Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.
Tami Rey has been certified to run for re-election to the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners.
But those who support her wonder about an election system that – for the second time in less than a year – was poised to exclude an African-American from contention because of apparent mistakes in their paperwork.
On Wednesday, May 4, 2022, the three-member Kalamazoo County Election Commission resolved two challenges to Rey’s re-election filing, and she will be included in an Aug. 2 primary run-off against a fellow Democrat. The winner of that will run against candidates from any other party in November’s general election.
“If you’re talking about rules and policies and things, there ought to be some type of class, if you will, where any candidate can go for refreshing, or any new candidate can go so we’re all getting the same information consistently,” says Wendy Fields, president of the Metropolitan Kalamazoo Branch of the NAACP.
The attention of the civil rights organization was drawn to word that surfaced late last week that Rey could be excluded from a ballot to be re-elected to the 11-member Kalamazoo County Board. Rey is an incumbent who was elected in 2020 to represent the county’s District 1, which includes Kalamazoo’s Northside Neighborhood and parts of its Eastside Neighborhood.
Former County Board candidate Benjamin Stanley challenged the validity and sufficiency of signatures by 48 county residents on a nominating petition to support Rey’s candidacy. And he challenged the validity of her place of residence. Michael Seals, a former board member and a Democrat hoping to replace Rey to become the party’s candidate for the District 1 seat on the board, also challenged the validity of her nomination petition and her affidavit of identity.
In a nutshell, the challenges allege that Rey falsified information, with the residency challenge asserting that the home address listed on Rey’s information was not the same address she has used as a registered voter. Rey owns two houses in District 1. She was registered to vote at one on Mabel Street. But in her election filing, indicated that the other, on North Street, is now her primary residence. To rectify the matter, she has changed her voting registration address.
A letter by Kalamazoo County Clerk Meredith Pace acknowledged the challenges, assured they would be investigated, and stated that Rey or her representatives would have until 4 p.m. on May 3 to provide information to counter the challenges. The speed of the process left Rey and her supporters with the idea that a conclusion had already been made and she would not be included in the Aug. 2 runoff.
But Place told a gathering with about 30 people on Wednesday morning, many of whom were Rey supporters, that her office had excluded no one from the process. She said, “I did receive additional information from the attorney representing (Rey). That additional information was a declaration of Tami Rey clarifying the discrepancy and address on her affidavit of identity and the petition. Upon advice of counsel, I have made a determination and final declaration that the affidavit of identity submitted by Ms. Tami Rey was accurate and sufficient for the candidate to be placed on the ballot.”
She also said Rey has a sufficient number of ballot signatures, 50, needed to be certified as a candidate. Rey’s attorney James Liggins Jr. thanked the Election Commission for its consideration and said there was no feeling on Rey’s part that there was anything “deliberate” in their handling of the matter.
But asked if she thinks there are people conspiring to undermine her campaign, Rey said that has to be considered as steps have been taken throughout the country by Republicans to tighten voting regulations and as she recalls that former Kalamazoo Vice Mayor Patrese Griffin was excluded from a ballot to run for mayor last year after failing to realize she had a past campaign debt.
In her election filing, Griffin indicated that she had no debts related to her campaign but learned later there was a debt and paid it. She was nonetheless excluded from the runoff and many people thought that was unfair. Griffin and Rey are African-American women. Both are Democrats.
“There are some things that I believe, as I was not the first to have this type of issue come up,” Rey said. “As we all know what happened to the vice mayor last year when she was running for mayor, there were some things.”
Others said they think it’s time for changes in the process.
Gwendolyn Hooker said there is a need for change “when you have people who are looking for reasons to NOT allow someone to be on a ballot, and then you have someone who submits challenges, then it’s easy to say ‘Oh, well, we’re going to accept this and not look at it any further.’”
Hooker, who is a Northside resident, a community advocate, and Rey’s campaign manager, said she thinks the election system is structurally racist. “I think that if we would not have organized around this issue, today would have gone very, very different,” she said.
Hooker said Rey is doing a great job in her district and as a result has a lot of support from them. She said lots of people wrote letters, made calls, and sent emails to county officials after they started hearing late last week that Rey was subject to be excluded from the election.
“It’s not just and it’s not fair, especially when you look at what happened to Vice Mayor Griffin not even a year ago,” Hooker said. “One time is OK. But the second time, it’s beginning to be a pattern. And that’s why we really felt it was important to stand up and come out and support.”
Kalamazoo City Commissioner Stephanie Hoffman, who attended the 9 a.m. Wednesday gathering to hear how the Election Commission would resolve the matter, said it is time for a change in how things are done.
“We know we are working with a system that is flawed, that is baked in racism and inequities and we need to do something about that,” she said. “I think today, with everyone that showed up, it showed that we, as a community, are coming together from all ethnicities to support strong candidates that have been doing the hard work in Kalamazoo.”
Former state Rep. Jon Hoadley said, “If we want more regular folks to run for office, we should make sure it is easy and clear in what folks need to do to qualify for office. One thing I’d love to see the clerk’s office do – and she has every power right now – is to improve the filing practices. Make it convenient for folks to check: Do I have any outstanding fines? Are there any questions about my affidavit or my voter registration?”
He said the County Clerk's Office should help people get through that process regardless of their party affiliation, so they can see if they are in a good space to submit their paperwork.
A Democrat, Hoadley, represented Michigan’s 60th District which includes Kalamazoo and portions of Portage and Kalamazoo Township.
Despite challenging Rey’s candidacy, Stanley told members of the Election Commission that Rey is a great commissioner, has done some great things, “and I’m happy that she gets to run.” But after the 15-minute hearing, he said he had studied the filings of any candidate who filed a nominating petition and challenged Rey because he felt she did not follow the rules.
He said he, as a White male, is already being criticized online “as a dangerous, sexist, racist and that White men are trying to get Black women off the ballot.”
He said, “I think that is not a conducive argument because that’s not what I’m doing. I think Tami’s great. I have no problem with her sex or her race.”
But he questioned how much support she is getting from “power players” in the community and said, “She’s starting to get off into this tangent of ‘I have power and this feels nice and I’m going to do what I want.’ And I think that when people start to act like that, I think it’s a good idea to send them a reminder that we live in a democracy. You’re not a king. You’re not a queen.”
He did not explain in what situations she has tried to wield power.
Fields said she thinks the situation involving Rey should never have happened. If the County Clerk’s Office and the Election Commission had Rey’s information, they should have checked it earlier, she said.
“It took all of this for us to get here to say what we already knew: She was legitimate in all of her signatures and addresses. And all of that stuff should have been vetted from before,” Fields said. “So this (the threat of her being excluded) never should have been. And I think that call could have been made earlier.”
She said African-Americans and others who run for election have to take ownership of the process.
“If I’m going to run for office, then we have to do due diligence for ourselves to make sure we are informed (and) educated on what those processes are, instead of getting in and not knowing,” Fields said. “… If we’re going to be in this realm, we also know it’s going to be cut-throat. And we are not always invited to the table to get that information.”
Rey said she is glad she had legal representation and “I was able to respond in a way that maybe sometimes other people don’t have that opportunity – to have counsel to respond and come out on this side of it.”
But she also said, “It’s time to train candidates. If there’s an issue, if you see a pattern, then maybe there needs to be more training for new candidates in those areas.”