As I began reviewing the life of Elly Peterson, I realized that she shared a painful experience with Geraldine Ferraro–having to respond to allegations about her husband’s real estate “dealings” late in her campaign.
A month before Election Day in her 1964 campaign for the U.S. Senate, Peterson was attending a tea in Jackson, Michigan, when she was called to the telephone to speak with a reporter. Gov. George Romney had just fired the adjutant general and two other top officers of the Michigan National Guard after the state auditor had turned up irregularities in sales of state-owned lots near Camp Grayling, the Guard’s encampment in northern Michigan. Peterson’s husband Pete, a Guard officer, was among those who had purchased lots.
Peterson didn’t know any of the details of her husband’s purchase, but cut her event short and returned to her home.
The next day the Lansing State Journal reported that the Petersons had purchased 23 lots at $17.40 each. The average price of the sold lots was $29, with some near the Petersons’ going for as much as $35.
Romney had directed State Attorney General Frank J. Kelley, a Democrat, to recommend what legal steps should be taken to protect the rights of “innocent purchasers, if any,” and to recommend how the state could recover any losses.
Democratic State Party Chairman Zolton Ferency added fuel to the fire by immediately calling for a special investigation to determine whether the Petersons had benefited personally. Romney promptly came to their defense, declaring that Ferency’s “innuendos are made out of whole cloth.”
Like Ferraro, Peterson responded by calling a press conference. She declared that her husband “was an innocent purchaser in no way involved in any of the illegalities or irregularities. . . .” Five years earlier, Pete had submitted a sealed bid of $400 for the lots, “totaling 1.26 acres of rather marshy” land. “No one solicited his bid. No one suggested how much he should offer. No one gave him any information about any property or procedures unknown to other officers and enlisted men of the Guard or to many residents of the Grayling area.”
Peterson added, “Obviously the Democratic leaders, speaking through their state chairman, singled out my husband from hundreds of others for only one reason—gutter politics. Their techniques have even included news commentaries reporting that my husband was one of the three officers dismissed by Gov. Romney. . . .What my husband did was honest, fair and in the open—which is more than I can say for my opponents in this affair.”
When she undertook her race, she said, “I did not count on seeing rotten politicians attempt to ruin my husband’s career. That is a price I will not pay. My husband is an honest man who can stand proudly on his long and honorable record as a soldier and who can weather all the lines and slime you can sling at him. And as for me, I am going to continue to hammer at my opponent’s record in office.”
The episode died down within a week or so, mostly because her opponent, Democratic Sen. Phil Hart, declined to make an issue of the matter. In her self-published memoir, Peterson wrote, “The story never really was cleared up properly and for weeks afterwards people would sidle up to me and ask, ‘Say how much DID Pete make on that
And as in Ferraro’s vice presidential campaign, the allegations did not ultimately change the outcome of her race. They both lost.