Bridging the border: Influence of money (part 3)

Aug 15, 2012

The arguments for and against building a new bridge to Canada at Detroit, for the most part, have been pretty one-sided. The owners of the Ambassador Bridge are fighting it and spending tons of money in TV ads. 

If you watch TV at all, you’ve probably seen one of the Ambassador Bridge-sponsored ads criticizing plans for a new bridge.

“Governor Snyder says, ‘Send Canada the bill.’ But, the Canadians have other ideas.”

“Bureaucrats want to sign one for a $2 billion bridge to Canada. The Senate voted ‘no.’ Now, they want to go around them.”

“It will cost Michigan taxpayers $100 million a year.”

The Michigan Truth Squad at the Center for Michigan has gone over the ads. John Bebow with the Truth Squad says the series of ads has hit a new low.

“We’ve called dozens and dozens of fouls over the years at Michigan Truth Squad but the league leader is the Ambassador Bridge company and its related entitities as they fight, quite entertainingly, but quite erroneously, against the new international bridge crossing.”

Bebow and his team have reported on each ad as it has hit the airwaves.

“We have been following these bridge ads for more than a year and they are flagrant in their intentional errors that they are putting out there time and again in ad after ad.”

And the Ambassador Bridge owners have spent a lot of money, airing these ads. Rich Robinson keeps track of these kinds of political ads for the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

“Since the beginning at 2011, it’s been almost $10 million, $6 million in 2011, about $3.4 million in 2012.”

Robinson says the owners of the Ambassador Bridge have also been giving a lot of money to politicians for political campaigns, including the Chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee, Mike Kowall, a Republican from White Lake who did not forward legislation to build the New International Trade Crossing that Governor Rick Snyder wants and Canada will fund.

“There was some timely support to Kowall (15th district R-White Lake)  just before the enabling legislation was killed in the Senate Economic Development committee. A hundred thousand dollars given to the Michigan Republican party in September of 2011, just about three weeks before the enabling legislation was killed. So, those are eye-catching kinds of contributions that are on the record.”

Robinson notes this is all legal.

Governor Snyder has gone around the legislature and signed an agreement with Canada to build the bridge.

Democrat Rashida Tlaib represents the district where the new bridge is planned. She’s very critical of some of her colleagues in the legislature.

“You know, there should be a ReMax realty sign on the capitol lawn when it comes to Matty Moroun issues. They’re for sale. The money that is influencing positions on this public bridge, it reeks of corruption. It is really very telling of what green dollars can do to a public servant.”

The legislators who’ve gone on the record say they want more information before they can support the new bridge, even if Canada provides the money.

Businesses, chambers of commerce, unions and others say they support of the New International Trade Crossing. Rich Robinson with Michigan Campaign Finance Network says he’s surprised they’ve not aired more of their own TV ads.

“The business community has been a dog that hasn’t barked through the whole process. When I was collecting the most recent television ad data, I came up with a number, $270 thousand they’ve spent in four of Michigan’s markets in a television campaign, touting the benefits of the bridge.”

“When people ask where the new Detroit to Windsor bridge is headed, tell them, ‘Forward.’ More than just concrete and steel, this bridge is girded with hope and prosperity and thousands of new jobs.”

Robinson says a quarter-of-a-million dollars for airing that ad compared to the nearly $10 million spent by the Ambassador Bridge owners, makes the pro-bridge side a pretty faint voice.

Matt Grossman is a political scientist at Michigan State University.

“I think what’s unique here is the lack of organized pro-bridge constituency. That is, there’s no one to shoot down these arguments except the Governor and whoever is speaking on his behalf.”

Grossman says the pro-bridge faction doesn’t have to match the Ambassador Bridge owners dollar-for-dollar, but they need to do more if they want public support.

The Detroit Regional Chamber is in support of building the new bridge, but President Sandy Baruah concedes his group hasn’t spent any money on TV ads yet.

“We have not yet written a check to anybody for ad support, but I think we might if asked.”

While the business community and other groups who believe a new bridge would be good for Michigan’s economy are getting their act together, the Ambassador Bridge owners, the billionaire Matty Moroun family, have been getting a lot of support from members of the Tea Party. Baruah says that’s been a fascinating aspect.

“I think what’s really happening in the legislature is that the Matty Moroun Ambassador Bridge company’s PR campaign that has ginned up and hijacked the Tea Party support for their monopoly effort has scared some folks in the legislature. Because they’ve got to run primaries and then they’ve got to get elected and once the Tea Party gets mobilized, they’re a very powerful force.”

And that can be intimidating for legislators in heavily conservative districts.

“There’s no question that intimidation is the strategy of the Moroun family when it comes to trying to block this bridge,” says Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley, a Republican, and the point man for Governor Snyder’s administration on the bridge issue.

As a former member of the legislature, he has some insight into what’s going on.

“You definitely have some people that simply are loyal to the Morouns. You have some people who are very afraid of the Morouns because of the way that they’ve spent with reckless disregard for the truth. And, when you consider a state representative or a state senator that’s in a very contained media market, it would be absolutely nothing for a political issue advocacy organization to be formed and to go in and attack a candidate.”

The Moroun family has given at least $775-thousand in political donations during the last two election cycles. Mickey Blashfield is spokesman for the Ambassador Bridge company. He says that’s really not a lot of money in the scheme of things.

“It’s transparent enough for you to document it and moreover what has always failed with that is how much Canada has invested to influence this legislature. Remember they’ve offered $550 million in exchange, this is what the letter said, in exchange for favorable legislation to allow the government bridge to go forward.”

Of course there’s a distinct difference between giving the State of Michigan money for a road project and giving campaign donations to politicians.