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The invisible campaign for Supreme Court justices

Jack Lessenberry

Frank Szymanski likes to startle audiences by asking, “Have you ever seen a naked trial judge?” after which he takes off his suit coat and flings it on a chair.

“Don’t worry, I’m going to stop there,” he tells them.

“But if you don’t educate yourselves before you go into that voting booth, if you don’t know who I and Judge Deborah Thomas are, we might as well be naked. You need to know that we are both circuit court judges, we care about kids, that we care about justice for everyone, and that we were nominated by the Democratic Party for the Michigan Supreme Court.”

Most voters likely know none of those things. Szymanski, like Thomas, was indeed nominated by the Democrats to run for the state’s highest court.

But they are up against David Viviano and Joan Larsen, two incumbents appointed by Governor Rick Snyder to fill vacancies. The incumbents have a heavy advantage, in that they will be designated on the ballot as justices of the Supreme Court.

All the other candidates – Szymanski, Thomas, and any minor party candidates, will just have their names. They are Brand X, and everyone who has grown up watching TV commercials knows that Brand X is never supposed to be as good.

Frank Szymanski is soldiering on and giving it his best shot. If campaigns were fought on YouTube, and judges were ranked by sense of humor, his opponent probably wouldn’t have a chance. In one clip, his adorable children, 10-year-old Michelle and 7-year-old Evan, run around with a blackened dollar bill, saying “no dark money!”

In another, their father faces an audience and asks, “How many of you think justice in this state should be bought and paid for? Judge Szymanski and Judge Thomas have not, will not and cannot be bought,” he tells one audience.

Then he brings down the house by adding, “And nobody is putting up money for us anyway.” That is pretty much true. Republicans have a five to two majority on the Michigan Supreme Court. The Democratic Party went through a time when it was spending millions of dollars every few years in an effort to defeat Republican incumbents.

Those efforts were mostly gigantic costly failures. Democrats aren’t even trying this year. They aren’t giving their candidates much money, and the media aren’t giving them much, if any, hearing. Newspapers, even Democratic ones, have mostly endorsed the incumbents, saying things like “continuity is valuable on the bench.”

Republicans don’t seem to be spending lavishly either, but their candidates have enough money for radio and TV commercials. Szymanski and Thomas don’t. They do the best they can, appearing at candidate forums and union halls. “If you really want justice for all, tell people and get them to tell people, and maybe we’ll have a chance,” he says.

Szymanski is explicit that he would fight for the common man, those who cannot afford all the justice money cand buy. He is 64, and under Michigan age limits, could only serve a single eight-year term. But he thinks that would be enough to do some good. He may have little chance, but he’s out there on his own time, trying to educate people about the system.

Compared to a lot of politics this year, that’s a breath of fresh air.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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