Dark-money groups with ties to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan are backing several Detroit City Council candidates as an exodus of incumbents threatens to tip the balance of power on a body largely in sync with his agenda.
The murky groups have been involved in past Detroit races and are undeterred by a federal corruption probe focused partly on city council links to similarly structured organizations — 501c4s that are not required to disclose their donors.
Our Neighborhoods First and Detroit Leaders are run by current and former mayoral appointees and were incorporated by a lawyer for the Duggan campaign. Based on past giving, experts say they’re likely financed by deep-pocketed outsiders who don’t live in the city, but have business there.
Detroit Leaders, which worked under a different name to defeat a 2016 grassroots community benefits proposal that would have required significant concessions from developers, also has ties to embattled Councilmember Scott Benson, whose home and office were raided by the FBI in August along with those of his chief of staff.
Together, the groups back these council candidates:
• Councilmember Janeé Ayers in the at-large race. Our Neighborhoods First is funding a citywide billboard campaign for her following an FBI raid on her home and office. The scrutiny has left the primary election winner vulnerable, a recent poll suggests.
• Fred Durhal, III, in District 7. Our Neighborhoods First is funding billboards and mailers for the former state representative, who is running against school teacher and community advisory council member Regina Ross.
• Hector Santiago in District 6. Detroit Leaders is funding yard signs and mailers showing him alongside Duggan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Santiago, whose background is in workforce development, is running against activist and organizer Gabriela Santiago-Romero, who has the backing of outgoing councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López, a progressive Democrat.
• Latisha Johnson in District 4. Detroit Leaders is funding mailers and yard signs for the community activist in her race against former government watchdog reporter ML Elrick. Johnson is running as a progressive. Another dark money group, Opportunity For All Michigan, is also sending mailers on her behalf.)
Candidates receiving support all bested their challengers by up to 8 percentage points in August, except in District 6, where there was no primary.
Our Neighborhoods First is also behind billboards boosting Mayor Mike Duggan; a video ad attacking his opponent, Anthony Adams; and mailers for Detroit Police Commissioners Lisa Carter and Willie Bell, who are seeking re-election in Districts 6 and 4, respectively.
The interference has prompted callouts and praise from the candidates, depending on whether they’re among its beneficiaries.
“The status quo gets very nervous when confronted with people who ask questions,” said Santiago-Romero. “But corporate money that goes undisclosed is dangerous to the transparency of our elections and should never be a substitute for grassroots campaigning alongside supporters who will hold elected officials accountable.”
Durhal, meanwhile, who once lost a state Senate race with a Duggan Political Action Committee working against him, said he appreciates the support and sees it as a testament to his credentials.
“We’re working hard to get our message out regardless and if other groups want to help, we’re thankful,” he said. “But I’m beholden and will be beholden only to the residents of District 7.”
Duggan helped oust Durhal from the state Legislature in 2018 after he voted against an initial version of the mayor’s auto reform bill. At that time, a dark money billboard campaign was working against Durhal and boosting his Duggan-backed opponent. The ex-representative said he does not know who his new supporters are and that he was surprised to find his face and name blown up throughout his west-side district.
Johnson said she too was bewildered by the help and that it made her uneasy, but stopped short of calling for its end.
Experts say the campaigns, with their ties to the mayor, signal two things about the candidates they push: That big donors are comfortable with them and Duggan likely is too.
“This has been Duggan’s M.O.,” said Target-Insyght political consultant and pollster Ed Sarpolus. “He’s been using dark money his whole life; that was his job when he worked for (former Wayne County Executive Ed) McNamara.
“The key thing for Duggan is does he have a council he can work with, and I don’t know a mayor that does not at some level support people that they can work with.”
Four of nine council races are open with the coming departure of Castañeda-López and Council President Brenda Jones, and the recent resignations of two others following bribery charges. District 4’s Andre Spivey resigned late last month after pleading guilty to accepting more than $35,000 in bribes in connection with city council’s oversight of towing. District 7’s Gabe Leland resigned in May after pleading guilty to a lesser state charge stemming from his solicitation of $15,000 from a businessman.
The mayor has declined to disavow the mystery money flowing into his race and others even as it emerges that the FBI probe has widened to examine whether councilmembers or their staff members personally benefited from campaign contributions or 501c4 social welfare nonprofits.
"Two of Detroit’s constant abuses are towing and social welfare organizations," Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross Business School, told The Detroit News for a recent story on the probe. "Those seem to be the perennial avenues for corruption in Detroit."
Duggan has said that corruption in towing “needs to be rooted out” and is pushing new rules he says will bring more accountability to the city’s selection of companies. He declined to say why he has a different position on sketchy political spending, with a spokesman saying only that “the Mayor has at all times scrupulously followed all campaign finance laws.”
“Various ballot committees, PACs and C4s engaged in city, state and federal elections sometimes support the candidates or issues the mayor supports, and sometimes they support different candidates or issues," said mayoral spokesman John Roach.
Roach did not answer questions about Duggan’s potential involvement in the dark-money groups. When asked about the mayor's relationship with Our Neighborhoods First last year, Roach said "members of the administration work with it where appropriate." It's illegal for the mayor to be directly involved in such campaigns, Sarpolus said.
Over the past five years, 501c4 nonprofits have pumped money into high-profile races in the city, often in alignment with the mayor’s agenda.
The groups have helped:
• defeat Prop P, which would have revised the city’s charter to include a number of costly provisions aimed to help low-income residents. It appeared on the ballot in August.
• pass Prop N, Duggan’s $250-million, taxpayer-funded plan to address blight perpetuated in part by the city, through property overtaxation and a lack of promotion of an exemption for poor homeowners. It appeared on the ballot in 2020.
• elevate state legislative candidates who later helped pass a Duggan-backed auto insurance reform bill that has not yet led to meaningful reductions for Detroiters, who pay among the highest premiums in the country. They appeared on the ballot in 2018.
• defeat Prop A, a grassroots community benefits ordinance that would have required significant concessions from developers receiving city incentives. It appeared on the ballot in 2016; an alternative, watered-down version called Prop B narrowly passed in its place.
The common denominator between all of the groups is W. Alan Wilk, the attorney responsible for their filings. Wilk, of the firm Dykema, is an attorney for the Duggan campaign and a member of the National Republican Lawyers Association. He has not responded to numerous requests for comment.
Our Neighborhoods First is the same organization that was behind last year’s advertising blitz selling voters on Prop N. The group is led by current and former Duggan appointees Lorna Thomas, chair of the Public Lighting Authority; Betty Brooks, an ex-Detroit police commissioner; and Impact Church Pastor Keenann Knox, a former member of the Detroit Board of Ethics. None have responded to repeated requests for comment.
Knox is also president of Detroit Leaders, which was Save Detroit Jobs until it changed its name a week after this year’s August primary. The organization's other officers are Damian Mitchell, a District 3 candidate for the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, and former state Rep. Kenneth Daniels, who was charged in 2014 with helping buy a Mercedes-Benz for a convicted drug dealer.
During its 2016 campaign against Prop A, Save Detroit Jobs paid more than $18,000 to Benson chief of staff Carol Banks, mostly in the form of unspecified reimbursements, according to campaign finance records filed before the group received retroactive nonprofit status from the IRS. Benson, meanwhile, was reportedly quoted in a press release for the group and two more of his staff were paid to distribute its literature.
Benson and Mitchell did not respond to requests for comment. Banks, whose home was also raided by the FBI, declined to discuss the group.
Save Detroit Jobs raised more than $100,000 in 2016 from donors including Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan; Turn Around Wayne County PAC, whose donors include a number of corporations and Matthew Morouns’ Central Transport; and the Schostak Family PAC, which primarily gives to Republican candidates and is affiliated with former state GOP chairman Bobby Schostak.
An earlier version of this article misstated the police commissioner Our Neighborhoods first is backing. It is not Linda Bernard, but Lisa Carter.