Selweski: Another Wild, Racist Election in Sterling Heights
October 30th, 2017, 8:49 AM
Chad Selweski covered state and regional politics for The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. He contributes to Deadline Detroit and blogs at Politically Speaking.
By Chad Selweski
Sterling Heights, the state's fourth-largest community, four years ago endured an election for mayor and council that was plagued by homophobic, Islamophobic and racist rhetoric.
With the 2017 elections approaching next week, the tone hasn’t changed a lot in this Macomb County suburb, but the list of inflammatory subjects has grown to include candidates’ outrageous behavior on social media: postings of female nudity, foul language, strong sexual advances, and unproven claims of political corruption and Islamic schemes.
Two self-proclaimed “Christian Conservative” candidates making their second run for council continue an assault on the city’s Muslims. But this political soap opera mostly centers around a challenger for mayor, Jeff Norgrove, who has a tawdry history on Twitter and Facebook.
Norgrove, who hopes to oust incumbent Mayor Michael Taylor, has approvingly posted soft-porn photos of mostly nude women on Facebook. He has engaged in vulgar sexual conversations with a woman on Twitter. He has sparked a nasty fight with another woman on social media in which he used the word cunt several times.
He also has posted items reflecting bigotry against blacks and Muslims.
Racist Remark on NFL
In online comments about the national anthem protests at National Football League games, Norgrove referred to the NFL as the Negro Felony League. Memes he posts or "like a" portray American Muslims as terrorists and they call for the U.S. to "eradicate" Islam.
Norgrove could not be reached for comment.
Within the political realm, the mayoral challenger claimed online long ago, without proof, that the mayor is involved “knee-deep” in the ongoing Macomb County bribery scandal, in which the FBI has linked more than a dozen officials and contractors to a corruption scheme related to trash-hauling services. That high-profile federal probe seems to be winding down with no links to Sterling Heights.
Yet, the incumbent mayor also has engaged in his own over-the-top behavior on social media. Earlier this month, when an agitator on Facebook engaged in troll-like criticism of the Taylor administration the mayor responded: "Go to hell, Kevin. Seriously. You're an asshole."
In addition, the mayor’s wife, Christina, occasionally chastised her husband's critics harshly online.
It Wasn’t Always This Way
For nearly two decades, under the leadership of Mayor Dick Notte, now deceased, the city’s elections were mostly quiet affairs with relatively little rancor and not much campaign competition. The city boasted of various rankings that put Sterling Heights on the list of safest and most livable suburban communities in the U.S.
At the same time, it had also been tagged by antagonists for many prior years as “Sterling Whites,” a stereotypical, nearly all-white slice of suburbia.
Then came the rise of tea-party-style activists several years ago who objected to the city’s rapidly growing diversity, with numerous Middle Eastern and Asian immigrant families settling in. This bedroom community of about 132,000 people now serves as an ethnic stew where dozens of languages are spoken at home.
Sterling Heights’ underlying political instability emerged in an ugly way in a 2015 election campaign highlighted by intolerance and fear-mongering.
Two years ago, a group of hardliners seeking to oust the mayor and all council incumbents was led by former councilman Paul Smith, a strident mayoral candidate who played the role of the rogue.
Smith once drew the attention of the Secret Service by displaying a protest sign at a tea party rally in neighboring Troy that depicted a beheaded President Obama, his bloody skull impaled on a spear. Smith had also eagerly engaged in hateful Islamophobic comments online during the 2015 campaign. He and his wife, Moira, a 2015 council candidate, called Mexican immigrants “wetbacks” and gays “fags.”
Rescind Gay Rights
Two events changed the city.
In 2014, an inflammatory citizens petition drive successfully pressured council to rescind a gay rights city ordinance just weeks after it was approved. In 2015, a nasty political fight over a mosque proposed for a Sterling Heights neighborhood shook the city to its core, sparking anti-Muslim demonstrations near the site and xenophobic declarations at raucous city council meetings.
The mosque rejection by the city Planning Commission prompted lawsuits from the U.S. Department of Justice and the group proposing the house of worship, the American Islamic Community Center. The city eventually backed down, agreeing last February to pay a $350,000 settlement to the AICC and to approve the mosque – with some modifications.
One piece of evidence presented by the Justice Department to prove bigoted motivations by the city was a social media remark by Norgrove, then a Planning Commission member, that said the mosque would serve as a center for funding terrorism.
At one point, Norgrove claimed that his anti-Muslim memes were the product of hackers who had taken over his Facebook account. But he did not let up.
This past August, he alleged in an online commentary that the mayor’s re-election campaign was funded by radical Islamic groups. He implied this alleged funding was tied to terrorist attacks in Europe. No evidence exists for these claims.
But one of the two council candidates running in next week’s election on an anti-Muslim platform, Jazmine Early, chimed in, agreeing on Facebook with Norgrove’s accusations.
As with her 2015 council campaign, Early believes that the Islamic community will try to impose Sharia Law in Sterling Heights. She claims that a county government committee that promotes ethnic diversity, One Macomb, is trying to “indoctrinate” city department heads with pro-Islamic propaganda. Early has also proposed that refugees from the Middle East should be vetted by the city before they can be allowed to move into Sterling Heights.
Her ally in the upcoming election, as was the case two years ago, is council candidate Sanaa Elias. The two became political hombres in 2014, during the successful fight to block the equal rights ordinance for the LGBT community.
The irony here is that both are first-generation immigrants – Elias is from Syria and Early hails from Colombia.
In 2015, Smith, Early and Elias lost by wide margins in the city elections. On Nov. 7, we will see if the political winds are blowing in a different direction in this beset city.