Whitmer kidnapping trial symbol of discord in west Michigan

Mar 11, 2022, 11:11 AM | Updated: 3:10 pm

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Four men described by prosecutors as radicals who schemed to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer are on trial in a federal courthouse named for Gerald R. Ford, a political Mr. Nice Guy revered for moderation and bridge-building after the Watergate scandal.

To some extent, the jarring contrast reflects the direction politics and public discourse have taken since the former president represented the Grand Rapids area in Congress — and particularly in recent years.

Anger and intense partisanship tearing the U.S. social fabric are showing up in western and northern Michigan, where the trial’s jurors live, despite the area’s longtime reputation for Midwestern congeniality.

“The natural tendency toward civility that government has always tried to promote has diminished incredibly,” said Bill Rustem, a veteran GOP political operative and aide to several Michigan governors. “Instead of a rational debate over policy, it’s becoming who’s tougher, who’s stronger, who can be the bigger bully.”

Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta, Barry Croft and Daniel Harris were charged in October 2020 with conspiring to abduct Whitmer from her northern Michigan vacation home. Prosecutors allege they were members of extremist paramilitary groups angry over the Democrat’s COVID-19 restrictions. Defense attorneys say there was no plot and the men were cajoled by undercover FBI agents.

The 18 jurors and alternates were among a candidate pool drawn from a 22-county section of the federal court district covering western Michigan. It extends from just below Grand Rapids — the state’s second-largest city, where Ford’s museum and gravesite are located near the courthouse — northward to the tip of the Lower Peninsula, a distance of roughly 250 miles (400 kilometers).

The only defendant with roots in that part of the state is Fox, who was living in the basement of a vacuum shop near Grand Rapids. But prosecutors say planning and preparations for the abduction — including training exercises and the scouting of Whitmer’s house — happened in the western district.

Aside from Grand Rapids, a thriving center of manufacturing, retail and health care, the broad swath is mostly farmland and forests dotted with small cities, some economically struggling. Its lakes and rivers draw hunters and anglers. Summer tourists flock to its Lake Michigan coastline. “Life, liberty, beaches and pie” is the slogan for Cherry Republic, a company near Traverse City that sells products made with the region’s signature fruit.

“It’s a good cross-section of the country,” said Tonya Krause-Phelan, a professor at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, who has represented clients in federal court. “We have large agricultural areas, college towns, a lot of wealth along the lakeshore and some rural areas close to impoverished. Grand Rapids is more metropolitan, starting to have a big-city feel.”

The area is largely Republican and conservative, yet known for producing mild-mannered leaders, including Ford, who served in the House from 1949-73. Among his GOP successors were former college professors Paul Henry, a political scientist, and physicist Vernon Ehlers. Their cerebral, non-confrontational approach played well back home.

“There’s less class conflict or cultural antagonism than in the Detroit area, where you have unions versus management and other identity grouping clashes,” said Doug Koopman, a political science professor at Calvin University in Grand Rapids. “Politics has been more civil and gentle.”

But the region’s bonhomie has frayed in recent years amid nationwide upheaval.

Another heir to Ford’s seat, first-term Rep. Peter Meijer, drew attacks from fellow Republicans and even death threats for voting to impeach former President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol. Trump is backing a primary challenger in this year’s election.

Farther north in Grand Traverse County, the board of commissioners came under fire for welcoming a pro-gun presentation from members of the far-right Proud Boys in 2020. When a local resident later criticized the move during a livestreamed meeting, a board member brandished a rifle.

And disclosure last year that white students at a local high school had conducted a mock social media “slave auction” of Black classmates fueled a community clash over combating racism, with some conservative parents alleging “critical race theory” indoctrination.

The public health officer for four northern counties resigned in February, complaining of bullying and threats from critics of her decision to impose a school mask mandate.

Strong feelings about Whitmer’s pandemic orders, including temporarily staying home and wearing masks in public places, were evident during this week’s jury selection for the kidnapping trial.

“I really don’t like Whitmer,” a long-haul truck driver said, while another man voiced general distrust of government and a third described himself as affiliated with a group called Stand Up Michigan that opposed the lockdown. All were dismissed, as was a woman who praised the governor.

U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker repeatedly told would-be jurors the trial wasn’t about politics but that strong opinions wouldn’t disqualify them. What mattered, he said, was whether they could set their views aside and render a verdict based solely on the evidence.

“It will be a challenge,” said Tom Gezon, a longtime prosecutor and defense attorney in western Michigan. The case’s intensely political backdrop, he said, is “very unusual and certainly an important factor.”

Whitmer’s job performance numbers are lagging in the region, especially up north, said Bernie Porn, president of the Lansing polling firm EPIC-MRA. She carried only three of the 22 counties in her successful 2018 run.

Former U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat who represented many of the northern counties as well as the Upper Peninsula before retiring in 2010, said they’ve become more Republican and their politics “more personal,” as in much of the nation.

“Social media gins it up,” he said. “You can say whatever you want on the internet.”

Political extremism isn’t new to the area, he said. It was a hotbed of antigovernment “militia” activity in the 1990s.

But regardless of how people feel about Whitmer, he added, few if any would condone what the defendants allegedly were plotting.

“They’re fiercely independent, proud of who they are, suspicious of government and willing to fight for what they believe in,” Stupak said, “but not by resorting to violence.”

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Associated Press reporters Ed White in Detroit and Michael Tarm in Grand Rapids, Michigan, contributed to this story.

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Find AP’s full coverage of the Whitmer kidnap plot trial at: https://apnews.com/hub/whitmer-kidnap-plot-trial

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This story has been corrected to clarify that Fox was living in Michigan’s western district. Earlier versions said none of the defendants came from that part of the state.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Whitmer kidnapping trial symbol of discord in west Michigan