Ron Armstrong’s battle against COVID-19 restrictions has made him one of the best-known anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-quarantine figures in Michigan. It’s also turned into a financial bonanza for his company, which makes tabletop displays and has taken in tens of thousands of dollars from the activist groups he created.
In addition, two political candidates who were endorsed by his organizations have paid Armstrong’s company thousands more. Armstrong’s spokesman noted he’s broken no laws, but a good-government watchdog says the whole thing stinks.
“This speaks to the gaping holes in Michigan's campaign finance law,” said Simon Schuster, executive director of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “As a result we see people can use their positions of power or place in political movements to benefit themselves.”
Through his groups Unlock Michigan and Stand Up Michigan, Armstrong is spearheading another effort to curtail the state’s capacity to react to epidemics just as it faces the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the country and a glut of patients threatens to overwhelm hospitals from the Upper Peninsula to Detroit. And a spokesman for Unlock Michigan signaled the flow of cash to Armstrong has just begun.
“It’ll show up in campaign finance reports whenever that’s publicly available,” said GOP operative Fred Wszolek. "It’ll be disclosed when it needs to be disclosed.”
As the fight over Michigan’s COVID-19 lockdown measures turned increasingly bitter last summer and fall, distinctive maroon and white signs sprouted on lawns and grassy strips across the Midwestern state.
“End Whitmer’s Endless Shutdown!” they cried. They bore the insignia of Unlock Michigan, a petition campaign aimed at curtailing Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency powers that collected more than half a million signatures.
State campaign finance filings reveal the provenance of the signs, along with Unlock Michigan flags and tabletop displays that clustered last year at public events and near government buildings: the initiative paid just shy of $38,000 to Armstrong Display Concepts in the tiny town of Newaygo.
The firm—which obtained a Paycheck Protection Program loan in January to cover 12 employees—raked in an additional $7,578.58 from the campaigns of Judge Brock Swartzle and Mary Kelly, candidates for state Supreme Court who received endorsements from Unlock Michigan and from Stand Up Michigan.
These expenditures came despite records showing no history of Armstrong Display Concepts ever providing services to any other state or federal campaign. The company website shows it manufactures a product called the “Ultralight X,” a presentation board that folds up to look like a briefcase.
Stand Up Michigan also blanketed the state in yard signs for the past year and a half, but its financial disclosures to the Internal Revenue Service are not yet available to view, and so it is impossible to see whether it too has done business with Armstrong. However, the trademark application for the group’s Paul Revere-style logo is in Armstrong’s name, and he is the only publicly listed contact.
Neither Armstrong nor his company responded to requests for comment. Neither did retired prosecutor Mary Kelly, one of the two failed contenders for Michigan’s highest bench whose campaigns pumped cash into Armstrong’s business.
But Wszolek, who also worked on the election of Appeals Court Judge Brock Swartzle, the other unsuccessful state Supreme Court aspirant, said Armstrong’s company was a “competitive low-bidder”—though he refused to say how many bids the campaigns received.
“I don’t have to tell you anything,” Wszolek said. “He delivered fantastic product at a fantastic price.”
Schuster called the payments from the judicial candidates to a firm with no experience in politics prior to last year “damning.”
“This reads like something that is too much of a coincidence,” he told The Daily Beast. “It risks besmirching the intent and reputation of these organizations when central figures in these movements are benefiting from these activities.”
Unlock Michigan has now embarked on its “2.0” effort: a new petition drive to change state laws so as to prevent any epidemic order from lasting more than 28 days, a proposal that has public health authorities panicked.
Earlier this year, Armstrong headlined a mask-burning event in Grand Rapids, as well as a “Freedom Festival” in Livingston County in June and an anti-vaccine mandate rally in Lansing in August. Each locality—and Grand Rapids in particular—has seen its COVID-19 caseload spike in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, his Unlock Michigan co-chair, Meshawn Maddock, ascended into the leadership of the state Republican Party in January, weeks after she personally spearheaded a bus trip from the state to violent pro-Trump protests in Washington, D.C.
Also in April, Armstrong’s Stand Up Michigan co-founder Garrett Soldano launched a campaign for governor.
Schuster complained that the COVID-19 policy wars have turned the state into a warzone where such right-wing dark money groups like Armstrong’s battle similarly opaque organizations aligned with Whitmer.
“These are matters that have consequence in people’s everyday lives,” he said. “And because we don’t know who is fueling these fights, we don’t have transparency.”