Every election season, Macomb County voters become Michigan’s version of the high school student who failed to do his homework, then plows through a multiple-choice exam by randomly picking answers without a clue that some choices are ridiculously off the mark.
Macomb stands as ground zero for wacky candidates who try to sneak through the morass of a dizzying bedsheet ballot that features dozens of candidates up for numerous offices.
The willy nilly approach in the voting booth produced the election two years ago of Republican Karen Spranger as Macomb County clerk, who at the time was homeless, unemployed and unqualified. Spranger’s subsequent reign as clerk created so much turmoil that she was removed from office after 15 months.
After that embarrassing episode in 2016, Macomb voters showed up at the polls on Tuesday supposedly determined to make better choices, including the selection of a replacement for Spranger. But the election results show that many were inadvertently ready to take on more shame with disastrous selections.
For example, Spranger’s campaign manager and cheerleader of two years ago, Joe Hunt, a fellow political gadfly, emerged as the Republican nominee facing Mark Hackel, the most popular politician in the county. In the county executive race, Hunt received more than 113,000 votes in a losing effort.
One of Macomb’s true oddball candidates is Robert Murphy of Romeo, who has playfully run for office approximately 10 times – mostly for state House — and has never come close to winning. Murphy has variously run as a Democrat, a Republican and an Independent – No Party Affiliation. In 2014, Murphy ran as a Democrat and a Republican on the same ballot.
Yet, on Tuesday, running this time as a Democrat in the state 36th House District after winning the August primary by a wide margin, Murphy garnered nearly 13,000 votes.
In another state House race based in Sterling Heights, the eccentric Jazmine Early waged a surprisingly strong run in an open seat in the 25th District, losing by a 54-46 percent margin. For several years, Early has publicly espoused bigoted views toward Muslims and gays. The Republican has claimed that county government is open to establishing Sharia Law, and she has proposed that Sterling Heights establish an assimilation committee that would determine which immigrants would be allowed to live in the city, while banning all Muslim refugees.
Her political allies have displayed protest signs picturing Barack Obama’s bloody head impaled on a spear, plus crude references to “wetbacks” and “fags.” One those acolytes was somehow elected to city council a few years ago. But in Early’s two runs for council in 2015 and 2017, she lost by overwhelming margins. Still, on Tuesday she earned 16,000 votes for the House.
A chance to make things right nearly missed
As for the election to replace Spranger, rather than a time for sober reflection on the chaotic Spranger era and an opportunity to make things right, many county voters cast their ballot for a deeply flawed Republican nominee. Lisa Sinclair had a track record of alcohol-related criminal convictions and a personal bankruptcy due to approximately $380,000 in debts. A newcomer to Macomb politics, she had skipped numerous past elections and had no experience working in government – her two most recent jobs are as a nurse and the owner of a small in-home health care service.
Yet, Sinclair almost won on Tuesday, coming up short by a 51-49 percent difference against former Democratic state representative and county commissioner Fred Miller. The outcome served as retribution for Miller, who lost an incomprehensible squeaker to Spranger in 2016.
The lesson to be learned may be that straight-ticket voters loyal to their party tend to engage in nonsensical choices, blindly making partisan decisions up and down the ballot without any consideration that they might contribute to the election of a troublesome – if not awful — candidate.
A ‘bumper crop of nuts’
Clearly, many voters across the state make uninformed decisions when filling out their ballot, but Macomb voters have a duty to be especially vigilant because they face more kooky candidates than the electorate in probably any other Michigan county. Unfortunately, the weirdness remains a Macomb tradition going back decades. As one longtime political observer put it recently, the 2018 Macomb ballot had produced “a bumper crop of nuts.”
Some of the wackiest Macomb candidates were weeded out in the August primaries, but not by overwhelming numbers. In the GOP primary for clerk, the two main runners-up who narrowly lost to Sinclair both had skeletons in the closet.
Finishing second in the primary was former county commissioner Nicki Brandenburg of Macomb Township, a Spranger ally, who reported to police in 2008 that her then-husband was injecting her with poisonous drugs in her sleep and practicing witchcraft on her. Years ago, Brandenburg served as the leader of a Michigan GOP campaign to elect TV evangelist Pat Robertson for president.
In third place was another former county commissioner, Jim Perna. From 2008-14, the Democrat-turned-Republican launched four consecutive high-profile campaigns to win back his old commissioner seat, without any luck. In 2014, Perna was physically removed by state authorities from his job as CEO of a credit union after the financial institution lost $1.5 million under questionable circumstances.
On Tuesday, Election Day for these high-intensity midterms, Washington-based reporter Julie Mason offered a telling observation about her voting experiences. Mason hosts a show on satellite radio, SiriusXM’s POTUS channel (if you have to ask what POTUS means, you probably should not be casting a ballot).
Mason told her audience that in several elections she has enjoyed the ultimate comfortable experience in the voting booth — she was familiar with, had interviewed or had written about every candidate on the ballot. Imagine that.
Based on recent history, if the majority of Macomb voters limited their choices to candidates they are familiar with, they probably wouldn’t get beyond the first few names on the ballot.
In Macomb, the embarrassingly bad choices should stand out as obvious, given the erratic quality of candidates. But, with the shrinking number of informative local news sources out there, I suspect that voters making numerous ignorant guesses in the polling booth has become standard procedure across the state.
Are we now witnessing the “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” version of democracy?
Some more observations on this topic:
- Fred Miller’s choice of campaign tactics in the last two elections leaves a lot to be desired, but the former state representative and county commissioner will step into the clerk’s job on day one knowing exactly how to proceed in a professional manner. I can only imagine the anxiety Miller experienced on election night, wondering if he might again narrowly lose to a wholly inferior candidate.
- Lisa Sinclair seems like a very nice lady, almost to a fault. But in the real world, given her track record and resume, I doubt that Sinclair could get hired by the county for a mid-level job at the clerk’s office. Yet, in the political arena, nearly a majority of voters were ready to hire her as the boss, the clerk/register of deeds.
- The type of bedsheet ballot we saw in Macomb County on Tuesday just adds to the possibility that oddball or ethically challenged candidates can squeak through an election. Due to election law changes we now have school board and village candidates at the tail end of the November ballot. Across the county on Tuesday we saw candidates on the ballot in 23 school districts, village candidates in 13 categories, 11 local ballot proposals, contenders for the Macomb Community College board, and a scattering of city and township candidates. And all of those choices came after the innumerous federal, state and county offices. We may have reached the point where a diligent voter – perhaps even a political junkie – cannot make an informed choice on the ballot from top to bottom.
There used to be an unwritten rule in politics that an ambitious potential candidate starts out small – maybe as legislative aide, or a member of the local school board or city council – then learns the ropes, establishes a track record and moves up the ladder.
Today, some neophyte candidates want to start out near the top of the heap. Ambitious folks with no experience in government seek a run for Congress or U.S. Senate or state Senate, assuming somehow that their narrow private sector experience equates with the extraordinarily broad range of issues dealt with by our federal and state legislators. That form of chutzpah certainly seems to fit Republican Mike MacDonald, who was elected Tuesday to succeed Tory Rocca in the 10th Senate District (Sterling Heights, Macomb Township and most of Clinton Township).
A first-time candidate with no connections to the political world, MacDonald is a financial adviser for Northwestern Mutual serving individual clients, not a “businessman” as his campaign sales pitch claimed. According to some GOP insiders, he had no instincts on how to run a campaign or talk to voters when he got started. The state Republican Party essentially took over and molded him to their liking in an expensive and splashy ad campaign.
One more thing: In the Trump era, when an amazing number of voters now seem willing to forgive candidates from their preferred party for provocative transgressions, I think MacDonald is man for his time. Several years ago, he was heavily drunk when crashing his car into a motorcyclist who then suffered life-threatening injuries and had a leg amputated. The Democratic Party ran numerous online video ads highlighting this piece of MacDonald’s past, but Macomb voters apparently didn’t care.
Someone with Mike MacDonald’s background deserves a second chance and an opportunity to live a decent life. But in a state Senate district with a population of about 250,000 people and countless potential quality candidates, it’s rather disturbing that he was awarded the title of senator.