Opinion
11:17 am
Wed October 30, 2013

Money and the Detroit mayor’s race

Lessenberry commentary for 10/30/13

Today’s papers are reporting the results of a new poll showing one of the candidates in the Detroit mayor’s race leading the other by almost a 2-1 margin.

But there’s another, less well-known poll that may tell the real story of this and most elections. Unlike opinion polls, this one has hard numbers. It is the money poll, and in this one, Mike Duggan is leading Benny Napoleon by almost ten to one.

That’s based on the latest reports filed by Political Action Committes, or PACs, which raise money for campaigns in this state. They usually exist to raise money for candidates for office.

The PAC supporting Napoleon, Detroit Forward, had raised $303,000 dollars, as of ten days ago. The PAC supporting Duggan, called Turnaround Detroit, $2.8 million.

I’ve talked before about so-called dark money, in which so-called “issue-oriented” groups can raise and spend money to affect races without revealing who the donors are. 

That’s not the problem here. We can look at these reports and see who are the big money folks behind each mayoral candidate.

The man with the biggest piece of the Duggan action is auto racing king Roger Penske, who has donated a million dollars to the campaign -- half his own funds; half on behalf of the Penske Corporation, Peter Karmanos has thrown in $200,000. Dick Manoogian $100,000.

DTE Energy and the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce are in for more than $100,000 each.

The closest poor Benny Napoleon has been able to come to that is $100,000 tossed in by two businesses owned by the Darth Vader of the Ambassador Bridge, Matty Moroun. Now, let’s be a little realistic here.

We can pretend all these high rollers are just shelling out all this cash because they believe in good government. Well, I hate to have to break it to you, but people who put up that kind of dough usually want something for it. The question we should be asking is, what?

Does big money really make a big difference? Well, it did eight years ago. That time, an earnest and honest challenger was leading in the Detroit mayor’s race, and most of the same big money men thought the city’s interests -- and their own -- would be better served by the incumbent. So they opened their checkbooks for him, and he came from behind and won. The man the high rollers backed then was Kwame Kilpatrick. That sure worked out great, didn’t it?

Yesterday I talked to a highly respected veteran journalist. He told me he wished that before Senator Carl Levin retires, he would put forth a bill that would restrict all campaign contributions to races in which the contributor could actually vote. 

What’s not clear is whether such a law would pass muster with the U.S. Supreme Court, especially after the 2010 Citizens United decision that legalized unlimited corporate contributions.

But it might be worth a try. Penske lives in Bloomfield Hills. Neither Karmanos nor Moroun live in Detroit. Should they be allowed to try to buy elections there? I suspect most of us would agree on the answer.