Chad Selweski is an occasional contributor to Deadline Detroit. He covered state and regional politics for The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years, earning 50 honors from journalism organizations, including national Suburban Journalist of the Year Award.
By Chad Selweski
Michigan’s fourth-largest city, Sterling Heights, could soon be led by a new mayor who’s associated with homophobic and racist remarks and once displayed a poster of a bloodied, beheaded President Barack Obama that drew the attention of the Secret Service.
Mayoral candidate Paul Smith and a half dozen of his political allies, who routinely raise the ire of city officials by making inflammatory statements, are running as a loosely knit slate of candidates seeking to seize control of the seven-member city council in the upcoming November election.
Smith, a former councilman who served from 2011-13, faced repeated calls for his resignation in 2012 when a video surfaced that showed him at a tea party rally in Troy in 2009 carrying a protest sign featuring an illustration of Obama impaled through the skull by a spear.
Other hand-made posters Smith and his wife Moira -- a council candidate -- held up at the event included one depicting then-governor Jennifer Granholm hanging from a noose and U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi with bullet holes in her face. The Pelosi placard denounced illegal immigrants as “wetbacks” and gays as “f –gs.” Regarding Obama: “He changed America into Uganda.”
In Sterling Heights, a diverse bedroom community of nearly 132,000 people, residents are accustomed to seeing their town appear on lists of the safest and “most livable” cities in America. But the tranquility ends at the entrance to city hall.
In the city council chambers, Smith and his fellow gadflies routinely disrupt the meetings as they loudly denounce council members. Their claims range from corruption in the police department to “tyranny” emanating from City Hall to organized spying on city residents by DTE through the use of so-called “smart meters.”
Victory against gay rights
This group’s one victory came several months ago when they successfully pressured the council to abruptly rescind an ordinance spelling out rights for gays in the city.
“This is preferential treatment, and I wonder why we need preferential treatment for this LGBT agenda,” council candidate Jackie Ryan said to applause at one 2014 public forum. “They … (the LGBT community) have been around for a long time and I don’t see where there has been discrimination against them.”
Sterling Heights has been home to rough-and-tumble politics for 30 years, but Smith has raised the rancor to a new level. When his vile protest signs became public a few years later, the Secret Service moved in and questioned him about his depiction of a slain Obama.
Last December, he publicly clarified his views on Twitter: “IMPEACH Obama. … Convict him of treason. Execute him legally.”
Over the past four years, the mayoral candidate experienced several minor run-ins with the Sterling Heights police due to belligerent behavior, most recently on May 7 when Smith was escorted out of City Hall by officers after he reportedly began shouting profanities at his November election opponent, Mayor Mike Taylor.
‘Roast’ the Muslims
In 2010, Smith, a prolific emailer, purportedly wrote an online post during the big national debate over a new mosque near Ground Zero in New York City.
“Let ‘em fill it (the mosque) up with 400,000 rag head Muslims,” said the message, which came from Smith’s email address. “Then we can crash a radio control 747 into it and roast the bastards.”
On local issues, Smith and the like-minded slate of candidates seek to take control of the city of Sterling Heights and quickly reshape it into a new mold.
The group first banded together during a 2014 gathering at Smith’s home. Based on a document from that session, critics say the challengers on the November ballot quietly outlined a rather radical agenda: cut the police department in half and oust the police chief, fire chief, city manager and several top department heads – all of whom have decades of experience.
In a city larger in population than Saginaw, Bay City and Midland combined, the plan calls for saving money by converting Sterling Heights’ fire protection to a volunteer fire department.
Meanwhile, the coalition shows signs of splintering.
In recent weeks, some of the six council candidates have tried to distance themselves from Smith. A few have sharply criticized a Facebook page and Twitter account that has emerged -- loaded with videos of Smith and most of the other six speaking at council meetings – under the label, “Paul Smith & His Cronies.”
Scary election outcome?
The six, all political neophytes, are: Ryan, Moira Smith, Jazmine Early, Joe Judnick, Verna Babula and the elusive Senna Elias.
They hope to defeat the six council incumbents seeking re-election to 2-year terms. In Sterling Heights, the part-time mayor is the seventh council member and he presides over the meetings.
Incumbent Mayor Taylor, a conservative Republican, recalls that he considered Smith an ally during the 2011 council campaign.
Now, the mayor fears that a city government led by Smith and the other challengers would scare businesses away from the city and inspire some residents to move out. Beyond the invectives directed at gays, Muslims and the president, Taylor fears the impact of their local agenda on the city.
“I had many conversations with Paul (in 2011-12) and I told him that you can’t just cut the police department and the fire department in half, you have to scale back on your approach and concentrate on reforms. But he wouldn’t hear of it,” Taylor said.
As for the other six, the mayor says: “They could part ways with him. They could do it online. They could take out ads in the newspapers. But not one of them has said publicly, ‘I disavow Paul Smith.’”