ENTHUSIASTS GIVE COMMISSION A PASSING GRADE: One interesting aspect of the latest redistricting cycle was the effect social media had on stakeholder feedback and the way that amateur map enthusiasts – like Ian Sandler-Bowen and Jackson Franks – adeptly tracked, analyzed and later quantified electoral swings between the 2020 and 2022 cycles.

An area of concern with the maps was that there was still a Republican edge to them despite the commission's work to try and dial down partisan fairness scores down to near zero.

That said, the maps preformed relatively well on a partisan fairness basis as the Democrats won both a narrow majority of the vote and a narrow majority of seats in the Legislature, Bowen said.

"Obviously, that is kind of dependent on some localized election results. For instance, Sen.-elect Kevin Hertel winning Senate District 12, which is definitely a more Republican seat up ballot, and the David LaGrand-Mark Huizenga race going the way it did," they said. "But I think that from a partisan fairness standpoint, the maps definitely delivered on the promise of majority of the statewide vote winning the majority in the chamber."

Bowen also said that the new maps contributed to what they described as a larger political battlefield than what candidates and voters were used to, forcing candidates to not only work harder for their seats – a goal of Voters Not Politicians when they first introduced the ballot measure that would lead to a fully-fledged constitutional reform – but have to make calculated investments into areas that might be more winnable than others.

Mr. Franks said the commission's basing their metric scores on previous election data was a pretty good benchmark and especially 2020 as it was fairly neutral year as far as results go. The body ended up building 12 districts in the state House map that had a margin of less than five percent, he said, meaning that they were potential toss ups between Mr. Trump and current President Joe Biden. At least seven of those went to Mr. Biden and five went to Mr. Trump in Mr. Franks' analysis of 2020 results against the 2022 state House map.

"In the 2022 election, I believe eight of them went to Democrats and four of them went to Republicans. There were several other seats that Trump won by more than five percent that the Democrats were able to still hold onto, which is an impressive feat in and of itself," he said. "Democrats definitely outperformed the partisan leanings of what the commission had set, but otherwise, I think they performed pretty well. A lot of the districts designed to be narrow did vote very narrowly."

Among the district results that surprised them most, Bowen said they were at first pessimistic of the Democrats' chances in the 103rd House District in northwest Michigan. They did not expect Ms. Whitmer to win the district with the margins she did and expected a little more down-ballot lag there. Similarly, Bowen noted the 27th House District win of Rep.-elect Jaime Churches, which they had predicted would vote in favor of the Republican albeit narrowly.

"Having Sen.-elect Darrin Camilleri on the ticket campaigning with her, running a really strong race, it seems like Downriver still has some Democratic strength in it left," they said.

Mr. Franks said similarly that the Downriver election was one he was watching closely and was taken aback when the results landed. In the House, the four key Downriver seats split two-two.

"There are a bunch of districts in Downriver that when the commission drew them, they grabbed parts of downriver and stripped them down, so it made a really red Monroe County," he said. It seemed like an odd decision, and it still kind of is. I don't know if that was the best decision the commission could have made instead of making several compact districts in Monroe County. But the Democrats actually performed really well in those. Some Democrats were competing in Trump +15 2020 districts, which is an insane amount to overcome for like an incumbent Alex Garza."

Rep. Alex Garza was the only Democratic incumbent who lost in the general election, bested by three percentage points in a Trump +15 district. The same could be seen in the 28th House District results, Mr. Franks noted, where Republican Rep.-elect Jamie Thompson beat Democrat Rob Kull by just 2 percent in a heavily Republican district.

Bowen also noted the 38th House District configuration, which stretches up the southwest Lake Michigan shoreline and was built by the commission to accommodate a shoreline community of interest.

"If the Apol standards were still being used, you'd probably see Republican-held seats there within 20 boundaries, but that community of interest has elected a representative who is not a Republican," they said.

While there is plenty of data still to crunch and collect from future election results, a point the commissioners made during interviews for this story, Mr. Franks said that the commission should absolutely be proud of its overall work.

"It's funny you mention the data aspect because I'm starting now to do that myself. Whitmer, Benson and Nessel did very well, and they won the state by quite large margins, even for Michigan," he said. "The state House and the state Senate actually reflect that. Even if you would go back to 2002 to when Jennifer Granholm won and the Republicans still won the state Senate, that was because of the horrible geographic disadvantage that the Democrats had and the gerrymandering that the Republicans had set in place."

If Ms. Dixon had won, Mr. Franks added, the GOP would have in his estimation "absolutely" held on to the House. The result seen earlier this month was in turn reflective of the same phenomenon of having the statewide margins match the margins laid out in the state lines.

Bowen had a soberer view of the state maps' performance, saying the commission should be content with the outcome of this particular election.

"It is a decade's long map and it's going to be sorted then at the end of the decade, looking back at how everything went. That's when I think you'll be able to say that yes, the commission did a good job," they said. "I think that it's currently looking like it could be promising. You've got districts trending in opposite directions, so as long as the state stays competitive, I imagine both chambers will stay competitive. But this isn't a sort of one and done type thing. Elections happen every two years, every four years for the state Senate, so it's a little bit too early to sort of declare victory on that as but definitely a promising start."

McCormack: My Accomplishments On The Bench Were Team Wins

Posted: September 19, 2022 9:51 AM

For Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, the head of the state's judiciary over the last four years and an elected member of the Michigan Supreme Court for nearly a decade, the old cliché of "there is no I in team" isn't just a saying but an indisputable rule.

That became evident as Ms. McCormack, who was elected in 2012 and named chief justice in 2019, announced this week her plans to vacate her office by the end of this year. She'll be starting a new job then as the president and CEO of the American Arbitration Association's International Centre for Dispute Resolution, an organization that has a long history of creating opportunities for people to settle disputes without having to go to court.

The announcement came with an outpouring of well wishes and praise for her time on the bench, her ability to speak plainly and disarmingly about complicated judiciary issues and her push to shake the institution from its stubbornness to change (See Gongwer Michigan Report, September 12, 2022).

Still, in a Wednesday exit interview with Gongwer News Service, Ms. McCormack refused to accept any of the credit for those achievements, placing the progress of the state's courts – particularly during the coronavirus pandemic – at the feet of her colleagues, court administrators and the Legislature for work that many have said happened due mostly to her leadership.

"It's really lovely, and really heartwarming, but I also don't think (it is) necessarily deserved because everything the court has accomplished, I always say, you can't accomplish anything on this court by yourself. You do it by committee," she said. "I honestly don't think anything that we've gotten done in the last 10 years I can take credit for. I have really great colleagues, and maybe even more than that, we have this really talented team of committed administrative professionals who are the ones doing the hard work on supporting the courts of the state… But I'll take it if there's a lot of good feeling out there for the Michigan Supreme Court."

That sense of duty to her constituents and her willingness to lift up others for praise before herself are attributes that defined Ms. McCormack's career on the bench.

When she was elected in 2012, the high court was coming off a contentious period marked by partisanship and infighting among some justices. It was at first a conservative leaning court with five justices nominated by the Republican Party and two by the Democratic Party but that changed in 2018 when it became a 4-3 Republican majority – which sprung a surprise by elected Ms. McCormack chief justice.

In 2020, the court shifted to 4-3 Democratic.

Despite those changing winds of the makeup of the court, Ms. McCormack has always held her nose to the grindstone, focused on how the court can work for its stakeholders – the people of Michigan – and offer them equitable access to justice.

Over the years, she has been popular among her various colleagues on the bench and received plaudits from both Democrats and Republicans alike. Her work in recent years helped push the state's judiciary into the digital age by outfitting courts with new technology for remote proceedings, which was instrumental in the management of cases during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many if not all of the courts were ordered closed to in-person proceedings.

She's also helped champion systemic reforms, with an emphasis on pre-trial incarceration and juvenile justice. The 56-year-old jurist is young compared to those who find themselves shuffling off the bench on their own accord, as some have stayed on as long as they were allowed to do so before the Michigan Constitution's age limit requirement prevents justices from seeking reelection.

Ms. McCormack is just two years into an eight-year term she won in 2020. Had she finished that term, she could have run for one more eight-year term in 2028 before the age limit of 70 would have prevented her from running again in 2036.

With so much left to tackle, Ms. McCormack described her decision to retire as feeling good about the high court's position and the progress in those areas.

"I've been here 10 years which is a long time. I do feel like I have given it as much as I could. I've worked every day around the clock for a long time, and I think that's the best way to do public service," she said. "I don't think people should necessarily do it forever. I think they should go give as much as they can, and – believe it or not – I actually think that my generation has an obligation to step aside and let a younger, more diverse group of leaders be at the table and lead. And I think that's actually an important part of leadership, stepping aside and letting a younger, more diverse group of people take over."

Moving on now gives her the opportunity to pass that proverbial torch, but it also gives Ms. McCormack a chance to explore an area of her expertise that has been dear to her for some time.

"The thing about alternative dispute resolution services, and (the association) in particular, was founded to give support to the court because some people and some litigants want more options for resolving their disputes," she said. "And I have been a big believer in ADR options for a long time back before I was on the court. When I was the associate dean at the University of Michigan, I founded a mediation clinic and the court stood up the first statewide online dispute resolution platform in the country. It's free and asynchronous and it's a fantastic innovation here. Providing alternatives to traditional litigation dispute resolution I think is part of the whole infrastructure of helping people solve problems."

The outgoing chief justice said that she was recruited for the position she is about to take on, but said it wasn't the sole reason for why she decided to step down with a full six years left on her eight-year term as a justice of the Supreme Court. The timing of the offer appeared to fall in line with her internal and family discussions regarding what to do next and if now was the time to move on.

She did say, however, that several other opportunities of the same magnitude have blipped on her radar in the past and that she was not moved to leave the bench then.

Prior to making her decision and announcing it publicly, first to her colleagues on the court and then the public, Ms. McCormack said she spoke with friends and family – some who are also her close colleagues on the bench and throughout the judiciary.

That doesn't mean, however, that she won't miss the work of the court. When asked if there was any unfinished business that she would have liked to see through, Ms. McCormack mentioned the work the court has done to address justice issues for people who cannot afford attorneys. She also mentioned the Justice For All Commission, the Jail and Pre-Trial Incarceration Task Force and the Juvenile Justice Task Force.

"The work that lies ahead for that are all things that I feel incredibly proud of and incredibly honored to have been part of," she said. "That part feels a little sad to leave because I really do feel like that's where you have such an impact. … I do think that the juvenile justice reforms that will come out of the Juvenile Justice Task Force are going to be really impactful. I have no doubt that Justice Elizabeth Clement and the Legislature and the governor's office will get those across the finish line. But probably not before I go, so maybe they'll let me come celebrate when they do it anyway, but that's one set of things that I'm sorry to miss."

Several have stated that Ms. McCormack's career helped the court advance on remote proceedings. She's also helped the court see the need for better data sharing between the judiciary – which has historically been fragmented but in recent years embraced the call to create a more robust central data repository for courts, judges and stakeholders.

Many of those same people who have been watching the high court over the past few years give Ms. McCormack the credit for catalyzing those advancements, but again, the chief justice feels otherwise. When asked why she was so confident in the Michigan judiciary to continue those innovations and reforms she helped steer, the outgoing chief justice said the foundation for those changes was strong.

"Not only do I think the foundation that we've all built is strong and lasting, I also think I have colleagues committed to that same kind of approach to the administrative oversight role of the court," she said. "We spent the last year to a year-and-a-half now (with) a very diverse group of stakeholders in a strategic planning process under the Michigan Judicial Council, (processes) which are now in an official court rule. I chaired that council, and we had every kind of stakeholder on it from all around the state … and Justice Elizabeth Clement also served on it. The Judicial Council put together a really ambitious, innovative, but exciting strategic plan for the work that the court will do going forward, and that's great, because now we have this guidepost."

Much has changed over the past 10 years regarding access to justice, the perceptions of law enforcement and by proxy the justice system. Asked if she thought the public's knowledge of court processes and their important role in United States government has increased over that time, Ms. McCormack said she wishes the answer was yes.

"But I don't know, and I'm not even sure how to know, to be honest with you. I really think it's part of our job to let people know that the court can be resources, not just a place to be afraid of," she said. "That sometimes courts are places where we can support people and connect them to resources and show compassion and kindness. The things that happen in our problem solving courts every single day are really incredible, but I don't know if that breaks through or not."

Some of the attention the public has placed on courts over the past five years hasn't necessarily been positive, as more often the nation's and state's political fights have been ended by a lower court or high court decree.

Such was the case in Michigan as recently as 2020 with the battle over Governor Gretchen Whitmer's emergency powers during the pandemic. Residents are seeing that same kind of fight play out now with two major actions coming down from the courts on abortion – the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade via Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, and the two Michigan lower court decisions have prevented a 100-year-old abortion ban from becoming law again.

Some have opined that the courts have become political animals as those fights take place in court rooms, and Ms. McCormack agreed that the courts have been asked to adjudicate disputes that feel inherently political.

"When people bring lawsuits to court, we have to resolve those lawsuits. That doesn't mean the court resolves them in a political way. I don't always agree with every one of my colleagues and their approach to different questions that come before the court, but I don't think that means that they're approaching those questions politically," she said. "Sometimes hard questions draw people to different answers. In a way, I can see how it can be confusing to the public when courts are asked more and more to answer questions that feel like they should be resolved in the political process, but I don't think it means the courts (have become) political. I really don't."

With 10 years under her belt, Ms. McCormack has had several opportunities to opine on serious issues and complex legal questions. Asked which among those decisions she was most proud, the chief justice pointed to the high court's 2013 finding that Michigan's one-parent doctrine in parental rights cases was unconstitutional.

"The one parent doctrine used to say that if your kids had been taken away from you because your co-parent was alleged to have been neglectful or abusive, that you could also lose your parental rights just because of this doctrine," she said. "And we held that that was unconstitutional. I think just sometimes saying it out loud, it sounds pretty unconstitutional, but when the court said so, that was a really important change in the way the child protection system operated."

Ms. McCormack did not bite when asked if there were any decisions that she had either regretted or would have decided differently, saying that because she's human, she's sure there are several where she would have disagreed with her former self.

She also declined to comment on whether the high court would be issuing a ruling regarding the constitutionality of the 1931 abortion ban before or after the general election. Ever tight lipped on pending cases, dutiful to her colleagues on the court and with a penchant for deploying humor in her speech, Ms. McCormack's only reaction was: "Nice try."

Two GOP Reps Join Dems To Introduce Gun Storage Bills

Posted: August 21, 2022 8:48 PM

A four-bill, bipartisan package introduced Wednesday would create tax incentives for secure weapons storage and training while also allowing for proof of secured storage to be used as a complete defense in civil and criminal trials where a gun owner's weapon was used to commit a crime by someone else.

The package includes HB 6350, HB 6351, HB 6352 and HB 6353, introduced by Rep. Mark Tisdel (R-Rochester Hills), Rep. Jim Ellison (D-Royal Oak), Rep. Tim Sneller (D-Burton) and Rep. Mike Harris (R-Clarkston), respectively.

Mr. Tisdel's bill would allow secure storage of a legally obtained and owned firearm to serve as a complete defense in a criminal case against a gun's owner or a person legally authorized to use the gun by the owner if the charges result because a different person used the weapon to commit a crime (editor's note: This story was changed to correctly describe how the legal defense would work under the bill).

It also lays out what his office called in a news release a clear protocol for "safe, secure storage to protect against access or use by a person other than the owner or legal authorized user."

In HB 6351, Mr. Ellison aims to similarly allow a gun owner to raise proof of secured or safe storage as an affirmative defense in a civil trial if the same situation were to arise.

Mr. Sneller's bill would also incentivize safe storage in the home by providing a tax credit of up to $350 per year for the purchase of safety equipment, such as safes, lock boxes and trigger locks.

The last in the package, Mr. Harris's HB 6353 would offer the same tax credit for training expenses, eligible to people who have completed a certified course with at least four hours of instruction covering safe storage, use, and handling; ammunition knowledge; fundamentals of firearm shooting; laws related to firearm use; and avoiding criminal attack and controlling a violent situation.

In a statement circulated by his office, Mr. Tisdel said that safe storage was important "not only to secure firearms against those who would take and use them for evil, but also to prevent tragic accidents involving children."

"Through liability protections and tax savings, our bipartisan plan will encourage smart, safe habits by responsible gun owners," he said. "The plan clearly lays out best practices for storing weapons securely, spreading a legal safety net for people who follow them. Tax credits will help people pay for storage equipment and training about proper gun storage and handling."

On the bipartisan nature of the bills, Mr. Tisdel said "finding common ground to prevent death and injury from abused and misused weapons must be a priority. These bipartisan policy proposals will help initiate a serious discussion about how to make Michigan safer."

In a separate interview with Gongwer News Service on Wednesday, Mr. Tisdel was asked if he thought the push for secured storage, the criminal and civil defense aspects or the incentives went against the common wisdom of Michigan Republicans who have in the past opted for fewer gun restrictions.

Mr. Tisdel believed the package, and more specifically his bill, included policy points that his caucus could get behind. He crafted it following the Oxford High School shooting in November 2021 and shortly after Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald announced charges against the shooter's parents.

In that case, the parents allegedly did not have the weapon used in the crime securely stored, and the prosecution is attempting to show that the gun was also purchased directly for their son to use.

"I figured this was an opportunity to show responsible gun owners how they can avoid similar consequences. … As Republicans, we talk about Second Amendment rights and for a long time, we've always talked about rights and responsibilities. That's just the flip side of the coin. The other side of the coin of rights is responsibility. So, putting the two together and creating an opportunity for responsible gun owners to avoid concerns about criminal liability or civil liability. If another criminal action has resulted in the unauthorized acquisition of their weapon, then we've codified that, put the directives in the law and provided a benefit for following them."

As to whether the bill has traction or support from leadership, Mr. Tisdel said he's spoken with the office of Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Farwell). While it may be difficult to push the bill to the floor from committee this term, the representative said it wasn't impossible. He also noted that Mr. Wentworth convened a gun safety workgroup in the wake of the Oxford shooting and that the group recently came out with recommendations.

Out of respect for Mr. Wentworth and the workgroup, Mr. Tisdel held off on introducing his bill but said now was the time to act on the package. He also said he was fortunate to have Mr. Harris's input with his bill, as he was the certified trainer for the Waterford Police Department for nearly two decades. He also said he appreciated the backing of Mr. Ellison and Mr. Sneller across the aisle – who have both said the bill was something they could live with or get behind.

Dixon's Ascent Has Bridged Trump World, Establishment Gap

Posted: July 31, 2022 3:54 PM

Over the course of a year, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon went from a lesser-known conservative media personality to a candidate with many of the hallmarks of a traditional candidate, and one who has pretty nabbed all of the key endorsements from establishment forces in the Michigan Republican Party.

Friday, she combined that with the biggest endorsement prize of all – former President Donald Trump (see separate story).

Ms. Dixon, who aside from being a correspondent for America's Voice News also worked in sales with her family steel business, is one of five candidates seeking to win Tuesday's primary contest. Ms. Dixon and the other candidates – Ryan Kelley, Ralph Rebandt, Kevin Rinke and Garrett Soldano – have been locked in a struggle for weeks. There has been scant polling but of what is out there, no one has broken 30 percent.

Having built momentum over the last several months, crescendoing with the Trump endorsement, she's now the clear frontrunner to win the Republican nomination and face off against Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Still, she'll have to bridge the gap and court the votes of the most red-meat members of the Michigan GOP's base, who by proxy are made up mostly of diehard loyalists of Mr. Trump, as well as legacy Republican voters who have expressed disinterest in reliving the days of his administration by way of rogue candidates he's supported across the nation.

"Anytime you have a primary, there are battles and people are looking for a line of attack. And once we get through the primary, we'll be able to bring everybody together to realize that the policies (of the Republican Party) are the right policies for the state," Ms. Dixon said in an interview with Gongwer News Service. "I'm a strong conservative with conservative values, and (my administration would) want to look at what is really best for the state. My policies on schools, state public safety, and bringing business back. That's my focus."

A long-time axiom in politics is that endorsements don't vote. That said, Mr. Trump's endorsement holds great sway, and it was the DeVos endorsement that finally injected funding into the Dixon effort, which has struggled to raise anywhere near the money needed for a statewide race.

Ms. Dixon also has to convince that dyed-in-the-wool MAGA class that she is a true conservative and not a DeVos family pawn, a charge that her opponents have leveled against her in recent days as she coalesced the MIGOP elite into her circle.

The advantage Ms. Dixon has over the rest of the field: she's been able to be a bridge between those disparate groups, whether the other candidates in the field want to admit that or not. Early on, Ms. Dixon garnered support from the likes of some grassroots Republican organizations or local parties, especially in her west Michigan community of Norton Shores in the suburbs of Muskegon, but struggled mightily in fundraising.

That continued to be an uphill battle for her when self-funders like Mr. Rinke and the now disqualified Perry Johnson entered the fray, promising to spend their millions on flashy campaigns that they hoped would make a splash.

But through hard work and a meet-people-where-they-are ground game, Ms. Dixon kept her campaign afloat. Her perseverance is among the reasons she believes she can win Tuesday's contest and move on to achieve what would be an unprecedented feat – besting an incumbent governor seeking reelection, which has rarely happened in Michigan's long electoral history. She would also be the first woman ever nominated for governor by Michigan Republicans and cement the first all-woman race for governor between the major parties.

She has been aided, of course, by the national conservative media apparatus that she herself was once a part of, eager to appear on not only Fox News Channel programs but also harder right stations like One America News Network and Newsmax. At the same time, she was getting attention from the likes of Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and other members of the Michigan Legislature.

That kept her name relevant and front-and-center when the field of 10 candidates winnowed to just five due to numerous instances of paid circulator fraud. Ms. Dixon faced her own test for ballot access in the August 2 primary, as her petitions were challenged but on mostly technical grounds. She survived that challenge and has powered forward since.

An exclusive endorsement from Right to Life of Michigan – Ms. Dixon being the only candidate that the organization endorsed in the gubernatorial race – and then a late-game campaign nod from the DeVos family furthered her chances, but it also made her somewhat of a target for the other campaigns, chief among them being the campaign of Mr. Rinke.

She's been called everything from classic RINO to the GOP's version of Ms. Whitmer. But despite those attacks, Mr. Trump has up until now stayed quiet about who was looking to officially endorse as his pick for Michigan's next governor.

Michigan was Mr. Trump's crown jewel when he won in 2016 but failed to give him an electoral victory in 2020, with the state instead swinging to now Democratic President Joe Biden. He has, however, chosen to come back to the Great Lakes state to stump, realizing its importance to a potential campaign for president in 2024. Mr. Trump has also handed out his blessing to the likes U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer's primary challenger in John Gibbs and various other candidates in Michigan, but he has not automatically jumped to the aid of his fiercest defenders in the governor's race. That includes Mr. Kelley (who was arrested and charged with misdemeanors for his alleged involvement in the U.S. Capitol riot on January 6, 2021) and Mr. Soldano (who led the pandemic-era charge against coronavirus restrictions implemented by Mr. Trump's key critics, like Ms. Whitmer).

That said, he's name-dropped Ms. Dixon several times without giving her an official endorsement, once in a rally earlier this year in rural Washington Township and in a Friday post to his followers on his flagship Truth Social media network.

"Giving Tudor Dixon a good, hard look," Mr. Trump wrote. "Brought her to everyone's attention at our big Michigan rally. All of her supports are working hard endorsement/victory. Stay tuned!"

Mr. Trump, while coy, clearly has an eye on a favorite, and that's led Mr. Rinke, Mr. Soldano and Mr. Kelley to ask the former president to stay out of the race, which shows their fear of losing that endorsement to Ms. Dixon.

When asked after a debate at Oakland University if she was banking on that endorsement, Ms. Dixon said she recently talked with Mr. Trump and his team but had no intel on whether her campaign would also be anointed by the de facto leader of the party who maintains mighty influence from his Florida country club outpost at Mar-a-Lago. She did say, however, that she would welcome his endorsement.

Until that comes, Ms. Dixon will have to spend the last few days seeking votes from both cohorts of the Michigan Republican Party, highlighting policies she's hung her hat on.

DIXON COULD BE FOIL FOR WHITMER ON ABORTION: Undoubtedly, the prospect of Michigan Republicans nominating a woman at the top of the ticket to face off against Ms. Whitmer could be their best bet at countering what would be the incumbent governor's most likely attacks.

One that stands out is the issue of abortion, which Ms. Whitmer has shown may be a centerpiece of her campaign after the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision to gut Roe v. Wade and with it the constitutional right for women to access abortion services. If the governor faces a male opponent come November, she and Michigan Democrats could easily play up that the charge against women's rights and dignity were being spearheaded by patriarchal GOP ideologues – an attack that had some weight when she faced off against former Attorney General Bill Schuette in the 2018 election.

Those attacks become more complicated against Ms. Dixon, who has made family issues a focal point in her campaign. She has championed expanding adoption and making it easier for mothers to take a baby to term even if they do not intend to keep it, among other talking points.

When asked if she has given much thought to how she would push back against Ms. Whitmer on abortion, Ms. Dixon said she indeed has, but when asked if she could elaborate on how she would push back, the candidate simply pointed to the state's existing but still mostly dormant 1931 ban on abortion.

The law would have triggered fully back into effect following the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization – which upended Roe's protections – but an injunction granted by Court of Claims Chief Judge Elizabeth Gleicher has kept the law at bay and, for the time being, defunct as it was ruled unconstitutional.

"We have a law that protects life in this state, and I will abide by the law," Ms. Dixon said.

Even if Ms. Gleicher's injunction is overturned by the Court of Appeals or potentially the Michigan Supreme Court – the latter of which seems unlikely given the Democratic Party-nominated majority on the bench – a constitutional amendment initiative which could very well end up on the November 8 general election ballot could insert abortion protections plainly in the Michigan Constitution.

Asked if her perspective of following the law would ring true if that amendment were to pass muster with voters, Ms. Dixon said she has always said that "whatever the law is, I'll make sure that we abide by the law."

She also warned of the consequences she saw if voters pass such an amendment.

"I think that people need to understand what's in that amendment, though," Ms. Dixon said, adding that it was her belief that the amendment would also "protect rapists and sex offenders and sex traffickers, because you're taking away parental consent. That means that anybody can take a young woman into an abortion clinic (to end a pregnancy) and then take her home and continue to harm her."

BUSINESS ATTRACTION AND INCOME TAX: As Mr. Rinke focuses on attacking Ms. Dixon in the final hour, she and other candidates have pounced on his plan to eliminate the state's personal income tax within the first year of a potential administration but without a way to replace the $11.2 billion revenue hole such a policy would create.

When asked why she believed Mr. Rinke's plan was a dud and why the state should take a slower approach to reducing and then eliminating the tax later, Ms. Dixon said simply that the state can't hold a deficit if it wanted to have a balanced, conservative budget.

"That has to be the top priority, but we also need to bring people to the state. That's why, if we can reduce it over time and get to the point where we have (lower) income tax, ultimately and eventually we'll have no income tax," she said. "Those states with low and no income tax end up having a better economy. Ultimately, we'd like to bring people back to the state, and that's a great way to bring people to the state, but we can't kill the state financially trying to do it."

Mr. Rinke has said that his plan for replacement revenue would rely on a legislative fix, but has also said that top-earners flocking back to Michigan would make up the loss in sales tax revenue. Even if residents spend $11.2 billion on goods, that would recoup annually just a fraction of the revenue collected each year on personal income tax.

Asked what sort of replacement statutory revenue she would entertain as a replacement, Ms. Dixon did not offer any more of a concrete plan than Mr. Rinke, saying that would be a focus of budget negotiations between her executive office, the state's budget gurus and the legislative leaders.

"That's where we have to get into the budget and see if there are opportunities where there's ways that we can reduce, but also, I mean, part of that is really, over time, bringing more people to the state," she said.

CULTURE WAR ON EDUCATION ISSUES: Among her fellow candidates, Ms. Dixon has pushed culture war issues while also talking about practical ways to solve Michigan's problems, like its population losses and tax/regulatory environment. That is particularly true on the subject of education, parents' rights to know what is being taught in public schools and their control over curricula.

One area where she's taken heat from Democrats but possibly may have boosted her with all stripes of primary voting Republicans is her stance on transgender and LGBTQ issues being taught in K-12 schools. She has planted herself firmly in the camp calling for an end to such instruction, likening those who support such instruction as "groomers" and sex offenders.

She also appeared at an impromptu press conference months earlier on the Michigan Capitol steps flanked by several Republican legislators to offer her endorsement to a bill that could open up schools to civil action if they are found to be teaching gender and sexual identity concepts to children, but also if they decide to host events like a drag show story hour during regular school hours.

Asked if he stance on the issue was reflective of the party's mood on education reform or if she had a personal stake as a mother of several children, Ms. Dixon said it was a bit of both, and that it wasn't an outright attack on LGBTQ Michiganders.

"This is not specific to any group or this distinguished (cultural) group at all, this is about talking about anything that has to do with sexualization before fifth grade. We don't want to be talking about sex. We don't want to be talking about gender. We don't want to have any kind of conversation like this before a child is developmentally ready to handle these discussions," she said. "And it is because I am a mom of four daughters who are school aged, and I'm walking alongside every other parent who is trying to get kids to learn to read and trying to get kids to focus on school and not have anxiety and questions about things that they're not developmentally ready for."

An open question is whether children who have chosen to transition would face any kind of repercussions under such a law, even as the co-sponsors of the bill have said it would not open them up to any kind of legal liability, and even more importantly no criminal penalties as the bill itself does not criminalize such instruction or discussions.

Ms. Dixon said protections for those youths who have transitioned or come out openly and her stance against drag shows for children were mutually exclusive issues and that they wouldn't connect the two concepts in her administration.

"The two things are totally separate. I mean, you're talking about having drag queens for children 10 and under to come in and teach, and then you're asking if a child decides to transition before that age, and how would that child would be protected (under law)?" she said. "There's no difference (as it relates to that children's rights) if you are banning drag queens in school."

Asked if she would be supportive of measures that further protected the rights of transgender or LGBTQ youth, she said she would have to see what such a bill would look like before wading into hypotheticals.

OVERCOMING GRASSROOTS DOUBTS: Polling released weeks ago by The Detroit News had Ms. Dixon with the edge but still within the margin of error in polling with at least Mr. Rinke, Mr. Soldano and Mr. Kelley, but a new poll released Friday by Trafalgar has Ms. Dixon further ahead, taking 28.9 percent of surveyed voters while Mr. Soldano trails behind her at 19.2 percent.

Should Ms. Dixon become the victor, the hard work of crafting a winning campaign against Ms. Whitmer would commence, as would a tour to unify the party. Some of those struggles have played out in the nomination of attorney general candidate Matthew DePerno, who bested establishment figure and former House Speaker Tom Leonard at convention.

Mr. DePerno, along with secretary of state candidate Kristian Karamo, were both endorsed by Mr. Trump in the months before delegates had a chance to vote – further evidence that he hold sway over Michigan Republicans.

"Absolutely, we've had conversations and we've been working on ways to make the ticket stronger, and I support him completely," Ms. Dixon said of Mr. DePerno. "Kristina, I haven't had as many opportunities to speak with her. We met a few weeks ago in Traverse City, but I'm very supportive of her, as well."

The test will be if general election voters see the Trump influence in each of those campaigns as a detriment to Michigan, and if Ms. Whitmer's pandemic criticisms and her close connection to Mr. Biden – whose own polling is in the tank as a recession looms and COVID-19 still poses challenges – are dire enough to push Ms. Dixon and her compatriots over the finish line.

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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