Attack Ad Fallout Continues

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Thursday, October 29, 2015, 10:28 am
Alice Dreger

Above: Candidates for City Council Erik Altmann, Nathan Tripeltt, and Mark Meadows.

Whether the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce’s attack ad on East Lansing City Council candidate Erik Altmann will affect the outcome of next Tuesday’s election is difficult to gauge. But what is clear is that the ad has caused a great deal of controversy.

An open question remains as to the legality of the mailer, which says it was paid for not by the Chamber’s PAC but by the Chamber of Commerce itself. According to an email from the Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum yesterday, the mailer might not be subject to the usual rules of campaign advertising because it is “educational.”

Byrum opined yesterday, “The mailer below, referencing Erik Altmann, may be considered an educational piece as it does not contain words of express advocacy, such as ‘vote against’, ‘defeat’, or ‘reject’. The mailer indicates it was paid for by the Lansing Regional Chamber, not the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce PAC.” Byrum is referencing post-Citizen United legal rulings on campaign funding.

The Chamber’s leadership is maintaining the same line. Chamber President and CEO Tim Daman told the Lansing State Journal yesterday that “the chamber is solely involved in advocacy efforts that educate voters about the issues and candidates.” Daman added the LRC/CAP PAC, composed of chamber members, “has taken a different approach that pushes for specific candidates.”

This reasoning leads to an interesting outcome, wherein a chamber of commerce’s political action committee (PAC) does positive campaigning while the chamber of commerce itself, a nonprofit organization, restricts itself to negative campaigning.

The Chamber’s PAC has endorsed candidates Shanna Draheim, Mark Meadows, and Nathan Triplett. Yesterday Draheim issued a statement that called for respect and civility. Meadows strongly denounced the ad, calling it “an example of such ‘dark money’ and the use of corporate funds in campaigns.”

Meadows went on to suggest “the Chamber wanted to punish Mr. Altmann because he tells the truth.” Meadows said the Chamber went after Altmann because “the majority on the current City Council has been very wiling to provide significant financial incentives to developers and has indicated a willingness to loosen some of the restrictions that apply to rental housing. The Chamber’s constituency wants this to continue. If Mr. Altmann is elected, the Council is not likely to continue to award TIF with the same generosity that has been present lately.”

We have previously reported how the election endorsements of remaining City Council members Ruth Beier and Susan Woods match voting records in Council on issues of developments, including rental apartment buildings. We have also reported on the distribution of campaign contributions by business people with financial business before East Lansing’s City Council for the current council and for the candidates now running.

Roy Saper, owner of the downtown East Lansing business Saper Galleries, tells ELi that businesses that don’t object to the Chamber’s attack ad are probably the ones benefitting from what Meadows said “appears to be a cozy relationship between the Council and landlords and developers.” Saper told the Chamber leadership yesterday that he finds it “so disheartening that these games are being played at the local level in this way. And ‘The Mayor’ remains silent.”

Saper notes, correctly, that the City of East Lansing itself is a member of the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce. He asks, “Does the City approve of their dues being used to wrongly attack a council candidate?” He says that, “Although the Chamber awarded me their Small Business Person of the Year award several years ago, I will not join their organization because of their shameful politics.”

As we reported in our campaign finance analysis, Saper has donated fifty dollars to Altmann’s campaign. Altmann has no apparent donors from the Chamber leadership. Triplett has: Tim Daman, President and CEO of the Chamber ($250); Steve Japinga, Government Affairs Director of the Chamber ($250); Kristin Beltzer, Executive Vice President ($300). Triplett has also received donation from the Chamber’s Board Chair, John Brown ($250) and other board members.

Triplett also received $1,000 from the Chamber’s PAC, while Council candidate Shanna Draheim received $2,500. (No other candidates received money from the Chamber’s PAC.)

Triplett has so far remained publicly silent on the negative mailer. Glencairn resident and appellate lawyer Patrick Rose has called on Triplett to “distance yourself from this scurrilous attack, rather than allowing yourself to benefit from it.”

Yesterday, Rose posted to his Facebook page and gave us permission to quote this statement: “The negative attack ad by the Lansing Chamber against Erik Altmann is not only misleading and false—he had no power to cause blight as he had no vote on City Council—but it should be condemned by Nathan Triplett. He had a vote on Council. The mailer, if taken seriously, should be viewed (indirectly) as an attack on him. The Chamber endorsed Nathan Triplett as well. He should follow Mark Meadows' lead and condemn the Chamber for bad judgment and irresponsibility in sending the ad. If Nathan does not condemn the ad, it should give voters serious pause about his relationship to the Chamber and developers.”

Rose tells us he has received no response.

Meanwhile, Council candidate Jermaine Ruffin, who donated to Triplett’s campaign and who received a donation from Triplett, remains silent on the matter. Steve Ross, who donated to Altmann and received a donation from Altmann, condemned the mailer.

Asked about his reaction to the Lansing State Journal article, Altmann told us this morning, “I wish the LSJ had investigated the claims made by the Chamber, which distort my votes and take my comments out of context.” He says that, “Unfortunately the article took them at face value, which is a disservice to readers.” He says, “Fact-checking these claims was not difficult.” We did a detailed fact-check yesterday morning, and found the claims of the mailer poorly supported by the evidence.

Altmann said this morning, “I’ve been honored and humbled by the outpouring of support from the East Lansing community, including fellow City Council candidates Mark Meadows and Steve Ross. Whoever decided on this strategy at the Chamber underestimated how well East Lansing voters understand the critical issues at stake in this election. This was a business decision by the Chamber to try to elect candidates who will keep giving tax breaks to big business that the city can’t afford. But in this case, I’m not sure they did a market study.”

Asked about the response to his statement, Meadows told us this morning, “The response has been positive. I think people are tired of negativity. I know it has devolved into an overused phrase but people really can disagree without being disagreeable and I think that is what East Lansing citizens want. But, that is not what the Chamber did here. And, as your researched article showed, the Chamber misrepresented the facts. That may be the norm in a purely political sense but it should never be the norm for a business organization.”

Our inquiries to the Chamber about who wrote advertisement have gone unanswered, as have our inquiries to Mayor Nathan Triplett for his take on the matter. © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info