Election doubts fester in Hillsdale County, Michigan's capital of conservatism

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Francis X. Donnelly, The Detroit News
·11 min read
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Feb. 19—HILLSDALE — Fourth of July celebrations were canceled across America last year because of the pandemic.

In Hillsdale, however, one doesn't cancel freedom.

Against the advice of health officials and in violation of a state mandate, several hundred people lined Main Street to watch what its sponsors called the American Patriot Parade.

As farmers drove by the small shops in old tractors, it harkened back to an earlier era or, at least, a time before COVID-19. Few people in the crowd wore masks.

Such is life in this southern Michigan county.

Hillsdale County and its conservative bent drew attention last week when Mike Shirkey, the state Senate majority leader, told party leaders there that he believed the ransacking of the U.S. Capitol last month was a "hoax."

He was responding to a pending censure vote by the Hillsdale County Republican Party, which accused him of failing to fight the state's coronavirus restrictions. Shirkey has been one of the most outspoken critics of the lockdowns.

Many residents, who wear their patriotism on their sleeves, feel their civil liberties are being frittered away and government is forever meddling with their lives.

They argue that guns are good, masks are a menace and the presidential election was stolen.

"Less government is better government," said Penny Swan, who helped organize the parade. "I love Hillsdale because it's a bastion of truly constitutional folks who just want to live a free life."

Swan, 61, keeps an eye on the Hillsdale City Council by taping its meetings, including one in the middle of a snowstorm Monday.

When Shirkey labeled the Capitol siege a ruse, it drew shock from Lansing to Washington, where Trump was being tried for impeachment for allegedly inciting the attack.

But that wasn't the reaction in Hillsdale. More than a few residents told The Detroit News they agreed with Shirkey.

Jon Smith, secretary of the county Republican Party, said he attended a Washington rally that preceded the assault but never saw any violence.

"I didn't see someone get arrested," Smith said. "I didn't see anybody punch a cop. I didn't see a cop punch a person."

He likened what he saw to a crowd surge one might witness at a rock concert. But this surge led to the deaths of five people, said police.

Hillsdale County, with a population of 46,000, comprises farms and gently rolling hills that give the county its name. The closest Sam's Club is 32 miles away in Jackson.

American flags and Trump signs continue to flutter along two-lane roads in the countryside. One sign, which shares a front yard with an antique wagon, reads: "My government is an idiot."

The county gave Trump his second-highest vote percentage in Michigan — 73%. The largest was Missaukee County in northern Michigan at 76%.

One reason Hillsdale County has grown so conservative is because of its distance from major cities, said scholars.

Rural enclaves increasingly feel like America has left them behind, said J. Edwin Benton, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida.

They're racked with job losses and declining populations but believe the problems are ignored by the government and media, said Benton. They watch with resentment as taxes are spent on metropolitan areas.

"They feel no one is listening to them," he said. "Most distressing is the belief that no one, and especially no one in government, really cares."

Among the disaffected are residents like Dave Stone Sr., the former leader of the Hutaree militia. The Christian group was acquitted of plotting to overthrow the government in 2012 when a federal judge said prosecutors failed to prove their case.

Stone, who is now the supervisor of Wheatland Township, said the Democratic Party is focused on cities because that's where their voters live.

"They don't look at the middle class. They've forgotten about the middle class," he said. "We should all be treated the same."

He said Trump was the first president in several administrations who tried to protect people in rural areas by getting tough on trade with other nations.

Echoes of 'tyranny'

Residents don't have to look far to find the intellectual underpinnings of their beliefs. Hillsdale College, whose blond-brick buildings sit on a hill, is lode and lodestar to the conservative county.

Among the statues along Liberty Walk in the quad are President Ronald Reagan and Britain Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. A story in the school paper last week showed that students and professors agreed about Trump's impeachment trial — that it was unconstitutional.

The private school, which has 1,500 students, focuses on the classics of Western thought and literature. It doesn't accept federal or state money and, thusly, remains free from government regulations.

It teaches an abiding faith in the Constitution, lauding its protection of the natural rights of man and lamenting the sullying of those principles by what it sees as a century of government intrusion into people's lives.

When Hillsdale residents complain about the government being too big, they don't just mention Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. They go back to Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, whom they blame for ushering in the progressive movement in the early 1900s.

"We've become accustomed to this burden for 110 years," said Rob Socha, 49, a Hillsdale city councilman. "(That) doesn't mean it must continue forever."

Socha moved here from Fort Worth, Texas, in 2013 so his four children could attend the Hillsdale Academy, a K-12 school operated by the college.

He loves that the two schools don't get any help from the government.

"I feel like my children's education is my responsibility," he said during an interview at Jilly Beans Coffee House. "The overreach from Washington is beyond the pale. It echoes tyranny."

'Principles over politics'

Shirkey isn't the only pol on the Hillsdale County Republican Party hit list. It's against anyone who isn't a true believer, which, by its reckoning, is virtually everyone in the state Legislature.

The censure criticized Shirkey for supporting the expansion of the Medicaid health care program under the Affordable Care Act and for endorsing a ban on the open carry of guns into the state Capitol.

It chided him for saying armed protesters who entered the statehouse during a demonstration last year were "jackasses" who should have been arrested.

It also accused him of "complete and utter surrender" to Whitmer in the closing of businesses and schools because of COVID-19. This may have come as a surprise to Shirkey and Whitmer, whose longtime squabbling over the issue has led to a fractured relationship.

After learning about the pending censure, Shirkey asked to meet with the Republicans. On Feb. 4, he sat down with Smith and two other party leaders at Spangler's Family Restaurant in Jonesville.

Smith, who secretly recorded the meeting with his phone, repeatedly asked Shirkey his views on controversial issues, encouraging him to elaborate on them.

The majority leader said the Capitol siege was staged and a "hoax from Day 1," according to the video, which Smith posted on YouTube. Shirkey later apologized for his choice of words but stuck by the sentiment.

During the contentious, hour-long confab, Shirkey said he had to compromise to get things done. The party leaders said they objected to trade-offs of any sort. They said they would rather fight for a cause and lose than accept a watered-down victory.

"We're not going to go along to get along. We're done with it, Mike," said Smith, 42. "I don't like politics. I like principles over politics."

Daren Wiseley, chairman of the county party, quizzed Shirkey about his vote on an issue and, after looking it up on his phone, learned the majority leader had misrepresented his position.

"This is why we're here, because you're a liar," Wiseley said angrily. "This is what we're mad about. The truth is you're just another politician who will say one thing to get us off your back."

Shirkey referred to Wiseley's race for the state Legislature last year, in which he finished a distant third to Shirkey's former district director, Andrew Fink.

"Maybe I can't (get elected)," said Wiseley, "maybe because I have the thing you don't have, which is called integrity. You should try it sometime."

The next day, Shirkey was censured by the party's executive board by a 14-5 vote.

Wiseley, 29, of Osseo, is an Indiana University law school graduate who interned for two prosecutors' offices before becoming a real estate agent.

Discussing the Shirkey confrontation on his Based Liberty podcast Feb. 10, he explained that the Founding Fathers established a republic to avoid mob rule.

"Democracy's awful and anyone who claims to be a conservative or is a Republican should know this," he said.

'We want our freedoms back'

It was no coincidence the Shirkey meeting was held at Spangler's.

The restaurant became a cause celebre when it reopened in November in defiance of Whitmer's shutdown order. Like many businesses in the county, it also doesn't require masks.

A handprinted sign on the front door said several workers have medical reasons for not wearing face coverings and that customers may have similar reasons.

If anyone wanted to complain, they should keep it to themselves, read the sign. If anyone reported the restaurant to the state, they should eat elsewhere, it said.

"You have the right to choose where you spend your dollars," read the sign.

In January state health officials suspended the restaurant's food service license and slapped it with $11,000 in fines.

Owner Mitch Spangler said he's not trying to make a political statement. He's trying to feed his family.

"We want our freedoms back," he said. "The belief system of our community is one of freedom."

Local freedom fighters have turned out in droves to support the restaurant.

The star-spangled Spangler's was already a community staple but, on the day it reopened, it received the most customers in its 25 years, said the owner.

Bob Norton, a vice president and general counsel at Hillsdale College, is representing the eatery for free as it appeals the license suspension.

Customers said the shutdown was yet another example of the government interfering in people's lives and threatening their constitutional liberties.

Lance Lashaway, 37, of Frontier, a gun rights advocate who visited the restaurant last week, said he was tired of turning the other cheek.

He now worries the government will eventually make it mandatory to take the COVID-19 vaccine. He said he has no intention of doing so and, if the state tries to force him, he may do something drastic.

"I'm sure there's something somewhere that she can do," he said about Whitmer requiring vaccinations. "Give you six months to fight it. In the meantime, everybody will be shooting each other because that's where my line is."

Busing to Washington

Among the Michiganians who went to the nation's capital for the Jan. 6 rally were two busloads from Hillsdale County.

It wasn't unusual for them to attend a protest. Many of the peripatetic patriots have gone to multiple rallies in Lansing to fight Whitmer's lockdown orders, they said.

Several of the 104 Washington sojourners said they believe Trump won the election. They're suspicious about the late surge in Joe Biden votes, discounting the delay in counting mail-in ballots.

They also believe Michigan and other swing states failed to adequately investigate the claims of ballot rigging.

"Our voting system is compromised," said Socha, the city councilman. "I want the truth. I can handle it. I want verifiable truth."

He attended the Washington rally with his 15-year-old daughter, listening to speeches by Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump Jr. The president's appearance was delayed so they walked to the Capitol to join a prayer meeting.

They joined a religious group called Jericho March that walked around the building, he said. In the Bible, the walls of Jericho fell after Israelites marched around the city for seven days and then blew their trumpets.

The Washington marchers prayed for truth and integrity in the political process, said Socha. Instead of trumpets, they blew shofars.

"We endeavored to make our voices heard that chicanery would not be tolerated and justice must prevail," he wrote on a conservative blog.

When the walls of the Capitol fell, Socha remained outside. He said he didn't believe any Hillsdale residents entered the building.

He suspected that members of Antifa had infiltrated the Trump supporters and then incited the crowd. The FBI said it hasn't found any evidence of the anti-fascist group being involved in the attack.

"Trump had countless rallies with no violence for five years," he told the News. "To think they would have suddenly changed their behavior is a narrative I don't subscribe to."

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4186

Twitter: @prima_donnelly