By CRAIG MAUGER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING — A set of blood-stained handcuffs hang down above an altered photograph of Democrat Darrin Camilleri’s eyes. Next to the images, text reads, “Darrin Camilleri’s dangerous ideas will handcuff Downriver’s cops.”
The photos and text come from a dark money-funded mailer that’s been sent out in the last days against Camilleri, a teacher from Brownstown Twp. who’s running in a competitive Democratic primary race in the 23rd Michigan House District. The mailer is one example of the vicious attacks that have been levied by mystery groups in advance of Tuesday’s election.
These attacks have come from nonprofit organizations and in one race, dissolved political action committees (PACs). The mailers slam candidates, like Camilleri, who will appear on the ballot on Tuesday and seek to influence voters. But because the mailers don’t specifically tell people to vote for or against the candidates mentioned, they’re free to make allegations while state law keeps their donors secret.
Camilleri became aware of the dark money mailers in his district a week ago. He got a call from a voter who had received one of the mailers and wanted to lift Camilleri’s spirits.
“I hadn’t seen anything,” Camilleri said. “I hadn’t heard anything.”
Later, Camilleri received copies of the mailers, which based their attacks on a social media post showing Camilleri shaking hands with national Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson. One of the mailers said, “While Ferguson and Baltimore burned, Darrin Camilleri’s key political ally DeRay McKesson went on CNN and refused to condemn the violence.”
In an interview, Camilleri said he had met McKesson one time at a conference.
“I didn’t realize that meeting someone once at a conference for 30 seconds counts as a friendship,” Camilleri said.
Camilleri argued that people don’t have to be either for Black Lives Matter or for law enforcement. He also noted that he’s received support from the Police Officers Association of Michigan and the Wayne County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association.
Two versions of the mailers have gone out in the 23rd District. Camilleri said his campaign believes the mailers went out last week to every Democratic voter in the district who hadn’t cast an absentee ballot, aiming to impact what’s expected to be a close primary race.
The mailers came from a group called Better Michigan Coalition, which according to the mailers, is located at a Reed City address. That Osceola County city is a three-hour drive away from the 23rd District.
A 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization called Better Michigan Coalition was incorporated in Michigan in May. It’s based in Chase Twp., a 10-minute drive from Reed City. The incorporation documents list two individuals: Brian K. Elder and Dan Sloan. Strangely enough, Elder, an attorney, is currently a candidate in the 96th House District. Sloan is a Lake County commissioner. Neither Elder nor Sloan responded to multiple requests for comment about the nonprofit and whether it was responsible for the mailers.
Camilleri said he believes the mailers were spurred by polling that showed him in the lead of the four-way 23rd District primary race. His opponents are Sherry Berecz, Elayne Petrucci and Steven Rzeppa.
“It’s the type of politics that Michigan and Democrats in particular in this primary race should be disavowing at every turn,” Camilleri said.
Berecz denounced the mailers in a Facebook post last week.
“We have no ties to the Better Michigan Coalition, and we are not associated with this organization,” she wrote.
Joe DiSano, a political consultant who’s done work for the campaigns of both Elder and Berecz, also denied today that he was involved in the Better Michigan Coalition mailers.
The 23rd District Democratic primary is far from the only one seeing the impact of dark money.
In the 1st Michigan House District, five Democrats are trying to unseat incumbent Rep. Brian Banks (D-Detroit) in the primary. One of the challengers, Pamela Sossi, of Detroit, has been attacked in multiple mailers that say they are from PACs while they really aren’t.
One of the mailers shows Sossi’s face next to GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s face. It also alleges that Sossi and her boyfriend “have been working with the Republican Party for years.”
“Tell Pam Sossi to go back to the Republican Party, we don’t need her on our side,” the mailer says.
That mailer and another similar one allegedly came from PACs based in Michigan. However, the PACs listed on the mailers as the groups behind them have been dissolved for at least a decade.
One of the mailers allegedly came from Democrats for Michigan, listed at 73 Campau Circle NW, Grand Rapids. That PAC dissolved in 2001. Another of the mailers allegedly came from Leadership for a Better Michigan, PO Box 361, Richland. That PAC, which was connected to former West Michigan Rep. Lorence Wenke, then a Republican, dissolved in 2006.
Wenke said he had no idea about the mailers in Detroit until a reporter from the Detroit News, which first reported the mailers, called him.
“I would like to know who it is,” Wenke said. “I would like to charge them with some criminal activity if this is a criminal activity.”
Wenke then joked that it seems you have to murder someone to be found guilty of a crime in politics.
Sossi herself said she’s been a Democrat since she could legally vote and she has never voted for a Republican, she said.
“My family would probably kill me,” Sossi added.
In another Detroit area race, Democratic Michigan Senate candidate Ian Conyers has been the subject of a dark money attack. Conyers, who’s in a nine-way race in the 4th Senate District, was pictured on a mailer holding a paintball gun.
“Ian Conyers thinks gun violence is a game,” the mailer said.
The mailer came from Concerned Citizens of Michigan, which is based in Fraser. MCFN could find no record of a PAC by that name but did find a nonprofit organization incorporated in Michigan called Concerned Citizens for Michigan, based at the same Fraser address as the one listed on the mailers. The group incorporated less than a month ago.
Conyers said the mailer went out in two waves. One of the waves targeted absentee voters and another targeted Election Day voters. About 20,000 people received it, Conyers said.
“As an activist, I have marched and fought against gun violence,” Conyers said in an email. “As a professional I have worked the last four years to promote ShotSpotter to catch shooters …”
Nonprofits’ attempts to influence Tuesday’s elections haven't stopped at the State Legislature. There’s also been at least some evidence of groups distributing literature in township and precinct delegate races.
On the GOP side, precinct delegate races are key because the winning precinct delegates have sway in shaping the future of the party and picking GOP nominees for statewide contests. The Michigan Campaign Finance Act doesn’t regulate precinct delegate candidates.
Postcards supporting select precinct delegates from a nonprofit called Advance Oakland have been flagged in Oakland County this cycle.
David Staudt, who’s connected to the nonprofit, said he’s sent out mailers in only three precincts. He said he’s also made pieces available to candidates who want to hand them out at events or while going door to door.
Staudt said he made a donation to the nonprofit himself to fund the pieces.
“My intention was to empower delegates to do their own campaigning,” he said.