May 7 Recall Election Against Desiraé Simmons Fueled by Landlord Funds, Republican Operatives

Ruth Cassidy
May 7 Recall Election Against Desiraé Simmons Fueled by Landlord Funds, Republican Operatives

Editor’s Note: Desiraé Simmons is a core member of What’s Left Ypsi, and had nothing to do with the production of this article.

Article synopsis: Analysis of recall campaign donors reveals a carpetbagging campaign funded by landlords, Republican donors, and an influential Ann Arbor lobbyist. These actors are attempting to remove the Democratically-elected Desiraé Simmons, the City Council member elected to represent Ypsilanti’s Ward 3. Almost all landlord funders associated with this recall attempt do not reside in the city of Ypsilanti, and do not reside in Ward 3. Additionally, the recall campaign hired a Republican political operative to aggressively collect signatures from renters in properties owned by their landlord donors. On May 7th, the recall election will take place. You can find information about how to vote here.

In Ypsilanti’s November 2022 elections, Desiraé Simmons won the Ward 3 city council seat with 1,682 votes, consisting of 76% of the votes cast in the race. Her opponent won less than 24% (526) of votes. Prior to the general election, Simmons overwhelmingly won the August 2022 Democratic primary with close to 90% of the votes cast, earning her the place as the Democratic nominee. Simmons served on city council for just over a year (the minimum amount of time before a recall is allowed) before a group began the process to remove her from that seat. 

The caboose in Depot Town which the recall campaign calls ‘home’

“89% of the recall campaign donors are landlords and 79% of recall campaign dollars came from landlords.”

On February 2, 2024, the recall group ‘Ypsilanti Forward’ submitted 747 signatures to Washtenaw County’s elections office. Of the 747 submitted signatures, election officials determined 606 were valid, narrowly exceeding the 603 threshold and triggering a recall election against Simmons. Shortly thereafter, Rod Johnson, a member of the recall group, filed to challenge Simmons as a nonpartisan candidate. The Republican Party declined to nominate their own candidate, so these are the only two candidates on the ballot.

A number of landlords backing the recall group appear to have either collected signatures themselves or facilitated aggressive signature collectors’ access to their tenants. Stories have circulated that landlords allowed signature collectors repeated access to buildings they owned until they collected enough signatures from their tenants. Additionally, some have stated that signature collectors made false or misleading statements supporting the recall effort. This raises ethical concerns about landlords potentially abusing their power to pressure tenants, who may fear loss of housing or other retaliation, into signing onto a petition that they might have otherwise declined. 

The recently-released campaign finance records reveal that the recall campaign was headed by Ypsilanti Forward’s treasurer Sally Richie. Sally Richie, along with her spouse Rex Richie, act as landlords in Ypsilanti. The Richies do not live in Desiraé Simmons’ ward and do not reside in the City of Ypsilanti. The Richies initially filed their recall campaign group, the misleadingly-named “Ypsilanti Forward,” to their home address, but later changed the address to a lot in Depot Town that is vacant except for a caboose. This property is owned by a company associated with various landlords including the Richies and the Frenches. 

The Richies have been very active on social media promoting their recall effort, sometimes in a misleading manner. For example, Rex Richie posted a “congratulations” to Ypsilanti Forward, without disclosing his participation and funding of the group. Furthermore, his post falsely stated that the group had recalled Simmons, when the group had only collected just enough signatures to trigger the May 7 election. Residents of Ypsilanti’s Ward 3 should be aware that Simmons has not yet been recalled, but this is pending the outcome of the May 7 election. Sally Richie has shared multiple deceptively-edited videos of Simmons. For one example, a video was edited to make it appear that Simmons advocacy for child safety amounted to “wanting children in Ypsilanti to be able to act up and break into houses and be safe.” In the full video containing the comments in question, Simmons expressed concerns about public safety, as it applies to children, and pointed out that certain kids have previously been allowed to act out without threats to their safety. Her main discussion was about public safety related to children. 

Newly-posted paperwork of “Ypsilanti Forward” reveals its donors. The recall campaign group is funded almost entirely by landlords who do not reside in the city of Ypsilanti. 92% of the recall campaign dollars came from donors who do not reside in Ward 3. 89% of the recall campaign donors are landlords and 79% of recall campaign dollars came from landlords. The only recall-funder who appears to be registered in Ward 3 is Linda French, who owns Sidetracks and other properties in Ypsilanti. 

Linda French’s nephew and owner of Aubree’s, Andrew French, is another notable donor to the recall. He is also a donor to Republican causes; his donor contributions reveal donations to WINRED, Republican Nikki Haley, and the conservative-leaning Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, of which he serves as president and director. He resides in Ann Arbor.

An anonymous testimony from a Ward 3 resident

Other Republican donors who also donated to the recall campaign include Mitch Jerden of Plymouth, Rick Fischer Jr. of Brighton, and Bob Barnes of Ann Arbor. Despite landlords Barnes of Barnes & Barnes and Fischer Jr. using their business addresses on their donation receipts, their registered home addresses are actually in Ann Arbor and Brighton, respectively. Fischer owns a Honda dealership in Ypsilanti and was the business owner who inflated the cost of a property the city sought to purchase in order to connect the Border to Border trail.

The only non-landlord donor to the recall campaign is lobbyist Kirk Profit, who resides in Ann Arbor and has lobbied for the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, among other municipalities. Profit may have a conflict of interest in bankrolling a recall campaign against a City Council member of a city he sells lobbying services to. Simmons has previously raised concerns about how well some of his lobbying activities around housing issues serve the needs of her Ypsilanti constituents. He may have other unknown motives for funding this recall attempt, but attempting to remove city council members who might raise performance concerns about his lobbyist efforts are concerning. 

Andrew French and Cheryl Farmer provided “in-kind” donations to “Ypsilanti Forward.” Cheryl Farmer is the former mayor of Ypsilanti who led the city council to speculate on and become financially burdened by the Water Street property that saddled the city with debt and the city’s financial standing, a decision about which she has stated “I don’t have any regrets.” When the city subsequently faced financial difficulties, Farmer and her allies supported a city income tax. This was a key issue during the very same Rod Johnson’s unsuccessful race against the late Pete Murdock, who defeated Johnson in the 2008 Democratic primary. Johnson also ran unsuccessfully in 2006 against Brian Robb

Rod Johnson flyer from ‘Michigan Deserves Better’ that curves IRS requirements by not telling recipients to vote – rather to “thank” Johnson for “standing up for Ypsilanti values”

Cheryl Farmer has been the public face of the recall campaign, openly citing city leaders for approving housing developments that included tax incentives for affordable housing as a reason for the recall. This is aligned with her history of opposition to affordable housing development in Ypsilanti, including opposition to an affordable housing development at Water Street by claiming “We have apartments everywhere and we have a high percentage of renters everywhere. It’s not really the type of housing I was hoping to get on the site. Section 8 is an issue for us. If you’re going to be marketing it like that, that’s totally a problem.” In response, the late City Council Member Pete Murdock stated: 

“You’re telling me you don’t like the people that live here?” Murdock said. “I have trouble with that. The former mayor [Cheryl Farmer] wants to live in the past. She still has her dream from years ago… A bankrupt city isn’t going to attract anyone. We have a proposal. It’s a residential housing complex. That is a kind of density the city needs to basically grow.” 

In addition to opposition to affordable housing like those developed by Avalon housing, Rod Johnson’s campaign has made opposition to the Dorsey Estates – which included affordable housing provisions as per the city’s Community Benefits Ordinance – a key feature of his recall campaign. The project was approved prior to Simmons joining city council and had groundbreaking in late 2022. This opposition reveals another dimension of inconsistency present in the recall campaign, as Rod Johnson voted in favor of Dorsey Estates as a member of the Community Benefits committee that oversaw the negotiations of that development.

“A number of landlords backing the recall group appear to have either collected signatures themselves or facilitated aggressive signature collectors’ access to their tenants. Stories have circulated that landlords allowed signature collectors repeated access to buildings they owned until they collected enough signatures from their tenants.”

Some of the landlords who have funded or materially supported the recall group also sued Ypsilanti to block Ypsilanti’s requirement to inform residents about elections. The landlords supporting both the recall attempt and acting as parties to this lawsuit include Bob Barnes and Karen Mauerer. They joined with the Thomas More Society, a far-right legal group, and fought giving tenants voting and election information provided by the city. However, with this recall campaign, they facilitated access and created pressure for their tenants to sign on to a recall campaign that suited their business interests. 

Additionally, Ypsilanti Forward hired a Republican operative associated with disinformation campaigns against Democrats for “signature collection.” Expenditure receipts reveal that the landlord-led group hired a Republican-owned firm called “Public Square Productions.” It is owned by Anthony Markwort of Lansing. Anthony Markwort is a Republican operative who was the Caucus Director and Chief Marketing Officer for the Michigan Republicans. A notable funder of Anthony Markwort’s work is the Devos-backed Michigan Freedom Network. This group creates and spreads fake news that disinforms about Democratic policies, to the benefit of Michigan Republicans, under the guise of “satire.” 

Besides the recall group “Ypsilanti Forward” associated with Rod Johnson’s campaign, Johnson is also receiving backing from a dark-money organization called ‘Michigan Deserves Better,’ in the form of direct mailers. The organization is based in Lansing and has undisclosed donors, hence it is a dark-money group. Since “Michigan Deserves Better” has a specific IRS structure, it is legally limited in its political activities. It is supposed to exclusively “promote social welfare,” and should not be engaged in direct campaigning for or against any candidates. However, the organization is circumventing this rule by framing the ask to voters as “Call Rod Johnson to thank him” instead of directly asking for mailer recipients’ votes. 

In addition to backing the recall against Desiraé Simmons, Michigan Deserves Better has recently sent direct mailers attacking elected Democrats who represent Ypsilanti. State Senator Jeff Irwin, State Representative Jimmy WIlson, Jr. and Washtenaw County Commissioner Annie Somerville were targeted by an attack ad falsely accusing them of supporting tax raises. Motivations of this organization are unclear, but the mailers appear to be referencing the three representatives’ support of Michigan legislature approving debt relief for Ypsilanti Community Schools. The dark-money group has now moved on to campaigning for Johnson’s attempted recall of Simmons.

Disinformative flyer about local elected officials “Paid for by Michigan Deserves Better”

[Disambiguity: An incorrect claim circulated on social media by a Johnson supporter falsely identified an organization by the same name, located in the Livonia/Northville area as the organization behind the mailers. This separate organization has a history of advocating for no-fault insurance and does NOT appear associated with the attacks on local Democratic elected officials.] 

Rod Johnson has repeatedly stated that he is a “life long Democrat.” That may be so, but he chose not to run in the relevant 2022 Democratic primary for this seat and helped create this recall campaign instead. Therefore, he is not representing Democrats in this race and is instead attempting to undo the choices of the Democratic and general election voters. He is benefiting from a recall campaign that is funded by outside landlords and dark money, which funnels money to Republican operatives. If you live in Ypsilanti Ward 3, I recommend you not let the recall campaign win, vote for Desiraé Simmons on May 7… and tell your friends to do the same. 

Post Script: An unintentional yet compelling metaphor for this recall campaign fueled by landlords who reside neither in Ward 3 nor Ypsilanti City: cabooses are generally no longer used. This is because “[t]rains became longer, making it difficult for the conductor to see the entire train from the caboose, and freight cars became so high that they blocked the view from the traditional cupola.” Like a caboose, a candidate attempting to ride into power on a landlords’ caboose may be too “high up” to effectively address the issues that are apparents from a grounded vantage point. The local crisis of unaffordable housing is one of those issues.