GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — With billboards, radio spots and flyers, an ad campaign backed by a group called Safe GR paints the city of Grand Rapids as anything but safe: murders up, gun crime up, car thefts on the rise.
The campaign, with help from a leader of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, would appear to fit with the nonprofit’s documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission. Those documents describe the campaign as “non-candidate/issue advertisements.”
But Safe GRs’s website and some of the flyers it has left at homes around the city have clearly targeted one candidate: 1st Ward City Commissioner Kurt Reppart, who is running for reelection against newcomer Drew Robbins. Both are West Siders.
“This one here,” said Reppart, holding one of the eight flyers handed out in his neighborhood, “they put my head on somebody else’s body. But at least they gave me bigger muscles.”
The ads and the Safe GR website accuse Reppart, who joined the city commission in 2017, of working to defund the Grand Rapids Police Department.
“It feels dirty to me, especially because my name and face is on it, and I don’t know where it’s coming from,” Reppart said. “It feels like cyberbullying, is what it feels like.”
“I certainly don’t like being targeted and I certainly think that most of the information is not entirely accurate,” he said.
Reppart said Robbins doesn’t need help from what he calls dark money and questions who’s behind it.
“It does seem interesting that the strategies are similar and they’re using the same statistics with the same talking points,” Reppart said.
Robbins has raised $60,000 for his campaign — with help from seven members of the DeVos family, who each gave $1,050, and from the Grand Rapids Police Officers Association PAC, which gave $10,000.
That’s triple the amount raised by Reppart, whose list of big donors includes the West Michigan Cannabis Guild, which donated $1,050.
A spokeswoman for the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office said Safe GR isn’t required to file as a political action committee, which must provide the state with detailed financial reports. But, she said, it is required to file reports on “independent expenditures” if it spends $100 or more for or against a candidate. Those reports are supposed to be filed with the state within 10 days of the spending, the spokeswoman said.
Records show Safe GR, which was incorporated in February, hasn’t done that. FCC records alone show the group spent more than $24,000 on radio advertising.
Kent County Director of Elections Jared Uzarski said Safe GR hasn’t registered with the county. He said a resident recently complained to his office about Safe GR and he referred the resident to the state.
In a brief phone conversation Thursday with Target 8, Robbins said he was not connected to Safe GR, that he wasn’t coordinating his campaign with the group and that he didn’t know the people behind it, though he said they shared the same message. Robbins did not respond to Target 8’s repeated messages on Friday.
FCC records show that Joshua Lunger, vice president of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, signed off on Safe GR’s ads. Lunger, the Chamber’s vice president of government affairs, donated $200 to Robbins’ campaign, Kent County campaign finance records show. The chamber’s political action committee was Robbins’ biggest donor, giving $10,500. Chamber President and CEO Rick Baker gave $1,000.
“I don’t understand why the chamber would be involved in painting our city in this particular way,” Reppart said. “Do we have issues to solve? Absolutely. The business community has a right for the city to be safe, but to blast it up on billboards that our city’s unsafe is just not accurate.”
Target 8 reached out to Lunger from the Chamber but did not hear back.
Target 8 also tried reaching out to Kendall Grable, the Ottawa County man who, according to state corporation records, is listed as Safe GR’s “incorporator.” He’s also listed in the nonprofit’s FCC records. He did not respond.
Another man identified in FCC records as a governing member of Safe GR, Ben Shachter, of Grand Rapids, refused to discuss its campaign.
“I don’t care what you think, man,” he said when Target 8 questioned whether Safe GR was a source of dark money.
When asked if Safe GR was supporting Robbins, he responded: “I’m not supporting anyone.”