How Moroun family money nearly cost a city council member her seat

How Moroun family money nearly cost a city council member her seat
Detail from a mailer

As last week’s municipal election disappears in the rear-view mirror, it’s worth noting just how hard-fought City Councilmember Raquel Castañeda-Lopez’s re-election campaign was. The challenger was backed by big money that helped turn the campaign into one of the most expensive and nastiest this past election cycle. And right at the heart of it was a powerful interest that had recently been talking about turning over a new leaf and “working with others in a positive way” — the Moroun family.

It’s no secret District 6 Councilmember Castañeda-Lopez earned a few opponents as one of the more progressive voices on Detroit City Council. She has been a consistent voice supporting community benefits and questioning subsidies for development. She’s been especially active in drafting rules to control “fugitive dust,” which wind sweeps off the piles of carbonaceous materials heaped on the riverfront and into homes and businesses in the densely populated district. She has also served to check the ambitions of the Ambassador Bridge-owning Moroun family, which residents of Southwest Detroit have long complained seek to expand their business at the expense of the neighborhood.

One of the first people to take notice of what was going on this past election cycle was former Southwest Detroit state Rep. Steve Tobocman. As the election heated up in October, and a number of mailings arrived at District 6 addresses supporting challenger Tyrone Carter — and slamming incumbent Castañeda-Lopez — Tobocman started checking with the Wayne County Clerk’s office to find out where all this money for fliers and postage was coming from. What he found surprised him so much he started sharing the information widely, something he normally doesn’t do.

What he found was that money and assistance came from developers, unions, riverfront industrial concerns, and the Moroun family.

“The amount of money that we're talking about,” Tobocman says, “I gotta imagine there was more money raised in that race for the challenger than maybe even any other incumbent for Council.”

Labor unions endorsed challenger Carter, and labor-oriented PACs donated $11,000 to his campaign. Tobocman says, “I believe that most of their issues stem from the opposition to the stadium projects. She was one of the two votes, I believe, against the stadium projects, and her objections were that there weren't adequate community benefits assured in those projects.”

It’s also not surprising that another large chunk of funding came from the companies affected by the new fugitive dust rules Castaneda-Lopez saw enacted in a council vote on Oct. 31. In September and October, Carter’s candidate committee received donations from the Michigan Aggregates Association ($500 on Sept. 12) and its related political action committee ($5,000 on Sept. 15, $5,000 on Sept. 26, and $9,500 on Oct. 10). Other donations from bulk materials companies or their staff totaled at least another $4,000.

These are the kinds of donations that allow a candidate to put his points across in a stream of mailed fliers, and the volume of mail sent by the Carter committee impressed even seasoned observers. “I would say it was money well spent,” Tobocman says. “The point is, I got 20-25 pieces of mail.”

Tobocman also points out another powerful interest Councilmember Castaneda-Lopez has locked horns with before: The Morouns. The family has been pushing for a bunch of street closures that residents say would slow down ambulances and first responders.

So it’s easy to see why some of the biggest support came from the Detroit Community Impact Committee, which was a PAC created on Oct. 5, and almost immediately endowed with two generous donations, of $30,000 and $30,100, from Central Trucking, owned by the Moroun family. The PAC spent at least $21,000 of that money on printing and mailing, with almost $15,000 of it paid in fees to Jackson Consulting Group, headed by developer, fund-raiser, and political consultant Chris Jackson. You may remember him as the developer who attempted to bribe then-Councilmember Monica Conyers, then turned state’s witness to testify against Sam Riddle.

These independent expenditures seem to be what funded the most inflammatory of mailers. They seem designed to poison Castañeda-Lopez’s more credulous constituents against her. They represent some of the dirtiest campaigning done in the run-up to a Detroit election since the “lynching ad” that appeared just before 2005’s mayoral election.

The fliers in question, put out independently from Carter’s campaign, don’t libel Castañeda-Lopez, although they come right up to the threshold of doing so. In the process, not only did several mail pieces not list who funded them (as required by law), some do everything but draw devil’s horns on the crusading councilmember.

One flier claimed Castañeda-Lopez is the surrogate of Gov. Rick Snyder, and speculates she was too busy pushing the governor’s Republican agenda to cast her vote for Obama in 2008 and 2012. (The councilmember was elected in 2013.) Another flier focused on her home, which local journalist M.L. Elrick had noted was, like many in the city, a poster child for deferred maintenance. The flier went even farther, speculating, “Neighbors never see her. Where does she really live?” (Yes, she lives there.) Another flier alleges that she switched a vote in response to a donation from a local firm tied to corruption. It presents her face split down the middle into a positive side (quoting her in 2013 saying, “I promise to never privatize city workers.”) and a negative side, (with no quote marks around the phrase, “I voted to destroy pensions and the livelihoods of long-time city workers. My vote was bought and sold!” Geez, why not add the word, "MUHAHAHAHAHA!" for good measure?)

“Yeah, they’re pretty salacious,” Tobocman says. “And you saw on the primary vote, I think, Raquel got more percentage-wise than any incumbent, or close to it. And then on Election Day the gap had closed, and certainly the mail had an impact.”

Indeed, in the Aug. 8 primary, Castañeda-Lopez won 59 percent to Carter’s 34 percent. But in the Nov. 7 election, the incumbent got just 52 percent compared to the challenger’s 47 percent. But that isn’t what Tobocman finds most disturbing.

“What’s distressing to me is that there have been at least two different news reports over the last couple months about how Matthew Moroun, the son of Matty Moroun, is here to be a good corporate citizen," Tobocman says. "I don’t think putting $60,000 into a race against the councilwoman, and particularly having a guy who admitted that he gave $25,000 in what amounted to a bribe to get Monica Conyers to vote a certain way on a strip club, and never did jail time because he was a star witness in the Sam Riddle bribery case — that doesn’t occur to me at all like turning a new leaf.”