2006-06-10 / Columnists

Michigan Politics

Who Funds Campaigns? We Find Out Too Late
By George Weeks

The traditional start of a full blown gubernatorial campaign is Labor Day. This year's election is five months away.

But Republican challenger Dick DeVos - while Governor Jennifer Granholm keeps her powder dry until voters become more engaged - by about Memorial Day already had spent more for TV ads in the north country, and across the state, than any gubernatorial candidate in Michigan history in an entire campaign, Rich Robinson of the watchdog Michigan Campaign Finance Network said Friday.

Robinson's documented $5.4 million spending by DeVos (including $415,586 in the northern lower Michigan and Eastern Upper Peninsula and the $142,455 in the western U.P., with additional thousands on cable stations) comes as no surprise. It's in the ballpark of what Robinson had mentioned here previously.

But, beyond media focus on the whopping DeVos blitz, these points should be kept in perspective:

What an individual candidate, however wealthy, spends is not the important thing. Democrat Geoffrey Fieger spent about $4.5 million of his own money in an unsuccessful 1998 challenge of Governor John Engler.

What counts most in statewide races - whether gubernatorial, U.S. Senate, or the Michigan Supreme Court contests where interest group spending is really out of hand - is what all the support groups spend collectively from the left or the right.

Robinson expects that the two sides, with all of their Granholm and DeVos support groups that do independent spending, will spend at least $30 million on gubernatorial TV ads this year. That compares with about $18 million four years ago.

As for overall spending, Granholm spokesman Chris DeWitt told The Detroit News: "We estimate that DeVos will spend $60 million or more on this race. We expect to be outspent at least 2 to 1."

Early campaign headlines go to wealthy people who run for statewide office, whether DeVos in Michigan, a Rockefeller in New York or West Virginia, or New Jersey's Jon Corzine, the former chairman of Goldman Sachs who, with $63 million in 2000, waged the most expensive Senate campaign in U.S. history.

But the real focus for voters on the issue of money in politics these days should be "Look Local" - who supplies the "Mother's Milk of Politics," as President Gerald R. Ford and others have said regarding campaign contributions for those we elect?

There's nothing evil about contributing to those who share your views. But Michigan has an appalling lack of timely disclosure on who contributes to whom among statewide and legislative officeholders and candidates, with all of their shadowy support groups.

There's too much stealth, and not enough sunshine, in the system.

Robinson laments that while legislators in Lansing are "working on the budgets, all kinds of (contributions) are being made" to them but it is "ancient history" before they are reported.

Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land has called for "real time" electronic reporting of campaign

contributions as they are made. Robinson would at least like quarterly reporting of contributions by state candidates, as is required for federal candidates.

Don't expect action on either reform. As Robinson notes, citizens are "too acceptable" of the current system.

Joltin' Joe

In his last years as a decidedly moderate Republican state senator, former Battle Creek mayor Joe Schwarz was out of favor with the Michigan GOP establishment. In part, this was because he waged a losing 2002 gubernatorial primary battle against Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus, buddy of retiring Governor John Engler.

But now, as first-term Congressman Schwarz faces a tough primary challenge from the right, he is getting support from across the party spectrum, including from Engler, president of the National Manufacturers Association.

Schwarz, who chaired Senator John McCain's successful 2002 Michigan presidential primary campaign over George W. Bush, has Bush's support in his primary against ex-state Representative Timothy Walberg of Tipton.

Walberg finished third in the six-candidate 2004 congressional primary won by Schwarz, but now has the advantage of being the sole conservative challenger of the moderate Schwarz.

GOP State Chairman Saul Anuzis also supports Schwarz, a reflection of the fact that Schwarz, who won by about 67,000 voters over Democrat Sharon Renier in the seven-county district two years ago, would be heavily favored to hold the seat for Republicans.

Also supporting Schwarz is ex-Governor Bill Milliken, who is not in sync with former governor Engler on many other party matters.

George Weeks recently retired after 22 years as political columnist for The Detroit News. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.

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