BY BRIAN McGILLIVARY
TRAVERSE CITY — A candidate for 86th District Court judge contends his opponent violated judicial ethics rules with false statements in automated telephone calls to voters.
Traverse City attorney Mike Stepka said his opponent, State Rep. Kevin Elsenheimer, falsely portrayed him as a liberal endorsed by local Democratic Party officials in a "robo" call created by one of Elsenheimer's supporters.
Elsenheimer stood by the robo call until Monday, when he said his "campaign made a mistake" when he approved a recorded campaign call that relied solely on information passed on to him by former Traverse City Mayor Michael Estes, another Elsenheimer supporter.
Elsenheimer said Estes told him he observed a document that listed Stepka as being endorsed by local Democrats. Estes provided no documentation and Elsenheimer said he didn't ask for proof before he approved a robo call that also accused Stepka of believing the Constitution is a "living document."
Grand Traverse County Democratic Party officials said they have not endorsed Stepka, and Estes last week told the Record-Eagle he may have been "somehow mistaken" when he relayed that information to Elsenheimer.
"I'm dumfounded," Estes said. "All I can say is I must have been wrong because I don't think they would lie."
Estes said he glanced at campaign literature that included local Democrats' slate of candidates and thought he saw Stepka's name. Later that day he passed the information to Elsenheimer. He said he threw away the flier.
"I hope I didn't screw this up," Estes said.
Stepka, a Republican Grand Traverse County commissioner, said Elsenheimer's robo call leveled false charges against him and damaged his campaign.
"It's a blatant fallacy that I've been endorsed by the Democratic Party or that I've ever said anywhere that the Constitution is a living document," Stepka said.
Elsenheimer learned last week that Estes backpedaled on what he said about Stepka. On Monday, Elsenheimer said he had not spoken with Estes, but said, "Clearly, then, our campaign made a mistake in relying on Mike Estes' information."
Elsenheimer and Stepka are engaged in a heated battle to win a judicial seat on the 86th District Court currently held by Judge John Foresman, who is retiring. The judicial district includes Antrim, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau counties and is laden with Republican-leaning voters.
Stepka said he believes the call was an attempt to create a partisan, political atmosphere in a race for a non-partisan elected office. And it's evidence Elsenheimer adopted an anything-goes strategy to capture Forseman's seat, he said.
"He's running this like a House race by injecting partisan politics into it," Stepka said of Elsenheimer. "I see him potentially destroying all my hard work and all of the money I have invested with that damn robo call."
Stepka contends Elsenheimer violated Michigan's judicial canons, a set of ethics rules that governs judicial behavior.
Michigan ethics rules for judges state that a judge or a candidate for judicial office: "Should not knowingly, or with reckless disregard, use or participate in the use of any form of public communication that is false."
Elsenheimer countered that he's been troubled by letters in area newspapers from Stepka supporters and decided he needed to "shore up my base."
The contested call featured a narrative by Triston Cole, an unsuccessful Republican legislative candidate and member of Elsenheimer's campaign. It endorsed Elsenheimer as a conservative, then said Stepka "has been endorsed by the local Democratic parties, and thinks the Constitution is a living document."
Cole declined to identify a source for his statement or provide documentation. He also could not cite any comments by Stepka that indicated a liberal interpretation of the Constitution.
"That's my own opinion, and everybody's got one," Cole said.
Elsenheimer called Estes, who once ran for state Senate as a Democrat, a "very reliable source" who was "unassailable" and "beyond reproach." He also said after looking at sign locations and where campaigning was being done he concluded Estes was correct.
The Antrim County Republican Party publicly endorsed Elsenheimer.
Official: No endorsements
The Democratic leaders from the three counties said they have not endorsed anyone in the judicial race.
"How would Mr. Estes know? He's not a party member and has nothing to do with the Grand Traverse County Democratic Party," said Diana Ketola, party chairwoman.
Ketola said individual members can support whomever they want, but the party generally doesn't endorse candidates in non-partisan races. She added the Grand Traverse party office once held "probably eight to 10" Stepka signs, but they were among several candidate signs that were available there in non-partisan contests, including other judicial races and the Northwestern Michigan College trustee campaign.
"People bring stuff in here all the time. We try to make it convenient for people," Ketola said, adding the office currently has no Stepka signs and anyone who asks for one is sent to his campaign office.
Ketola said she called Cole to complain about Elsenheimer's robo call.
"I said, 'you're lying to people. We have not endorsed (Stepka)'," Ketola said.
Jim McKimmy, Antrim County's Democratic Party chairman, said he personally sent out an e-mail supporting Stepka but the party did not endorse anyone.
Elsenheimer said the 86th District Court seat "is a judicial position, not a partisan position," but said campaigns are about winning. Of his decision to aprove the robo call, he said, "Estes told me something very clearly; he told (the Record-Eagle) something else. I asked him twice and he was quite certain about it."
Staff writer Bill O'Brien contributed to this report.