The no-holds-barred battle for the Macomb County clerk’s seat left vacant by the inimitable Karen Spranger has produced shifting allegiances and scores to settle among some top-shelf Democrats – past and present.
The political pugilists preparing for this fight to regain the clerk’s seat that Democrats had held for decades prior to the 2016 election win by the Republicans’ Spranger — the accidental clerk, now former clerk — include Congressman Sandy Levin; his son and chosen successor, Andy Levin; former congressman Dave Bonior; Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel; state Sen. Steve Bieda; and former county commissioner Fred Miller.
These divisions began to emerge months ago when the race to replace retiring Rep. Levin shaped up as a race mostly between Andy Levin, a Bloomfield Township Democrat, and Bieda, a Warren Democrat who had coveted the Macomb/Oakland 9th Congressional District seat for a decade.
But Bieda’s dramatic shift last week – abandoning the congressional race in favor of a run for the remaining two years of the ousted clerk’s post — set off a series of Democratic clashes that suggest the clerk’s race in the upcoming August primary may present more dramatic fare than anything the congressional race has to offer.
What we have here is a tangled web of internal Democratic Party politics which means, in Macomb County, an incestuous love/hate mix of characters engaged in a family feud not unlike a pro wrestling match in which someone is expected to lose an eye or emerge with a permanent limp.
Try to follow along:
- Andy Levin – and some of his campaign workers – have apparently been telling key Democratic figures in recent days, mostly within organized labor, that they should endorse his congressional campaign because Bieda is about to do the same. In reality, Bieda has made no such commitment to support Levin. Before Bieda’s detour, the congressional contest between the two had become a bit testy.
- Some internal talk goes along these lines: Levin endorses Bieda, giving him a leg up in the clerk’s race, and Bieda reciprocates with the backing of Levin in the congressional race, which would give Levin an advantage in the Macomb County portion of the district. But that kind of move would look like a good ol’ boys deal was struck to get Bieda out of the race for Congress. To be clear, Levin is committed not to endorse Bieda’s new campaign endeavor.
Several months ago, Bonior immediately endorsed Levin’s run, which gave the younger Levin a layer of Macomb moxie beyond his father’s 36-year career on Capitol Hill. Bonior’s hard-working team of activists were quickly on board for Levin, though Bieda was the only Macomb County candidate in the race.
- With the April 24 filing deadline quickly approaching, County Executive Mark Hackel last week had convinced a reluctant Bieda to switch gears and run for clerk, a blatant attempt by Hackel to keep Miller, his political nemesis, from winning a race he should have won easily in 2016 against Spranger, an eccentric gadfly who had virtually no Republican Party support.
- After Friday’s withdrawal deadline, 17 candidates for clerk remained – 11 Republicans and six Democrats – after two prominent Dem contenders, St. Clair Shores Mayor Kip Walby and Roseville City Clerk Richard Steenland, stepped aside, apparently to smooth the way for Bieda.
- Another key figure in this jumble of political melodrama is Ed Bruley, the combative Macomb County Democratic Party chair who has stood as Bonior’s closest ally for more than four decades. In 2018, he also represents Miller’s staunchest supporter and Hackel’s most virulent enemy. To be clear, Miller had planned to run against Hackel in 2010, an election that determined Macomb County’s first-ever county executive, but eventually withdrew.
Hackel has been waging war against Miller and his allies – the group known in the past as “the Bonior Boys,” the political apostles of the former longtime Macomb congressman – for more than a decade. Now, speculation swirls among some that Hackel, to punish Miller for stubbornly taking on the executive’s chosen one, Bieda, may endorse a somewhat overlooked contender for the 9th District congressional seat – former state Rep. Ellen
Cogen Lipton, a Huntington Woods Democrat. A snub of Levin would clearly be seen as a shot at the Levin-Bonior-Miller team.
- With Bieda’s reversal, Hackel could conceivably endorse Lipton with the understanding that only Oakland County candidates remain in the race. But, since Sandy Levin has represented the majority of Macomb County for more than a quarter century, the county executive’s rejection of the son, Andy, would likely create an explosion within the party that could shatter numerous alliances.
- Yet, these alliances have come and gone depending on the terrain in any given election cycle. This is where another major player comes into the picture – Mark Brewer, whose enduring allegiance to Bonior nearly rivals that of Bruley. A decades-long political operative in Macomb politics, Brewer served as the Michigan Democratic Party chair for 20 years (making him the national Dems’ longest-serving state party chair) until in 2013 a move by political power-brokers successfully booted him from office. The instigators of that nasty intra-party insurgency included Sandy Levin and Hackel. The opponents fighting tooth-and-nail against the ouster were Brewer, of course, and Bruley. Yet, with the 2018 emergence of Andy Levin for Congress, Brewer and Bruley – and obviously Sandy Levin — are all on the side of Andy. Hackel and his allies seem defiantly opposed.
- Meanwhile, Miller is determined to make a comeback despite the stain of losing to the lowly Spranger two years ago. His critics say that Miller partially blamed his loss on various Democratic officials and activists who did not work hard enough for him in 2016. Now, after Spranger was removed from office last month for falsifying her residency, Miller essentially claims that he deserves the clerk’s seat.
- One more thing: Among these strange, fleeting allegiances is the case of Democrat Nate Shannon. Just last November Shannon was elected to the Sterling Heights City Council and now he is on his way to a probable win for a state House seat against an unpopular Republican candidate. Shannon previously endorsed Bieda for Congress. When Bieda declared his pursuit of the clerk’s office, Shannon suddenly changed his mind and decided not to endorse Bieda for clerk. That move was certainly helpful to Miller. But, could it be that Shannon feels that, without taking anything for granted, he needs the Michigan Education Association (MEA) teachers’ union endorsement (and campaign contributions) above all else as he runs for higher office? After all, a member of the MEA Local 1 board that decides these things is Miller’s wife.
So, if your head is spinning after reading about all these gyrations, welcome to the traditional Macomb mess that surfaces on a routine basis from one election cycle to the next, in one party or the other.
The political lesson to be learned for elected officials and party activists is that your friend today could be your foe tomorrow, so be careful what you say or do. Or, just hope that the voters forget all of the Democratic Party palace intrigue and accept what you have to say today, if not always.