Whitmer’s kidnapping trial a symbol of divisiveness in western Michigan

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Four men described by prosecutors as radicals who plotted to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer are on trial at a federal courthouse named for Gerald R. Ford, a political Mr. Nice Guy revered for his moderation and bridge building after the Watergate scandal.

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

The intense anger and partisanship tearing the American social fabric apart is playing out in western and northern Michigan, where the trial jurors live, despite the region’s longstanding reputation for Midwestern friendliness.

“The natural tendency toward civility that the 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 about politics, it’s about who’s the toughest, who’s the strongest, who can be the biggest bully.”

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

The 18 jurors and alternates were part of a pool of candidates 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, home to the museum and Ford’s grave near the courthouse – north to the tip of the Lower Peninsula, over a distance of approximately 250 miles (400 kilometers).

The only defendant with roots in this part of the state is Fox, who lived in the basement of a vacuum cleaner near Grand Rapids. But prosecutors say the planning and preparations for the kidnapping – including the training exercises and the scouting of Whitmer’s home – took place in the Western District.

Aside from Grand Rapids, a thriving manufacturing, retail, and health care center, Broadband is mostly farmland and forest dotted with small towns, some struggling economically. Its lakes and rivers attract hunters and fishermen. Summer tourists flock to its Lake Michigan shoreline. “Life, Liberty, Beaches and Pie” is the slogan of 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’s Cooley Law School, who has represented clients in federal court. “We have large agricultural areas, college towns, lots of wealth along the shores of the lake, and some rural areas close to the poor. Grand Rapids is more metropolitan, starting to have a big city feel.”

The region is largely Republican and conservative, but known for producing mild-mannered leaders, including Ford, who served in the House from 1949 to 1973. Among his GOP successors were former college professors Paul Henry, a political scientist, and physicist Vernon Ehlers. Their cerebral, non-confrontational approach played well at home.

“There are fewer class conflicts or cultural antagonisms than in the Detroit area, where there are conflicts between unions and management and other identity groups,” said Doug Koopman, professor of political science at the Calvin University of Grand Rapids. “Politics has been more civil and gentle.”

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

Another heir to the Ford 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 US Capitol. Trump is backing a primary challenger in this year’s election.

Further north in Grand Traverse County, the Board of Commissioners came under fire for hosting a pro-gun presentation by members of the far-right Proud Boys in 2020. When a local resident later criticized the move during a live meeting, a board member brandished a gun.

And the revelation last year that white students at a local high school had staged a mock “slave auction” on black classmates’ social media has fueled a community clash over the fight against racism, some conservative parents alleging indoctrination in “critical race theory”.

The public health officer for four northern counties resigned in February, complaining of intimidation and threats from critics of his 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,” said a long-haul truck driver, while another man expressed general distrust of the government and a third described himself as affiliated with a group called Stand Up Michigan who opposed the lockdown. All were fired, along with a woman who praised the governor.

U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker repeatedly told prospective jurors that the trial was not about politics, but that strong opinions would not disqualify them. What mattered, he said, was whether they could put their views aside and reach a verdict based solely on the evidence.

“It will be a challenge,” said Tom Gezon, a longtime prosecutor and defense attorney in West Michigan. The extremely political context of the case, he said, is “very unusual and certainly an important factor”.

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

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

“Social media is going into overdrive,” he said. “You can say whatever you want on the internet.”

Political extremism is not new to the region, he said. It was a hotbed of anti-government “militia” activity in the 1990s.

But no matter what people think of Whitmer, he added, few if any would approve of what the defendants allegedly plotted.

“They are fiercely independent, proud of who they are, distrustful of government and ready 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 full AP 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 lives in the Western District of Michigan. Earlier versions stated that none of the defendants were from that part of the state.