Are Detroit candidates buying endorsements? Not quite, but close

October 28, 2021, 11:30 PM by  Violet Ikonomova

Primary and general election slate cards this election cycle.

When the Eastside Slate released its list of candidate endorsements for Detroit’s municipal primary this summer, followers of one city council hopeful spurned by the group questioned its legitimacy.

It wasn’t just that council candidate Nicole Small had been rejected, but that from almost top to bottom, the political nonprofit pushed the status quo. In the mayor’s race, Mike Duggan over Anthony Adams, who’s running to Duggan’s left; in the at-large council race, any of the leading candidates except Small, who as charter commissioner attempted to leverage the city’s guiding document for sweeping anti-poverty reforms; and in the ballot issue column, a no on the charter revision, Prop P.

“Something is VERY WRONG with this picture! And it smells like green,” Debra Taylor wrote on Facebook.

“Somebody getting compensated, money always wins,” another person wrote.

“How much money did the Eastside Slate receive because decisions like this is usually influenced by money,” wrote Wanda Leverette.

They weren’t exactly wrong.

The Eastside Slate was paid $20,000 by the Duggan campaign to print slate cards after it endorsed him, campaign finance records show, an expenditure the group does not need to account for because it’s a 501c4 — or dark money — nonprofit. At-large council member Janeé Ayers, who is seeking re-election under a cloud of suspicion following by an FBI raid, gave the group $7,250. Coleman Young, Jr., the other frontrunner in that race, gave it $1,000 to print brochures.

Like other longstanding Detroit political groups, including the Black Slate, Fannie Lou Hamer Political Action Committee, and Wayne County Democratic Black Caucus, the Eastside Slate is in large part supported by the candidates it endorses.

Generally, the process works like this: The groups make their selections, often based at least in part on candidate interviews, and then ask for a check — money to cover the cost to print and distribute literature. But in some cases, those who can’t pay are rejected, creating what critics call a perverse incentive to select well-heeled candidates who already have the benefit of exposure and resources. Voters, meanwhile, are often unaware of this process and mistakenly view the groups as independent.

‘Real credibility’

The groups, some of which started in the ‘90s as part of former Mayor Coleman Young’s political machine, are go-to election-time navigators for some residents, said several people with whom we spoke.

“The Fannie Lou Hamer PAC and Black Slate — these organizations have real credibility in the community,” said Detroit Police Commissioner Linda Bernard, who won the endorsement of both. “I have seen people in the past when I’ve worked the polls just vote their slates.”

For down-ballot candidates like Bernard, who earns only a stipend as a police commissioner, the endorsements and subsequent exposure are crucial, as she lacks the resources and campaign apparatus of those higher on the ticket.

More generously, the symbiotic relationships between the groups and their chosen candidates may be called a co-op model.

“The argument they make is that they pay to put your name out there,"  said Branden Snyder, an organizer with a newer group called Detroit Action, which does not raise funds from the candidates it endorses. "But while they may have the best intentions, the challenge is there’s a squeeze for small-dollar candidates who don’t have a lot of money, because if you don’t pay you are not endorsed.”

The Wayne County Democratic Black Caucus says that despite an involved screening process for candidate endorsements, as a rule, it will not support those who cannot contribute.

“We have to ... distribute literature to get them elected,” said chair Bea Ward. “They don’t pay for what it really costs, because if they did it would cost a fortune, but … they have to make some kind of donation or stipend to the slate.”

She defended the practice as sensible — a way of ensuring the group puts its might behind the most viable candidates, because, “You can’t run without having a dime in your pocket, you’re not gonna win.”

In all, the caucus received more than $6,000 from the committees of Detroit city council and mayoral candidates it endorsed in the primary, the least of the four known to operate in this way. Ward said she works on a volunteer basis and the organization’s goal is to simply elect worthy candidates and cover its expenses.

(Among its picks this cycle is Ayers, who Ward says she’s loyal to despite the late August raid, because she has yet to be convicted of a crime and, “If you took the time to come and be screened before my committee, why would I drop you in the general?”)

Representatives with Black Slate and Fannie Lou Hamer did not reply to requests for comment. Groups with greater resources, like the Detroit Regional Chamber and labor unions, do not fundraise off of the candidates they endorse, but rather tend to donate to them.

No money? Try ‘the welfare slate’

LaMar Lemmons says his group moved away from the endorsement fee model in 2007 when he realized it looked as if candidates were buying endorsements rather than earning them with policy positions. The former state representative and Detroit school board president founded and operates a separate group, now known as the Eastside Community Slate, in the 1980s. 

“It was influencing (the process),” he said. “That’s why we changed. In fact, (the head of the other Eastside Slate) started calling us the welfare slate because we were endorsing people who didn’t have resources.”

The other Eastside Slate — the one that accepts money from candidates — is run by William Spencer “Nabil” Leach and Detroit Councilmember Scott Benson's chief of staff Carol Banks, state filings show. Lemmons worked with both before he says he terminated them and they took his group name.

Banks has, with Benson, Ayers and Ayers’ chief of staff Ricardo Silva, been under investigation by the FBI as it reportedly examines whether the city officials personally benefited from campaign contributions or donations to 501c4 nonprofits like Eastside Slate and another group she’s affiliated with, Save Detroit Jobs, recently renamed Detroit Leaders.

Eastside Slate’s selection process involves reaching out to candidates in a given race and having a handful of board and community members screen them, said Banks and Damian Mitchell, a write-in candidate endorsed by the group in the District 3 race for Detroit Board of Police Commissioners.

Banks says those who cannot pay still make the slate and in this cycle, Mitchell, who has not fundraised, was an example of that. However, he knows Banks personally through his work with Save Detroit Jobs, now Detroit Leaders. (That group has been meddling in city council races in districts 4 and 6.) And the group does not reach out to all candidates, according to Small, who says she was not contacted and that her requests for an endorsement interview went ignored. (We did not receive responses to follow up questions sent to Banks via email, who initially asked "Is this a positive story?")

The Fannie Lou Hamer PAC, named for a civil rights activist and affiliated with Rev. Wendell Anthony, did not interview Bernard, but responded that it would endorse her after she voluntarily sent them her materials. It then requested $500.

In total, the PAC has raised $35,000 from Detroit candidates this election cycle. The Duggan campaign gave $25,000 and the remainder of the money came from Bernard and council candidates Young, Ayers, Fred Durhal in District 7 and Latisha Johnson in District 4.

The Black Slate, by contrast, employed a more rigorous process, Bernard said, interviewing her multiple times and asking for $250 to help defray outreach costs after she was selected. The organization raised $8,300 from Bernard, Young, Ayers, Durhal, Johnson, councilmember Roy McCalister in District 2 and City Clerk Janice Winfrey. It made an exception by endorsing Adams in the mayoral race without asking him for a contribution, though he later gave anyway, he says.

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