Selweski: Candidates Fan Bigotry in Ugly Sterling Heights Campaign

Chad Selweski, a Deadline contributor covered state and regional politics for The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years.

By Chad Selweski

With local elections just three weeks away in the city of Sterling Heights, an ugly campaign reaches its crescendo as a slate of tea party-style candidates lashes out against a wide array of city residents: Muslims, gays, immigrants, Millennials and even the police and firefighters.

This group of hard-liners seeking to oust the seven city council incumbents in Michigan’s fourth-largest community is led by former councilman Paul Smith, a candidate for mayor who once drew the attention of the Secret Service by displaying a protest sign at a tea party rally in Troy in  2009 that depicted a beheaded President Obama, his bloody skull impaled on a spear.

The November election comes on the heels of a nasty political fight over a mosque proposed for a Sterling Heights neighborhood that shook the city to its core, sparking anti-Muslim demonstrations near the site and xenophobic declarations at raucous city council meetings.

Paul Smith

Homophobic, Islamophobic, racist – all these tags have been attached to the opposition slate by critics. Yet, nothing can be taken for granted when voters head to the ballot box on Nov. 3.

A new poll commissioned by Mayor Michael Taylor found that nearly half of Sterling Heights voters say they have a “neutral” opinion of Smith, and another 22 percent harbor a “very” or “somewhat” favorable view of the mayoral challenger.

Yet, neutral is not a word that would credibly describe this incendiary election campaign.

Smith and his wife, Moira Smith, a council candidate who launched into a tirade during audience participation at a council meeting earlier this year, refer to Latino immigrants as “wetbacks” and gays as “fags.”

Another member of the Smith slate, Joe Judnick, runs campaign ads vowing that he will move beyond local issues to “restore Christian values” in the city.

Judnick also created a firestorm in June with a provocative remark amid national attention to police shootings of unarmed minorities. The candidate advised city police officer who face aggressive blacks: “When there is any doubt, shoot!”

Gay Rights Rejected

In addition, most of those running on the Smith slate embraced an inflammatory petition drive in 2014 that successfully pressured council to rescind a gay rights city ordinance just weeks after it was approved.

One of the most outspoken members of the slate, council candidate Jazmine Early, now calls for provisions that would assert Sterling Heights’ authority to keep out refugees seeking asylum from war-torn Syria.

The catalyst for this intolerance in a city once mocked as “Sterling Whites,” due to its monolithic populace of the past, lies in the municipality’s remarkable evolution into a highly diverse bedroom community of nearly 132,000 people, a place where dozens of languages are spoken.

Yet, the diversity has brought disturbing, deep-seated resentments, borne overseas, to the city’s borders.

Smith and his slate of council candidates fanned the flames but the battle over the mosque, proposed for a residential area near 15 Mile and Mound roads, devolved into a political fight between Iraqi Chaldean Christians and their old adversaries from the homeland -- Muslim Arabs.

The Chaldeans won this war in September when the city Planning Commission unanimously rejected the proposed Islamic place of worship, citing concerns about traffic and construction of an imposing building among single-family homes.  Moments after that vote was taken, an intense confrontation between the two groups erupted in a crowd outside City Hall.

‘Selling out to Muslims’

In recent days, a Chaldean/Muslim unity organization sprouted up to this divide, but their debut event slated for Oct. 9 was canceled for unknown reasons.

A Facebook page called “Chaldean Nation” has denounced the proposed truce, declaring that any of their brethren who favor compromise or accommodation are “selling out to the Muslims.” Chaldeans make up 12 percent of the city’s population, and some were brought there in recent years as refugees fleeing the Iraq War.

As for the mayor, Taylor  said he now regrets blunt comments he made in the heat of the battle that suggested opposition to the mosque amounted to Islamophobia. But the divisions can be healed, he added.

“These conflicts have existed for … thousands of years,” said Taylor who ascended to Sterling Heights’ top political post nearly a year ago after beloved former mayor Dick Notte succumbed to cancer.

“We have so many different cultures, different religions, different ethnicities -- from people all over the world.”

The city’s rancorous political contest, many months in the making, led to the creation of two online sites that have chronicled the events of the campaign – and generated a passionate debate among readers.

Battle on Social Media

Mayor Michael Taylor

Michael Lombardini (who uses the pen name Malcom McEasy) has criticized the Smith slate routinely on his Sterling Heights Local Politics page on Facebook. He defended the mayor after Taylor issued nuanced, if not garbled, comments about the proposed mosque.

“What he did was to give a 60-second answer in a 20-second world,” McEasy told Deadline Detroit.  “Both sides were pissed because he wouldn’t take an absolute side with one set of residents against another set of residents.”

Geoff Gariepy, though a staunch conservative with libertarian leanings, has nonetheless written on his blog, Sterling Heights Politiblog, that Smith and his campaign team have taken a pseudo-conservative approach to a variety of issues – local, or not.

Gariepy denounced the “disgusting display of anti-Islamic bigotry” inspired by the Smith slate, charging that they  “took advantage of people's fears.”

Smith, who could not be reached for comment, seems to relish the controversy he generates. While he briefly served on council from 2011-13 before being ousted by the voters, he has long engaged in shocking online comments about his views on American politics and diversity.

In 2010, he fantasized about watching a mosque full of Islamic worshipers being burned alive.

After losing his re-election bid in November 2013, during the holidays, two days after Christmas, he posted a Facebook message advocating the conviction of President Obama on treason charges followed by his “execution.”

‘Kids’ Running Council

In a robo-call ad earlier this month, Smith tried to woo fellow senior citizen voters by calling the 30-something Millennials on the council unreliable "kids," though they have far more education and experience than the political and professional neophytes on the Smith slate.

The phone ads riled the mayor’s wife, Christina Taylor, who responded online:

“He has zero respect for educated Millennials. The ‘three young kids’ he is referring to are a 32-year-old attorney (her husband) with an undergrad in economics . . . not to mention 6 years of experience as an elected official in Sterling Heights; (the next) is in his late 30s and VP of government affairs for Wayne State School of Medicine with a master’s and numerous political endeavors and experience; and the third is also in his late 30s and is a high school economics and government teacher with a master’s degree.”

Overall, the Smith group advocates for smaller government and less taxes. Their apparent agenda goes after the big and the small: cut the police department in half and oust the police chief, fire chief, city manager and several top department heads; cancel plans for a pedestrian bridge over the Clinton River; eliminate the city’s summertime Farmer’s Market; cut back on Sterlingfest, a popular annual festival; impose a volunteer fire department; and repeal the 2013 voter-approved public safety millage for police and fire protection.

The opposition also seeks to block DTE from installing so-called smart meters at homes in the city, under the theory that these high-tech electric utility meters present hidden public health dangers.

Despite all the hot-button issues inflaming this campaign, Taylor said he is confident of victory, and of the re-election of his six fellow council members.

“Diversity gives our city flavor. I think it’s a huge net-benefit,” the mayor said. “I hope the city can move forward from this. … I think the Smith people represent a very, very small constituency in Sterling Heights.

“And I think the election results will show that."

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