Grass Roots vs. Deep Pockets 

One candidate had money to burn. The other possessed incumbency and the loyalty of committed greens who respected and appreciated his environmental record.

The lesson: When it comes to politics, the race does not always go to the richest.

Jack Brandenburg, a Harrison Township businessman determined to portray himself as a green Republican, was given a legitimate shot of unseating incumbent Ken DeBeaussaert in their Macomb County state Senate race this November.

The fact that the 11th District leans slightly Republican gave him an advantage. Even more significant was his war chest, which would eventually total more than $230,000 in cash, plus in-kind contributions of more than $300,000 -- mostly from the state Republican Party in the form of radio ads.

Despite these advantages, Brandenburg faced a significant problem. His opponent in November's election was an incumbent who had built an impressive record of trying to clean up Lake St. Clair. With numerous beach closings in recent years because of fecal contamination, it was a hot-button issue that Brandenburg wanted to use to his advantage.

Feeling vulnerable -- he had no environmental record of his own to run on -- the Republican chose to attack DeBeaussaert at his strongest point. Brandenburg launched a full-on assault, using media ads and fliers mailed to constituents claiming DeBeaussaert had failed miserably in attempting to clean the lake.

"This is where Brandenburg made a terrible mistake," said Cyndi Roper, director of Michigan Clean Water Action. "In moving the discussion to Lake St. Clair ... he moved the course of the campaign into one of Sen. DeBeaussaert's strongest suits. But because of the massive amounts of money being spent by Brandenburg to distort DeBeaussaert's record, we felt an endorsement wasn't enough."

Clean Water Action didn't bring much money to the table -- providing a little less than $2,500 in radio ads supporting DeBeaussaert. But what CWA lacked in cash it more than made up for in people.

Volunteers and staff from the nonprofit organization mounted an all-out crusade to save the incumbent.

The ground troops were unleashed as they set about knocking on more than 30,000 doors, distributing more than 21,000 pieces of pro-DeBeaussaert literature and calling more than 2,000 pro-environment voters to get them to the polls.

When those polls closed, 82,546 votes had been cast. With 50.7 percent in his favor, DeBeaussaert eked out a 3,000-vote victory.

"There is no doubt that the grassroots environmental community had a decisive impact in countering the extraordinary volume of money spent by Brandenburg," said CWA's Roper. "Returning DeBeaussaert to the state Senate (was) not only a victory for Lake St. Clair and the environment, it (was) a victory for grassroots groups that are not afraid to stand up to big money politics."

More by Curt Guyette

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