Spectacle in Michigan race threatens GOP's bid for governor

FILE - Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich., speaks during a news conference in Lansing, Mich., Jan. 25, 2022. The Republican primary for Michigan governor is shaping up as a battle of whose personal baggage is the least disqualifying. In an otherwise favorable election year for Republicans, the spectacle nature of the Aug. 2 contest could hobble the partys effort to defeat Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File) (Paul Sancya, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – A leading contender for the Republican nomination for governor in Michigan was sued in the 1990s, accused of using racial slurs about Black people in the workplace and sexually harassing his employees.

One of his rivals pleaded not guilty in federal court on Thursday to misdemeanor charges after authorities said he rallied Donald Trump's supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Another candidate is a chiropractor and self-help guru who hawked supplements he falsely claimed treated COVID-19.

And even the contender who has garnered mainstream support had an “admittedly lame” hobby acting in low-budget horror pictures, one of which included a zombie biting off a man’s genitals.

In one of the most politically consequential states in the U.S., the Republican primary for governor is shaping up as a battle of whose personal baggage is the least disqualifying. In an otherwise favorable election year for Republicans, the spectacle surrounding the Aug. 2 contest could hobble the party's effort to defeat Democratic incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the fall.

“Whitmer can attack every one of them,” said Bernie Porn, a Lansing-based pollster with more than three decades experience surveying the state. “There are skeletons in the closet of most of the Republican candidates.”

The GOP campaign has been fraught from the start. Two top candidates were kicked off the ballot for submitting false petition signatures, narrowing the field to five contenders.

There's little polling to suggest there's a clear front-runner among the remaining candidates. But Republicans insist Whitmer is still vulnerable this fall given rising prices for gas and food and her close ties to President Joe Biden, whose approval ratings remain low.

The allegations against businessman Kevin Rinke, who ran his family's suburban Detroit auto-dealership empire in the 1990s, are particularly graphic.

Four employees sued in 1992 alleging that Rinke repeatedly made vulgar and belittling sexual remarks to both men and women, creating a hostile work environment that was intended to make them quit.

In an interview with The Associated Press this week, Rinke called the allegations from two separate lawsuits “blatantly false." He acknowledged making payouts to former employees, but said it was less expensive than going to trial on the accusations. Court records indicate Rinke as well as the employees agreed to have the cases dismissed.

On one occasion Rinke is alleged to have said that women “should not be allowed to work in public” because “they are ignorant and stupid" while referring to a female employee with a vulgar term, a lawsuit states.

Court documents state that Rinke also referred to his own genitals as “golden” while threatening to sexually assault a used car manager if he didn’t “do a good job.” If the manager did a “great job,” the court documents state, Rinke would have allowed the man to pleasure him sexually.

Much of Rinke’s conduct was reported by his personal secretary, who alleged that he would inquire about her underwear, call her at home if she failed to say goodnight and would also phone to ask “which young stud” she was with while speculating about her sex life. Once, when employees were looking at pictures of newborn babies, Rinke commented on how well-endowed one of the baby boys was, the lawsuit states.

Another lawsuit filed in the same year by a Black employee alleged Rinke repeatedly made derogatory racist remarks directed at him during a holiday party in December 1991.

At the party, the lawsuit says, Rinke allegedly asked the employee where the car he drove was stolen from. When the employee responded that he did not steal, Rinke is alleged to have said, “You mean you aren’t like the rest?” while using a racial slur. Rinke is accused of using the same racial slur several other times, including one instance in which he repeated a sexual stereotype about Black men’s anatomies while encouraging the employee to expose himself to others at the party, according to court documents and the lawyer who represented the employees.

Rinke told the AP that the experience prepared him to run for public office “because in America, you can accuse anybody of anything.”

“It wasn’t true then. It wasn’t true now," he added.

His rivals, however, say the allegations make him unelectable.

“He’ll never be governor because Gretchen Whitmer will just beat his brains out," said Fred Wszolek, a longtime adviser to the family of former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is running a super PAC backing Tudor Dixon, another GOP contender.

As an electoral battleground, Michigan has helped determine the winner of the past two presidential races. Trump and his allies sought to overturn the outcome of his 2020 loss in the state but were blocked by courts, and a GOP-led state Senate investigation concluded there was no widespread or systemic fraud.

But Ryan Kelley, a Grand Rapids-area real estate broker, has made election fraud and the lie that Trump won in 2020 a focus of his campaign. He was also recorded on video in Washington during the Jan. 6 insurrection directing a mob of Trump supporters toward a set of stairs leading to the U.S. Capitol. He used his phone to “film the crowd assaulting and pushing past U.S. Capitol police officers” and was part of a group that forced police to retreat, the FBI said. He pleaded not guilty during a court appearance Thursday.

Kelley, who organized armed protests inside the Michigan statehouse in the early days of the pandemic, did not respond to a request for comment made through his campaign. But he and his supporters have questioned the timing of his June arrest, arguing it was politically motivated.

The arrest, however, helped Kelley raise his profile, leading to an appearance on conservative pundit Tucker Carlson's widely watched Fox News program.

“I’ve seen the support grow tremendously,” Kelley said.

Garrett Soldano, meanwhile, used his activism during the pandemic to launch a campaign. Soldano, a Kalamazoo chiropractor, created the Facebook group Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine which gained roughly 380,000 members before the social media company shut it down amid a crackdown on the spread of misinformation and threats.

As a candidate, he's sought to appeal to social conservatives with an ad denigrating transgender rights and declaring that his preferred pronouns are “conservative, patriot."

Before his rise to prominence, the former Western Michigan University football player was a fire walking instructor and a self-help author of the book “God’s True Law: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Successful Children.” He also hawked the supplement Juice Plus, which he falsely claimed could “dominate” any virus, including COVID-19, and had the added benefit of giving him “great bowel movements.”

The Federal Trade Commission issued a letter to the multi-level marketing company that produces the supplement in 2020, warning bout the false claims made by those selling Juice Plus, among them Soldano. The company has disavowed any claims that Juice Plus was an effective COVID-19 treatment.

In a statement that did not address his biography, Soldano's campaign said he looks forward to challenging “Queen Gretchen Whitmer.”

Tudor Dixon, the the co-host of a conservative online news show, is the only woman running for the Republican nomination. She has garnered considerable Republican establishment support, including the endorsement of the wealthy DeVos family, as well as the anti-abortion group Michigan Right to Life.

Like Soldano, Dixon has also focused on the role she says parents should play in deciding educational curriculum, suggesting schools have become a hotbed of government-sponsored perversion. In social media posts, Dixon has called for school administrators to be prosecuted if it is found that children were provided with “access to sexually explicit” and “pornographic books in our schools.”

But just over a decade ago, Dixon moonlighted as an actor in low-budget horror productions that have been criticized as being at odds with her current emphasis on family values.

She had a small role in the 2011 zombie movie Buddy BeBop Vs. the Living Dead in which she is eaten alive by zombies. The film, which was filmed in the Kalamazoo area and is still available on Amazon Prime, features one scene in which a zombie consumes the midsection of a pregnant woman. In another, a zombie bites off a man's genitals as he screams.

She also had a starring role in an online TV show called Transitions, which is about vampires and was made by the same director. The show has been scrubbed from public view online. But one clip shared with the AP shows a woman starting to undress for a male vampire before Dixon's character, a British vampire named Claire, emerges from a bathroom with a sword and slashes the woman's throat.

James Blair, a strategist for Dixon, downplayed her acting, explaining that the “not-so-entertaining entertainment” was made for adults— not children.

“Tudor’s admittedly lame hobby acting from over a decade ago is in no way out of step with her mission to forge a family friendly Michigan,” said Blair.

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Report for America/Associated Press reporter Joey Cappelletti contributed from Grand Rapids.