When the Mother’s Milk of Politics Turns Sour

By on January 17th, 2020

“Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” That incisive and perhaps cynical observation gets attributed to Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh, the legendary speaker of the California State Assembly and a highly influential player in national Democratic politics in the 1970s. 

And just as milk can turn sour, so too can campaign money – a reality some politicians forget or ignore, to their own peril. 

With campaign season upon us in Michigan – not just the presidency, but also for the U.S. House delegation, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, all 110 state House seats and a slew of judgeships and local offices – here are some refresher lessons for our politicians and their constituents.

Lesson 1: Greed is a common human trait in and out of politics, but greed should have limits. The tutor for this lesson could be embattled Rep. Larry Inman, the Williamsburg Republican snared in a federal vote-selling investigation. A grand jury charged him with lying to the FBI, seeking a bribe and attempted extortion for text messages that allegedly offered his vote on prevailing wage legislation in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in labor union contributions to his campaign. 

At trial, a jury acquitted the term-limited Inman of lying to the FBI but failed to reach a verdict on the other charges. He’s narrowly saved his seat, at least for now, because disgusted constituents failed to secure enough valid signatures to force a recall election. 

Lesson 2: Don’t ignore the paperwork. Save yourself the embarrassment of appearing on the Secretary of State’s roster of delinquent candidates and committees that don’t file their disclosure reports on time. These filings are important to transparent elections so the public can quickly see where your political money comes from and where it’s going. 

Beyond the embarrassment are fines and late fees. As MIRS reported recently, committees for former Rep. David Nathan, D-Detroit, are in the deepest hole – owing $26,5000 – among past and present legislators for overdue reports. Others high on the list are ex-Reps. Shanelle Jackson and George Cushingberry, also Detroit Democrats. Several incumbents appear on the Bureau of Elections November 2019 roster for “Failure to Respond to Notice of Failure to File.” They include Reps. Michael Webber, R-Rochester Hills, Brian Elder, D-Bay City, and Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, as well as Bryan Barnhill, an elected member of the Wayne State University Board of Governors. 

Lesson 3: There’s lots of money involved, but don’t be in too much of a rush to cash the checks. In the U.S. Senate race, for example, GOP contender John James collected $3.5 million in the last three months of 2019, while Peters, the Democratic incumbent, took in $2.51 million, leaving him with $8 million in his campaign kitty. Do due diligence: Who really is the donor? Many campaigns, including those of presidential candidates Barack Obama and Donald Trump, have accepted – and then had to refund – foreign contributions, which are illegal in federal elections. 

Lesson 4: Take the blame when things go wrong. Candidates too often blame their campaign treasurers or campaign aides, who, at least in state races, often have little or no experience with campaign finance laws and reporting requirements. The ultimate moral – and sometimes legal – responsibility for errors belongs to the candidates. Simon Schuster, the new executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, says, “Campaign finance law and reporting is a complex undertaking, and even mandated electronic filing (of financial reports) is only relatively recent in the scope of Michigan politics.”

Lesson 5: Thou shalt not steal. Seems simple, right? Donors contribute to support candidates and causes they believe in, not to subsidize the candidate’s high life. Our tutor is disgraced U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who pleaded guilty in December to conspiring to misuse campaign funds. A grand jury accused Hunter and his wife of misusing $250,000 in contributions for personal expenses, including their children’s private school, extravagant travel, restaurants and clothes. After his guilty plea, he promised to resign. 

Now here’s a lesson for you, the voter. 

Beware of ambiguous and feel-good names sported by political action committees. Who could reasonably disagree with a PAC called “Citizens for a Better Tomorrow?” We all want a better tomorrow. Ditto for the “Today and Our Future Fund.” Who could reasonably disagree with a “Consensus PAC?” Don’t we call for more consensus in policymaking rather than bitter partisanship? Or “Michigan Is Yours?” The state surely belongs to all its residents. “Michigan Rising?” We certainly don’t want Michigan to decline, right?

Schuster advises looking for the small line on a mailer or political ad that discloses who paid for it. That will help you assess the motivation behind the information you’re getting fed. At least maybe it will help. Identifying actual funders and discerning their intent may be difficult if independent committees that aren’t required to disclose their finances are involved. For example, he cites mailers send out nominally in support of Libertarian Party legislative candidates but where the funders’ real motivation was to draw votes away from the Republican nominees.

Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. He is a former Lansing Bureau reporter for the Detroit News and has been a Fulbright journalism instructor in Uzbekistan, Lithuania and the Republic of Georgia.

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