It’s summertime in Michigan, and there is no place that is any more quaint or delightful than Mackinac Island near the Upper Peninsula of the state. Arriving on this slice of heaven is like stepping back through time. There are few cars on the island. Visitors must travel by horse and buggy or bicycle. The island is also a frequent political hot spot for the Michigan Republican Party. The organization holds many events there, including a biennial convention featuring intimate access to statewide leaders and parties galore. It provides an elegant backdrop for GOP business to take place.
It seemed like the perfect venue for Young Americans for Liberty activists to “make liberty win.” Pushed directly by YAL leadership, young activists were whisked away for a month or more of “liberty immersion.” YAL President Cliff Maloney Jr. always encourages his activists to refrain from engaging in social media arguments, and to actually engage in productive behavior to move the ball forward for the cause of liberty. That is what this project beginning in Mackinac Island was meant to accomplish. Promised a “liberty summer,” these activists were about to be subjected to something quite different. They would get a sobering glimpse into the nasty world of politics, and learn that even liberty organizations are not immune from its corrupting influence.
Maloney Jr. and YAL Mobilization Director Justin Greiss were responsible for pushing a nebulous political project in Michigan to activists across the country. Many activists were sold the line that they would be working on the next phase of the liberty movement. They were supposedly on the ground floor of something that could revolutionize politics throughout the country. Although specific details were vague, many activists were led to believe that they would be working with a prominent liberty figure in the state of Michigan. YAL activists, many of whom lacked any experience working political campaigns, naturally assumed that liberty icon Rep. Justin Amash would be the linchpin of the effort.
Although YAL publicly denies any involvement in the project, such denials are difficult to stomach when the details of the campaign are properly examined. Greiss was listed as the Project Director of the entire “Clean Michigan Government” campaign, and worked directly with staffers on the ground. Meanwhile, Cliff repeatedly described the project as his “brain child” to the activists. He joined the young activists on the ferry to the island, helped to distribute t-shirts to all of the activists, and hyped the project very enthusiastically at every turn. After the students were ferried over to the beautiful island, it didn’t take long for most to realize what was taking place. When Michigan Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley showed up, the true nature of the campaign started to come into focus.
Mackinac’s picturesque scenery was spoiled by the creeping suspicion sweeping through activists that something was amiss. They first listened to a campaign speech from Calley, and then were told to wear shirts with Calley’s name front-and-center. Before they knew it, activists were being lined up (minorities and women first, of course) behind Calley for a big photo op. Young activists were still trying to remain optimistic despite the obvious co-opting of their liberty summer. Regardless of Calley’s involvement in the “Clean Michigan Government” initiative, the actual core of the part-time legislature proposal was solid, and that’s all that really mattered. It is no lie that Michigan legislature is seriously corrupt–even compared to other state legislatures around the country. The full-time nature of the state legislature gives lobbyists non-stop access to lawmakers, and it has led to Michigan ranking as the most corrupt state government in the country by certain metrics. Since the legislature is currently dominated by Republicans, restricting its power seemed like it would be an easy sell to Democrats. Obtaining high signature totals did not seem like it would be a problem from the onset of the campaign.
After they received their walk lists, activists realized that gathering signatures would be harder than they initially thought. They were instructed to primarily target Republican homes, and skip over most Democratic ones completely. This strategy does not make a whole lot of sense if the intent of the campaign was to actually put the initiative on the ballot. However, if the real purpose of the campaign was to gather data for an impending Calley run for Governor, this strategy would make perfect sense. Fierce partisanship is a nationwide epidemic, but it is even worse in Michigan because Governor Rick Snyder is widely blamed for the Flint water crisis and other scandals. President Trump unexpectedly won Michigan in part because Snyder and Calley distanced themselves from him, with Calley going as far as urging for Trump to give up in October of last year. Skipping over most Democrats would only makes sense if “Clean Michigan Government” was a trojan horse to push Calley’s self-serving interests from the get-go.
Surveys given to activists for door-to-door outreach were front-loaded with questions about Calley, making it clear what the top priority of the campaign was meant to be. Rather than maximizing the work day to get the most signatures possible, activists were instructed to show a video of Calley to potential voters. This was to create a link between Calley and the campaign to “Clean Michigan Government” in the minds of voters. Activists were told to focus on walking door-to-door rather than stalking heavily trafficked events with a wide cross-section of people, which activists felt hindered their progress. Making matters worse, the campaign routinely placed young adults in dangerous situations without proper training. Between the rowdy sovereign citizens of Northern Michigan and the inner city squalor of Detroit and other destitute cities, it wasn’t just the impressive scenery of Michigan that activists were taking in. They were seeing the worst of what the state had to offer as well, and receiving very little if any help from the individuals that were supposed to be running the campaign.
“I felt like we were lied to. I wasn’t hired to get data for Calley. I was told I was getting signatures for the initiative,” Shelly Gregoire said. Gregoire, 26, leads a chapter of Young Americans for Liberty at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek. She was arrested for conducting YAL activism last year in a story that made national news. Being a resident of Michigan, she was one of the few who were familiar with Calley and his consistently dismal record of governance before embarking on the campaign.
“Everything had Calley’s name on it, from our t-shirts to the literature to the scripts they wanted us to recite. Many others felt the same way, but we continued on to get those signatures and data for fear if we didn’t, we’d never be hired for anything again,” Gregoire said.
Fear and intimidation would become frequent hallmarks of the campaign. Calley’s involvement was far from the only problem. It was mired in difficulties from start-to-finish, and the unavailability of gas cards was especially frustrating for activists. Many young people drove from out-of-state to get to Michigan. They were promised that they would be reimbursed with gas cards, and they desperately needed them because activists were constantly driving to all corners of the state. Kids were shocked that the gas cards were not supplied to them as promised. Kids were overdrafting from their accounts, and having to scrounge for food. Regional field directors kept telling kids that gas cards were on the way, but the leaders of the campaign were constantly missing in action. Campaign Manager Matthew Dobler and Deputy Manager Michael Stroud were rarely seen by the field staff. Activists claim that regional field staff, who were young people themselves with little knowledge of the on-the-ground situation in Michigan, were put in a very tough spot by the campaign as well. Eventually, the gas cards arrived way behind schedule, but the damage had already been done.
At one point during the campaign, strep throat swept through the young people like a plague. They were allowed to go to the hospital, but then expected to hit the pavement immediately afterward. Some young people were indisposed and unable to go out for several days, which caused the numbers to sink further. To make matters worse, murmurs were circulating about a problem with the board of canvassers approving the ballot language. Activists were consistently performing under their projected totals, and were being told to lie and claim they were unpaid volunteers in order to trick registered voters into signing. Only a couple of weeks in, the wheels were already falling off the entire campaign. Changes were about to be instituted that would take the deteriorating situation and make it far worse.
In order to make up for the lagging totals, activists were forced to work in excess of their regularly-scheduled hours. Receiving $1,500 for the amount of work they were doing put the pay at sub-minimum wage levels from the start. Activists were sold on it being a meaningful and worthwhile experience to build skills in the field and “make liberty win.” Factoring in the additional hours from pre-meetings, conference calls, mandatory volunteering exercises, and other extracurricular events, activists were paid roughly $4.50 an hour for their services. Promises of dinner with Justin Amash were floated around to prod the youngsters into working productively under poverty wages, but they were never fulfilled. All of the tensions finally boiled over on Friday, Jun. 16. After a long day of walking doors in the blistering heat, activists hoped to return for a night of relaxation at the hotel. Instead, they were given an order from campaign leaders to stuff envelopes into the late hours of the night. Previously, this was an offer made with enticements of gift cards and free pizza to compel volunteers. Although campaign leaders would provide food for everyone who participated, it was made clear that this was a mandatory unpaid exercise—adding to the growing list of broken promises that activists were forced to endure.
For this mandatory exercise, the conditions were less than adequate. The food they were promised did not arrive as scheduled. Activists were packed into rooms, given inadequate supplies, and ordered to work without proper guidance. Activists grew weary, as many had not eaten all day. Some were still short of money because of the gas card malfunctions, and they were counting on this food being available. Finally, it did show up–three hours late, ice cold, and with not enough pizza for everyone. Activists were lucky to get a single slice. Morale was at an all-time low by this point, and campaign leadership knew something needed to be done. Instead of bringing some desperately-needed professionalism to the campaign, they decided that it was time for heads to roll. Examples needed to be made to enforce strict compliance.
The next evening, student activists who were promised a “liberty summer” by their trusted confidants and advisors were told that they had 12 hours to evacuate their hotel room completely. It is estimated that one-fifth of the campaign was let go in one fell swoop. Many kids had to spend most of the money they had earned through the campaign on an emergency plane ticket to fly back home. While there were certainly some low performers who were let go on that fateful morning, certain firings did not make sense. Certain individuals who had aired grievances regarding their mistreatment were let go despite their high numbers. Regardless of the precise reasons for axing the activists, the message was clear: You will obey, or you will be fired.
After watching their friends be unceremoniously dismissed from the campaign, many were completely discouraged and bewildered. They expected for Greiss to have their backs. He was listed as the Project Director of the campaign, and had referred many of the activists to the project personally. He and Cliff had a direct role in selling people on this project. He appeared on conference call to activists after the mass firing, and offered very little in terms of condolences. Instead, he reiterated the message from leadership. He claimed that as capitalists, everyone ought to understand why the people who weren’t meeting their quotas were fired. That is the market at work, according to Greiss. Additionally, he made a military analogy that rubbed many activists the wrong way. The message was reiterated to activists that insubordination would not be tolerated. Activists were hoping for advocacy or at the very least a modicum of sympathy from YAL brass after being put through the ringer by this campaign, but only felt used and insulted after Greiss’ callous remarks. For many of the activists, this was the final straw.
“Justin compared us to soldiers with the implication that the soldiers were to be subordinate to the campaign higher ups. This is not how leadership is supposed to work in a grassroots campaign,” Chipper Bixby said.
Bixby, 22, is a University of Georgia student, formerly an activist with the Institute for Humane Studies, who was alerted about the campaign on a YAL Facebook group page. He was told that he was the top performer by campaign staff, who pleaded with him to stay after he resigned. Bixby stood firmly by his decision.
“The campaign managers obviously did not think about the potential consequences of the purge. They didn’t expect top performers to quit. But then again, considering how incompetent at their jobs they were, that’s to be expected,” Bixby said.
While the laundry list of instances of incompetence and maltreatment was bad enough, there is a potentially criminal aspect to this entire campaign that cannot be overlooked as well. Certain activists claim that they uncovered forged signatures, and then were subsequently threatened by campaign staff with their jobs to keep quiet. According to the activists, irregularities were discovered after an overzealous field director erroneously placed data into an Excel spreadsheet. The data needed to be re-entered due to the mistake, and several activists volunteered to help re-add a couple days worth of ballots into the system. As they were sorting through the data, they noticed many obvious forgeries emanating from the work of one particular activist. They alerted a nearby field director who reviewed what the activists had found, and their suspicions were quickly confirmed. The activists estimate that as many as 10 full sheets were filled with completely-falsified signatures with many other questionable signatures standing out as well.
“I personally witnessed the cover up of forged signatures,” Kristen Jones said. Jones, 27, is an Ohio State University masters student and YAL member. “Four of us offered to help count and do validation of signatures. We found blatant forgeries that we reported to our team leader.”
After it was reported, Greiss was alerted by phone call about the forgeries that were uncovered by the activists. The activists felt that the culprit would be punished swiftly, and Greiss, YAL’s National Mobilization Director, would behave ethically and responsibly. Instead, the complete opposite situation unfolded to their horror. The activists who found the forged signatures were told that if they talked about what happened, they would be fired. Concurrently, these activists were reassured that accountability would be handled in-house. Field directors did bring up the situation to activists during a team meeting. A room full of activists were told that the culprit needed to come clean or face harsher repercussions down the line, but that was all hot air. Soon, the alleged forger was on a list of “high performers” for the campaign. The corruption was officially buried, and Greiss was apparently in on it.
“When [the alleged culprit for the forgeries] wasn’t let go, my personal ethics led me to report the forgeries to the police and Michigan Secretary of State and quit the campaign,” Jones said.
Brandon Wichers, 26, is a senior at Augustana University, and the Founder and President of his school’s Young Americans for Liberty chapter. He was flabbergasted that leadership of the organization that he held so near and dear to his heart would behave in such a manner.
“I expected a liberty-minded movement to have ethics and morals in how they conducted their campaign and in how they treated their staff. When I witnessed our contracts being violated by the campaign, forged signatures being covered up, and people being mass fired without warning, I saw that I was wrong,” Wichers said.
“I would have expected that a liberty minded movement would try to make an attempt at some kind of reparations with their staff for a campaign gone wrong, and again I was wrong,” Wichers said. “When you observe the behavior of YAL management and the campaign, a pattern definitely begins to emerge.”
Toward the end of the campaign, leadership started to grow unhinged. Paranoid accusations began flying around. Campaign leaders were scared about the potential leaks of corrupt and possibly unlawful behavior reaching the media. This entire campaign was supposed to be a public relations victory for the inevitable Brian Calley for Governor campaign, and demonstrate YAL’s leadership prowess on a national level. Instead, it had turned into the exact opposite–a comedy of errors that may possibly tarnish both Calley’s gubernatorial chances and YAL’s national reputation. The intimidation was ramped up in a final, desperate attempt to save face for the fledgling campaign.
James Millius, 19, is the Secretary of a Young Americans for Liberty chapter at Hillsdale College. He was the victim of intimidation during the final days of the campaign. After commiserating with friends who had been fired from the campaign, he was given a call from Greiss personally. He was not prepared for the accusations that were about to be hurled his way. For having the audacity to even chat with the pariahs who were thrown under the bus by the campaign, Millius was now a marked man.
“Justin asked me if I was rallying people to speak to the press, and I told him I was not. He then said he was ‘calling my bluff’ and had it on ‘good word’ that I had met with many of the people the night before, and that I was planning to ask the field directors for a copy of the contract so that we could learn how to break it. I denied these accusations as they were false,” Millius said.
Millius’ denial was not enough to satisfy Greiss’ growing paranoia. Greiss refused to take him at his word, and decided to terminate him despite his appeals.
“I explained to Justin that I had expressed a desire to see a copy of our contract because I was concerned about my own security in my position at this point, but that never did I encourage people to leak campaign secrets to the press,” Millius said. “He told me that I was a ‘threat to the campaign,’ that the ‘relationship was irreparable,’ and that my contract was immediately terminated.”
Finally, only several days after the mass firing, the entire campaign was mercifully put down. Each YAL activist was sent home way ahead of schedule with the mission unaccomplished. Although Deputy Manager Stroud claims that Calley is still pushing the campaign and gathering signatures to put the part-time legislature on the ballot next year, it is a virtual impossibility that the campaign will succeed without an organized team in the field everyday pushing for it. Additionally, the board of canvassers would not approve the ballot language meaning that the campaign may be subject to legal challenges that could invalidate all of the signatures. With the paid campaign now come to end, the young activists involved are despondent, with some brought to tears and vowing never to participate in the political process ever again. All that remains in the aftermath are bitter feelings over promises unfulfilled as well as some unanswered questions.
One thing that the campaign did not take into account was the impact that it would have on local liberty activists. Very few conservative or liberty activists in Michigan were fooled by Calley’s stunt for second. They were well-aware of what the man’s principles are, and how he stood by Gov. Snyder for the past six years as he implemented most of former President Obama’s agenda in the state. Maloney Jr. or Greiss never even bothered to give a call to the liberty boots-on-the-ground in the state. Deputy Director of the Michigan Campaign for Liberty, David Dudenhoefer, expressed his dismay with Calley’s part-time legislature project on the “Your Defending Fathers” program broadcast by the Patriot Voice Radio Network.
“This is another example of where leadership may have done themselves well by consulting with organization that they are… connected to prior to getting involved with something like this, and it just wasn’t done,” Dudenhoefer said. “I have a lot of respect for Cliff Maloney Jr. He is a good man… But [leading activists] were never called in advance, never consulted, never asked, ‘What’s your input on this?’ Nothing.” He compared Calley’s part-time legislature project staffed with YAL activists to “your favorite dinner presented to you on a garbage can lid.”
Additionally, many important questions remain unanswered about the financial records related to campaign. While “Clean Michigan Government” was listed as a campaign committee, it is unclear whether any affiliated non-profit groups were used to move money in conjunction with the campaign. Thus far, everyone close to the campaign is extremely tight-lipped regarding these details. Interestingly, Greiss used an [email protected] email address to push the campaign, and long-time Paul advisers were among the most vocal individuals doing damage control for Calley’s PTL campaign on social media. These hidden financial records may shine some light on who exactly in the liberty movement was paid off by this campaign, and how deep it really goes. YAL was reached out to multiple times (including a direct outreach to Maloney Jr. personally) for comment for this article, but they declined to respond.
Activists hope that YAL can learn from this catastrophe, and be much more careful in how they deploy their activists in the future.
“I do not think that this structure of hiring students to work campaigns like this was a bad idea; in fact, I commend Cliff for giving students a way to get involved,” Millius said. “However, the way that YAL has distanced themselves from this campaign due to the failures and scandal surrounding it is despicable.”
“When I found out the campaign had ended, I wasn’t surprised. And I was glad,” Bixby said. “I still believe the issue was a good one, but the campaign was not. It deserved to crash and burn.”
“They should have consulted those of us on the ground before putting the worst guy as the front for this campaign,” Gregoire said. “Mistakes were made for sure, but let’s learn from them and continue moving forward.”
Whistleblowers with additional information about this case are encouraged to step forward with their disclosures. If any criminal behavior has taken place, it needs to be exposed to end the culture of secrecy surrounding YAL and its affiliated political campaigns. The only way the youthful liberty movement can restore itself at this point is if assurances are made–and backed up–that activists will never be funneled into a campaign such as this ever again.