As Macomb County primary election campaigns hit the final stretch, nasty rhetoric sounds like a throwback from a bygone era.
In two races next Tuesday, incendiary racial politics is the weapon of choice for a front group in Lansing that attacks two Democratic county commission candidates.
Ed Bruley of Mount Clemens, longtime county Democratic Party chairman, is the main target as he seeks to regain a Board of Commissioners seat. Campaign literature relies entirely on comments by the Rev. W.J. Rideout III, a Detroit pastor who claims that a small, all-white Democratic club formed decades ago by Bruley and others still has this policy: "No Negroes need apply." That phrase, featured in large type on one mailing, is falsely attributed to Bruley.
A second target is Julie Matuzak of Clinton Township, a candidate for commissioner and president of the Phil Hart Democratic Club. Rideout, pastor of the All God's People Church in Detroit and a fledgling worship site in Roseville, is again quoted in mailings that describe the club as a secretive, racist organization. Matuzak is labeled "Macomb County's racist Karen," a reference to viral videos of white women behaving badly.
For a county with an ugly history of racially exploitive campaigns, this represents another stain.
To be clear, no evidence exists that the Mount Clemens-based Phil Hart Democratic Club is an exclusionary group that chooses members based on race. It’s actually a tight-knit group of 10-15 members associated with former Congressman David Bonior. Their sole activity is running local Bingo games and using the profits to help Democratic candidates.
But the insular club has strange rules. Applicants need two sponsors among existing members and must be approved by a unanimous vote. Rideout claims his bid for membership was rejected, which the club has denied.
Backers of Black rights targeted
The exceedingly odd circumstance here is that Bruley and Matuzak, who are white, are liberal Democrats devoted to racial and religious diversity. They've had leading roles at the Interfaith Center for Racial Justice in Mount Clemens and in creating the county's annual Martin Luther King Day dinner.
So, why are they in the crosshairs? And who is sniping?
As with all shady stories about Macomb politics, tangled webs are woven. The inflammatory literature says it's paid for by an obscure Lansing nonprofit group called Solidarity Michigan, which could be tied to any number of Bruley’s political foes within the Democratic Party.
Chief among the usual suspects is Democratic County Executive Mark Hackel. Though Hackel is not on the ballot this year, his political action committee, Macomb Leadership PAC, paid $10,000 in June to the campaign consultant for Vito Strolis, Bruley’s main competitor in Tuesday’s primary. Strolis, owner of Ruehle’s Towing company, which does business with the county, has received considerable public support from the county exec. At the same time, Hackel strenuously denies he has any connection to the racially tinged campaign literature.
Matuszak’s Democratic opponent Tuesday is Pamela David, the daughter of one of Hackel’s executive assistants, former state Rep. Marilyn Lane.
And Lane has done business repeatedly in the past with the Strolis campaign consultant, Joe DiSano. A prominent Democratic adviser who takes a bare-knuckled approach to politics, DiSano said he has no connections to Solidarity Michigan, though he is not shy about berating Bruley and the club.
This feud all stems from a bitter fight among Macomb Democrats that began in 2018, when a special election replaced erratic County Clerk Karen Spranger after her court-ordered removal. The winner of that election, Clerk Fred Miller, a close Bruley ally, relied heavily on Hart Club money to defeat 16 other Democrats.
During that brutal campaign, the club was accused of secrecy and hiding its membership. Critics who openly blasted the club included Hackel, Miller opponent Steve Bieda, a former state senator, and the Warren Democratic Club. Then Rev. Rideout jumped into the fray with his provocative accusations of racism that live to this day.
‘Jim Crow Democrats’
At the time, the pastor was barely known in Macomb politics. In recent weeks, he has issued a press release calling for Bruley’s resignation as party chair. He held a small demonstration in the Mount Clemens area calling for an end to “Jim Crow Democrats.”
He was also arrested recently at a Shelby Township protest demanding the resignation of police chief due to racist comments on Facebook.
Two years ago, critics of the Hart Club members were all up front with their barrage. This time, the campaign attacks appear to come from a secret source.
If the Hart Club is a shadowy group, Solidarity Michigan exists in total darkness.
The nonprofit promotes itself as a charity that advocates for social services and workers’ rights. But as of 2018, it had zero dollars in the bank, according to a charity watchdog group. Its website is nearly devoid of information. The downtown Lansing office it lists as an address is merely the site of an answering service. Its name does not show up on state or local campaign finance records.
When Deadline Detroit called the founder of the organization, attorney Reid Felsing, to ask about the group’s activities, he immediately said “no comment” and hung up.
At best, it’s unclear if Solidarity Michigan has any true role in Macomb politics. But it is clear that there is no solidarity in the Macomb County Democratic Party.