The mano-o-mano campaign slugfest between Democrats Fred Miller (above, right) and Steve Bieda to replace ousted county clerk Karen Spranger gets uglier by the day, as a local black minister has spouted incendiary, racially charged attacks at the political group backing Miller.
Last week, the shadowy Phil Hart Democratic Club, which has funded several pro-Miller and anti-Bieda newspaper ads and campaign flyers, was blasted by the Warren Democratic Club for taking a rugged, divisive stance leading up to the Aug. 7 Democratic primary for clerk.
Today, the attacks on the Phil Hart Club were ratcheted up substantially by the Rev. W.J. Rideout III, who claims that the Hart Club is a secretive group that excludes African-Americans and people of color. The reverend is building on the Warren Democratic Club’s allegations last week that the Hart Club’s refusal to disclose its membership is: “a throwback to the days of country clubs when they used admissions like this to exclude blacks, Jewish people, women.”
‘No Negroes apply’
“No one can seem to tell me, or my brothers and sisters, how to join the Philip A. Hart Democratic Club,” Rideout said in a press release that was shared with the media by the Bieda campaign. “Is there a literacy test involved? It feels an awful lot like there’s a giant ‘No Negroes Need Apply’ sign hanging on their door. This is no different than the kind of backroom racism exposed by the recordings of Warren Mayor Jim Fouts. Phil Hart-endorsed candidates like Fred Miller can hold all the gospel brunches they want, but free pancakes (don’t) fix this kind of bigotry.”
To be clear, no evidence exists that the long-standing Phil Hart Club acts as an exclusionary group that chooses its members based on their race or religion. It appears that the club is actually a tight-knit group associated with longtime Macomb Democratic Party Chairman Ed Bruley and former congressman David Bonior. Their politics is liberal-left and they have garnered support from the Macomb black community for decades.
In an additional twist, the club’s finances are derived from an elaborate bingo game operation based at a Warren bingo hall. The complicated accounting practices within their financial books show revenues and expenditures of nearly $2 million on an annual basis. The vast majority of those funds are spent on workers, supplies and bingo prizes for game winners. The remainder is spent on politics.
In the world of political bingos — across Macomb County and Metro Detroit — the players, mostly the elderly, unknowingly contribute to election campaigns with their bingo dollars.
Hart Club members say that the bingo funds they raise carry a special political status as they come with “no strings attached” to special interest groups or lobbyists.
Yet, the club has a checkered past consisting of a suspension and two probations imposed by the state Lottery Bureau due to improper accounting procedures and failure to follow state-mandated recordkeeping. The most recent probationary period will expire in October.
With a 17-candidate free-for-all in the Aug. 7 primary for clerk – six Democrats and 11 Republicans — the two main contenders to replace Spranger are well-known Dems Miller, a former Macomb County commissioner from Mount Clemens, and state Sen. Bieda of Warren. Earlier this year, Bieda gave up his congressional run for retiring Rep. Sandy Levin’s seat to campaign for clerk. Miller, who also served in the state House, suffered a stunning election loss to Spranger, a Republican, in 2016 and now seeks retribution.
‘Secret slush fund?’
In recent days, Bieda has claimed that the Hart group serves as a “secret slush fund that masquerades as a Democratic club.”
Bieda has also filed complaints challenging Miller’s campaign finances with the state Lottery Bureau, which oversees bingo gambling, and the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which regulates federal PACs such as the Hart Club. Bieda alleges that the Hart Club has engaged in finance secrecy and federal violations.
The current president of the Hart Club is Julie Matuszak of Mount Clemens, a longtime Democratic activist and Miller ally who serves on the state Board of (election) Canvassers. The Hart Club requires that those seeking to join receive sponsorships from two existing members and that the overall membership votes unanimously in favor of the newcomer.
The Rev. Rideout, who is apparently establishing a church in Roseville, gained media attention in 2017 after publicly denouncing audio tapes of Warren Mayor Jim Fouts making comments disparaging women and the disabled and comparing blacks to chimpanzees.
“If this were a Macomb County Republican secretive club that didn’t disclose membership or have people of color, this would be a national scandal. Where there is discrimination and segregation there ought to be elimination,” Rideout said.
Taking a step back, it seems fairly obvious at this point that Miller did not have the campaign finances or widespread financial backing among Macomb Democrats to run another expensive countywide campaign. As a result, he turned to his allies in the Hart Club to help finance his hoped-for 2018 comeback.
The Bieda allegations claim that the Hart Club has violated FEC financial reporting requirements and has engaged in a lack of transparency. Nonetheless, claims that the club, which has existed for about three decades, is guilty of racial discrimination seem rather empty.
Nothing particularly surprising, at this point, given the obnoxious heritage of Macomb politics.
The unexpected injection of race into this election follows a time-honored, ugly tradition in Macomb County campaigns dating back for decades.