Four years ago, running for governor, Rick Snyder took a strong stand against secrecy in campaign donations.
“All electioneering communications — broadcast, print and telephonic — that feature the name or image of a candidate for office or ballot initiative should be considered expenditures subject to appropriate disclosure requirements,” he proclaimed.
Then, last week, the governor broke his word.
Late on the afternoon of Dec. 27, when voters were celebrating the holidays and press attention was minimal, Snyder signed a bill that would allow special interests to keep their spending secret.
Rich Robinson, executive director of the non-partisan, non-profit Michigan Campaign Finance Network, called the governor’s signing of the bill “disappointing” and “a disgrace … that will probably lead to even less transparency and accountability in Michigan politics than we have seen over the last decade.”
The new law, Public Act 252, also doubles the amount of money individuals can give to individual political campaigns, and, in a sop to those promoting reforms, requires both more frequent reporting of campaign spending, and says those behind the much-hated “robocalls” have to identify who they are.
But the key point of the bill was to make sure those who have sometimes spent millions to smear a candidate, usually by falsely representing their stands on issues, could continue to keep their identities secret. Four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, in its highly controversial and now-famous Citizens United decision, that there could be essentially no limits on campaign spending.
However, the high court did say said states could compel full disclosure of who gives how much to whom. In fact, eight of the nine judges essentially urged full disclosure. Even Justice Antonin Scalia said “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”
That’s the position the governor took when he was running for office. Michigan law, however, has allowed those paying for so-called “issue-oriented ads” to keep their identities secret.
Michigan law does require full disclosure of who gives money to any ads that say “vote for Smith,” or “vote for Jones.”
However, some special interest group or extremely rich person or persons could spend millions for ads that say “Smith likes terrorists and would move filthy homeless people into your neighborhood,” and remain totally anonymous.
That sort of thing has been happening more and more in Michigan politics, said the Michigan Campaign Finance Network’s Robinson. “Most of the money now spent on our state supreme court races is this ‘dark money,’ “ he added.
For example, during the 2012 state supreme court campaign, a spokesperson for Bridget McCormack said an anonymous group spent perhaps a million dollars on ads that falsely claimed she was friendly to terrorists. She won anyway, but the practice of secret smears has come under increasing criticism.
Then In November, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, herself a Republican, agreed that secret campaign spending was unfair.
She announced she was going to issue an administrative rule requiring donors to so-called issue-oriented ads be identified. This immediately upset legislative Republicans, some who have been beneficiaries of such dark money in the past.
State Sen. Arlen Meekhof, R-West Olive, the majority floor leader, almost immediately amended the campaign spending bill to prevent the secretary of state from requiring full disclosure.
The bill narrowly passed both houses. Then, both sides waited weeks to see what the governor’s decision would be. Two days after Christmas, it arrived. In justifying signing the bill, Snyder said he had changed his mind because he had decided that forcing special interests to reveal the truth about their funding might leave them open to “intimidation.” “I’m not sure I really appreciated the balancing of the free speech aspect,” he told the Gongwer news service.
Later, in a column, he added “History has shown that disclosing donors’ names results in scare tactics that are designed to suppress speech and participation in the political process.”
The Michigan Campaign Finance Network’s chief called that “hogwash,” adding, “the contention that some of the most powerful interest groups and individuals in the state have any legitimate fear of retribution is ludicrous.”
His criticism was mild, compared to what Democrats had to say. Mark Schauer, the all-but-certain Democratic nominee for governor, vowed to make this a campaign issue.
Whether or not that is successful, it seemed certain that the governor’s action was bound to alienate many of the moderate voters who supported him in 2010 — and confirm suspicions that he is now firmly in his party’s hard right-wing camp.
Weather blues: Snyder also was attacked for non-ideological reasons over the holiday. He was heavily criticized for not declaring a state of emergency, and also for seeming insensitivity to a crippling power outrage that left hundreds of thousands of Michiganders without heat or light at Christmas time.
The usually unflappable John Lindstrom, publisher of the Gongwer news report, said in a blog post he had one message for the state’s “leaders and wanna-be leaders — Where the hell are you?”
Lindstrom noted that the governor did not seem to express much concern for “the 400,000 without power for some time now,” of which he admitted he was one.
He noted that the governor was not issuing statements, visiting warming centers, or even visible, as other governors have been in previous such crises. In fairness, however, he also added, “Mark Schauer, this doesn’t let you off the hook either,” noting that the Democratic candidate was also neither on the scene nor calling for faster action in what might have been a prime political opportunity.
Jack Lessenberry has taught journalism at Wayne State University since 1993. He is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, is ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade, a former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News, and hosts the weekly public affairs show “Deadline Now” on WGTE-TV in Toledo. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.