Prominent Developers, Pro-Israel Lobby Fund Brenda Jones' Bid to Oust Rashida Tlaib

July 26, 2020, 11:04 PM

The writer is a Detroit freelancer.  

By Tom Perkins

A group of prominent Detroit real-estate developers, pro-Israel super PACs and wealthy Trump supporters are financially backing Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones’ campaign against Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Deadline Detroit analysis of federal campaign finance records and Facebook documents found. 

Brenda Jones with Dan Gilbert and Mike Duggan
(Photo: Gregg Newsom)

Records also reveal that downtown Detroit’s big-ticket developers appear to be rewarding Jones for her support. In recent years, she’s voted to approve at least $350 million worth of tax breaks that diverted money from Detroit schools and the city to largely suburban developers. 

Deadline Detroit found those same developers have given collectively about $28,000 in direct donations to Jones’ Congressional campaign.

Her campaign has reported about $135,000 in total direct donations, which means developers who received tax breaks account for over 18% of her haul. Developers contributed another $60,000 in “independent expenditures” for mailers attacking Tlaib, though that spending isn’t coordinated with her campaign. 

Similarly, the pro-Israel lobby has spent at least $700,000 targeting Tlaib along with other congresswomen who oppose its agenda, though that money isn’t donated to Jones and it appears the lobby is acting on its own. Tlaib drew national attention as the first Palestinian-American elected to Congress, and has been an outspoken critic of U.S.-Israel policy. 

Jones is challenging Tlaib for the 13th Congressional District seat, which represents most of Detroit and many of the city’s southern suburbs. Tlaib in 2018 defeated Jones by fewer than 1,000 votes to win the seat, and the most recent polling put Tlaib up by about nine points.  

Rep. Rashida Tlaib

Tlaib spokesperson Denzel McCampbell called Jones’ support for and donations from wealthy developers “concerning.” 

Rashida's work for her residents is focused on their needs and she makes sure of it by not accepting any donations that would lose the trust of the very people that elected her,” he said in a written statement to Deadline Detroit. “Congresswoman Tlaib's reelection campaign is 100 percent grassroots funded. It's clear that the developers who want tax incentives that rob our school aid fund know where Rashida stands, and won't bother sending her a check.” 

The Jones campaign didn’t return a request for comment. 

The first-term congresswoman has raised over $2.8 million, largely from a mix of individual donations from residents in Michigan and around the country. The top two occupations of those who donated to Tlaib are “physician” and “not employed,” according to federal records. 

Detroit Developers

Dan Gilbert with Jones (Photo: Gregg Newsom)

Deadline Detroit identified multiple prominent developers whose projects Jones has supported, or may soon vote on.  

  • About a year after Jones voted to approve about $30 million in tax breaks for the new Chemical Bank headquarters under construction downtown, she received $12,500 in contributions from the bank’s executives, the project’s developer and their spouses. The project would divert $16 million from state and city schools. The developers are also involved in other high pro file projects in Detroit, including the redevelopment of the Joe Louis Arena site. 

  • An ad paid for by Concerned Citizens of Michigan

    Detroit developer Chris Jackson PAC, Concerned Citizens of Michigan, has spent nearly $60,000 on highly misleading mailers that attack Tlaib in addition to $500 in direct donations. On July 15, Jones voted to approve nearly $2.7 million in tax breaks for a Midtown project planned by Jackson’s development company. That would divert about $230,000 from Detroit schools to Jackson.  Jackson previously admitted under oath that he bought a vote from former Detroit City Council member Monica Conyers, who was convicted on corruption charges.  

  • Hunter Pasteur Homes, the company behind a new housing development in Lafayette Park, is requesting a $7 million tax break package. Its CEO, Farmington Hills resident and Republican donor Randy Wertheimer, gave Jones $3,800, which appears to be in excess of donation limits and in violation of campaign finance law. The credit would divert about $3.3 million from Detroit and state schools to Wertheimer. The company is also involved in Brush Park’s City Modern project, which received $23 million in public assistance. 

  • The reviled-in-some-corners Nelson family, newly emerged as players in Eastern Market, along with one of its partners, contributed $5,700 to Jones. The Nelsons have been criticized for pushing out longtime residents and tenants, and last year proposed demolishing a historic building in the neighborhood. City council may soon consider a proposal for an interim historic district that would stop the Nelsons from demolishing buildings

  • The Dan Gilbert-run Rock Holdings PAC has given $5,000 to Jones. In recent years, she voted in support of hundreds of millions in tax breaks for Gilbert projects. The largest provided $250 million in incentives for four downtown Detroit buildings, and diverted millions in Detroit and state school money to Gilbert. It also received $23 million for its City Modern project. 

  • The Detroit Economic Growth Corporation is a quasi-public agency that approves tax credits for developers. Its former executive, Brian Holdwick, gave $250 to Jones after she voted in 2019 to approve $15.4 million in tax breaks for a condo and hotel project Holdwick is behind. The break would divert $4.6 million from schools to Holdwick and other developers. 

None of the developers contacted by Deadline Detroit returned requests for comment. Attempts to reach Holdwick for comment were unsuccessful. 

Israeli government backers

Among the pro-Israel lobby groups targeting Tlaib is Stars and Stripes Forever, a Trump backing super. It has spent about $9,000 in independent expenditures that oppose Tlaib, Federal Elections Commission records show. * (see not below) 

Stars and Stripes appears to have spent most of that on mailers, though it’s unclear what they said. The anti-Muslim group in 2019 labeled Tlaib “anti-American” and said her goal is “undermining American society.”

“They seem to want Sharia law to exist as a parallel system that supercedes a nation’s law as it applies to Muslims,” Stars and Stripes wrote of Muslim officeholders like Tlaib. 

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) earlier this year spent $663,000 on Facebook ads attacking Tlaib and several other representatives who have opposed the pro-Israel lobby’s agenda. And in March, another pro-Israel super PAC, American Jewish Congress, spent about $14,000 on Facebook ads similarly critical of Tlaib and other politicians. AIPAC and AJC don’t appear to have coordinated with the Jones campaign in placing the ads. 

Stars and Stripes Forever and AIPAC didn’t respond to comment requests. 

Opposing Tlaib 'makes sense'

Tlaib has criticized U.S.-Israel policy and the lobby’s influence on American politics. She was thrust into the international spotlight last year when she tried to visit her family in the Palestinian territories, and partly explains why the metro Detroit race has drawn the attention of an international lobby, said Brendan Quinn of for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that tracks campaign finance donations. He likened it to a national anti-abortion group spending on a legislator that supports its cause. 

“Like any ideological type of group or industry, it makes sense that the pro-Israel lobby would spend to support a candidate that is vocally supportive of their single issue, or spend against someone who they see as an … opposing interest,” Quinn said. 

Louis Farrakhan (Photo: Wikipedia)

However, it appears some of the lobby and some local Jewish leaders may have withheld support from Jones. The lobby has already spent over $1 million in an attempt to defeat Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Muslim and open critic of Israel. The lack of support for Jones could be related to her relationship with Louis Farrakhan, a lightning rod among Jews who's viewed as an anti-Semite. 

Tlaib received $2,800 from the Arab-American Democratic Action Fund, though the Arab-American lobby doesn’t exert much influence over U.S. politics.

“Compared to the pro-Israel lobby’s presence, (the pro-Arab American lobby) isn’t a powerful or influential group,” Quinn said. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that David Satterfield, a former State Department Employee, ran the Superpac Stars and Stripes Forever. The PAC is run by a different David Satterfield, an attorney and former Senate staffer. 

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