Many years ago, a wicked old police reporter told me that he thought common street prostitutes were morally superior to politicians.
That was because “they admit that those who give them money expect something for it.”
Well, he had a point.
Those who give vast sums to candidates also expect something for it. Bribery is illegal and there is seldom a direct quid pro quo. But if the Enormous Polluting Company donates a million dollars to your campaign for congress or the state legislature, it is a reasonable assumption they expect you to vote against higher environmental standards.
For years, reformers struggled to limit and regulate the money donated to influence our elections, a battle that ended in defeat five years ago when, in a case known as Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled campaign spending was a form of free speech, and that there could be essentially no limits on donations from groups like corporations and unions.
But the judges did say we had a right to demand to know who was giving how much to each campaign. Big money donors would often rather not have people find out what they are doing and how much they are giving, however, especially in judicial elections.
In Michigan, it has long been seen as legal to form a committee with an innocuous name, like "People for Good Government," conceal the source of its donations, and use the money for sometimes millions in so-called issue-oriented ads. The only rule is that you cannot specifically say, “Vote for Smith for the Michigan Supreme Court.”
You can, however, say that Smith is the greatest legal mind in history, while his opponent Jones is a friend to terrorists and hint he might impose Sharia law.
And some such ads have been almost that outrageous. And yet, we have no ability to find out where the money for such outrageous ads is coming from.
Rich Robinson is the executive director of a nonprofit outfit called the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, and has worked amazingly hard for years to try to bring campaign spending out in the open. He calls this secret spending, “dark money.”
If you don’t think dark money is a serious problem, think again. It now accounts for a majority of what is spent to influence our judicial elections, and is increasingly being used in other elections as well.
Two years ago, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson decided she was going to require a disclosure of who was spending what for all candidate-focused advertising in the weeks leading up to an election.
That did not make the big donors happy. So they had Senator Arlan Meekhof, now the majority leader, rush through an amendment to another bill that would allow this spending to stay secret. Governor Rick Snyder had campaigned on a platform of requiring full disclosure of such money, but he promptly went back on his word and signed it.
If that isn’t outrageous, nothing is. Robinson, by the way, has just posted an eye-opening new report on his website that reveals, among other things, that Michigan is absolutely the worst of all the states when it comes to transparency in campaign financing.
I hope you read it. And I especially hope somebody tries to do something about it.
Read the full report at MCFN.org
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's 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.