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Ten Questions on Money and Politics in Michigan, with Steve James of the Michigan People's Campaign

Q: Steve, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and ideas today. Could you introduce yourself to our readers?

SJ: I'm Steve James, the Movement Politics Director at Michigan People's Campaign/Michigan United. I've been in politics for over a decade, mostly on the campaign and labor policy side. I've also served in several state-side positions as well.

Q: So you've got a good idea on the impact of money in Michigan politics. What’s your take on how money affects government policy in 2023?

SJ: Money matters more in lower information races because it’s more about name recognition than actual policy differences.

When I began my career, candidates running in a state house race didn't need to raise more than $100k. Those that reached that amount usually ended up with a leadership position based on their fundraising skill. Now $100k is the bare minimum to run a successful campaign in any sort of challenging district AND you have to have a separate leadership PAC with $100k raised in it to be considered for a leadership position. More money is filtering through the party to produce mailers and advertisements on behalf of candidates because of lax laws which require candidates to raise even more money to pay that “loan” back.

Q: What is the current state of campaign finance reform in Michigan?

SJ: Progress MI has made big attempts to restructure disclosure in the state, particularly from lobbyists and legislators, however there’s a lot left to do. Recently, contribution limits have gone up and a loophole was exploited that allowed a sitting governor to raise unlimited amounts when faced with the threat of a recall--of course the recall never happened, but the chatter was out there which allowed it to continue.

Q: Republicans had a tight hold on the legislature for over a generation. What is their legacy when it comes to campaign finance?

SJ: Republicans never made it “unfair” per se, but they did make it more accessible for those with money to give more. They made sure that contribution limits were increased “to match the times” (our salaries sure as f*&% haven’t increased “to match the times”) and they created the structure that allowed the Citizens United to be codified throughout our state campaign finance system. That decision, made by the US Supreme Court in 2010, ruled that corporations and unions have the same free speech rights as individuals, allowing them to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns.

Republicans in Michigan introduced leadership PAC’s and 501(c)(3) accounts. These are commonly called “corporate accounts” because they allow corporations to contribute to a legislator’s “public welfare” non-profit. Leadership PACs are disgusting and are routinely abused in my opinon, but the state lacks oversight into them. Politicians aren’t going to change that.

Q: What’s going on with Senate Bill 296? Last year, Michigan People’s Campaign was part of an effort to hold DTE and other MI companies that do a lot of business with the state accountable for contributions to anti-democratic candidates and ballot initiatives.

SJ: Yeah - it’s sitting in Government OPs (the Government Operations Committee) right now - my guess is that the utilities have a vested interest in that not ever seeing the light of a hearing…aka why it’s in gov ops.

Q: Let’s dig into that. Do you think a BCBSM or DTE really pays attention to and understands that their money supports these efforts? Are they willingly giving to anti-democratic politicians? Or do you feel they think the politics are background noise in relation to lobbying?

Steve James (SJ): Having worked for a member who was the minority vice chair of the house energy policy committee during a huge overhaul of the state’s energy priorities, in my personal experience DTE cares about one thing: their bottom line. If a bill is going to cost them any amount of money to implement they are going to have an opinion on it. This is where they demonstrate their influence. They have a very good lobbyist who is extremely adept at getting things like"mandates" mysteriously transformed into "goals."

Q: The group Voters Not Politicians (VNP), one of the drivers behind creating the independent board that ended gerrymandering, is now advocating for campaign finance reform. Keeping in mind the Supreme Court is drifting even farther to the right, is there any way to use state law to control money?

SJ: Two things. First, as far as I know, state campaigns are completely under the jurisdiction of the states operating them (as long as they don’t run afoul of federal voting protections and requirements). Oregon has had universal mail in voting for several decades I believe - the hurdle in Michigan is going to be the fact that changes will have to be made through the legislature or ballot initiative. Ballot initiatives need millions of dollars in funding and even Democratic donors (like unions) benefit from the current system of being able to give a lot of money to candidates and legislators, so traditional funding sources are likely to be less forthcoming than with other initiatives. That’s why a grassroots group like VNP COULD be the answer, but clearly there’s an uphill battle there. The chance that the legislature will voluntarily wipe out their access to corporate slush funds? Not likely at all.

Second, With regard to the Supreme Court - I mean…one of the answers I have been kicking around is a fully publicly funded campaign where people are able to give money to a pot that any candidate is able to pull from and can ONLY finance campaigns using that money. But again - any changes to campaign finance has to be federally compliant and I’m not sure if citizens united says that money given to particular candidates is speech or if giving money to the process would count. Another idea is more disclosure (Leadership PAC’s are often vague and unattributable to people ie: “the Better MI fund”) and the elimination of those corporate accounts I mentioned before.

Q: According to Bridge Michigan, labor unions donations are up, likely because of their success in helping Democrats repeal right-to-work laws. There has always been a perception of quid-pro-quo at work in politics, no matter how transparent and open government is. How true is that for Michigan these days?

SJ: I’ll take this in 2 parts - The civil service commission is currently chaired by the architect of Right to Work in MI, Jase Bolger, and he and they have been able to decimate public sector unions in this state, which may have had the unintended consequence of actually making the unions work harder, which elevated their value to the membership. Coupled with a national sentiment that is increasingly pro-union, it’s given them a bit of a boost. However I’ll be clear that dues and political dollars are 100% separate by law - so, the theory could be posited that PAC donations are up because Unions emphasized it more in the face of necessity to affect political change or wither and die through Jase’s death by 1000 cuts approach.

Since our state has one of the worst rankings for government transparency in the country - not subject to FOIA, no financial disclosures or conflict recusals - so I’d say quid pro quo is probably still prevalent.

With Republicans writing the rules for what seemed like 1000 years enabled them to hide all their dirt through a variety of channels. For instance, the Lee Chatfield story - where he’s paying a state employee a second salary to be his personal valet and drug mule out of corporate funds. There have been stories of lobbyists paying for the entire bar tab at a legislator’s wedding - DTE and AT&T have permanent box seats at Comerica Park and Little Caesars Arena and routinely shower legislators and staff with concert and sporting event tickets. While politics is a “people” business and developing relationships is important, some of this stuff is absurd man. You could buy yourself 10 brand new suits from your corporate account and nobody would even know…

Q: In April of this year, AG Nessel asked the legislature to look into injecting sunshine and transparency into MI politics. She did that partially in response to the scandal that surrounded the aforementioned Lee Chatfield. Other than SB 296, what else is happening with campaign finance reform in MI?

SJ: This is a link to everything that's been introduced this session. Clicking on an individual bill will give you it’s history (has to pass both chambers before it gets signed etc…) if you have any questions about anything let me know.

Q: If you could design a campaign finance system, what would it look like?

SJ: God - I think I may have already set a framework for this with the previous 9 questions haha - I think I’d like to see campaign windows in the state - for example - only allowing fundraising for 90 days after you file for office and only allowing filing for office within a certain timeframe. Only allowing campaign ads on TV during certain months or weeks or something…truly public financing that only allows a certain amount of money per candidate…spending caps instead of contribution caps (like you can donate a billion dollars but only a set amount of money can be spent per campaign by the campaign itself - forcing you to be more efficient with your resources). One of the consequences of moving the presidential primary earlier in the year is that our political spending economy will get a huge bump as we’ll have more candidates in the fight and we’ll be seen as a “bigger” early voting state with regard to delegates. There’s also legislation to move us to the national popular vote compact which will impact our national campaign spending in MI.

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