PONTIAC – The mural on the side of Luca’s Coney Island features a big purple whale and says “Pontiac is for Lovers.” If you ask 29-year-old city council candidate Mike McGuinness and 27-year-old library board candidate Ronnie Karpinski, they’ll tell you how true it is for them.
Two-and-a-half years ago they made a commitment to each other and to the City of Pontiac, buying their first home for under $1,800 in the former red light district and fixing it up together. The pride led them to clean up around them, first the neighboring lots, then the block. Soon they were organizing the community, standing vigilant against illegal dumping, and leading the charge to have a blighted housing complex taken down.
They’ve gotten involved in the resurrection of downtown Pontiac as well. As the men walk hand in hand through the once-bustling county seat, they are greeted by everyone from businesses owners, to city leaders, to long-time residents and even regular transients. McGuinness and Karpinski are among a growing number of millennials who have fallen in love with the architecture, the art, the low cost of living and the potential to help shape a city of their choosing.
“There’s a lot more going on here than people know about. There are galleries, block parties, festivals, new businesses,” Karpinski said. “It’s like a small town feel in a historic urban setting. The community is very welcoming and there is a lot of confidence in the business community.” He noted a number of gay-owned businesses along the art-filled streets.
In this way, the whale could symbolize Pontiac’s redemption. A famous old story tells of a man who ran away from his problems, but was then trapped in the belly of a whale until he begged for a chance to do things right. When free, the man went back about the work he was destined for, helping a community find peace.
In that way, the smiling, loving whale could also symbolize what McGuinness and Karpinski will need if their campaigns are going to be successful. In McGuinness’s case he is running against incumbent Kermit Williams who was unopposed when he claimed his first term in the 7th District of Pontiac in 2009.
But the bigger challenge McGuinness faces is running against his former self.
McGuinness has six felonies on his record after pleading no contest in charges relating to the 2010 state elections. At the time he was the chair of the Oakland County Democratic Party and he was involved in a scheme to put “Tea Party” candidates on ballots in political contests where splitting the Republican vote would have made a difference in helping Democrats get elected. This was attempted in several elections across the state.
Encouraging misleading candidates to run is a distasteful, yet fairly common, political tactic. A well-known contemporary example was how someone encouraged a barber named Mike Dugeon to run against Mike Duggan in the recent Detroit Mayoral primary. A similar tactic is having people run under a party label that is misleading, such as when Republicans encourage Green Party candidates to run in order to draw votes away from Democrats, or when politicians from any camp market themselves with a disingenuous party label.
In this case, however, McGuinness went beyond the bounds of the law. He took part in falsifying documents to get unsuspecting people placed on the ballots.
Oakland County Circuit Judge James Alexander sentenced McGuinness to a year probation, 180 hours of community service, and ordered him to pay over $1,000 in fines and fees for the crimes of uttering and publishing a perjury. He and former Oakland County Democratic Party Political Director Jason Bauer both took the blame for falsifying documents to register unsuspecting people as Tea Party candidates. Ruth Johnson, Oakland County Clerk at the time, discovered the scheme after someone who had been in Arizona during the filing time, reported receiving notices about the election. Their name had been placed on the ballot without their knowledge or permission.
McGuinness has contended publically that higher levels were involved, and even earlier this year said that former state party chair Mark Brewer was the one giving the orders higher up the food chain. Brewer denied involvement and told multiple media outlets that he was involved in the Grand Jury process against McGuinness.
“You had your whole future ahead of you. It was all there for you. Now, every morning when you wake up, you won’t see a rising political star, you’ll see a convicted felon,” Judge Alexander said at the sentencing in 2011.
“I knew that it was shady,” McGuinness said when questioned about his past. “But I did it. I did not know or consider the legal ramifications. I was stupidly operating like it was a political game, like all party politics are. I was so entrenched. Politics was my life and I thought that was part of it.”
A Different Man Now
He says he is a different man now than he was at 26.
“When I was younger, I was living more in the moment and not looking at the long-term implications of my choices, looking at consequences, how it impacts those around you, those you work with, those you love. I am much more motivated to see the big picture…Then I could not see the forest through the trees.”
The felonies do not preclude McGuinness from running for office, although they do present some ethical decisions for him and for voters.
“We only have one life to live, and in my life I want to have a positive impact in the community,” McGuinness said. “I’ve had to think about this. I know the black eye that this brings to myself and my community, but I also know the talents and gifts that I have, and I don’t want to waste that. This is the only life I have. I know it is worth whatever I go through to be involved.”
After his conviction, McGuinness set about building a life away from politics. He focused on his job in the mortgage industry and restoring that first home with his now decade-long lover. But the passion for politics could not stay gone for long. “Seeing our ability to clean up our neighborhood, and get people involved, is what motivated me to stay involved and to run.”
Growing up, McGuinness spent much of his time in Pontiac, where his father has lived for decades. He marveled at the buildings, curious about the designs and the uses of old buildings. “I thought I wanted to be an architect, but as I got older I realized that it was government and politics that played a role in how things are built, what buildings get maintained and which do not. If you want to protect historical buildings, if you really want to shape a community, this is how you do it.”
Another childhood experience pushed him down the political path.
“The reason I became politically engaged and interested is because my father has some mental health issues and had been a patient at Clinton Valley Center in Pontiac. I saw first-hand when the state cut funding and closed Clinton Valley, how much it affected our lives. And all those other people who had nowhere to go, no resources. It opened my eyes to the public process.”
McGuiness got his BA from Oakland University, where he was student body president and the president of the Gay Straight Alliance. In 2009 he was given a Rising Star Award at the annual Pride Banquet, which was hosted by multiple LGBT organizations. He’s also worked as a Michigan House of Representatives legislative staffer.
His partner, Karpinski, has also been involved in the community. When the two met, it was at a rally at Meadowbrook where Judy Shepard, mother of slain LGBT youth Matthew Shepard, was speaking. Karpinski was involved in his GSA at Davenport University and is “an accountant by day, an artist by night.” His most recent project involved a series of hub-cab-created flowers with license plate leaves that he was able to sell at the Woodward Dream Cruise. He used to live in Midtown, and sees the same blossoming spirit in Pontiac along with McGuiness.
The couple fixed up their first home and sold it at a loss to a single mother who had helped them in their neighborhood revitalization efforts. They also worked together to pressure the city to demolish the abandoned Bela-Vista apartment complex. Now they live in another older home, within walking distance of city hall and the library.
McGuinness is running with an eye toward economic stability for the city.
“Four years from now I want to ensure that our city government has proven to the residents and the state that we are able and willing to be financially independent and secure,” he said. He added that losing General Motors’ facilities was an obvious start to Pontiac’s financial decline, but he also said that “city leaders were unwilling to make the hard choices to live within our diminishing means.”
“We had nine community centers and over 500 employees at one point,” he said. The city had an Emergency Financial Manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, who turned over police services to Oakland County and privatized many of the city services, moves that McGuinness agrees are good ones. “I want to see us continue to move forward and make good decisions as a community,” he said.
Karpinski is also running at a crucial time for the Library Board. “There are some exciting things happening,” he said. “There is a capital campaign to move the library into a bigger building, and those on the board will have a say in how that works out.” Sharing his partner’s love of architecture and history, Karpinski’s eyes light up as he lists the possible locations for the new facility.
McGuinness said that his felony record “has not proven to be a problem for my neighbors,” and that the 14th Congressional Democrats have even endorsed his campaign. BTL was unable to verify the endorsement by presstime.