LANSING, Mich. – Two Michigan lawmakers who were booted from office over an extramarital affair and convoluted cover-up scheme are seeking redemption — and their old seats — at the polls.
Tea party leaders Todd Courser, who resigned rather than be expelled, and Cindy Gamrat, who was ousted, will appear on the ballot in Tuesday's special primary elections, which come less than two months after their Sept. 11 ouster. Instead of returning to their former endeavors — he is a lawyer, she home-schools her children — they hope to astonish the political establishment with a return to the Capitol.
Their bids are a longshot, but not out of the realm of possibility: Turnout likely will be low and so many Republican candidates are vying to fill the conservative House seats (11 in Courser's district, eight for Gamrat's seat) that the votes could be split enough for a victory.
"It's a chance for voters to finally close the book on these two," said Lansing-based GOP political consultant Tom Shields. The special general elections will be held in March.
A leading contender to succeed Courser, Jan Peabody, said as she campaigns across rural Lapeer County, residents have voiced frustration that Courser could resign and run again. She has a 10-point "code of conduct" in which she pledges to solve problems, "not create new and embarrassing" ones.
"This community is starving for representation right now and positive constituent relations," said Peabody, a nurse who finished second to Courser in the 2014 primary.
The saga began in May, when Courser sent a sexually explicit phony email to Republicans and reporters that said he had been caught having sex with a male prostitute behind a Lansing nightclub. The self-smear email called Courser a "bi-sexual porn addicted sex deviant" and "gun toting Bible thumping ... freak" and Gamrat a "tramp." Courser explained that he thought his tale would make the affair less plausible in case it was revealed by an anonymous extortionist who sent him and Gamrat text messages demanding that he resign.
Outspoken about their Christian faith and morals, Courser and Gamrat made waves even before the scandal, outlining a 10-point "contract for liberty" in advance of majority Republicans' agenda and clashing with GOP leadership.
Gamrat, just the fourth lawmaker ever expelled from the Legislature, hopes her staunch conservative record on abortion and guns and opposition to a tax hike for roads resonates with voters who she believes have forgiven her or were not bothered by her private indiscretions.
"Voters didn't have a voice in what happened in Lansing. I believe it should be up to the people, not the politicians," she told The Associated Press.
But people have often brought up the expulsion when Mary Whiteford, who lost to Gamrat last year and is running again, campaigns door to door. "Many apologize to me for not voting for me the first time," she said.
Another candidate for Gamrat's seat, county commissioner Jim Storey, said he does not even have to bring up the scandal. Residents "volunteer that they are quite surprised ... that she would have the audacity to run again," he said.
Establishment groups, which Courser has called the "Lansing mafia," largely are throwing their financial support behind Whiteford and Peabody. An education policy group with ties to one of the state's Republican mega-donors mailed advertisements attacking Courser and Gamrat for misusing state resources to cover up the affair.
Courser asked a legislative aide who worked for him and Gamrat to send the infamous email, but the aide — who secretly recorded their conversation — refused and was later fired along with another staffer. Courser has accused the employees of being involved and conspiring with the speaker's office. In response, the staffers have filed a whistleblower and libel/slander lawsuit against Courser and Gamrat, alleging that they were instructed to hide the relationship by lying to Gamrat's husband and were fired for reporting misconduct and abuse.
Courser, who did not respond to an interview request, posts updates on his campaign website and Facebook. He characterizes his GOP opponents as too liberal and anti-tea party, doubting they would stand against higher fuel taxes and vehicle fees recently approved by the House.
"You can either see that I pushed hard day in and day out against the Progressive mess or you can't," he wrote. "You can either see that I did it because I love God, my family, my country and because I love the people of my District or you can't."