Dunbar denies sexual harassment, racism claims amid mayoral bid

Two women allege ‘predatory behavior’ against four-term City Councilwoman

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MONDAY, April 19 — Four-term Lansing City Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar is denying allegations of sexual harassment and racial discrimination that were made less than 24 hours after she announced plans to run for mayor in the August primary election.

Dunbar, 52, announced her candidacy early yesterday — just minutes before former three-term Mayor Virg Bernero bowed out of the race amid several other sexual harassment allegations that were published last month by City Pulse and earlier this morning by MLive. To run for mayor, she must forego seeking reelection to the Council this year.

And now Dunbar is facing some sexual harassment (among other) accusations of her own.

The recent claims against Dunbar are twofold: Rina Risper, publisher of the New Citizens’ Press in Lansing, alleged in a Facebook post today that Dunbar had once told her that “your little Black newspaper won’t make it.” Risper said Dunbar should not “get a pass because she is a woman.” Risper refused to speak to this reporter for this story. 

“I cannot believe Kathie Dunbar would have the audacity to run for mayor. She is a sexual predator and a racist. I am going public and WILL NOT remain anonymous,” Risper wrote. “I have spoken to the people who are closest to me. I am hoping other people come forward.”

Risper also said Dunbar has been “harassing” her for several years. She didn’t elaborate further.

Former City Councilwoman Jody Washington also made allegations of “predatory behavior and sexual harassment” against Dunbar. She said Dunbar once made an off-color remark about how Risper’s hairstyle had resembled the young Black actor Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas from “The Little Rascals” short films that ran in movie houses for 10 years starting in the mid-1930s.

Washington also alleged that Dunbar had inappropriately “grabbed” her sister from behind.

“Predatory behavior and sexual harassment can run both ways. It is time that we stop tolerating abhorrent behavior from politicians, public figures and anyone else — be they man or woman,” Washington wrote. “This woman really has a long history of just really abhorrent behavior.”

Washington didn’t identify her sister and also didn’t elaborate on the recent accusations.

In an interview with City Pulse today, Dunbar flatly denied both of the claims against her.

“I am not a racist. I did not say that,” Dunbar explained in response to Risper’s allegations. “I have not spoken to Rina since 2006. I don’t believe I’ve actually had a conversation with her since 2006. I don’t know what she’s talking about. I never made that comment about her paper.”

She also denied groping Washington’s sister: “I don’t believe that happened. I can’t even imagine a context where that would happen,” said Dunbar, who identifies as bisexual. “I can guarantee you, if my hand touched her butt, it was not in any kind of lewd manner. I don’t know what she’s talking about.”

Dunbar’s announcement in a news releases that she was entering the mayor’s race preceded by a few minutes Bernero’s departure, who was accused of groping a woman in 2010 and sending a series of unwanted and sexually charged phone calls to another woman in 2004. Two former campaign staffers also alleged today that Bernero propositioned them for a threesome and asked one of them to expose her breasts.

Dunbar told City Pulse that she jumped into the race to give residents an option other than the “lesser of two evils.” With harassment claims, Bernero’s election would have negatively impacted several women. And with several accusations of racial discrimination levied against Schor’s administration, she fears his reelection would only negatively impact Black people in Lansing.

“I heard folks saying that they wanted a candidate that they could truly support, not one that was the lesser of two evils,” Dunbar explained. “There came a time about three weeks ago where I needed to decide between staying on Council or putting my efforts where my values are.”

Dunbar criticized Schor for a lack of meaningful progress and cultural awareness in bridging an ever-widening racial divide in the Capital City sparked by the death of George Floyd and accelerated by tear gas deployed at a downtown protest in May. She also slammed Spitzley for failing to advance “anything of substance” during her two terms on the City Council.

“I can point to a track record of accomplishment that I’ve achieved in 16 years on the Council. I don’t believe she can point to anything. I don’t believe she has brought forward any legislation, any projects, policies,” Dunbar explained to City Pulse. “Many people didn’t even know her name or that she was on the Council. Those who did cannot point to anything she has done.”

In an interview today, Dunbar outlined a platform that’s focused primarily on pandemic recovery efforts — including allocating millions of dollars in federal funding to small businesses and other residents who are still struggling as the coronavirus continues to linger in Michigan and beyond.

Dunbar said her experience as the executive director and founder of the South Lansing Community Development Association has lent to a unique perspective as she deals firsthand with people who are struggling to find employment or affordable housing in the city of Lansing.

“I know City Hall inside and out. I know the budget. I know the employees. I know the departments. I’m also simultaneously the director of a nonprofit that works on the ground alongside people across South Lansing to address community needs that arise,” she said.

Dunbar also differentiated herself from Schor and Spitzley in calling for true divestment from the Lansing Police Department — that is, actually reducing the amount of money in its budget and reallocating that cash to other, more proactive social services and organizations in the city.

“We have folks who have been dropped to the bottom because of this pandemic. We have folks in poverty. Poverty is what leads to gun violence. Poverty and inequity lead to gun violence and we have an epidemic of gun violence affecting our Black youth in this community,” Dunbar said. “We need comprehensive funding into programs, counseling, education, job training — to give people an alternative to crime to address poverty. We have to start looking at these problems.”

Dunbar hasn’t yet filed her campaign with Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope ahead of tomorrow’s 4 p.m. filing deadline. Aside from Schor and Spitzley, only one other mayoral candidate — Larry Hutchinson Jr. — has filed for the election. Farhan-Sheikh-Omar, Melissa Huber and Jeffrey Handley Jr. have all expressed an interest in running, though none have yet formally filed.

Pick up this week’s edition for additional election coverage and a full Q&A with Dunbar.

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