We don’t publish rumors, so let’s stick with what we know for sure:
We know some anonymous donor is trying to buy himself a couple of seats on the Oakland County Circuit Court.
We know he’s dishonest.
We know he’s a coward.
We know he’s prepared to spend upward of $1.2 million on behalf of two little-known candidates who have made themselves scarce on the campaign trail and appear to have raised little or no campaign funds of their own.
And we know he may well succeed in his stealth campaign, all without forfeiting his anonymity or revealing his motives or violating a single state or federal law.
It’s impressive, really, as these increasingly common exercises in dodging campaign disclosure requirements go.
But is it any way to pick judges who are supposed to uphold the rule of law without fear or favor?
Five incumbent Oakland County Circuit Court judges — Leo Bowman, Denise Langford Morris, Phyllis McMillen, Wendy Potts and Michael Warren — are seeking election to new six-year terms on Nov. 6.
Langford Morris, Potts and Warren were appointed to the Oakland Circuit bench by former Gov. John Engler; Bowman and McMillen by Engler’s successor, Jennifer Granholm.
But because judges are nominally nonpartisan, all five incumbents will appear on the ballot without a party designation, identified only by their names and the title they share: Oakland County circuit judge.
This so-called incumbency designation, enjoyed exclusively by those seeking re-election to judicial office, has proved such a powerful advantage that not a single incumbent in Oakland Circuit Court’s 150-year history has lost a re-election bid (including some found unqualified back in the days when the Oakland County Bar still dared to express an opinion about such things).
But challengers Deborah Carley and William Rollstin are out to make history this election cycle.
Carley and Rollstin both work for Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. Neither has made many public appearances since a political action committee bankrolled entirely by three conservative GOP donors based in Pennsylvania, Oregon and Virginia paid for the collection of petition signatures and other organizing expenses earlier this year. And neither participated in a videotaped candidates forum sponsored by the Oakland County League of Women Voters, the Oakland County Bar and the Free Press earlier this month.
But Carley and Rollstin are likely to get some name recognition on the strength of a $1-million-plus TV ad buy placed by a couple of opaque, Virginia-based outfits called Americans for Job Security and the Judicial Crisis Network.
Until this election cycle, Americans for Job Security served mostly as a conduit for donors who wanted to bankroll conservative gubernatorial and congressional candidates anonymously. Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, calls AJS a “rental political assassin,” and notes that it funded attack ads targeting then-gubernatorial candidate Pete Hoekstra in the GOP’s bruising 2010 primary fight.
The Judicial Crisis Network has lobbied primarily to block judicial nominees appointed by Barack Obama.
But in this election cycle, the two groups have purchased more than $1 million in local TV time to attack incumbent McMillen and promote the candidacies of Carley and Rollstin.
Who’s footing the bills? Republican fund-raisers backing the incumbent five judges have been fingering the same figure, a local businessman said to have lost a key ruling in McMillen’s court.
But neither AJS nor JCN is required to say who gives them how much, and so far no one has produced evidence of the local businessman’s participation. His spokesperson failed to respond to my e-mails and phone calls requesting an interview.
Right now, you’re probably asking: If we don’t know who he is, or even whether he’s a he, how can we know he’s a dishonest coward?
We know he’s dishonest because the attack ad he’s bankrolling is bogus. It accuses McMillen of sentencing a “career criminal” to probation, but fails to mention that the probationary sentence was something the judge added to the one-year jail term recommended by the Oakland County Probation Department.
We know the same donor is a coward because no one with a legitimate beef would require anonymity.
McMillen says she’s heard rumors about her attacker’s identity but declines to give them credence until someone provides proof of a connection.
Carley and Rollstin? They didn’t respond to questions I e-mailed and left on their voicemails, although Carley reportedly told voters attending a meeting of the 11th Congressional District Republican Committee last week that she didn’t know anything about the ads attacking her opponent.
This article was originally published in the Detroit Free Press