Vailliencourt vs. Reader: Breaking down Livingston County’s nastiest political primary

In a year full of red-hot Livingston County political battles, this is the red-hottest one of them all.

William Vailliencourt, who has been Livingston County’s prosecutor since 2013, is being challenged in the Republican primary by David Reader, a former Livingston County circuit court judge and county commissioner who is one of the best-known politicians in the county. Two well-known, well-funded guys who don’t like each other going at it like cats and dogs.

The winner of the primary will face Democrat Ragan Lake in the fall. She’s an assistant Wayne County prosecutor and appears to be highly qualified, but this is Livingston County, so whoever wins the Vailliencourt-Reader primary is 99.9 percent certain to win the election in the fall. That’s just the way it is.

In any case, Vailliencourt vs. Reader is a true battle of the political titans, and as we expected, it’s been downright nasty at times.

Before we get into an analysis of the race, let’s meet these two Republican heavyweights.

David Reader is a local boy, a 1970 graduate of Howell High School who went to law school and then came home to practice law here. He got into politics in 1996 when he ran for Livingston County Commissioner, and because of what happened in that race, he’s sort of a local Republican hero.

That year, he was running against a Democratic incumbent named Jake Donohue. Jake lived in Unadilla Township, and for many years was the only Democratic county-level elected official in this heavily Republican county. A lone Blue dot in a sea of Red.

The Republicans tried many times to unseat Jake so that they could make this an all-Republican county, but he beat back the challenge many times. The local Democrats thus loved and revered Jake Donohue.

A couple months before the 1996 election, though, Jake died and was replaced on the Democratic side of the ballot by his daughter, Judy Donohue Williams. She gave it a great try, but Dave Reader ended up winning the election by a couple hundred votes.

That gave Livingston County Republicans total control of everything at the county level. And by taking back that seat for the GOP, Reader became somewhat of a Republican hero.

After serving as a county commissioner for eight years, Reader gave up his seat in 2004 to run for Circuit Court judge. He overcame a very negative campaign by his opponent, Bob Parker, to win the race. He then had no trouble winning re-election in 2010 and 2016. By most accounts, he did a very fine job on the bench. The judge in Livingston County I admire and respect the most is Circuit Judge Mike Hatty, but Reader was always up there, too.

In March of 2019, though, Reader very abruptly and unexpectedly resigned his judicial seat, giving no reason for his resignation. It’s fairly obvious now that he was resigning from the bench so that he could run for prosecutor in 2020, but he didn’t say so at the time. He didn’t say anything, in fact. He just turned in a one-sentence resignation letter and walked away.

This allowed Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to fill the vacancy, and she responded (big shock here!) by appointing a Democrat. Whitmer tabbed Matt McGivney, a local attorney who had run for state representative as a Democrat back in 2002. McGivney has done a fine job on the bench, and he’s facing no opposition this year in his bid to retain the seat.

So whereas Reader was a hero to the Republicans in 1996 for taking Jake Donohue’s seat, he’s not so much a hero to some Republicans now, because he gave Whitmer a chance to fill his seat with a Democrat. In their last debate, Bill Vailliencourt made a BIG deal about this, and he’s hoping GOP voters hold it against Reader in the primary.

So that’s Dave Reader.

William Vailliencourt has been the Livingston County prosecutor since 2013, and unlike Reader, he didn’t have a long history in politics before that. He spent a little time in private practice, but he’s basically been a career-long prosecutor. He worked as an assistant prosecutor in Oakland County and then came to Livingston County in 1995 and started working as an assistant prosecutor under David Morse. When Morse decided not to run for re-election in 2012, Vailliencourt filed to succeed him.

The 2012 Republican primary for prosecutor featured Vailliencourt running against attorneys Carolyn Henry and Lyle Dickson. Vailliencourt ended up defeating Henry by about 1,000 votes, and Dickson by about a zillion votes. Vailliencourt then sailed to victory in the fall against token Democratic opposition.

Henry, a Howell attorney, decided to take on Vailliencourt AGAIN in 2016, and this time, he won even bigger, by more than 3,000 votes.

So that’s Bill Vailliencourt.

And that brings us to 2020, where we have a prosecutor’s race that is, to put it mildly, acrimonious. As I said, these guys don’t like each other, and they’ve made no bones about it.

If you’ve paid attention to this race for even two seconds – or if you’ve checked your mail lately – you know that there’s only real issue in this race: Theresa Brennan. Both candidates have made the disgraced former judge the One and Only Issue.

And each guy wants you to know that when it comes to going after Brennan and getting her off the bench (and into jail), they did everything right and the other guy did everything wrong.

Vailliencourt and Reader both played major roles in the Brennan drama, which is why this is so intriguing. Vailliencourt was the prosecutor who brought the Kowalski murder case to trial (the case in which Brennan was sleeping with the main police witness). Reader was the chief judge during the time when Brennan did all this.

I don’t have time to spell it all out, but if you want to know what each guy is saying about the other guy, just go to their campaign Facebook pages. You’ll find Vailliencourt’s page here and Reader’s page here. You can decide for yourself which guy is the hero in the Brennan case and which guy is the villain.

What I’ll say is this: Neither one of them should be doing any bragging when it comes to Theresa Brennan.

If for no other reason than this: When Brennan ran for re-election in 2014 – after being an absolutely awful, mean, nasty judge for eight years – they each gleefully endorsed her. IN THE SAME NEWSPAPER AD! You can see it for yourself here:

In 2014, Brennan was running for re-election against my friend Dennis Brewer, who was the only one who had enough guts to stand up to her. He gave Livingston County a choice that year, and even though Brennan hadn’t committed her Kowalski-related offenses and other crimes yet, every single person in the legal community knew what a horrible judge she was. Including Bill Vailliencourt and Dave Reader.

And yet they still endorsed her. Heartily. Happily. In the very same newspaper ad.

So when both of these guys want you to give them medals for standing up to Theresa Brennan, don’t believe it. They had the chance in 2014 to stand up to her – or at least to stay out of it – and they chose instead to pat her on the back and tell Livingston County what a great judge she was.

So in my mind, the Brennan thing is a wash. Instead of both asking for praise, they should both be issuing apologies to Dennis Brewer and everyone else in Livingston County.

I have tremendous respect for both men – Vailliencourt as a prosecutor and Reader for his work as judge – but we need to judge them on other issues.

If you have time, watch the debate they did that was sponsored by the Livingston Post, WHMI and the League of Women Voters. You’ll find it below.

In addition to all the Brennan stuff, I thought they each did an excellent job of talking about the issues and their approach to the job. Vailliencourt and Reader are both very smart guys, and despite what they’re saying about each other, I think they both love Livingston County deeply.

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