Traverse City Record-Eagle

July 7, 2013

George Weeks: Dark money fuels Mich. political campaigns

Syndicated columnist

— "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." —The Wizard of Oz

As activities escalate toward Michigan’s 2014 elections, there’s a timely lesson to be learned from a watchdog’s startling report on record spending and the continuing trend of diminishing accountability in 2012 campaigns.

“Descending into Dark Money” was the wellphrased cover title on the recent annual Citizen’s Guide released by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Michigan Given the increasing costs of campaigns across the nation, it was not surprising or alarming that overall Michigan spending topped $200 million, including a combined total of more than $154 million for and against the six ballot proposals — all of which lost.Another $4 million came from reported independent expenditures by political action committees (PACs) and the state political parties.

Worrisome are the Ozlike shadowy folks, as portrayed by MCFN, who contribute anonymously.

“We are victims of an anachronistic interpretation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act that allows unaccountable dark money to dominate our politics, “ MCFN Executive Director Rich Robinson said of a yearsago Michigan Secretary of State ruling. “Citizens should have the right to know whose money is driving critically important election outcomes, so they can evaluate how campaign spending correlates to policy outcomes.”

Robinson, who tirelessly travels the state collecting spending records from the public files of TV broadcasters and cable systems, revealed that unreported candidate-focused TV issue advertising in judicial and House campaigns added $18.3 million to the reported 2012 total.

The MCFN report said: “The diminishing accountability for campaign spending is best illustrated in two key judicial campaigns. In the Michigan Supreme Court campaign, the candidate committees reported raising $3.4 million, and reported independent expenditures were $1.6 million.

“That $5 million of reported activity was vastly overshadowed by $13.85 million of TV advertising about the candidates sponsored by the Michigan Republican Party, the Michigan Democratic Party and a DC-based nonprofit corporation called Judicial Crisis Network. There is no public record of whose contributions paid for the issue advertising.”

MCFN called the 2012 Supreme Court campaign “the most expensive and least transparent in history.”

In the race for two full terms, Bridget Mc-Cormack, nominated by Democrats, was the top vote getter followed by Republican incumbent Justice Stephen Markman.

Republican incumbent Justice Brian Zahra won the right to complete the partial term to which he had been appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder upon the January 2011 resignation of former Chief Justice Maura Corrigan, who became Snyder’s human services director.

Ex-Chief Justice Betty Weaver of Glen Arbor offers a compelling insider look ontransparency and other issues and in her recently-released book Judicial Deceit: Tyranny and Unnecessary Secrecy at the Michigan Supreme Court .

As MCFN says: “Undisclosed spending in Supreme Courtcampaigns thwarts the voter’s right to know who is supporting the candidates, as it does in any campaign where undisclosed spending occurs. However, there is additional toxicity to unreported spending in a judicial campaign. It compromises trust and confidence in the impartiality in the judiciary.” It is, indeed, the most ignored toxic issue on Michigan’s political scene.


MCFN’s Northern notes

• Michigan’s only truly competitive congressional race last year was the 1st District rematch between Rep. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, and ex-state Rep. Gary McDowell, D-Rudyard, who lost 165,179 to 167,060.

While Benisek had the advantage in campaign receipts--$ 2,224,860 to $1,497,727—independent spending favored McDowell by nearly $1 million, thanks in large part by the League of Conservation Voters ($923,031) and the Michigan League of Conservation Voters ($860,237). It was an impressive show of force by environmentalists.

• The second most expensive Michigan House campaign in the 2012 cycle was in the 101st District, where winner Rep. Ray Franz, R-Onekama, won with 51 percent against Democrat Allen O’Shea, despite being outspent $774,953 to $622,566. Among the contributions to Franz was $5,000 from Snyder’s One Tough Nerd PAC.

• The sixth most expensive state House campaign— and the only other northern race in the top 10—was in the 103rd District where Rep. Bruce R. Rendon, R-Lake City, had 52.8 percent against Democrat Lon Johnson, now high-energy chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party.Snyder’s PAC also chipped in $5,000 for Rendon’s campaign.

George Weeks, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, for 22 years was the political columnist for The Detroit News and previously with UPI as Lansing bureau chief and foreign editor in Washington. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.