Michigan Rising: Aiming to Recall Snyder—While Disgruntled Former Volunteers Target Michigan Rising
by Chris Savage
Michigan Rising, the group formerly known as the Committee to Recall Rick Snyder (CRRS), was unsuccessful in its bid to recall Michigan’s governor last year. The challenges the group faced, discussed in my previous piece, The Little Recall Effort That Could — Snyder Recall Proceeds Despite the Odds, were enormous. To put a gubernatorial recall on the ballot, the group needed to collect just over 800,000 valid petition signatures in only 90 days. Without support from the major unions or the Michigan Democratic Party, the effort faced a stiff headwind to be sure, and on September 30, 2011, they admitted defeat:
It is with a measure of sadness that we announce that the bid to recall Gov. Rick Snyder will come up short in the number of signatures required to file. […]
Yet, our bid to remove Snyder from office does not end here. We and our county coordinators agree that the only way we will assuredly lose is if we stop fighting. So this week, amid much and sometimes heated debate we have come to the mutual conclusion that this fight must continue. We will not surrender, we will not give up. As long as there is a breath left in our collective body, this fight will move forward.
True to their word, the organizers reformed under the name Michigan Rising, converted it to a Super PAC to give them flexibility in fundraising, and will file new recall language with the Washtenaw County Election Commission in mid-March.
I sat down with five the core committee organizers of Michigan Rising to talk to them about their effort and to see what they’ve learned from the first the effort that will give them a better chance of success this time around. At the meeting were Volunteer Coordinator Dennis Pank, Public Committee Chairperson Marty Townsend, Communications Director Terry Blundell, CEO Julius Muller, and Elections Specialist Jan BenDor. Not present were Media Coordinator & Spokesperson Bruce Fealk and Public Awareness Liaison Officer Ricky Ernest.
Michigan Rising organizers (l-r) Dennis Pank, Marty Townsend, Terry Blundell,
Julius Muller, and Jan BenDor [photo credit: Chris Savage]
One of the chief criticisms of the original effort was that it seemed to lack effective coordination. People often did not know where to find petitions to sign, there was difficulty in getting information about events, and the overall effort seemed somewhat haphazard. The organizing committee members seem to acknowledge this.
“We’re far more organized this time,” Townsend told me. “We’ve spent the past few months putting together training materials and outlining the job descriptions of county captains and other leaders so that everyone will know exactly what their job entails and what will be expected of them.”
Like the first effort, they will recruit captains in every county, sometimes more than one, to coordinate the campaign at the local level. They showed me detailed Powerpoint presentations outlining each position and the overall strategy they will be following. Their goal is to have their petition language approved in mid-April and begin the petition gathering by the end of that month.
BenDor, who lives in Superior Township, will be the point person for the petition language clarity hearing. When I asked if they anticipated the type of trouble with getting language approved that other recalls have faced over the past year, she told me she did not.
“The judge in Washtenaw County is a no-nonsense person. He doesn’t tolerate a lot of shenanigans and knows that the law requires clarity, nothing more. We didn’t have any trouble the first time and we don’t anticipate any this time either,” she said.
The group is also planning on reaching out the Michigan Education Association (MEA) and the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP). The MEA came on board late in the game the last time around and the MDP never got involved and, instead, intentionally stayed out of it unlike their counterparts in Wisconsin. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin took a very active role in the recall effort against Scott Walker and this week recall organizers turned in over 1 million petition signatures, nearly twice what they need to recall their governor.
If they begin collecting signatures in late April or early May, the 90-day clock runs out at the end of July in plenty of time to get the recall on the November ballot. Since 2012 is a presidential election year, the dynamics will be very interesting, to say the least. This will be particularly true if the effort to repeal Public Act 4, the Emergency Manager law, also is successful and is on the ballot.
Working with Daily Kos and Fieldworks during the first recall has clearly given this group a much better sense of what was involved. None of the committee members originally came to the table with experience running a statewide campaign. Townsend served in the Navy. Muller has South African citizenship, and came to Michigan to be near his wife’s family. Although Daily Kos’s involvement came late in the effort, the company/site clearly had a positive impact. As Kos employee Chris Bowers wrote in a front page post last fall, Daily Kos and, more importantly, Daily Kos readers, contributed a significant amount of money and resources to the first recall including the hiring of Fieldworks:
[M]ultiple political operatives in Michigan have expressed astonishment to organizers over the large signature haul. Considering further that the campaign was backed by less than $75,000, more than half of which was raised by the Daily Kos community, the effort has proven that it is possible to recall Rick Snyder for a lot less money than what some political analysts in Michigan previously postulated.
Financial records indicate the Kos Media contributed $10,000 in in-kind services (e.g. the hiring of Fieldworks and fundraising) and the influx of new donations after their involvement was impressive.
Although Daily Kos and Fieldworks have not been brought on to help with this new effort, at least so far, the organizing techniques they imparted seem to have been taken to heart. Lew Granofsky of Fieldworks told me that he has continued to provide some pro bono assistance to Michigan Rising. Representatives from Daily Kos declined to comment for this piece since they have not yet made any commitments to being involved.
The mistakes made by the novice organizers the first time around, however, are having repercussions for the current campaign. A handful of former county captains and volunteers were very unhappy with the outcome of last summer’s effort and some feel they were treated poorly and even lied to by the organizers.
One of these people is Tim Kramer, one of the original founders of the CRRS and the group’s spokesperson for a time. Kramer was fired from his position in the middle of July.
Muller explains why: “Tim Kramer was not representing the recall committee well. He had unreasonable expectations about what we could achieve and was frustrated when groups wouldn’t work with us. He was all over Facebook with ‘f–k the MEA’ and ‘f–k the Michigan Democratic Party’ and ‘f–k Michigan Forward’ [for not supporting us], groups we were trying to work with. He was making us look bad and, when we asked him to stop, he wouldn’t. We finally had to let him go.”
I spoke to Brandon Jessup of Michigan Forward, the group working to repeal the Emergency Manager law, and he confirmed that Kramer “strongly criticized Michigan Forward and Stand Up for Democracy to the media and made public statements against organizers of the repeal effort and their volunteers.” Michigan Forward and CRRS did eventually work out partnership and issued a joint statement of cooperation after Kramer’s departure.
When I spoke to Kramer, he strongly disagreed with statements that he had not represented the group well. He claims he was dismissed without warning and that it is “totally false” that he did anything to harm the effort. When I asked him if, with his negative comments about Muller and Townsend on Facebook, he was attempting to sabotage the new recall effort, he said no.
“I’m not trying to encourage people not to be involved,” he said. “They are sabotaging themselves.”
Kramer claims that he was fired because he was upset that Muller was receiving a small salary as CEO and webmaster for CRRS.
“They removed me because I knew Muller was getting paid and nobody else was.”
Another person who has strongly criticized the CRRS team is Gail Schmidt, who was the Treasurer of CRRS. She recently penned a scathing attack on Muller and Townsend calling them dishonest and writing that they “disgraced and disenfranchised [CRRS] volunteers and the general public who signed recall petitions in good faith.” Schmidt’s criticism, as well as that of others who have posted on various Facebook forums, centers around confusion about the actual number of signatures collected and the fact that Muller and Townsend did not listen to advice from others. Critics claim that they were lied to about the number of signatures collected, and that dissent was not tolerated and resulted in people being banned from the recall effort (including the webpage and email listservs.)
On the Facebook page of radio host Tony Trupiano’s radio show First Shift with Tony Trupiano, several of these former volunteers have repeatedly posted negative comments about Muller and Townsend, echoing the comments of Kramer and Schmidt. This same small group phoned in the same accusations on a local blog Internet radio broadcast called ROJS Radio with hosts Monica RW and Autumn S. (tip o’ the keyboard to Monica Ross-Williams) hosted by Monica Ross-Williams of Ypsilanti.
One other point of contention is the roughly $20,000 that remained after the first recall campaign. Michigan Rising’s detractors claim it should have all been spent or donated to a local charity. Muller explained to me that this money was held in reserve so that, had enough signatures been collected, they would have had seed money for the get-out-the-vote campaign that would have ensued to ensure the recall was successful. Organizers are now able to use that money for the current recall effort.
What is quite evident to anyone who watched the recall as closely as I did is that, frankly, the original CRRS team were a group of political organizing novices. They were fired up to remove Snyder from office but, in many ways, lacked the skills to undertake such a Herculean task. When viewed through this lens, their stumbles along the way aren’t all that surprising. Although they are accused of lying about the signature numbers, what is more likely is that they didn’t actually know how many they had.
The core committee is assailed for being “undemocratic,” but anyone who has ever worked on a political campaign knows that it is not a democratic process. My experience with the Obama campaign in 2008, for example, was as a neighborhood team leader. However, I was given very explicit directions on what was expected of me and, had I gone online or into public forums to denigrate the core organization or their potential allies, there is no question that I would have been cut off from access and “fired” as a volunteer, just as were Kramer and a number of others. Political commentator Tim Skubick, who one would think would know better, criticized the group for being “undemocratic” and took Kramer’s side of the story, apparently without the nuisance of doing any fact checking.
Michigan Rising’s detractors claim to be part of a large number of unhappy former volunteers. The facts suggest otherwise. While their complaints about being treated poorly may be valid, none of their accusations center around anything illegal or unethical. The worst offense one can accuse Muller and Townsend of is being novices and, perhaps, of having somewhat poor management skills.
These disgruntled former volunteers frequently talk about their passion during the recall and how hard they worked. Given what they put into the effort, an effort that was ultimately unsuccessful, it’s understandable why they feel as they do. What is unfortunate is that they are now seeking to discredit and, arguably, derail a second recall attempt.
Before my meeting with the Michigan Rising organizers ended, I asked them why they were doing this again. Why, with the odds stacked against them and a small group of former allies who seem determined to undermine them, would they willingly do this again? Muller has since left Michigan because of the economy, but remains committed to recalling Snyder. He puts it this way: “My experience in South Africa showed me what can happen when those in power disenfranchise their citizens. Governor Snyder and the Republicans have done more damage to Michigan in one year than has been done in the past 60 years. Anyone with an interest in Michigan knows we can not afford to wait. There is no time to waste.”
Teresa Blundell was more emotional: “When you’re out carrying recall petitions, sometimes you feel like a sidewalk counselor. When I explained what was happening to our state and how they would be affected, some people would tell me their stories in tears. You work your whole life and then they privatize your job and reduce or eliminate your pension.”
She echoed Muller’s statement that we simply cannot wait until Snyder’s term in office ends.
The name Michigan Rising may turn out to be a very aptly-chosen moniker. Muller, Townsend and the other core team of organizers are clearly much better positioned this time around than they were last summer. They have a clear strategy, have developed comprehensive training materials and are diligently working to raise funds. They appear poised to rise again—this time armed with knowledge and experience that will aid their endeavor.
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