Melee in Michigan’s 7th

Posted July 7, 2004 at 6:13pm

Four weeks before the Aug. 3 primary, six Republicans continue to slug it out for the party nod in Michigan’s open 7th district. The primary winner is almost certain to join the 109th Congress.

Former state Sen. Joe Schwarz, the lone moderate in the field, has led in every poll since he entered the race in March, and his more conservative fellow Republicans have been piling on him ever since.

Last week Schwarz took his turn, accusing attorney Brad Smith, son of retiring Rep. Nick Smith (R), who holds the seat, of violating federal election law. Schwarz has asked the Federal Election Commission to launch an investigation.

Schwarz says Smith has improperly invoked the so-called millionaire’s amendment and begun collecting individual and political action committee contributions that exceed the federal limit.

Whether Smith has accepted larger contributions will not be known until candidates’ second-quarter campaign disclosure reports are due at the FEC on July 15.

“We’ve followed all FEC rules and regulations and until they see our FEC report,” they cannot know if Smith has violated election law, said Smith’s campaign manager, Jason Brewer.

Under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, if an individual contributes $350,000 more to his campaign than his opponents do, his opponents can accept more than $2,000 from individuals and $5,000 from PACs.

There are some caveats to the rule, but $350,000 is basically the threshold.

State Rep. Gene DeRossett has contributed $451,000 to his campaign so far, triggering the amendment for some opponents, including Schwarz.

But Smith has given his campaign $140,000, making the difference between his contributions and DeRossett’s only $311,000, not enough to trigger the rule, Schwarz’s campaign argues, citing FEC documents as evidence.

Schwarz’s campaign based its June 30 complaint on a form Smith’s campaign filed with the FEC saying it believed the millionaire’s amendment was now in effect because the difference between DeRossett’s and Smith’s contributions was $361,000.

Schwarz’s campaign also relied on an e-mail solicitation from the conservative Club for Growth to potential contributors on Smith’s behalf.

In that solicitation, the Club for Growth wrote: “Brad’s campaign can now accept up to $6,000 in contributions from any individual for the primary election.”

Smith’s campaign denies that it has broken the law and accuses Schwarz of filing the complaint ahead of the July 15 FEC filing deadline to try to sneak a peek at Smith’s fundraising performance in the second quarter.

Schwarz spokesman John Truscott said he could care less about seeing the report early; the point is that Smith broke the law.

“Anyone who wants to serve in the Congress must realize that he or she has to follow the law, and the law is clear on this issue,” he said.

Truscott said Smith’s math does not add up and that he must return any contributions he has received that exceed the standard limits.

Brewer called the charges “baseless” and said he would not speak about the specifics of the complaint.

An FEC spokesman said Schwarz’s complaint has not been received yet but that DeRossett had alerted the FEC and his rivals about triggering the millionaire’s amendment. The election agency also has Smith’s “24-hour notice of opposition personal funds amount” on file that claims the difference between the campaigns is $361,000.

Because that short form does not require the candidate to list the actual contributions numbers, just the difference, Bob Biersack, the FEC spokesman, said it did not immediately strike the elections watchdog as being wrong.

Once the Schwarz complaint is received, the FEC will begin its standard review for such complaints, Biersack said.

David Keating, Club for Growth’s executive director, said he did not know that Smith’s calculations may have been off when he sent the solicitation on his behalf.

“We simply went by what the Smith campaign told us,” he said.

If Smith is wrong, all he has to do is refund donors the difference, Keating said.

A DeRossett spokesman said the dispute did not involve the DeRossett camp and that DeRossett had done everything he needed to under BCRA.

This is not the first controversy over campaign donations for Smith.

Last year, his father, Nick Smith, said Members on the House floor offered him $100,000 toward his son’s candidacy if he voted for a controversial bill to add a prescription drug component to Medicare.

Congressman Smith resisted the pressure and said the same unnamed Members threatened retribution against Brad Smith if the Congressman did not vote their way.

Nick Smith has since retracted the accusation, but the House ethics committee is investigating nonetheless.

While Schwarz and Smith battle over contributions, all of the candidates have been busy racking up endorsements, hoping to gain the advantage.

State Rep. Clark Bisbee won backing from Michigan Right to Life and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce ahead of the state’s May 11 candidate filing deadline.

Initially, it was believed that some of the conservative candidates, such as former state Rep. Tim Walberg, would drop out after those dual endorsements in the hopes of consolidating the conservative vote behind one strong candidate instead of splintering it among five.

But that never happened, and all the candidates seem determined to stay in until the end.

Conservatives fear that Schwarz, who supports abortion rights and is backed by the League of Conservation voters, could end up winning the crowded primary as a result.

Schwarz has also recently won endorsements from all of the state’s major police organizations as well as the Lansing Chamber of Commerce.

DeRossett was able to get the Michigan Farm Bureau’s PAC on his side in addition to the Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners and the National Home Builders Association.

Smith has been endorsed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and former GOP presidential hopeful Steve Forbes in addition to the Club for Growth.

Three Democrats are vying for their party’s nomination though none is expected to stand a very good chance in the GOP-friendly 7th district.

They are Sharon Renier, a paralegal, Drew Walker, a consultant, and Douglas Wilson, a paramedic.