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Commentary: Defector’s Ethics

It’s rare for a politician to switch political parties, but not all that rare. Don Riegle, who served three terms in the U.S. Senate, was originally elected to Congress from Flint as a Republican.

After six years in office, he switched and became a Democrat during the Watergate scandal. Naturally, he wasn’t very popular with his former Republican friends. But you have to say this for him. He did so more than a year before the next election.

That gave his old party plenty of time to come up with a candidate to try to beat him. They indeed tried, but the voters decided to keep Riegle in the House, and later sent him to the Senate.

But something very different happened in Lansing yesterday. Without any warning, State Representative Roy Schmidt of Grand Rapids switched parties and filed to run as a Republican.

He had been elected twice as a Democrat. In this case, he made his party switch exactly ten minutes before the filing deadline, and after he had previously filed as a Democrat.

That meant that Democrats had no time to even think of recruiting another candidate. This was made even more bizarre by an unknown character named Matt Mojzak, who paid the hundred dollar filing fee to run as a Democrat right as Schmidt switched parties.

Kent County Democrats say they’ve never heard of Mojzak , and nobody else has either. They suspect Republicans may have put him up to this to prevent their party from mounting a write-in campaign.

Now, anytime anybody switches parties, spokesman for both parties react in a predictable manner. The party the defector is leaving says, in effect, good riddance, we don’t want you anyway.

The new party welcomes their convert with open arms, and says the defection proves they are on the side of the angels.

But yesterday, the comments from Democrats were unusually virulent. State Rep. Brandon Dillon (D-Grand Rapids) called Schmidt’s move underhanded. State Democratic Chair Mark Brewer said it was
“desperate, cowardly and opportunistic,” adding that Schmidt “had abandoned the values by which he was elected for the sole purpose of clinging to office and the perks of his job.”

Brewer is paid to speak in hyperbole. Democrats are especially bitter about the party switch, because it makes it harder for them to take back control of the house in November.

But I find it hard to disagree with what they are saying about Schmidt. Redistricting changed his district to make it harder for any Democrat to win. You can respect a party switcher whose views are plainly in conflict with the prevailing ones in his or her current party.

But as recently as last year, Schmidt was blasting his new party, saying “the Republicans and the governor simply value corporations over kids,” and denouncing Snyder’s education budget.

Roy Schmidt says this is about doing what’s best for Grand Rapids. In any event, it is clear that if he did sell out, he didn’t do it for a long-term future. Thanks to term limits, he can only serve two years more regardless of what party he’s in.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of him after that.

An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that state Treasurer Andy Dillon referred to Rep. Schmidt’s decision switch parties as “underhanded.” It was actually Rep. Brandon Dillon (D-Grand Rapids). The above copy has been corrected.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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