Sterling Heights’ Aug. 3 mayoral primary is about more than who leads Sterling Heights. It’s also shining a light on what it means to be a conservative in a Republican Party still dominated by Donald Trump.
Last year Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor made national news — and not the good kind, for some in the GOP.
The lifelong Republican said he supported Democrat Joe Biden, not then-President Donald Trump.
And as Election Day approached, Taylor made an almost eerie prophecy.
“If there’s not a decisive winner declared on the Election Night or the next morning, there’s the potential for really serious problems. I think President Trump is stoking those sorts of fears and that sort of anger. And if he thinks that the election was stolen from him, or even if he doesn’t think that but he says it, I’m afraid that would be a call to arms to a lot of people.”
Now Taylor faces his own bid for reelection, after seven years as mayor.
Amid a crowd of thousands gathered on a recent night for a free concert at Sterling Heights’ Dodge Park, Taylor says he expects zero support from Republican operatives.
“There’s really just no place in the party for people who are anti-Trump. Watching how the GOP defended Trump after anybody who could count knew that the election was over, watching the GOP defend him even after that insurrection, I don’t share the same values as the people who are leading the GOP,” he says.
People have called him a RINO — Republican in Name Only — but it’s a label he doesn’t identify with at all.
“Not even in name am I a Republican. I want nothing to do with the GOP,” he says.
Taylor says he knows that in many ways that decision hangs over the mayoral election.
“And a lot of people are going to vote based on whether I support Trump or not. But I don’t think it’s going to be enough to matter. I got a call on Monday from somebody that said, ‘I just wanted to confirm, did you vote for Biden?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I did.’ And she says, ‘Well I’m not voting for you.’ And hung up the phone.”
Sterling Heights voted decisively for Trump. Twice.
“But the reality is the residents of the city of Sterling Heights, they don’t care about Donald Trump’s Twitter account or Facebook. They care about what’s happening in their neighborhood. And I’ve proven that I can deliver results. So that’s what I think’s going to work for me,” Taylor says.
Voting ‘for the Good of Our Household’
In a nearby beer garden, Paula Vandermuss sits with her husband, Robert Hrabak, noting the city has placed signs near areas renovated under Taylor’s administration — signs that read in essence, “Here’s how your tax money’s being used.”
“We were just talking about how all of this — the community center and redoing Dodge Park — has brought such life to the city. And our taxes are still well below average of other places in Metro Detroit that we’ve lived. We think the city services are great. So we think our money’s being well spent,” Vandermuss says.
Hrabak says marriage drew him from Birmingham to Sterling Heights. But he says the city’s attention to road work made him a fan.
“Shortly after we started dating I was driving my car and one of the streets literally tore a spoke off of my wheel due to a pothole. That same road is smooth as silk now. So bang for the buck. Everything that this town is doing for us is been really positive,” Hrabak says.
The couple say they’re more concerned with the city’s amenities than whether its mayor disavowed the GOP.
“We have realized in recent elections to vote down party line just doesn’t make sense because we’re not agreeing with all of the policies that either party’s standing for.” — Paula Vandermuss, Sterling Heights voter
“If we were thinking traditional by party line given our professions, our income level, everything, we would probably be Republican. But we have realized in recent elections to vote down party line just doesn’t make sense because we’re not agreeing with all of the policies that either party’s standing for. So we’re more voting for what we think is for the good of our household,” Vandermuss says.
Hrabak says he’s more interested in what a political party does than who it supports. “If it’s about brand, and if the brand of Trump reflects the brand of the Republican Party, then I may have an issue. Because policy is not party, and party is not policy. If Taylor’s reflected himself as someone who believes in policy over party then that’s the kind of mayor I can strongly get behind. Because he’s willing to show courage in the line of fire.”
City Spending a Factor in Challenger’s Candidacy
Taylor’s challenger is banking that the policies of the mayor and his council colleagues will undermine the election sloganeering already lining the streets.
Former Sterling Heights City Councilman Ken Nelson says he’s semi-retired from the real estate business. But the city’s recent spending spree on renovations drove him back into politics.
“Everybody on there now on the council and the mayor have turned into a liberal bunch. So it’s buy now, pay later in everything they do. They’re very liberal in their spending,” he says.
City officials argue Sterling Heights has an excellent credit rating. But Nelson counters that it’s all based on debt residents will be paying off for more than a decade.
“Our city’s in sorry financial shape. [As of] 6/30/2021, the city was in debt $202 million. And that’s out of a fiscal year budget of $228 [million]. So we have almost as much debt as our yearly budget,” he says.
Nelson says he’s running as a fiscal conservative but not as a Republican. Though he strongly supports Trump — to the point where last year he helped organize an event commemorating the 9/11 attacks that also doubled as a Trump rally — Nelson notes that the mayoral ballot does not list candidates’ party affiliation.
So Nelson is billing himself as a nonpartisan conservative.
“A lot of people [tell me], ‘There’s no such thing as nonpartisan.’ Well, yes there is. My conservative values have all come from being a Republican in the past. Right now I am an independent. I have been in the past very active with the Republicans.”
For Nelson’s supporters, like longtime Sterling Heights resident Don Kochanowski, voting for an individual’s qualifications far outweighs following state or national party preferences.
“There is no crossing the aisle and getting things done. You’re not voting for a name, you’re voting for a party anymore. So that’s one thing about Ken, he’s pretty honest with all the people,” Kochanowski says.
‘Personal Political Views Shouldn’t Matter’
That lack of trust in the state and national GOP leadership even extends to some of those guiding the party on a more local level.
Macomb County Republican Party Chairman Mark Forton says whether a GOP candidate backed Trump should matter to voters. But he says the Michigan Republican Party itself is only paying lip service to backing Trump.
“We asked them to have a meeting to discuss the possibility of censuring two Republican congressmen – [Peter] Meijer and [Fred] Upton — who voted to impeach the president while he was out of office,” Forton says. “They won’t even get together to discuss such a thing, saying that we should not criticize our own. Which just makes people madder because that’s exactly what they did when they impeached him when he was out of office.”
Forton contends Republicans and Democrats are two wings of the same political bird.
“It’s a big game. One side plays against the other. People are starting to wake up and realize ‘You know what? We gotta clean up our own house first.’ ”
National politics seem far away back at Dodge Park where Wesley Holliday lounges on a lawn next to his wife and a placid, large brown dog.
Holliday says he doesn’t have a dog in the fight yet over who will be the mayor of Sterling Heights. But he says current Mayor Taylor’s support for Joe Biden won’t be a factor.
“I like to think that I’m a little bit more conservative. But there’s a lot of ideas of Trump’s that I didn’t agree with necessarily,” Holliday said. “[Taylor’s] personal political views shouldn’t matter on everything that he’s doing for the city and everything that he’s willing to do. That’s really his business, it’s kind of personal.”
Trump is still widely seen as the face of the GOP nationally.
Sterling Heights’ primary will test whether Trump casts as large a shadow over a mayoral race where candidates are running on issues of renovations and debt — and running away from the Republican Party.
Listen: Sterling Heights primary election will be a test of Trump’s influence on the city.