Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 27, 2010

Disagreement runs deep in court race

After April 2009 breakfast meeting, recollections differ


TRAVERSE CITY — Kevin Elsenheimer and Mike Stepka don't agree on much in their increasingly contentious battle to replace Judge John Foresman on the 86th District Court.

Elsenheimer contends Stepka's supporters distorted his legal background, particularly his courtroom experience. Stepka accused Elsenheimer of false statements about him and said he's wrongly inserted partisan politics into a non-partisan race.

The candidates agree on one thing: They met for breakfast in April 2009 and discussed Foresman's likely retirement and their interest in succeeding him on the bench. From there, their versions differ.

Stepka said Elsenheimer tried to offer him a deal to step aside and ensure an Elsenheimer win.

"I remember he said: 'Mike, I can foresee you and I both being on the bench some day,'" Stepka recalled from a April 24, 2009 meeting at Minervas restaurant in Traverse City. "(He said) 'How about you step aside, let me take this one, and I'll let you take the next one. If a judge steps down early I'll help you get appointed. If one doesn't step down, I'll let you have my campaign people.'

"I was surprised, kind of shocked, disappointed," Stepka said. "I knew I wasn't going to take his offer."

Elsenheimer acknowledged he tried to convince Stepka not to run, but disagreed with Stepka's assertion he tried to cut a political deal. He said he contacted Stepka to see if he intended to run, then told Stepka he should first get some experience running a multi-county campaign, and invited him to join his judicial campaign.

While he promised future support for Stepka, he denied making any promises of a future appointment.

"I told him if a spot opened and there was a Republican governor, I would certainly say good things about him because I thought he would be a good judge," Elsenheimer said. "But no one could know in April 2009, who would be the next governor."

Judicial appointments are made by the governor. Stepka said Elsenheimer, a Republican who is the state House minority leader, told him he had a good relationship with the three Republican gubernatorial front-runners at the time, including the eventual Republican nominee, Rick Snyder.

Should an appeals court judge step down after 2010, it could open a seat for Elsenheimer to be appointed, which in turn would create a District Court vacancy.

During the meeting they discussed Elsenheimer's interest in the state Court of Appeals. He considered a run for an appeals court seat in recent years.

"He said 'My wife wants me a little closer to home and it's twice the pay, a no-brainer,'" Stepka said. "These were his exact words."

The base salary for a district judge is $138,272, nearly double state legislators' salary.

Elsenheimer said he did not make the "no-brainer" statement, but said he discussed with Stepka why he'd been interested in the Court of Appeals in 2008 as opposed to another term in the state legislature. Now Elsenheimer said he has no interest in the appeals court.

"That lifestyle isn't important to me right now. What's important to me is to be back in Traverse City," Elsenheimer said. "I want to grow old as a district court judge here in Traverse City."