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It’s an ethics battle between the Snyder and Schauer campaigns

 “This is Rich Baird ... " was the opening of the voice mail message left by Gov. Rick Snyder’s right-hand man and “transformation manager,” Rich Baird. The message was for union leader Carla Swift. And after that intro, it got nasty.

“I didn’t figure you would pick up on this call. It would take courage to talk to me face-to-face. Um, number one, you’d better be careful. I may be suing you …”

The voice mail from Baird is a response to a column that appeared last weekend in the Detroit Free Press, where Swift said Baird and other members of the Snyder administration play by their own set of rules.

Back to Baird’s voice mail: “I am sick and tired of you people and your unbased attacks. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Well, if Swift and other Democrats are ashamed of themselves, they’re certainly not showing it.

The backstory, briefly: Rich Baird maintained two primary residences in Illinois and Michigan in violation of tax and, maybe, voter registration laws. (To be clear, Baird never voted in two places, he was just registered in two places.)

Baird says the violations were technical, inadvertent, the fault of the local clerk, and he says he has proof – says he paid his back taxes and that should be the end if it.

Nothing to see here. Just move along, everyone, just move along.

But, of course, it’s not the end of it.

Baird comes from the private sector and is an old friend and mentor to Governor Snyder, who brought him into the administration. And he’s learning the public sector, especially the top echelons, is different than the private sector. And that’s something a lot of people who move from the business world to the political world learn the hard way. They think they’re going to bend politics and government in their direction, but end up finding out that politics is very, well, political.

And this episode really seems to illustrate just how uncomfortable Baird is operating in a public environment. He took an obscure opinion piece published in the least-read edition of the week – the Saturday paper, on a holiday weekend when even fewer people are paying attention – and breathed new life into it. More people know about the controversy as a result of the controversy generated by his voice mail than the actual op-ed.

That’s alongside a similar threat from Baird to sue state Senate Democratic leader Gretchen Whitmer (an attorney) over some things she said about Baird on TV. She basically said, ‘Go ahead and I look forward to the discovery process.’ Democrats saw the threat as a gift from an official who’s been a flashpoint in the Snyder administration.

Because all this plays into political efforts to use missteps and peccadillos to weave a narrative of the opposition being unfit to hold office. Mistakes are fit onto a pattern of events to try to create an impression of congenital defects.

Or as Johnny Caspar said at the beginning of the movie “Miller’s Crossing;” “I’m talking about character. I’m talking about ethics.” (If you never seen “Miller’s Crossing,” stop reading here and fix that right now.)

So, to make this analysis bipartisan, let’s also look at how Republicans are trying to make hay of Democratic nominee Mark Schauer’s campaign finances. It’s a little narrative they call “Shady Schauer.” (Political messengers do love themselves an alliteration.)  As of today, it even has its own website, ShadySchauer.com.

So, once again, let’s go to the back-story: Schauer’s political history includes a record-setting Michigan campaign finance fine. It dates back to his days as the state Senate Democratic leader and moving money around campaign accounts.

That’s become the starting point as Republicans file a string of campaign finance complaints against the Schauer campaign – most recently, that his campaign gave material assistance to Lisa Brown while she was his chosen running mate but still not the Democrats’ official nominee for lieutenant governor. This represents, according to the GOP, a fatal pattern of misconduct, an inability to follow the rules. If Schauer can’t handle his campaign finances, how can he run the state of Michigan?

Lisa Brown paid a $300 late filing fee to the Michigan Secretary of State – just to make the issue go away, according to the Schauer campaign, which also dismisses the whole episode as hyper-technical enforcement of campaign rules.

Nothing to see here. Just move along, everyone, just move along.

But, of course, it’s not the end of it. 

Zoe Clark is Michigan Radio’s Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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