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Dollars, not ideas, decide who runs for office in Michigan

Aug 7, 2017

If you follow state politics, you know that a number of candidates have been running for governor for months.

Gretchen Whitmer and Abdul El-Sayed have each raised more than $1 million. Shri Thanedar, a previously unknown businessman, has dumped more than $3 million into his campaign for the Democratic nomination.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who hasn’t formally declared he’s running, has well over $1 million for his drive for the Republican nomination.

Now there are a few bizarre things about all this, things those who spend a lot of time around politics tend to forget. For one thing, while these figures may sound like huge sums to a normal person, $1 million is scarcely more than pocket change when it comes to a statewide election these days.

The second bizarre thing is that all these candidates are running in an election that takes place exactly one year from today.

That’s right — they’ve got another whole year of campaigning. Those who win then have to mount another even more expensive campaign for the general election.

If you think this is nuts, that’s because it is. Craig Mauger, the director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, told me these campaigns start so early because they need to raise so much money. Mauger, who spent years as a reporter tracking the role of money in politics, said at this point, neither the movers and shakers nor most of the journalists are asking the candidates what they stand for.

The only thing anyone seems to be interested in is whose war chest is biggest. I talked to a woman yesterday who is interested in running for state attorney general. She’s a former prosecutor who put a lot of bad guys away, and she has some interesting ideas about how that office could go after elder abuse and auto insurance fraud schemes. But the great political barons she’s courting don’t want to hear about that. It’s all about “how much money have you raised?”

That’s even crazier than it seems because there’s no primary for Michigan attorney general. Party bosses, I mean delegates, select their nominees at state conventions held after the gubernatorial primaries, normally right around Labor Day. Theoretically, there’s little need for candidates for attorney general or secretary of state to raise any money until then.

But the party wants candidates who can hit the ground spending, By the way, if you aren’t disillusioned enough, Michigan may be about to become the only state with no personal financial disclosure laws for candidates. Idaho is the only other one, but MIRS, the Lansing-based Michigan Information and Research Service, reports that the potato state is close to passing a disclosure law.

Not so Michigan where Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof has been dead set against transparency in politics. He earlier blocked efforts to extend the Freedom of Information Act and to require full disclosure of just who is donating to candidates and causes.

As a result, the classic formula for ferreting out political corruption — follow the money — doesn’t work in Michigan.

I’m telling you all this in the hope you’ll feel enough outrage to demand change. Getting there won’t be easy, but it will be necessary if we want a working representative democracy in this state.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.