Progressive Democrats under attack: Pro-Israel groups throw big money into deceptive ads to sway congressional elections in metro Detroit

An analysis of campaign finance records found that pro-Israel PACs are outspending other groups to unseat progressives like Rashida Tlaib and Andy Levin

click to enlarge U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, center, speaks at a rally on Friday in Pontiac in support of U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib, left, and Andy Levin, right. Pro-Israel groups have spent millions to unseat the progressive lawmakers. - Adam Antonich
Adam Antonich
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, center, speaks at a rally on Friday in Pontiac in support of U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib, left, and Andy Levin, right. Pro-Israel groups have spent millions to unseat the progressive lawmakers.

Metro Detroit has many problems that command the attention of elected officials — including poverty, reproductive rights, gun control, education, jobs, racial inequality, health care, and the environment.

But no issue has more money flowing into local political campaigns than Israel, a country more than 6,000 miles from southeast Michigan.

A Metro Times analysis of campaign finance records found that pro-Israel political action committees (PACs) are outspending all other groups, pouring millions of dollars into deceptive TV ads and mailers to try to sway the Democratic primary election in three congressional races in metro Detroit. The ads make no mention of Israel and falsely suggest that three progressive congressional candidates aren’t true Democrats.

In all, three pro-Israel PACs spent an unprecedented $9.7 million in the past two months on the three congressional campaigns, primarily for pricey TV and digital ads just weeks before the primary election on Aug. 2.

By far, the PACs have spent more on media buys than the candidates have themselves.

The biggest spender is United Democracy Project, a recently formed PAC affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a hawkish pro-Israel group that has supported more than 100 Republicans who voted to overturn the election.

AIPAC has also been accused of supporting fundamentally undemocratic policies in Israel that deny the rights of Palestinian people.

Since the United Democracy Project formed in October, it has supported moderate Democrats over progressives in primary elections in several states, but none as much as in Michigan.

Some of the largest contributors to the United Democracy Project are Republican megadonors such as hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer and Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, each of whom donated $1 million. Moderate Democrats have also contributed to the PAC.

11th Congressional District race

United Democracy Project spent at least $3.9 million on ads supporting U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, a moderate Democrat from Waterford who is running in the 11th District against her Democratic colleague U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, a Jewish progressive from Bloomfield Township. The PAC spent an additional $343,000 on ads attacking Levin, who has been endorsed by U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom attended pro-Levin rallies this week in metro Detroit.

The ad buys dwarf Levin’s entire campaign budget of $2.7 million.

To Levin, the idea that a “right wing” group is masquerading as pro-Democrat and pumping millions of dollars into the race without mentioning Israel is “truly absurd.”

“They are interfering in the democratic primaries,” Levin tells Metro Times. “I don’t think it’s OK to take millions of dollars from a group that is supporting insurrectionist Republicans. They are only going after progressive Democrats. It’s very troubling.”

Levin says he’s focused on issues that most matter to voters, such as abortion rights, good jobs, health care, and environmental justice. Levin was among a group of 17 Democratic members of Congress who were arrested earlier this month at an abortion rights demonstration outside the U.S. Supreme Court.

“These issues are all drowned out in this avalanche of money,” Levin says, fearing that the massive amount of ad spending could tilt the election in favor of his opponent.

In response to United Democracy Project’s money, the political action group for J Street, a liberal “pro-Israel, pro-peace group” that advocates for a two-state solution, spent about $700,000 on a recent ad buy in support of Levin. The TV and digital ads criticize Stevens for taking donations from the United Democracy Project.

“No campaign cash is worth abandoning our democracy,” the narrator in the ad says, noting that AIPAC has supported insurrectionist Republicans.

Logan Bayroff, a J Street spokesman, says the impetus for helping Levin was the deceptive tactics by the United Democracy Project.

“We think voters deserve to know where all this spending in the district is coming from,” Bayroff tells Metro Times. “They are being bombarded by ads on their TV screen and other places. It is not coming from a group that cares about the priorities and values of Democratic voters. It is quite disingenuous.”

Bayroff says Levin’s positions are in no way incongruous with a healthy, prosperous Israel.

“Andy Levin embodies what it means to be a Jewish progressive who cares about Israel and its future and who recognizes that support for a secure and democratic Israel goes hand-and-hand with Palestinian rights,” Bayroff says. “That’s a very mainstream, popular sentiment in the American Jewish community and among Democratic voters.”

On Stevens’s campaign website, she mentions Israel 19 times and dedicates more space to the issue than most of her other priorities, such as health care, senior and veteran services, immigration, gun control, and LGBTQ rights.

The website states that Stevens supports a two-state solution, “a democratic Jewish State of Israel, and a viable, democratic Palestinian state, living side-by-side in peace,” and opposes the “boycott, divestment and sanctions” movement.

Stevens has been endorsed by the Democratic Majority for Israel and Pro-Israel America.

Asked about the funding from United Democracy Project, Stevens’s campaign spokesman Larkin Parker said in a statement that the congresswoman is “proud of her unequivocal support of the Jewish State.”

“As President Biden said during his visit to Israel this week, ‘The connection between the Israeli people and the American people is bone deep ... we invest in each other, we dream together,’” Power said. “As our only Democratic ally in the Middle East, a strong U.S./Israeli partnership is critical for our security, innovation and diplomacy. Her support from AIPAC is solely due to that view. She is proud to be supported by AIPAC who also supports; Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, and the majority of the House Progressive Caucus of which Mr. Levin is himself a member.”

Levin, a former president of Congregation T’chiyah, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Oak Park, chuckles at the idea that he’s anti-Israel.

“I love Israel, I always have,” Levin says. “I am a Zionist and support all of our aid to Israel. I don’t support the BDS movement. The sin I committed, according to this right-wing group, is that I act on the idea that the only way to have a secure homeland is to fully realize the human and political rights of the Palestinian people.”

David Green, a Jewish doctor who lives in the congressional district, says that he and many other Jews are voting for Levin, whom he calls “a strong Zionist.”

“The idea that there is a monolithic Jewish vote that’s opposed to a Jewish congressman is ridiculous,” Green tells Metro Times. “The majority of us support Andy.”

The 11th Congressional District covers a large section of Oakland County, including Farmington, Farmington Hills, Birmingham, West Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills, Pontiac, Oak Park, Ferndale, Hazel Park, Madison Heights, Royal Oak, Berkley, Clawson, Waterford Township, Walled Lake, Wixom, and Auburn Hills.

13th Congressional District race

The United Democracy Project has also spent more than $2.7 million on ads in support of state Sen. Adam Hollier, a Democrat who is running for Congress in the 13th District, which covers much of Detroit, Hamtramck, Highland Park, the Grosse Pointes, and northern Downriver communities.

In addition, the PAC bought $1.4 million worth of ads attacking one of his 12 opponents, first-term state Rep. Shri Thanedar, a millionaire scientist and entrepreneur. One of the ads suggests Thanedar, who has built a progressive record in the House, is a secret Republican.

“Shri Thanedar is posing as a Democrat when he’s really just a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” the mailer states. “Shri Thanedar can’t be trusted to stand up for Democratic policies and issues because he votes the Republican line.”

Hollier is arguably the more moderate Democrat. He voted with Republicans to support a controversial bill to reform the auto industry and was the lone state Senate Democrat to back Canadian energy company Enbridge’s plan to build a tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac to transport oil. Both bills were widely criticized by Democrats and applauded by industry giants.

Hollier also championed a bill in 2019 that was aimed at barring local officials from preventing mining companies from setting up potentially hazardous operations. Hollier wanted to give that authority to state officials.

If the measure passed — it didn’t — one of the beneficiaries of that decision would have been the Edward C. Levy Company, which has been trying to build a massive gravel mine in a small village in Lapeer County.

The president and executive chairman of the company both donated a combined $275,000 to the United Democracy Project, according to campaign finance reports.

“I don’t think it’s OK to take millions of dollars from a group that is supporting insurrectionist Republicans. They are only going after progressive Democrats. It’s very troubling.”

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Hollier says he votes in the best interest of voters and has earned the support of the pro-Israel PAC and sees nothing wrong with the ads, especially since Thanedar is self-funding his campaign to the tune of $8.2 million. Without the outside funding, Hollier says, it would be very difficult to win the primary election.

“I’m grateful for the pro-Israel money,” Hollier tells Metro Times. “It has made me more competitive than I would have been.”

Hollier says he’s knocked on more than 40,000 doors, and his campaign has made 280,000 phone calls. About 80% of the nearly $840,000 he has raised so far has come from people who contributed less than $250, Hollier says.

“The issue here is we have someone who thought he could buy a race for cheap and now realizes it’s going to be much more expensive because people have coalesced around me,” Hollier says.

Hollier says the PAC has a legitimate interest in the race, calling Thanedar an “existential threat” to Israel because he sponsored a resolution in the state House that called for ending U.S. funding to Israel’s military.

The resolution, which never reached the floor for a vote, urges the “Congress of the United States to enact policies that halt taxpayer funded aid to Israel, which supports the military detention of Palestinian children; the unlawful seizure, appropriation, and destruction of Palestinian property; forcible displacement, harm, and killing of civilians in the West Bank; or any further annexation of Palestinian land in violation of international law.”

Thanedar says he now regrets sponsoring the resolution and has asked the sponsors of the measure to remove his name. He has since added his support of Israel to his campaign website, along with a resolution that condemns antisemitism.

“While Israel must respect the human and civil rights of Palestinians, Palestinian leadership must condemn the violence perpetrated by Hamas and recognize the state of Israel’s right to exist,” the website states. “I believe this is an achievable goal, and that with strong leadership from the United States we can achieve a two-state solution, with a shared capital in Jerusalem and peace throughout the Middle East.”

Hollier, who served in the Army as a captain, says Israel is a critical partner to the U.S.

“I think Israel is an incredibly important strategic ally,” he says. “They are important to the region. The continued expansion of settlements makes it more difficult for a two-state solution. … Israel’s right to exist should not continue to be up for debate, but there are a lot of folks who challenge that.”

Thanedar has urged Hollier to “denounce” the PAC funding, saying the ads are misleading and intended to influence Hollier’s position on the Middle East.

“Allowing special interests to buy politicians is one of the most despicable and corrupting influences in our modern political system,” Thanedar said in a statement to Metro Times. “Adam invited this corruption into the 13th District. What the people need is a congressperson who will represent them — not another sold-out politician.”

12th Congressional District race

Another pro-Israel PAC, Urban Empowerment Action, has pledged to spend up to $1 million to unseat U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a progressive Democrat from Detroit and the first woman of Palestinian descent to be elected to Congress.

Tlaib has been an outspoken critic of Israel for its heavy-handed treatment of Palestinians.

The Atlanta-based PAC, which formed in October 2021, is supporting Tlaib’s opponent, Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey, for the 12th District seat that includes Dearborn, Livonia, Southfield, and western Detroit.

In the final weeks of the primary campaign, the PAC aired its first TV ad, and it was for Winfrey. The ad, which makes no mention of Israel, depicts Tlaib as an out-of-touch politician who refused to partner with President Joe Biden’s agenda.

“We need Democrats who will stand together for people like you and me,” the narrator says. “Janice Winfrey withstood death threats to defend our democracy. Janice Winfrey will stand up for us.”

In a statement, Urban Empowerment Action spokesman Henry Greenidge said, “Janice Winfrey has shown for over a decade that her sole focus in public life is serving her community.”

“As City Clerk, Winfrey has defended democracy and fiercely protected the voting rights of Detroiters — especially Black voters,” he said. “The contrast between her and Representative Tlaib, who chooses attention over action at every turn, couldn’t be clearer. Michigan needs a champion like Janice Winfrey who will vote for common-sense solutions like investments in infrastructure and education that improve her constituents’ quality of life.”

One of the PAC’s biggest donors is billionaire hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb, a prominent supporter of charter schools and Jewish and Israel causes.

Loeb came under fire in 2017 for writing a racist insult on Facebook about a Black state senator in New York. He accused Democratic leader Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins of having done “more damage to people of color than anyone who has ever donned a hood,” a reference to the Ku Klux Klan.

Loeb, who has since apologized, was angry that Stewart-Cousins didn’t support charter school funding.

Tlaib’s campaign spokesman denounced the ads and Loeb’s involvement, saying the intent is to mislead voters and buy an election.

“Voters in the 12th Congressional District are not fooled by this desperate attempt to twist Rep. Tlaib’s record on delivering for families and working people,” McCampbell said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that we’ve heard nothing from the opponent who these ads attempt to benefit and who just so happens to be an election official. If our opponent truly cares about democracy and transparency, she would have already denounced these ads. This outside spending only seeks to eat at the fabric of honest and open elections.”

On Winfrey’s campaign website, she lists Israel as one of her nine priorities.

In an interview with Metro Times, Winfrey assailed Tlaib for her criticism of Israel.

"When you're a sitting member of Congress of these United States and you want to do away with the most significant ally in the Middle East, that’s appalling,” Winfrey says. “I take affront to it as a tax-paying citizen. ... I can’t pay your salary for you to hate."

She adds, “When you want to do that to our largest significant ally, it’s problematic. When you want to do away with Israel today, it could be Africa next. You can’t let hate be your motivating factor."

Tlaib declined to respond to Winfrey’s allegations, and McCampbell said the campaign wants to stay focused on what’s important to voters.

Tlaib’s campaign has knocked on more than 25,000 doors and made 120,000 calls to discuss issues that are a priority to voters in her district, McCampbell said.

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Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling is an award-winning investigative journalist who operated Motor City Muckraker, an online news site devoted to exposing abuses of power and holding public officials accountable. Neavling also hosted Muckraker Report on 910AM from September 2017 to July 2018. Before launching Motor City Muckraker,...
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