An unnecessary urinating contest risks two primary frontrunners canceling each other out.
It’s a given to the point of predictability, in contested republican primaries, that eventually someone will defensively mis-invoke Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment. Naturally, this will require someone to explain that the intent of “thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow republican” is a prohibition against personal attacks, but that calling someone out on an accurate understanding of their actual record is always fair game. That said, I can honestly say that I never expected to have to explain one of the Ten Commandments in the context of a political campaign, nor that I would have to do so as a remonstration to a political attack that is not only blatantly personal, but also patently false (to the point of being willingly, deliberately, and knowingly deceptive).
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. (Exodus 20:16, EHV)
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way. (Luther’s Small Catechism)
The point behind the commandment, according to Martin Luther, is that we are not merely to not lie, but we are to do or say nothing that even damages someone else’s reputation (even to the point of defending others against such attacks). Further, since we mere mortals are incapable of knowing another person’s heart and mind, we are to give someone else the benefit of the doubt regarding their motives (unless somehow they should tell us what they’re thinking). Any deviation from this – even once – crosses a line that God has himself drawn, and thus risks receiving divine wrath . . . period.
And that brings me to a bit of nastiness that has recently developed in Michigan’s 11th Congressional District (in the form of a six-year-old allegation that resurfaced about eight months ago).
Of the nine or so republicans, who seriously contemplated joining the thundering herd to fill the congressional seat being vacated by David Trott (including the six who actually filed), the internal polling of which I’ve been briefed has this summer’s republican primary as essentially a two-horse race, with the other four jockeying for scraps. (So far as I’ve been able to find, no public polling has yet been done in this primary.) Because the two front-runners are both veterans, one could reasonably assume that the inevitable rough-and-tumble campaign rhetoric would at least stay above the belt, that personal attacks wouldn’t be countenanced, and untruthful smears would be unheard of.
Unfortunately, that assumption would be dead wrong, at least as regards one of the veterans in question.
By way of background, for those not familiar with military paperwork, the Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty (DD Form 214) is the capstone military service document, as it represents the complete, verified record of a service member’s time in the military (Active, Guard, and Reserve). Given that a copy of this document is the defining proof-of-service for all things veteran-related, veterans will go to a great deal of trouble to safeguard their personal copy (as “Member’s Copy 4” is quite literally an irreplaceable document). Some veterans will go so far as to file a certified copy of their personal copy with the clerk or register of their home county, as an insurance policy of sorts against unforeseeable catastrophe (which then makes the document a public record).
I mention this background, because the concept is central to the aforementioned nastiness. According to the information that I have in hand, one of the veterans currently front-running in the republican CD-11 primary had – way back in 2012 – accused the other veteran of lying about his military service. The easy rebuttal to that accusation is the natural one, producing a copy of one’s DD Form 214 (or having one already on public file to point to). However, the evidence on file didn’t prevent the accusation from resurfacing last September, and being repeated as recently as this past March . . . and, frankly, that baffles me.
For the record (because it’s a public record), according to Sergeant First Class Kerry Bentivolio’s discharge papers, he served a combined total of 24 years, 7 months, 5 days in the United States Army and Michigan National Guard (blocks 12-c thru 12-e), earning the following military awards and decorations (listed roughly in order of precedence):
- Combat Infantry Badge
- Meritorious Service Medal
- Army Commendation Medal (× 2)
- Army Achievement Medal (× 4)
- Air Force Achievement Medal
- Army Good Conduct Medal
- National Defense Service Medal (× 3)
- Vietnam Service Medal (with two Bronze Stars)
- Iraq Campaign Medal (with Campaign Star)
- Global War on Terrorism Service Medal
- Armed Forces Reserve Medal (with “M” Device and 20 Years Device)
- Non-Commissioned Officer Professional Development Ribbon (× 3)
- Army Service Ribbon
- Army Reserve Component Overseas Training Ribbon (× 3)
- Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross With Palm (Unit Citation)
- Vietnam Campaign Medal
- Excellence in Competition Badge – Pistol
. . . which, I’m told, makes him probably the most decorated member of Michigan’s National Guard since World War 2. And the reason that I mention Bentivolio’s military record is because it’s precisely that record that is at issue in the current loggerheads in the 11th District.
As a Vietnam Veteran, Kerry Bentivolio is accustomed to being unwelcome, unappreciated, and reviled back home, so people poking fun at the interesting things that he’s done in his life, he prefers to wear as a badge of honor, proof that he’s living in his opponents’ heads rent-free. But being accused of “not really earning his medals,” not actually being injured or disabled, and of fabricating the information in his own discharge papers, creates a significant problem, in that veterans typically take their personal and professional integrity very seriously. Challenges to that integrity aren’t going to be taken lightly, and when the source of a patently baseless “stolen valor” challenge is by a fellow veteran . . . “aggravating” and “hurtful” doesn’t quite cover it.
Thus it’s particularly troubling that in 2012, again in 2014, and at least five times in the past eight months, Andrew “Rocky” Raczkowski, himself a retired U. S. Army Lieutenant Colonel, has openly accused Bentivolio of intentionally falsifying and/or misrepresenting the information on his own Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty. As a command-grade officer, Raczkowski surely ought to know how authoritative a DD Form 214 is, and how inherently difficult it is to falsify the information contained on it (because everything has to be independently verified, from the member’s service record, before inclusion). Draw what connection you will, but I do find it curious that this particular stolen valor accusation has, without exception, surfaced against the backdrop of a republican congressional primary in Michigan’s 11th District (and specifically each of the three primaries with Bentivolio’s name on the ballot).
From what I understand, on at least four separate occasions, Bentivolio has asked Raczkowski to knock it off with the slander, but otherwise really hadn’t actually done anything about it. That changed when Bentivolio was knocking doors in a neighborhood, and several voters told him that they couldn’t vote for him . . . because his campaign literature was advertising stolen valor . . . because Raczkowski had already been through the same neighborhood and warned them about this. Of all of the unnecessary, spiteful, senseless, personal attacks that Bentivolio has patiently endured, this had to be the final straw.
While legal precedent sets the libel law threshold for public figures pretty high, knowingly and deliberately making malicious statements, either negligently or with reckless disregard for the veracity of those statements, in such a way as to intentionally and substantially damage the public figure in question . . . I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that this alleged conduct, if so, likely warrants a lawsuit at this point. And apparently, I’m not alone in that opinion.
About this time two weeks ago, Mr. Bentivolio sent Mr. Raczkowski a letter, essentially a cease-and-desist and demand for public retraction. A follow-up letter, four days later, set a compliance deadline of Sunday, May 13th, the evening before a well-publicized candidate debate. Having received bupkus from Rocky in the way of constructive response to his demands, Kerry arranged to have Raczkowski served with a lawsuit, right there on-stage at the debate. Notably, the MIRS Capitol Capsule, the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News, and the Oakland Press & Guide, all carried the story the next morning.
The eight-page complaint (Oakland County 6th Circuit Court Case # 2018-165705-CZ, filed 14 May 2018) accuses Mr. Raczkowski of malicious defamation, cites at least two witnesses with sworn affidavits on file, identifies a potential third witness who may be deposed later, refers to Mr. Bentivolio’s discharge papers and letters to Raczkowski in evidence, and references a 2012 radio interview of Raczkowski by Charlie Langdon (to establish a pattern of conduct). That’s enough witnesses and supporting evidence to support a lawsuit, to be sure, and that’s really unfortunate. Going back to the commandment that I cited at the beginning of this op-ed, and assuming that the lawsuit accusation is at least substantially true, I have no idea why Mr. Raczkowski would think that nasty and baseless personal attacks are a wise play. So I’m going to leave that alone; others will speculate enough, and I have no need to join them.
What bother’s me about this is that an unnecessary personal urinating competition runs the very real risk of the two frontrunners canceling each other out, via high-profile squabbling. Should that happen, two of the remaining four candidates are well-positioned to step into the breach (one due to decent district-wide name recognition, the other due to a sizeable campaign bank account), and win the primary simply by looking like the adult in the room. Kerry Bentivolio, for his part, seems to be content to have issued a press release this past Friday, but other than that is staying focused on door-to-door retail electioneering. So far as I can tell, Andre Raczkowski has decided to keep his mouth shut, though I freely admit that, not actually living in the district myself, I have no way to actually know. However, in both cases, focusing on earning votes while quietly letting the legal process run its course is probably a good idea.
As Mr. Bentivolio pointed out in his press release, modern American politics has deteriorated into something of a blood sport. Rather than a campaign being about who can do a better job of debating the issues of the day, it’s become about who does a better job of surviving the cutthroat politics of personal destruction. Maybe, just maybe, a quite-avoidable lawsuit will inspire everyone – and I do mean everyone – to knock it off.