In a highly unusual move, a state Senate candidate from Ann Arbor was arraigned today on misdemeanor criminal charges for falsely claiming that she was the incumbent during the August primary campaign season.
Anuja Rajendra faces allegations that could lead to jail time after Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie decided to pursue charges months after the campaign literature in question was sent to voters. Rajendra lost the Democratic primary election in the 18th District by a wide margin, finishing third.
Let’s be clear, state law says Rajendra faces up to 90 days in jail but there is virtually no way she will face one day behind bars. Normally in these circumstances, the county clerk, in conjunction with the state Bureau of Elections, would work out a resolution that would involve a fine for a civil infraction. Case closed.
Nonetheless, the reaction on Facebook to the charges has been intense, with posts denouncing the prosecutor and asserting that the former candidate did nothing that deserves treatment as a criminal. Fair enough.
But hold on: What Rajendra did was highly unethical – and probably illegal – and she deserves some form of punishment, such as a fine. She was running for an open Senate seat – no incumbent in the race – and twice portrayed herself as the incumbent in widespread campaign materials.
According to a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by MLive with the county Prosecutor’s Office, Rajendra at least twice used the phrase “as your state senator” in campaign literature.
Despite what cynics may think, incumbency typically remains a distinct advantage. In primary elections for state House and Senate seats, incumbents rarely lose. In November general elections, their odds of survival are nearly as good. Rajendra was a first-time, virtually unknown candidate in the Senate primary and she apparently took an unfair shortcut to gaining voter support by implying she was the incumbent.
The state statute says that a candidate who gives the impression that they’re the incumbent when they’re not is guilty of a misdemeanor. The fact that the complaint was filed months later with the prosecutor’s office on Oct. 11 – by who, we do not know yet – certainly suggests some political shenanigans, or at least some kind of political vendetta.
But, in the bigger picture, the more important matter is this: Michigan holds a horrible reputation nationwide for maintaining fairness and integrity in nearly every facet of state government.
A 50-state report in 2015 by the New York-based Center for Public Integrity (CPI) found shadowy aspects of Michigan’s money-driven politics which served as a key reason why the state ranked last among the 50 states with a grade of F and a numerical score of 52 out of 100. Michigan received an F (on an A to F scale) in 10 of the 13 categories of government operations that were examined.
The report found Michigan lacks enforcement in the basics of an upstanding government: election laws that are too often ignored; lobbyists whose disclosure reports fail to outline their buddy-buddy relationships with lawmakers; judges who do not recuse themselves from cases where they have a conflict of interest; a toothless ethics committee that is supposed to weed out political bias within the state bureaucracy; and a good old boys honor system in the Legislature that allows lawmakers to hide their financial assets and vote on bills that provide them with personal enrichment.
I was the author of that detailed 2015 report and, based on a meticulous grading system devised by the CPI to compare each state, Michigan was ranked worst in the nation in ethics and transparency and just plain, old-fashioned good-government policies. As for enforcement of election laws, the Michigan system almost never investigates or cracks down on blatant violators. I was told that the number of complaints analyzed by the Bureau of Elections and turned over to the Attorney General’s Office for criminal prosecution amounts to about two per year.
Still, it’s also important to note that even relatively minor infractions of election law result in fines for the guilty candidates. Those candidates who fail to provide the requisite “paid for by …” tagline to their campaign materials often face a fine. Each election year, dozens and dozens of candidates who fail to file their campaign finance reports on time each face hundreds of dollars in penalties.
By allegedly trying to gain a false advantage, Rajendra certainly seems to fit into that category of candidates who deserve a financial punishment.
On Facebook, the outraged who insist all of this is no big deal seem out of touch. This problem with Rajendra’s claims could have been solved back in July if Washtenaw County had a more in-tune electorate. I can tell you that in the cutthroat world of Macomb County politics, some candidates through the years have quickly stumbled for spreading far more ambiguous messages that suggested they were the incumbent.
Michael Steinberg, legal director for the ACLU of Michigan, which is representing the defendant, said Rajendra never intended to convey that she was an incumbent and the fact that she’s facing jail time is disturbing.
“The ACLU has a serious problem with the government charging political candidates with crimes for political speech,” Steinberg said in a recent MLive interview, suggesting the threat of jail time for political speech may keep some from running for office in the future.
“Crimes for political speech” appears to be way over the top. There was a better way to handle this, based on past history. But it can still be fixed. Let the state Bureau of Elections step in and work out a settlement for a civil infraction — a fine for the candidate that is comparable to penalties issued for similar violations.
If your attitude is that Rajendra should in no way face jail time, I’m with you all the way. If you believe that she should skate, without facing any penalty, I would suggest that such a move just enhances Michigan’s standing as a state where politicians slither through, day-by-day, in a system where there are no rules.