July 30, 2010
Virtually every politician running for office likes to claim he/she is unbossed and unbought.
“Aren’t you tired of special interests and lobbyists telling you how to vote? Politicians who won’t tell you the truth?” says U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra in a new TV ad. He is one of five candidates vying for the GOP nomination for governor in Tuesday‘s Michigan primary.
But the congressman not only talks with special interests, in some cases he takes their money — and so do almost all his rivals.
Take one of the hottest issues in the legislature today — the battle over whether to build a new, internationally owned bridge across the Detroit River. Most statewide officials of both parties, from Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson to Gov. Jennifer Granholm, support the Detroit River International Crossing, or DRIC.
So do most corporate leaders. But the project is stalled in the Michigan Senate, principally because of the opposition of Manuel J. “Matty” Moroun, the owner of the Ambassador Bridge.
Hoekstra says he doesn’t like the DRIC proposal and thinks any new bridge should be a “public-private partnership.”
But he is less quick to mention that he’s accepted at least $13,600 in campaign contributions from Moroun. In fact, five of the seven candidates for governor have come out against DRIC, even though the government of Canada wants the project so much it says it would pay Michigan’s share of the costs.
Every one of the five candidates who opposes the DRIC bridge has accepted money from Moroun. Even State Sen. Tom George (R-Kalamazoo), the longest of shots, got $3,400. Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard got more than $45,000, counting contributions to a political action committee associated with his campaign.
Speaker of the House Andy Dillon (D-Redford), who supports the DRIC bridge, didn’t get a penny from Moroun. Nor did Rick Snyder, the Ann Arbor venture capitalist who is seeking the GOP nomination. He said he leans towards support for the new bridge.
If this causes you to raise an eyebrow, that’s because it should. “Corporations don’t give money for selfless reasons,” said Rich Robinson, who runs the nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which is concerned about the influence of money in state politics.
“They are looking for policy outcomes on issues they care about,” he added. Direct bribery is, of course, illegal. But the candidates know that those giving expect something in return.
Yet cases like that of Matty Moroun don’t bother Rich Robinson that much, because they are somewhat in the open. Anyone can go to the Michigan Campaign Finance group’s website and follow who has given to whom. Given openly, that is.
What worries him more are the vast amounts being spent on a stealth campaign. In this last week before Tuesday’s primary, hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent on slick ads flooding the airwaves attacking one candidate or another, and nobody legally has the right to know who is footing the bill.
Under Michigan law, “issue-oriented” groups are exempt from any state or federal regulations about how much money they can raise or spend. Most have bland names, like “Americans for Job Security,” or “Fix Lansing, Get Michigan Back to Work.”
These groups often have anything but bland agendas, however. Known as 527s, after the section of the tax code applying to them, the groups have only one restriction.
They cannot directly endorse a candidate or tell voters to vote against somebody. Directly, that is. However, they accomplish that in other ways — as when, two years ago, one of these groups paid for the famous ad that charged that Clifford Taylor, then the chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, fell asleep on the bench.
There is no proof this really happened — but most think the ad was a major factor in his defeat. Another such group, Americans for Job Security, is now running an ad campaign that portrays Hoekstra as a tax-and-spend liberal, when he is in fact anything but.
Robinson believes voters should be able to find out who is bankrolling these ads. That’s something the Michigan Legislature could do merely by passing a bill. Some people are confused, he noted, because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that there could be no limits on corporate political spending.
“But they specifically said that the states have every right to demand disclosure.” Unfortunately, there are plenty of people and corporate interests who prefer to hide beyond anonymity.
They also give to state legislative campaigns, and the Michigan Senate has repeatedly refused to pass a bill requiring such disclosure. The Democratic and Republican parties could also encourage a more transparent system.
But they haven’t done that either. Nor, by and large, have the media, who often ask candidates about abortion policy, and seldom about campaign finance reform.
Yet no governor can do much about abortion. The new governor and legislature could do much, however, to make Michigan’s political money machine more transparent.
The question is —will the citizens ever press whoever is elected to do so?
Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.