Macomb Daily: Warren Democratic club lambastes Phil Hart Dems for attacks on fellow Democrat Steve Bieda

"This is a throwback to the days of county clubs when they used admissions like this to exclude blacks, Jewish people, women," said Warren Democratic Club Member Jeremy Fisher.

By Jameson Cook, Macomb Daily, 7/19/18

A Warren-based Democratic club accuses a group from the same party based in Mount Clemens of attempting to tear apart the regional political party by actively campaigning for one candidate in the Macomb County clerk’s race.

The Warren Area Democratic Club within the past week has sent a letter to elected Democratic officials and other Dems “to pull the charter” of the Philip A. Hart Democratic Club, which “seeks to tear us apart.”

“This club has disregarded the guidance of state party and elected Democratic officials, spending tens of thousands of dollars to attack a fellow Democrat in a primary in which two qualified Democrats are running,” says the letter, signed by seven club officers.

The Phil Hart Club, named for the former U.S. senator from Michigan, distributed two pieces of campaign literature in favor of candidate Fred Miller, currently the deputy treasurer in Oakland County, and in opposition to candidate Steve Bieda.

This is a throwback to the days of county clubs when they used admissions like this to exclude blacks, Jewish people, women.
— Warren Democratic Club Member Jeremy Fisher

One was highly critical of Bieda, a term-limited state Senator from Warren, for making errors in campaign finance reports during his short, abated run for U.S. Congress this year, and for accepting $16,000 in food and beverages, travel and lodging from Lansing lobbyists during his 16 years in the state Legislature. Bieda says he corrected minor bookkeeping mishaps and addressed concerns raised by the Federal Elections Commission, which closed his case. He denies he received free trips from lobbyists, and that the expenditures amount to $1,100 per year.

Bieda and Miller are among six candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in the Aug. 7 primary for the November election to serve the final two years of the term of ousted clerk Karen Spranger. Eleven Republicans are seeking that party’s nomination.

The Warren Democratic Club notes in the letter it does not endorse in primaries.

“We invited all candidates to speak at our events,” members say in the letter. “Our open-door policy is meant to foster the ideals we all share as Democrats.”

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon in a TV report last week issued a generic statement criticized county Democratic politicians for attacking each other.

We need to be building Democrats up, not tearing each other down.
— Michigan Democratic Party Chair Brandon Dillon

“We need to be building Democrats up, not tearing each other down,” Dillon said.

Dillon did not return a call Wednesday for this report.

Julie Matuzak, Phil Hart Club president, defended expenditures on the pro-Miller literature, saying the club simply wants to inform voters about the candidates.

“We’re informing voters that Mr. Bieda had written illegal checks to his campaign and was wined and dined by lobbyists,” she said, adding there are many examples in the state of Democrats attacking Democrats in the primary.

Bieda last week filed a complaint with the Michigan Lottery Bureau, accusing the Phil Hart Club of improperly spending the money it raises from bingo events for political advertising, which he said violates state law that bans political organizations from conducting charitable bingos.

Jeff Holyfield, spokesman for the lottery, said the charitable gaming division is reviewing whether the Phil Hart Club is in violation. He said state law requires the organization to spend money according to its bylaws.

“Their bylaws are very general,” he said.

The lottery is also reviewing the Phil Hart Club’s finances. The organization had its license suspended for three weeks in 2016 and placed it on probation for two years, ending Oct. 1, 2018, for matters that could include bookkeeping, payroll, accounting, supervision of funds, Holyfield said.

The group also was placed on one-year probation in 2014.

The Phil Hart Club’s purpose is to “promote the ideals expressed by the career of Senator Philip Hart through public education; advocacy of good and progressive government; charitable and other activities; community service; advancing progressive causes; and the encouragement of participation and members in the Democratic Party,” its bylaws say.

The Phil Hart Club’s headquarters are listed as the same Main Street, Mount Clemens, address of the Macomb County Democratic Party.

Ed Bruley, chairman of the Macomb County Democratic Party, declined to comment on the matter. Bruley is a member of the Phil Hart Club.

The Warren Democratic Club also criticizes the Phil Hart Club for a lack of diversity, noting the club requires new members to be sponsored by two existing members and gain unanimous approval.

“This is not inclusion,” the letters says. “This is not consistent with MDP (Michigan Democratic Party) rules and values.”

Exploiting seniors who believe they are supporting Democrats and using their money to attack another Democrat is repulsive.
— Warren Democratic Club Member Jeremy Fisher

Warren Democratic Club member Jeremy Fisher added that the Phil Hart Club is “very secretive.”

“This is a throwback to the days of county clubs when they used admissions like this to exclude blacks, Jewish people, women,” Fisher said.

The 125-member Warren club, meanwhile, welcomes anyone to join for a nominal fee of $20 per years, $10 for seniors and youths, which can be waived, Fisher said.

“We have worked hard to reach out to our neighbors and let them know that all are welcome, regarding of their race, religion or social-economic status,” the Warren club’s letter says. 

Matuzak, a member of the State Board of Canvassers, declined to say how many members are in the Phil Hart Club or the amount of dues each member pays.

“It’s a fairly small group of like-minded individuals,” she said, adding the group has been in existence since the 1970s. It has been registered with the Federal Election Commission since 1987, records show.

Fisher additionally accused the Phil Hart Club of exploiting senior-citizen bingo players by making them believe they are supporting all Democrats when in fact supporting an exclusive class.

“Exploiting seniors who believe they are supporting Democrats and using their money to attack another Democrat is repulsive,” Fisher said.

Matuzak said bingo players don’t care who they are supporting.

“People are coming to play bingo,” she said. “They don’t care who the sponsor is.”

The club has had nearly $2 million in receipts since January 2017 from several bingo games per week, according to the FEC. As of May 31, the group had about $80,000 on hand, as it disbursed $1.9 million of its revenues from Jan. 1, 2017, to last May 31, records show

The Michigan Democratic Party stopped conducting bingo games in 2017 after it was fined $500,000 by the FEC related to its bingo operations.

Steve Bieda