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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry


August 12, 2017

LANSING – Think about how bizarre this is: For months, journalists, including me, have been writing about the campaign to see who will be Michigan’s next governor.

Politicians, in turn, have been running like mad. Democratic frontrunner Gretchen Whitmer declared her candidacy in January, even before President Donald Trump took office.

She and Detroit’s former health director, Abdul El-Sayed, have each raised well over a million dollars already. Political unknown Shri Thanedar has dumped $3.3 million into his own campaign.

On the Republican side, both Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette are clearly running and raising funds, though neither has formally declared their candidacies.

So what’s bizarre about all that?

Simply this:  The primary election is still a year away.

People who haven’t yet met will marry before that. Babies not yet been conceived will be born before the primary.

Yet the candidates are running like the election was tomorrow.

Why? Simply, in a word, money.

“Every election cycle, the cost of campaigning goes up,” said Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group dedicated to “shining the brightest light possible on the role of money in Michigan politics.”

Once upon a time, candidates sought to win support with intriguing and innovative ideas about state government. That, and by demonstrating what a wide range of support they had.

Not so much anymore. “For these gubernatorial campaigns, the way to convey a sense of strength is to raise more money,” said Mauger, who covered money in politics for years as a reporter before moving on to lead MCFN early last year.

“It’s not about policy and positions, it’s not about organizing –it’s about raising money, period,” he said. What’s more, most reporters’ stories have focused solely on the candidates’ finance money and where it is coming from, not on what they’d do in office.

“I’ve read a bunch of stories on Thanedar since he dumped all that money into his campaign, but I’d have a hard time telling you where he stood on most of the issues,” he added.

Nobody is paying a lot of attention to any of the candidates’ positions at this point, and few if any have moved beyond basic partisan rhetoric. Whitmer pledges to do more for education and the middle class, for example; but is short on specifics.

In fairness, few voters are even thinking about next year’s election at this point, and the daily soap opera in Washington is sucking up all the attention most people are willing to pay to politics.

But by the time people do care about the issues, any candidates without huge war chests will have dropped out or been rendered essentially irrelevant.

Nor is the need for huge sums of money limited to the race for governor. MCFN reports that the cost of state legislative races is skyrocketing. Some candidates running for these seats next year have already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Several legislative races last year saw the candidates spend more than $1 million between them; this for a job that lasts two years and for which the winner will make a mere $71,685 per year.

Dana Nessel, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for state attorney general, told me that when she has sought support from key party leaders, she wants to talk about what she’d do in office. But “all they want to know is how much money I’ve raised.”

What makes that especially jarring is that there is no statewide primary for attorney general; party leaders will select the candidate at a state convention in late August or early September.

But can anything be done about the escalating pay-to-play world of politics? Efforts to try and limit campaign spending were effectively ended by the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision in 2010, which said limiting spending was unconstitutional.

There is, however, one long shot possibility.

Virtually all the immense sums candidates raise are used for broadcast TV advertising; spending on buttons, bumper stickers, billboards and everything else is only a tiny fraction of the total.

While the First Amendment means there can be essentially no restrictions on advertising in print or on the Internet, the laws are different for anything broadcast over the airwaves.

That’s because the airwaves are public property, like the national parks, and the Federal Communications Commission has every legal right to regulate them. Theoretically, the FCC could impose strict limits on TV advertising everywhere in the country.

They could impose some version of the old Fairness Doctrine or establish an equal time rule, and drastically reduce the power of money in campaigns. Doing that might take years, and require a President who would appoint like-minded commissioners to the FCC.

But it might, barring a constitutional amendment, be the only way to prevent money from completely controlling who gets elected to any office anywhere in this state or nation. That is, if it isn’t already too late.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism 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.

August 10, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry



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