Business Group Launches Attack on Candidate Altmann
Above: Steve Japinga, the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Director of Government Relations, and an image from the new mailer.
The Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce has launched an attack ad on City Council candidate Erik Altmann, declaring Altmann “wrong for East Lansing.”
The content of the ad is typical for a negative campaign: it uses an unflattering photo of its subject, features a combo of grim black and white photography with splashes of red, and declares “FACTS” about the subject, annotated with footnotes. It suggests Altmann will prolong blight in East Lansing and says that “he is backed by shadowy dark-money groups that have repeatedly broken campaign finance laws and pledged to obstruct progress in East Lansing at any cost.”
The citation for that last claim is our article on the PAC Neighborhoods 1st. That PAC has not endorsed Altmann nor given him money, and he is not a member of it.
Altmann, an MSU professor of psychology, has responded on his campaign website, saying, “It looks like I’ve made some powerful people angry.” Altmann believes the attack ad is in response to his desire to bring “an end to tax giveaways for developers.” In his response, Altmann also links our article on campaign finance of the candidates, saying “the Chamber is spending heavily to elect candidates who will keep the development subsidies flowing,” an apparent reference to Mayor Nathan Triplett’s campaign.
East Lansing has no Chamber of Commerce of its own, so many East Lansing businesses belong to the Lansing Regional Chamber. It is unclear, however, which individuals in the Chamber decided to compose and mail out this ad to East Lansing voters. Inquiries to Steve Japinga, Director of Government Relations for the Chamber, and Kristin Beltzer, the Chamber’s Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, have not yet been answered. We’ve asked them who wrote and paid for the ad.
Japinga and Beltzer are both donors to Triplett’s campaign ($250 and $300 respectively), but not to any others’. Numerous other members of the Chamber are also donors to Triplett’s campaign but not to the others. The Chamber has a Political Action Committee (PAC), which has sent out a positive mailer endorsing Triplett, Shanna Draheim, and Mark Meadows for East Lansing Council. This negative ad, however, says it is from the Chamber, not the Chamber’s PAC.
Candidate Mark Meadows, who has a long history in local politics including as Mayor of East Lansing, criticized the mailer this morning: “Yesterday, in East Lansing, something happened that has never happened before—a powerful and well-funded organization intervened in a City Council race and defamed one of the candidates, Erik Altman, with a misleading, amateurish and ill-advised negative ad. I was proud of my endorsement by the Chamber until then, but I am now ashamed of what the Chamber has done.”
Draheim and Triplett have not responded to our inquires as to their opinions of the mailer. [Update: See Draheim's statement and Meadows' longer statement here.]
East Lansing Councilmember Ruth Beier, who is not up for re-election, denounced the mailer on Facebook, writing, “The Chamber of Commerce is an embarrassment. They endorsed me in my last campaign, but after these shenanigans, I will not accept future endorsements.” She continues to endorse Altmann, Meadows, and Steve Ross.
Altmann responded to our inquiry about the mailer this morning, “I’m proud of the fact that 86% of my campaign funds come from individual East Lansing voters – and that this percentage is far and away the largest of all City Council candidates. Throughout this campaign I’ve been saying that the city can't afford to give development subsidies without getting something of equal value in return. In other words, I’ve been saying that we need to run the city like a good business. Ironically, that position seems to have angered the business lobby.”
We are looking into the claims of the mailer, specifically comparing them to the sources they cite, and expect to have another report on this within a few hours. We are also looking into the question of whether the Chamber is allowed by law to produce and send such a mailer.
The Chamber is an IRS-recognized 501c6 nonprofit organization, and according to guidance from the Urban Institute in 2013, such an organization may “engage in nonpartisan election campaign-related activity” and “can endorse candidates in communication with members, although not with the public.”
So on first glance it would appear this kind of mailing is prohibited, but it appears that in practice, so long as 501c6 organizations do not make political activity “the primary purpose of the organization,” they can often endorse and attack candidates without concern for their IRS status.
On the question of whether Michigan campaign finance law allows the Chamber to send out such a mailing without first forming a registered political committee, we consulted Mark Grebner, President of Practical Political Consulting (PPC) in East Lansing. Grebner responded, “I've given up trying to understand the content of campaign expenditure restrictions. They don't prevent anybody from doing anything any more; they just require that certain ceremonial actions and noises be made before proceeding.” [Grebner is a partner in PPC with Council candidate Steve Ross, and donated $25 to Ross (and nothing to any other candidate). Meadows' campaign has employed PPC.]
Grebner adds, “If the Chamber accidentally (or intentionally) violated some specific legal provision, they just need to burn the correct herb, file a corrected statement with some office, and get back to whatever they were doing.”
On the question of whether this negative ad is unprecedented, Grebner tells us, “There have been negative pieces in the past, although I can't remember one specifically sent by the Chamber. Given that East Lansing is 80% Democratic, I think the Chamber has been smart in the past not to show itself so brazenly. I think many voters in East Lansing will find the Chamber's advice helpful in the sense that if a compass points north, it still helps somebody who's trying to go south.”
ELi expects to have at least two more articles on this developing story published today.
UPDATE: After original publication, we added the items above in brackets about Draheim's and Meadows' responses and Grebner's relationships with Ross and with Meadows' campaign.
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