When Republicans in Michigan need to control a message, they often look to veteran GOP operative Bill Nowling.
Now the Brighton conservative, who fought against affirmative action and supported state funding cuts to Detroit, has become one of the most influential figures in the city’s historic bankruptcy.
Starting his second year as communications director for Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Nowling, who once described the New York Times as “the greatest threat to freedoms we enjoy in this great country,” has gone far beyond the typical role of a spokesman. He routinely meets with bankruptcy lawyers and officials and has become mired in the high-stakes negotiations over Detroit’s finances and assets.
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When he suspected that members of Mayor Dave Bing’s administration were leaking information to the press, Nowling had them fired.
So how did a Republican henchman get his hands in Detroit’s bankruptcy?
Nowling, who also served as spokesman for Gov. Rick Snyder’s campaign, the Michigan Republican Party and for GOP lawmakers in the state Senate and House of Representatives, was ostensibly hired by the emergency manager, a Democrat.
“The governor wasn’t personally involved in the hiring of Bill Nowling,” Snyder’s spokeswoman Sara Wurfel insisted. “That was the EM’s call.”
Nowling, whose salary is financed by Detroit taxpayers, has declined to return our calls and e-mails for more than a week and won’t give us access to the emergency manager.
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Unlike many communications experts, Nowling is often abrasive and stubborn, punishing reporters who aren’t dishing out rosy news and rewarding those who toe the line.
Without many transparency requirements, Nowling is able to control much of the narrative, which was criticized by the bankruptcy judge as manipulative and dishonest.
“According to this composite narrative of the lead-up to the City of Detroit’s bankruptcy filing on July 18, 2013, the bankruptcy was the intended consequence of a years-long, strategic plan,” U.S. Judge Steven Rhodes observed. “The goal of this plan was the impairment of pension rights through a bankruptcy filing by the City.”
When I covered the bankruptcy for Reuters, Nowling rarely returned calls and favored publications like the Detroit News and Free Press for writing favorable stories about emergency management and the bankruptcy.
“I’ll decide who to work with,” Nowling once snapped at me.
In December, Nowling shocked reporters when he issued a memo instructing them not to leave him voice mails.
A blogger for “The Lunchbucket Conservative” from 2006 to 2008, Nowling attacked affirmative action, labor unions, gay marriage, the liberal media and Republicans who didn’t support more troops in Iraq. He also derided state revenue-sharing as a “handout.”
“Remember to look for a union label when choosing your abortionist,” Nowling wrote in October 2007 when criticizing Planned Parenthood for being opposed to right-to-work legislation, adding, “as if stopping a beating heart wasn’t enough.”
Nowling, who was a consultant for the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, which banned affirmative action in the state, also took aim at historians who characterized Detroit’s 1967 riot as a rebellion because of the institutional racism that led up to it.
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“There was just chaos, murder and conflagration,” Nowling wrote. “That’s a riot.”
When Republican Attorney General Mike Cox was caught having a sexual affair in 2005, he called on Nowling to handle the fallout.
The veteran GOP operative also served as a speech writer for Gov. John Engler and a spokesman for state Senate Majority leader Ken Sikkema, both Republicans.
Still, Snyder’s office claims the appointment wasn’t political.
“Regardless, what I’d also say is that the governor and our office simply do not view appointments or positions in terms of someone’s political affiliations, but rather based on skills and abilities and being right fit for the job at hand,” Wurfel wrote me in an email.
In 2000, when Nowling was a consultant for Ameritech, Senate leaders accused him of blackmail for threatening to use Ameritech employees to support opponents of lawmakers who didn’t agree with the company on phone legislation.
“I understand tough politics. This went beyond the bounds,” then Senate Floor Leader Mike Rogers, R-Brighton, said.
In some ways, Nowling is the ideal choice as the mouthpiece for the emergency manager. Snyder has routinely lied to the public about the prospects of emergency management and bankruptcy in Detroit, as we reported last year after obtaining hundreds of government e-mails.
Snyder’s office disagrees, despite the existence of the e-mails.
“The governor has worked to be incredibly transparent every step of the way that ultimately led to the bankruptcy as the last viable option to address Detroit’s fiscal crisis, restore services that citizens need and deserve, and to get the city back on a path to growth and prosperity again,” Wurfel said.
Nowling, who supported cuts to teacher pensions on the state level, also has made it difficult for the public to learn about the bankruptcy, often waiting to make announcements until after reporters’ deadlines.
It’s an odd choice given his criticism of then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm for holding an emergency financial panel meeting in private, which has become common under Snyder.
“Apparently Michigan’s economic realities are too tough for ordinary citizens to handle,” Nowling wrote in 2007. “What else can explain why Governor Granholm’s much trumpeted ’emergency financial panel’ has decided to hold its meetings in secret?”
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.