Election fraud, government corruption and transgender athletes were among topics discussed by Republican attorney general candidates at a Thursday night debate.
State Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, Portage attorney Matthew DePerno and former House Speaker Tom Leonard participated in a debate at the North Oakland Republican Club in Waterford Township. In one month, Republican delegates will gather in Grand Rapids to select the party’s attorney general nominee.
The Thursday night debate became chippy at times. Berman and Leonard raised a Bridge Michigan report about DePerno facing allegations of unethical behavior and criticized him for spreading blatantly false narratives about voting results in Antrim County. DePerno took particular aim at Leonard, calling him an ineffective career politician with possible ties to corruption and no will to investigate the “garbage” 2020 election.
Leonard boasts the support of more than 200 Republicans, including lawmakers, three congressmen, state committee members, prosecutors, interest groups and other conservative figures.
DePerno is endorsed by former President Donald Trump, who is coming to Michigan on April 2 to campaign for him. He also gained endorsements from Michigan Republican Party Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock, Administrative Vice-Chair Diane Schindlbeck, Ethnic Vice Chair Bernadette Smith and Grassroots Vice Chair Marian Sheridan.
GOP delegates have framed the race as a contest between the Trump-supporting “grassroots” and so-called “establishment” Republicans. Debate organizers said most of the questions submitted were about election security, a top concern for conservatives who don’t accept Trump’s loss.
Each of the candidates said they support a “forensic audit” of the 2020 results. Multiple audits by county clerks and the state Auditor General, an investigation by Senate Republicans and multiple court rulings have failed to produce evidence that fraud cost Trump a victory in Michigan. President Joe Biden won the state by 154,000 votes, according to certified results.
Leonard accused DePerno of misleading delegates about his record on the issue. DePerno claimed Leonard said there is no evidence of fraud in the 2020 election while attending last year’s Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference. But Leonard flatly denied ever saying that.
“This is Matt DePerno again lying,” Leonard said. “Nobody can find one quote in any news article or video where I said there was no fraud in the last election. I’ve been clear: “Do I believe there was fraud? Yes. Do I support an audit? Yes.”
DePerno has fueled Trump’s false election fraud claims by pursuing an unsuccessful lawsuit in Antrim County. DePerno argues a well-explained and quickly fixed error that affected unofficial results actually showed problems with Dominion Voting Systems machines used across the country, though a hand recount and state audits affirmed the accuracy of the Antrim County results.
“No one else actually stood up for what we were doing,” DePerno said. “We stood up for ‘America first’ values. We stood up for Donald Trump. We proved there was fraud in this election.”
Berman said he’s also investigated Antrim County and found that the votes were properly scanned by voting machines. DePerno then claimed the hand recount was dubious because of “fraudulent ballots.”
“I have to call out BS when I hear it,” Berman said. “When he says that it was the mail-in ballots and fraud. That’s not what happened in Antrim County. What happened in Antrim County was a discrepancy when transmitting data because the local clerks didn’t update their tabulation machines.”
DePerno later said a voter-supported ballot initiative enshrining universal absentee voting in the Michigan Constitution “codified election fraud.” All three candidates said they would investigate Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson for sending absentee ballot applications to all registered voters in 2020.
Candidates agreed on the need to investigate Whitmer’s nursing home policies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Each of the candidates also pledged to pursue reforms of Michigan’s government transparency laws, though it’s up to the Legislature to make changes. Berman said he’s backed bills to allow the public to access documents from the legislature and governor’s office.
They also opposed allowing transgender women from participating in women’s sports at state-funded schools.
“I think it’s fundamentally unfair, especially for people that like to say follow the science and then ignore it in this case, to have to appease these people with their self-identities to go and give extreme disadvantage to our children,” Berman said.
The question was inspired by Lia Thomas, a transgender athlete who won first place in the NCAA first division swimming championship.
“I don’t know how anybody can call themselves a feminist or care or claim they care about women’s rights and try to advocate and allow what happened with this elsewhere,” Leonard said.
Other issues in the debate focused on government transparency and ethics. Leonard called DePerno to disclose how he’s spent roughly $400,000 in donations raised during his election legal battles. DePerno noted that Leonard was a registered lobbyist.
DePerno said Leonard is tainted by his connection to former House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who is under investigation for alleged sexual assault of a minor and has come under scrutiny for campaign finance irregularities. Chatfield gave $72,500 to Leonard’s 2018 campaign but hasn’t contributed in the 2022 cycle.
“Follow the money,” DePerno said. “If you follow the money, it will lead directly back to Lee Chatfield and the person who created him, Tom Leonard.”
Leonard countered by saying he was vetted by the FBI after being nominated for a U.S. Attorney position by Trump.
“Dozens of FBI agents were combing through my records, combing through my life,” Leonard said. “If there was something out there it would have come up. The only person making these accusations is Matt DePerno.”
DePerno called Leonard “the Joe Biden of this election,” saying Leonard spent 2020 in his basement under COVID-19 lockdown. Leonard said that’s where his home office is located.
Berman argued that he’s proven his ability to win tough elections and doesn’t carry baggage that could be used against him. He was first elected to the state House in 2018 and was reelected in 2020.
“I’ve already beat the Democrats,” Berman said. “I’m the only one here that can win here in Southeast Michigan and doesn’t have the skeletons in the closet.”
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