campaign finance

Today is the 110th birthday of one of my greatest heroes: George Orwell, who spent his too-short life fighting for fairness, honesty and democracy.

Orwell has been dead since 1950, and today, when we use the adjective Orwellian to describe something, we usually don’t mean something good. We mean something dark, sinister and hypocritical, something that reminds us of his book 1984.

Well, there’s no doubt that we have something of an Orwellian campaign finance system in this state, and today one of my living heroes, Rich Robinson, is releasing a new report showing in frightening detail just how much money dominates politics.

His survey, Descending Into Dark Money, shows that we don’t know where the vast majority of campaign spending comes from. And the system is designed to prevent us from finding out.

Courtesy photo / Michigan Democratic Party

It's Sunshine Week, an annual push for open government and the public’s right to know stuff.

Democrats in the state House tied the introduction of a package of bills to Sunshine Week. The bills include a number of changes to Michigan's laws and constitution regarding ethics, campaign finance, and elections.

A task force says electing Michigan Supreme Court justices should not be as partisan, or as much about money, as other political offices. But according to one watchdog group, last year the Michigan Supreme Court campaign was the most expensive, most secretive judicial election in America. Several recommendations to get some of the politics and secret money out of the Supreme Court elections were ignored by the legislature last year.

It’s coming up on a year since the Judicial Selection Task Force issued a report recommending changes to how we elect Michigan Supreme Court justices. Since then we elected three to the bench. Although the candidates ran on the non-partisan section of the ballot, politics was involved from the beginning.

“Michigan is unusual in that our Supreme Court race is so partisan. The candidates are nominated at a party convention,” said Susan Smith, President of the League of Women Voters of Michigan. Continuing, she said, “And, even though it doesn’t say on the ballot how they got nominated or which party nominated them, it’s really a farce, then, to put it up as a non-partisan election.”

And if politics is not far removed from electing Supreme Court justices, neither is money.

Stateside: Dark money in campaign funding

Jan 10, 2013
User: penywise / MorgueFile

There is an ongoing trend of furtive campaign funding in Michigan.

Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said voters should demand transparency from their elected officials and their funding.

Robinson called this undisclosed funding “dark money.”

And the two biggest sources of it are, according to Robinson, Michigan’s Democrat and Republican parties.

“My basic premise is that people don’t spend large amounts of money in politics for philanthropic motives. Essentially, they’re advancing their own interests in politics,” he said.

According to Robinson, citizens have a right to know where the money comes from.

User: Brother O'Mara / flickr

Where to go for last minute election research

"For those who still don't know how to vote in tomorrow's election, there are resources available. Voters can look at their ballots ahead of time at the the voter education Web site, The website includes video clips that analyze the statewide ballot questions and some local proposals. The site also has a few hundred candidate videos from districts scattered across the state," Sarah Hulett reports.

Damaged cars from superstorm Sandy could end up in Michigan car lots

"Hurricane Sandy damaged a lot of cars along the East Coast. Consumer advocates say it's possible some of those cars could end up on Michigan dealer lots. Ronald Montoya is with Edmunds dot com. He says if the damage was reported, it will appear on vehicle damage reports, such as Car Fax or Autocheck. Otherwise, a mechanic should take a look at the car to see if there are signs of water damage," Tracy Samilton reports.

Michigan Congressional race spending down in Michigan

"Nationwide, U.S. House candidates are raising record numbers of money for their campaigns this year. But that's not the case in Michigan. Michigan Congressional races will raise about $35 million this year - down from $50 million in 2010. That's because Michigan is down a district after losing population in the census. And Republicans redrew the district to protect incumbents. That means most races aren't all that competitive," Kate Wells reports.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

State House Speaker Jase Bolger spent today campaigning with Governor Rick Snyder.

Bolger is facing a potentially close vote next Tuesday in his southern Michigan state House district.

Jase Bolger has been dogged by allegations his office violated state campaign finance laws, when he helped facilitate a last minute party switch by a west Michigan state lawmaker earlier this year.

A week from now, the election will be over, we’ll have more or less digested what happened, and go back to contemplating the other daily dilemmas of life in our state.

There’s the issue of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, which wants to move from being a tightly regulated charity to being a normal non-profit, with much more freedom to do what it wants, and less responsibility to provide coverage for the uninsured.

User: David Defoe / flickr

Every Saturday Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with political analyst Jack Lessenberry about the week's top regional news stories. This week they talk about Proposal 5 which would require a two-thirds majority vote of the Legislature in order to raise taxes and the cost of campaigning in the state.

User: Brother O'Mara / Flickr

Bolger and Schmidt answer to complaints about breaking campaign finance laws

State House Speaker Jase Bolger and state Representative Roy Schmidt have a little less than three weeks to answer complaints they broke campaign finance laws. A complaint by the Kent County prosecutor filed with the Secretary of State names just Schmidt. One filed by Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer names both of them. The two plotted to keep a serious Democratic challenger off the ballot after Schmidt jumped from the Democrats to the Republicans. House Republican spokesman Ari Adler says no laws were broken, but the speaker will back legislation to stop what they tried to do from happening in the future.  The Secretary of State sent letters last week to Bolger and Schmidt informing them there is an official inquiry underway.

Biden in Detroit

Vice President Joe Biden has been out on the campaign trail. He rallied teachers in Detroit Sunday. That’s where the American Federation of Teachers is holding its annual convention. "Biden went after Mitt Romney and Republicans in Congress for budget plans that would slash federal education spending. He said Republicans have consistently opposed proposals to keep teachers and other public employees on the job through the economic downturn," Sarah Cwiek reports.

Detroit Institute of Arts vote

Voters in three counties will soon decide the fate of a tax millage for the Detroit Institute of Arts. Museum officials say the DIA could shut down if a 10 year property tax doesn't pass. Voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties will decide August 7th. The museum no longer receives state funding. But Critics say the DIA's campaign exaggerates the museum's financial struggles. The property tax would bring in roughly 230 million dollars over 10 years. Residents in counties that approve it will get free admission to the museum.

If what I am about to tell you doesn’t make you angry and indignant, then you must be  completely cynical.

Huge corporations and other special interests have already spent $20 million on ballot drives designed to bend the  Michigan Constitution to suit their selfish needs.

They have spent $20 million; they’ve raised almost $30 million, and every sign indicates they’re just getting started.

These numbers, by the way, come from the  non-profit, non-partisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Rich Robinson is Michigan's campaign finance guru. He unravels the complex web of politics and money, and explains to reporters who's spending what in Michigan, and why. Read this profile of him here, which includes an interview with Michigan Radio's Lester Graham.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Broadcasters are fighting a new rule to disclose more about who’s buying political ads. The Federal Communications Commission wants TV stations to post information about the political ads they air on a government website.

That will make it a lot easier to find out what groups are spending money to influence voters.

Recently, I met Rich Robinson in the parking lot of his office in Lansing. He was taking me on a little trip.

It appears a superPAC and other political groups are coordinating their purchases of TV ads running in Michigan.  This means a more efficient use of secret money to influence voters.

Michigan TV stations across the state are running a series of ads critical of President Obama and his administration.

Here's an example of one of the ads.

user Biodun /

Elected state officials in Michigan can be more secretive about money than federal officials. At the state level, the disclosure laws on money and politics make it easier to hide conflicts of interest and influence on politicians.

When Governor Rick Snyder delivered his State of the State address last January, he tucked into it a quick mention about making state government more open.

Michigan State Capitol
Jimmy Emerson / Flickr

Every Thursday we speak with Susan Demas, political analyst for Michigan Information and Research Service, and Ken Sikkema, former Senate Majority Leader and Senior Policy Fellow at Public Sector Consultants.

This week it’s all about campaign finance. Michigan Radio’s Jennifer White discusses the money behind presidential and state races.

Failed Reform

Mar 19, 2012

I heard something last week that gave me a little bit of hope our state might be moving towards slightly more open and honest politics.  Jocelyn Benson, a law professor at Wayne State, is leading a drive to amend the Michigan Constitution to require complete and immediate disclosure of corporate campaign contributions.

Doing that would make a lot of sense. Two years ago, a lot of people, including me, were dismayed when the United States Supreme Court ruled that no limits could be placed on campaign contributions made by either corporations or unions.

Jocelyn Benson announcing the launch of a ballot campaign to require corporations to disclose their political spending on the steps of the state Capitol in Lansing.
Rick Pluta / MPRN

Corporations would have to report their spending on political advertising and lobbying under a proposed amendment to the state constitution. Organizers announced the drive today, although they won’t start gathering signatures until later this month.

All amendments to the state constitution must be approved by voters.

A 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on their own political ads. The court says it’s up to states to decide whether to require disclosure.

Jocelyn Benson was the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2010 for Michigan Secretary of State, and is leading the effort to adopt the amendment.

“It’s really important when you think about our role not just as voters, but as consumers – when we buy products, we deserve and we have a right to know if the money we spend on companies or on products are being spent to influence political campaigns or lobby elected officials. This amendment would create that right,” said Benson.

The amendment would require companies to immediately disclose any spending for a political purpose, and where the money came from. Benson’s campaign is aiming for the November ballot.

The Associated Press reports that "backers have until July 9 to collect the 322,609 signatures needed to get the measure on the November ballot."

user tobym / Flickr

This election year, money will drive the conversation in politics more than usual because of  recent Supreme Court decisions. They opened the floodgates of cash, allowing groups called Super PACs to spend unlimited amounts in support of federal candidates. We’re getting just a small sampling during the presidential primary.  This fall, Michigan will see a lot of money from outside the state coming in to buy tons of ads—most of them negative—to sway voters here.

Money can’t vote. But it certainly can affect the outcome of an election. And that bothers voters such as William Mayor.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

State House Democrats say it’s time to beef up Michigan’s campaign finance and political ethics laws.

House Democrats unveiled a set of proposals that include a constitutional amendment that would require corporations to disclose political and lobbying activity, and a measure that would prevent state lawmakers from being lobbyists in the state for two years after a political term.

 “Every year that goes by that we have not passed meaningful reform is another year that the bad actors in the state are allowed to spend money to influence public opinion with little or no accountability,” said State House Democratic Floor Leader Kate Segal.

Ari Adler is the press secretary for Republican state House Speaker Jase Bolger.

Adler says at first glance he’s not impressed.

“Saying you support better campaign finance and ethics laws is like saying you support the sun coming up tomorrow. It’s difficult to argue with the concept, but the devil is in the details, and we need time to look at them,” said Adler.

Adler says he is particularly concerned that labor unions are exempt from some of the disclosure proposals.

Democrats say unions are already required to follow federal financial disclosure laws, and corporations in Michigan should be held just as accountable.

Democratic House Minority Leader Richard Hammel said their measure addresses one of Governor Rick Snyder’s key concerns for 2012.

“The governor touched on it when he called for campaign finance and ethics reform in the state, in his State of the State address,” said Hammel. “It has now been two weeks since that address, and we have yet to see majority Republicans hold any hearings on the changes the governor said are needed.”

A spokesman for House Republicans said the package of bills would need major changes before winning bipartisan support.

Rick Pluta / Michigan Radio

An end-of-the-year campaign finance statement shows Governor Rick Snyder took more than $800,000 from his campaign account last year. He used the money to partially repay himself for cash he lent the campaign while running for office.

Governor Snyder worked for just one dollar last year. But he did take $825,000 from his campaign account to partially pay himself back for $6 million in loans from his personal fortune to his campaign. Seven payments last year were a start toward reimbursing the retired tech executive and venture capitalist.

The numbers are unusually large, but it is a common practice for politicians to lend their campaigns money and then re-pay themselves after the election.

The Snyder campaign money came primarily from individual contributions of up to $3,400. The governor does not accept PAC donations.

At the December 31st book-closing, the Rick Snyder for Michigan Fund had $534,000.

The governor has indicated he intends to seek reelection in 2014.


Next year is an election year. That means lots of campaign literature in the mail, lots of ads on the television,   and, maybe worst of all, robo-calls. Those are the recorded calls that automatically dial your phone…usually right at dinner time. There are a lot of them now, but there could be a lot more in the future.

Even one of the guys who makes robo-calls happen knows most people don’t really like them.

“Everybody hates them. I think that they’re universally hated.”

They came so close and I was really hopeful for a while. But in the end, they just weren’t good enough.

I hope you were disappointed too. Wait a minute -- did you think I was talking about the Detroit Tigers?

I don’t know whatever gave you that idea. What I‘m talking about are the campaign finance reforms unveiled yesterday by Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

I have been complaining for a long time about our campaign finance laws. It’s bad enough that it often costs several times an official’s salary to run for office.

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson says she is calling for tougher campaign finance laws.

The Republican says Wednesday her plan would create felony charges for the worst violators of Michigan's campaign finance regulations. Felony penalties and harsher fines could be charged in
some circumstances for failing to file regular reports of fundraising and spending activity.

Johnson said her proposals also seek filing requirements to try and prevent clandestine efforts such as a "Tea Party" that unsuccessfully sought to put candidates on the 2010 ballot in Michigan. The effort was widely considered to be a fake and didn't have support from tea party activists.

Republican state lawmakers say they are introducing bills aimed at achieving some of Johnson's goals.

The Michigan Democratic Party said Johnson's proposals would be ineffective.

user: AMagill / flickr

Third quarter fundraising results are being reported by those in the race for Michigan’s U.S. Senate seat. Here to to look at why the money matters are Ken Sikkema, former Senate Majority Leader and Senior Policy Fellow at Public Sector Consultants and Susan Demas, political analyst for Michigan Information and Research Service.

We also talk about Governor Rick Snyder's comments about his decision to run for a second term.


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.

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney outraised his GOP competitors and President Obama in Michigan during the second quarter of this year, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Romney raised $884,124 in the quarter that ended June 30th, while President Obama raised $393,428. Romney is a Michigan native whose father, George W. Romney, was Michigan’s 43rd Governor.

Republicans trailing behind Romney were Texas Congressman Ron Paul with $46,106; former Governor of Minnesota Tim Pawlenty with $22,450; businessman Hermain Cain with $16,100; Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann with $10,185; former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich with $9,775; former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum with $1,650; and former Governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson with $1,500.

Studio08Denver / Flickr

A campaign finance document U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow is filing with the Federal Elections Commission shows the Michigan Democrat has $4 million in the bank for next year's re-election race. The Associated Press on Tuesday obtained a copy of Stabenow's July quarterly report. It's due to the FEC by Friday.

The report says Stabenow raised $1.46 million in the period that ran from April 1 to June 30 and has $4.08 million on hand in the run for her third term in the Senate.

Former Kent County Probate Judge Randy Hekman and Roscommon businessman Peter Konetchy are in the race on the GOP side. A number of high-profile Republicans have decided against challenging Stabenow. They include ex-U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra and former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land.

A fundraiser-related email from Gov. Rick Snyder's administration breaks the law, according to an article by the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

More from the article:

Area Democrats want to know why Gov. Rick Snyder used his staff and local county governments to spread invitations to a Grand Traverse County Republican Party fundraiser.

Maurice Kelman ought to be feeling proud today, For years, the retired Wayne State law professor has been waging a lonely battle to get Michigan to enforce what weak campaign finance laws we have.

Specifically, he’s been focusing on the case of one Kwame Kilpatrick, who needs no introduction. Kelman discovered two years ago that the felonious ex-mayor used nearly a million dollars from his campaign fund to pay the lawyers who were trying to keep him out of prison during the text messaging scandal.

A new report says anonymous donors have a growing influence in Michigan election campaigns.

The study by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network says independent groups that don’t have to reveal their donors spent $23 million on political ads last year.

The report shows both Governor Rick Snyder and his Democratic opponent, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, were among the candidates for statewide office who were aided by ads paid for by unknown donors to independent political committees.

The use of independent and untraceable ads is especially prevalent in state Supreme Court races, says Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Robinson says the donors may be invisible to the public, but they still want something for the money they are spending to support or oppose politicians:

"Whether it's a workplace regulation, an environmental deregulation, a budget earmark, a public works project, a tax not levied, whatever it is, and I don’t think we’re seeing half the story on the money that’s moving public policy."

Robinson says, in some cases, ads paid for by anonymous donors made up half the spending in a race, and that $70 million was spent on untraceable and independent election ads over the past decade.

"In all of these campaigns, voters have an interest in knowing who the real supporters of the candidates are," said Robinson. "It’s a mechanism for controlling quid pro quo corruption in politics."

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network is calling for a law to require independent groups that buy campaign or issue advocacy ads to identify their donors.