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Political party switch scandal inspires bizarre election in Grand Rapids

One of the most unusual political races this election is playing out in Grand Rapids. It’s the story, the saga that is the race for the 76th State House seat.

Back in May, there was a Democratic lawmaker who wanted to become a Republican. Switching political parties is not unheard of in Michigan, although it hasn’t happened since the 1990s.

This lawmaker, his name’s Roy Schmidt, he told State House leader Jase Bolgerhe wanted to join the Republican team. But it’s a delicate dance, switching parties, so they came up with a plan. They’d wait to break the news until the last minute. The Democrats would be caught by surprise and they wouldn’t have a candidate ready to take on Schmidt.

Schmidt and Bolger figured it would be even better if they lined up a fake Democrat to pretend to run against Schmidt the Republican. The decoy wouldn’t need to actively campaign, just pave the way to an easy victory for Schmidt. 

But the plan was just too fishy for reporters to ignore. Schmidt denied he had anything to do with the decoy Democrat until the Kent County Prosecutor released a reportshowing the truth (including text messagesbetween Schmidt and Bolger and some of Schmidt’s family members). 

The plan backfired and soon, his face was plastered on every single local TV newscast in West Michigan.

The prosecutor’s report concluded Schmidt did nothing criminal. But his apologies for lying began that day.

“I was asphyxiated with making sure that I could take care of Grand Rapids. And I should’ve consulted. I should’ve said something. In hindsight I think about every single day; about every hour, why I did this. It was a mistake it was a poor political decision,” Schmidt told me the day the report came out.

Schmidt’s former Democratic Party friends were outraged. Kent County Republicans weren’t thrilled either (Schmidt was left off the Kent County voter guidethis fall).

Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
After a narrow loss to Schmidt in the GOP primary, Bing Goei (center) announces he'll run in as a write-in candidate in the general election.

So when businessman Bing Goeiannounced he’d challenge Schmidt in the GOP primaryin August Republicans like John Westra supported him over Schmidt.

“When I saw that the tweet come across that Bing had decided to run I was like ‘yes!” Westra beamed.

But Bing Goei had less than three weeks to get the word out that he was running. His name was not on the ballot so he had to go around making sure people how to spell ‘Bing Goei’ so they could write it in.

Goei managed to get 47-pecent of the vote in the Republican Primary; not bad considering the circumstances. A month later, he announced he’d run in the general electiondespite the narrow loss because so many people had asked him to. So Goei is a write-in candidate again.

The party switch scandal also inspired Keith Allardto run. The independent candidatehas been the most outspoken against Schmidt. 

“For the last three months he hasn’t been picking up the phone in his office, he’s let his voicemail fill up and he hasn’t been picking up his personal cell phone. So for three months when he’s been drawing nearly $20,000 in salary from the taxpayers of Michigan he hasn’t been responsive for any of their concerns,” Allard said at an event in August.

Credit Courtesy photo / Friends of Keith Allard
Friends of Keith Allard
Independent Keith Allard's first priority would be to make Michigan's legislature part-time.

The Schmidt campaign has gone silent for nearly the past two months. He didn’t respond to numerous emails and calls to be included in this story or any others I’ve seen. He’s not attended any debates or forums during that time.

On Thursday the Secretary of State’s Office dismissed all but one alleged violation of campaign finance laws related to the scandal. There is still one potential violation pending that was forwarded to the SOS by the Kent County Prosecutor.

Top state Democrats also got a special grand jury investigationgoing in Ingham County against both Schmidt and House Speaker Bolger.

The real Democrat (the decoy Schmidt arranged dropped out of the race within days of filing) in the race has been out almost every day knocking on doors and introducing herself to people. Winnie Brinksestimates she’s knocked on some 30,000 doors sinceannouncing her candidacy in late June.

I walked with her one afternoon last week. She says she hasn’t seen any sign of the Schmidt campaign either. But he came up in some of her conversations with voters.

“Wasn’t that the one he was Democrat switched Republican?” one voter asked Brinks about her rival.

Two small children watched impatiently from the doorway as they discussed the scandal.

“That is just…” he paused, frowning and shaking his head before adding, “Alright, so you’re running against him. Well you’ve got my vote right there.” They both laugh before Brinks adds, “Excellent. Well great, I just think the voters of this district deserve someone with integrity.”

Credit Courtesy photo / Michigan Democratic Party
Michigan Democratic Party
Supporters rally around Winnie Brinks when she announced her candidacy in June.

Brinks will need every vote she can get because the ballot is crowded.

There’s Brinks, Goei, Allard and Schmidt plus Libertarian Patricia Steinportand US Taxpayers Party candidate William Mohr that’ll split up the votes even more.

It’s going to be a late night for election officials in the City of Grand Rapids.

Author’s note: I realize this story isn't explaining the issues these candidates think are important. Please click on the candidates’ names to go to their websites for more information, or find more news about them in the “Related Content” below.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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