In MI-11, a candidate ducks, but can’t avoid coverage

Detroit Free Press digs in to Bentivolio's background, though local outlets can do more on the money beat

MICHIGAN — Reporters covering the US congressional campaign for Michigan’s 11th district have a truly unusual story on their hands.

Former U.S. Rep. and GOP presidential candidate Thad McCotter was expected to easily extend his five-term incumbency in November. But after his troubled re-election campaign and resignation in disgrace, a little-known reindeer farmer named Kerry Bentivolio became the only Republican on the primary ballot in a traditionally conservative district. (In 2010, the suburban Detroit district was redrawn to put the seat even more safely in GOP hands.) While a write-in candidate with the support of local Republican leadership challenged Bentivolio in the primary and an expensive special election to finish the final weeks of McCotter’s term, Bentivolio won both races.

That complicated backstory has made the general election unexpectedly competitive—one campaign-watching site now rates the contest between Bentivolio and Democrat Syed Taj as a toss-up. It’s an intriguing story, but not necessarily an easy one to tell—because Bentivolio has avoided media interviews and most other public appearances, and even initially refused to fill out questionnaires from local news organizations like The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. Kathleen Gray of the Free Press, in her multi-part feature on the race in Sunday’s edition, described the dodging:

Bentivolio and his campaign managers give various reasons for declining interviews: prayer meetings, other commitments, a wasp sting on his foot that his staff said kept him home the Sunday before the August primary. He skipped a League of Women Voters forum in Plymouth last week, the only one of six invited candidates not to attend.…

On primary night, a Free Press reporter tried to talk to him after his victory speech, but a campaign operative stepped in and announced no interviews. When a second Free Press reporter tried to interview Bentivolio at the Michigan Republican Party’s state convention in September, he relented for a few minutes before a campaign aide abruptly ended the exchange. And when a third Free Press reporter tried to talk to Bentivolio last month as a meet-the-candidates event in Waterford, he said, “I’m not going to talk to you. You’re not our friend. You’re working for the Democratic Party.”

That no-access stance is a challenge for journalists, of course. But some of the best coverage of the race has come from reporters who have embraced the situation, stepping away from the campaign trail to dig into Bentivolio’s background and his sources of support.

That approach has led at times to a limited focus on the policy differences between Bentivolio and Taj—not normally something we’d endorse. But given Bentivolio’s circuitous path to a position of prominence, it makes sense to put questions about his qualifications for office front and center.

Among local journalists, Gray, the Free Press staff writer, has done the most impressive and enterprising reporting. In late August, she used Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act to obtain Bentivolio’s teaching records and delivered an investigation that revealed how, just months before the GOP primary, Bentivolio was forced out of his high school teaching position after allegedly bullying students:

Bentivolio’s declarations earned him a verbal reprimand from his assistant principal and a formal letter demanding that he correct his behavior.

Nine months later, school administrators reprimanded him for intimidating and threatening students by grabbing their desks and yelling in their faces or for slamming his fists on their desks.

Similar incidents occurred throughout the school year, according to the written reprimand dated June 7 and signed by assistant principal Myriah Lillie. “Most students reported that they felt threatened and unsure of what you would do,” she wrote.

A day later, faced with an aggressive teacher-improvement plan, Bentivolio reached a settlement with the district and resigned.

The Freep’s strong package included graphics that gave readers access to some source material, and Stephen Henderson, the paper’s editorial page editor, contributed a sharp commentary that put the investigation in the context of Bentivolio’s hide-and-seek campaign and his responsibilities to his prospective constituency.

In her Sunday feature, Gray took a similar approach, digging up court records and interviewing Bentivolio’s old acquaintances. The results this time aren’t quite as compelling—much of the piece is devoted to the at-times bizarre fallout from a real estate investment gone bad two decades ago—but in the course of covering old ground, Gray does trace Bentivolio’s shifting relationship with the media. She also mines legal documents for some striking material, like this:

“I have a problem figuring out which one I really am, Santa Claus or Kerry Bentivolio,” he said in his deposition. “All my life I have been told I’m Kerry Bentivolio, and now, I am a Santa Claus, so now I prefer to be Santa Claus.”

Again, political journalists are on a slippery slope when they focus on a candidate’s idiosyncrasies. But the Freep’s coverage has generally been measured, even as it takes a tough—and needed—look at Bentivolio’s background.

Money is another important story here, and in that case the best work has come from out of state. Earlier in October, The Daily Beast published the first really substantive piece I’ve seen on the money behind Bentivolio’s bid, which comes disproportionately from a super PAC funded by a 21-year-old Texas millionaire with libertarian beliefs.

At the start of October, reporter Matthew DeLuca notes, Federal Election Commission filings showed that Taj’s campaign had far outpaced Bentivolio in terms of both individual donations and dollars raised. But the gap was closed by the Liberty for All super PAC, which poured $168,000 into ads on Bentivolio’s behalf. DeLuca continues:

And even that number is far overshadowed by the $450,000 LFA spent to help knock Bentivolio’s Republican rival, Nancy Cassis, out of the race in August.

As late as Aug. 1, Cassis, a write-in candidate, was leading Bentivolio 52 percent to 36 percent, according to a Detroit Free Press poll. Between Aug. 3 and the Aug. 7 primary, LFA released at least 7 ads and mailers either supporting Bentivolio or attacking Cassis. While it is not possible to trace a direct line from the ads to the primary result, by the time the final votes were announced, Bentivolio had scooped up twice as many as Cassis.

Henderson of the Free Press briefly covered this territory in his August commentary. And the public radio show “On the Media” also did a solid Oct. 12 segment on LFA, which only briefly mentions Michigan, but shows how LFA upsets the traditional narrative of super PACs funding campaigns to “buy influence” among politicians. The excellent national stories, though, haven’t percolated into local media, beyond quick mentions like those in Henderson’s piece or this “meet the candidates” blurb from the Freep’s Sunday package.

There is room for Michigan outlets to move this story forward—especially considering the substantial sums that other outside groups, like the Freedom’s Defense Fund, have spent on Bentivolio’s behalf, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. These donors could use some sunshine, if only as another way to tell a story about how Bentivolio’s candidacy isn’t drawing its support from local Republican leadership. Will that please voters? Raise their eyebrows? Either way, they should know.

It’s also important, of course, not to forget that Bentivolio isn’t the only one in this race; his opponent should face scrutiny, too. Coverage of Taj, the Democrat, has generally been more straightforward, but the Freep’s Sunday package fit the bill, with a profile of Taj written by Gray and a sidebar that compared the candidates on policy (easier to read in print than online, however).

One quibble about the Free Press coverage: Sunday’s package on the 11th district mentioned candidates from the Libertarian, Green, and National Law parties only in an “also running” list; similarly, coverage of a recent voter forum focused on Bentivolio’s no-show performance, not on what the candidates who were there had to say. While these third-party candidates are unlikely to win, they should get more than glancing attention: voters in the 11th district, who have been through enough, deserve to know all their options.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.