Best government money can buy?

Oct 3, 2011

Once upon a time, I was in a social studies class in eighth grade, and we were studying how our system of government works. We were told that in America, we had free elections.

Candidates ran for various offices, and in each case the people decided which had the best ideas and seemed to be the best qualified. We then voted, and the candidate who convinced the most people they were the best man or, occasionally, woman, won.

Most of them were members of two major political parties that had slightly different ideas about how to do things. We elected our judges, too, but politics didn’t enter into it; we selected them based on their understanding of the law. That was our system, at least as presented to me back in nineteen sixty-four.

The teacher contrasted it with what happened in places like Latin America, where the rich corrupted the political process and bought and sold politicians and judges.

Well, it is almost half a century later, and I haven’t been a political virgin for a long time. But I just got a document from one of my few remaining heroes, and it is very depressing.

Rich Robinson, executive director of the non-partisan, non-profit Michigan Campaign Finance Network, sent me a long and detailed report on last year’s elections. It reveals a political system controlled and corrupted by money. Rich candidates win; poor ones lose, almost every time. Many successful candidates spent far more money to get elected than they would be paid for doing the job.

And in major and sometimes minor races, outside sources, many of whom were anonymous, spent millions in usually successful attempts to sway the election. Nobody can say that this is what the founding fathers intended, or even imagined. Don’t take my word for it; get a copy of the report: A Citizen’s Guide to Campaign Finance.

You probably knew that Rick Snyder spent millions out of his own pocket to get elected governor. But you may not have known is that Republican Dave Hildenbrand spent $1.1 million dollars to win a mere state senate seat from Grand Rapids. Meanwhile, Democrat Dian Slavens spent almost half a million to win a state house seat that lasts two years.

What’s more frustrating than the dollar totals is that under Michigan law, we aren’t entitled to know where most of this campaign money comes from.

There are strict limits on how much individuals can give to candidates. But there are no rules on how much any person or corporation can give to shadowy committees that run their own ads.

Committees like that spent millions to elect Michigan’s chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General Bill Schuette, and millions more to influence the races for Secretary of State, the official who oversees Michigan elections, and our state supreme court.

The United States Supreme Court ruled last year that there could be no limits on corporate campaign spending. But it also said states could require the contributors to be identified.

But Michigan doesn’t even do that. To me, it is bad enough to have a government that money can buy. We poor citizens should at least demand the legislature pass a law so we know who paid for it.