By George Weeks, Syndicated columnist
---- — The title is benign but the contents of the just-published 95-page "Citizens Guide to Michigan Campaign Finance 2010" abound with citations "absolutely poisonous for democracy."
After decades of covering Michigan politics, and some time as a functionary within the political system, I was struck by the guide's astounding assertion that last year's state political campaigns "set a record as the least accountable campaigns ever for the major statewide offices."
Worst ever is quite an indictment, especially in an era when campaigning politicians tout the need for the bright light of public scrutiny. Transparency was a promise made; promise unkept.
"We've entered an era when a small group of undisclosed financial backers can drive an election without leaving any fingerprints," said Rich Robinson, executive director of the watchdog Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN), which issued the guide Sept. 28.
"Transparency and accountability get lip-service in Lansing, but nobody is stepping up to address the deplorable lack (of) transparency and accountability in Michigan political campaigns," he said.
Whose fault is this?
Said Robinson: "Apparently, officeholders and stakeholders are betting that citizen ignorance and apathy is a permanent condition. Unless citizens start acting like citizens, and demand accountability, they can count on being left in the dark for a good long time."
Among the races cited:
• Governor: In the primary, spending by undisclosed individual supporters included $4.3 million by the Michigan Democratic Party for nominee Virg Bernero (who won a TV-driven primary campaign without buying a spot of his own) and $4.3 million by the Republican Governors Association for now-Gov. Rick Snyder.
• Secretary of State: Half of the spending in the race between the Republican winner, Ruth Johnson, and Democrat Jocelyn Benson was unreported, candidate-focused television issue advertising sponsored by the political parties.
MCFN notes: "There is an obvious irony in having the elected executive responsible for campaign finance disclosure winning election in a campaign that was mostly undisclosed" -- that is, not disclosed in the State's campaign finance reporting system.
(MCFN collects these figures by slogging through the public files of the state's TV broadcasters and cable systems.)
nAttorney General: The $5.7 million AG race was Michigan's most expensive ever -- with twice the spending of any previous one. The $3.1 million reported by victorious Republican Bill Schuette, his Democratic opponent David Leyton, and committees making independent expenditures was a record for disclosed spending.
Also a record: The $2.6 million spent for unreported candidate-focused TV issue ads.
• Supreme Court: Undisclosed spending hit a record-high 55 percent of all spending in the race involving the Republicans who won, Justice Robert P. Young Jr. and Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Mary Beth Kelly, and the Democrats who lost, Justice Alton Thomas Davis and Oakland County Circuit Judge Denise Langford Morris.
The Michigan GOP spent $3.4 million for pro-Young/Kelly ads, only $650,000 of which was disclosed. The state Democratic Party spent $2,450,000 for unreported TV ads against Young and Kelly.
Bailey seeks Benishek seat
In 2010, Michigan's third costliest congressional race was in the 1st District, where Republican Dan Benishek, a Crystal Falls surgeon, defeated state Rep. Gary McDowell, D-Rudyard, for the seat long held by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, who did not seek a 10th term.
The Michigan Campaign Finance Network reports that Benishek raised more than McDowell -- $1.3 million to $837,000. Benishek's supporters spent more than twice as much as McDowell's -- $3.3 million to $1.5 million.
"Outside groups accounted for nearly 70 percent of all spending in the 1st District," the report said.
Although McDowell is running again, there's no guarantee of a rematch. On Saturday, Derek Bailey, tribal chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, announced for the seat.
Bailey vowed to deliver "vibrant, creative and strong leadership in advancing the needs of the citizens in northern Michigan" and to "make sure our voice is heard."
"Our elected leaders need to start rowing the boat and stop rocking it," he said.
In a brief phone interview, he said he would seek a "positive" working relationship across partisan divides" to deal with jobs, education, protecting the Great Lakes environment, reigning in spending, reducing "the nation's overwhelming pile of debt," and enacting "sensible tax policies."
In an early September column reporting that Bailey, whose four-year as chairman expires next year in May, was exploring the congressional bid, I called him a "thoroughly modern Omega (leader)." The correct spelling is Ogema.
Regardless of who is the GOP nominee, the 1st District race will be high-profile nationally, hotly contested and expensive.
The Detroit News said, "Democrats are targeting it as one of 25 they can win back in 2012 to retake the House."