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
Every election season, Macomb County voters become Michigan’s version of the high school student who failed to do his homework, then plows through a multiple-choice exam by randomly picking answers without a clue that some choices are ridiculously off the mark.
Macomb stands as ground zero for wacky candidates who try to sneak through the morass of a dizzying bedsheet ballot that features dozens of candidates up for numerous offices.
The willy-nilly approach in the voting booth produced the election two years ago of Republican Karen Spranger as Macomb County clerk, who at the time was homeless, unemployed and unqualified. Spranger’s subsequent reign as clerk created so much turmoil that she was removed from office after 15 months.
After that embarrassment, Macomb voters showed up at the polls Tuesday supposedly determined to make better choices, including the selection of a replacement for Spranger. But results show that many were inadvertently ready to take on more shame with disastrous selections.
For example, Spranger’s campaign manager and cheerleader of two years ago, Joe Hunt, a fellow political gadfly, emerged as the Republican nominee facing incumbent Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, the most popular politician in the county. Hunt received more than 113,000 votes in a losing effort. Hackel got 231,428.
One of Macomb’s true oddball candidates is Robert Murphy of Romeo, who has playfully run for office approximately 10 times – mostly for state House -- and has never come close to winning. Murphy has variously run as a Democrat, a Republican and an Independent – No Party Affiliation. In 2014, Murphy ran as a Democrat and a Republican on the same ballot.
Yet, on Tuesday, running this time as a Democrat in the state 36th House District after winning August's primary by a wide margin, Murphy garnered nearly 13,000 votes, compared to 26,974 for Republican Douglas Wozniak.
In another state House race based in Sterling Heights, the eccentric Jazmine Early waged a surprisingly strong run in an open seat in the 25th District, losing by a 54-46 percent margin. For several years, Early has publicly espoused bigoted views toward Muslims and gays. The Republican has claimed that county government is open to establishing Sharia Law, and she has proposed that Sterling Heights establish an assimilation committee that would determine which immigrants would be allowed to live in the city, while banning all Muslim refugees.
Her political allies have displayed protest signs picturing Barack Obama’s bloody head impaled on a spear, plus crude references to “wetbacks” and “fags.” One those allies was somehow elected to city council a few years ago. But in Early’s two runs for council in 2015 and 2017, she lost by overwhelming margins. Still, on Tuesday she earned 16,000 votes for the House, losing to Democrat Nate Shannon, who got more than 19,000 votes.
Chance to make things right
As for the election to replace Spranger, rather than a time for sober reflection on the chaotic Spranger era and an opportunity to make things right, many county voters cast their ballot for a deeply flawed Republican nominee Lisa Sinclair. She has a track record of alcohol-related criminal convictions and a personal bankruptcy due to approximately $380,000 in debts. A newcomer to Macomb politics, she had skipped numerous past elections and had no experience working in government – her two most recent jobs are as a nurse and the owner of a small in-home health care service.
Yet, Sinclair almost won on Tuesday, coming up short by 51-49 percent difference against former Democratic state representative and county commissioner Fred Miller. The outcome served as retribution for Miller, who lost an incomprehensible squeaker to Spranger in 2016.
The lesson to be learned may be that straight-ticket voters loyal to their party tend to engage in nonsensical choices, blindly making partisan decisions up and down the ballot without any consideration that they might contribute to the election of a troublesome – if not awful -- candidate.
‘Bumper crop of nuts’
Clearly, many voters across the state make uninformed decisions when filling out their ballot. But Macomb voters have a duty to be especially vigilant because they face more kooky candidates than the electorate in probably any other Michigan county.
Unfortunately, the weirdness remains a Macomb tradition going back decades. As one longtime political observer put it recently, the 2018 Macomb ballot had produced “a bumper crop of nuts.”
Some of the wackiest Macomb candidates were weeded out in August primaries, but not by overwhelming numbers. In the GOP primary for clerk, the two main runners-up who narrowly lost to Sinclair both had skeletons in the closet.
Finishing second in the primary was former county commissioner Nicki Brandenburg of Macomb Township, a Spranger ally, who reported to police in 2008 that her then-husband was injecting her with poisonous drugs in her sleep and practicing witchcraft on her. Years ago, Brandenburg served as the leader of a Michigan GOP campaign to elect TV evangelist Pat Robertson for president.
In third place was another former county commissioner, Jim Perna. From 2008-14, the Democrat-turned-Republican launched four consecutive high-profile campaigns to win back his old commissioner seat, without any luck. In 2014, Perna was physically removed by state authorities from his job as CEO of a credit union after the financial institution lost $1.5 million under questionable circumstances.
On Tuesday, Election Day for these high-intensity midterms, Washington-based reporter Julie Mason offered a telling observation about her voting experiences. Mason hosts a show on satellite radio, SiriusXM’s POTUS channel (if you have to ask what POTUS means, you probably should not be casting a ballot).
Mason told her audience that in several elections she has enjoyed the ultimate comfortable experience in the voting booth -- she was familiar with, had interviewed or had written about every candidate on the ballot. Imagine that.
Based on recent history, if the majority of Macomb voters limited their choices to candidates they are familiar with, they probably wouldn’t get beyond the first few names on the ballot.
In Macomb, the embarrassingly bad choices should stand out as obvious, given the erratic quality of candidates. But, with the shrinking number of informative local news sources out there, I suspect that voters making numerous ignorant guesses in the polling booth has become standard procedure across the state.
Are we now witnessing the "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe" version of democracy?