Some weeks ago, before the Democrats managed to push former Battle Creek Congressman Mark Schauer into running against Rick Snyder, I complained on the radio that Democrats really didn’t have a candidate for governor next year.
Later that day, I got a call from a term-limited Democratic state representative. “What you said wasn’t true,” she told me.
“I’m thinking about it,” she added. Well, great, I said. So can I write or broadcast that you are running for governor? “Oh, no, no,” she quickly said. She had something she had to figure out first.
What, pray tell, was that?
Was she worried that this was the right move for her? Did she have to figure out whether she could really help our state as governor? Or, was she just trying to figure out whether or not she could beat the incumbent?
Nah, none of that. Instead, she was exclusively worried about whether she could raise enough money for a campaign.
So how much did she think she would need? Oh, no more than a cool “$23 [million] to $30 million,” she said.
Well, I said, get back to me when you decide. Before I hung up I knew that her candidacy wasn’t going anywhere. Nobody was going to give a little-known, term-limited state representative that kind of money for a campaign.
She was, sadly, probably right about what it would cost to run for governor. This is one highly significant symptom of a much deeper problem:
There are good reasons to believe our elections have become hopelessly corrupt. In Michigan, special interest groups buy elections at all levels; and we often can’t even find out who is paying for the politicians.
The voting process is rigged to keep the right wing in power most places — regardless of how the people vote.
Increasingly, our lawmakers are not just ignoring public sentiment — they are actively plotting to prevent people from getting the laws and regulations they want, which leads us a serious question: Can democracy in Michigan be saved?
The Corruption Of Money
Today, it has become virtually impossible for any normal person who is not super-rich to run for almost any office — not just for governor.
Winning a contested congressional seat takes millions of dollars. Years ago, when he was a powerful member of Congress, David Bonior told me he was embarrassed that it cost so much when he was first elected to U.S. House, back in 1976.
His campaign spent $36,000. That’s about $147,000 in today’s money. But today, $150,000 wouldn’t even win you a piddly legislative seat in some places. Six years ago, Andy Levin, the congressman’s son, spent $900,000 in a losing bid for a seat in the state Senate. Yes, if you are a bright, attractive candidate with a reasonable chance, you can find individuals and, especially, interest groups to give you money.
But politicians, like the girls in the strip clubs, soon find out that those who give you cash usually want something for it.
And much of the time, the strip club transactions are ethically cleaner. In this state, the most appalling, and in a sense the dirtiest races, are the contests for positions that should be above politics: Seats on the Michigan Supreme Court.
There’s a reason our highest court has been judged the least respected and most partisan in the country: Because it is.
The problem starts with the fact that while independents can run, almost always, candidates for the Michigan Supreme Court are nominated by the two major parties. Most of the time, if the politicians aren’t sure that someone won’t deliver ideologically acceptable decisions, they don’t nominate them.
Occasionally, a rare maverick with integrity manages to beat the system, such as Justice Bridget McCormack, who was elected to the high court last fall. Once nominated, however, a candidate’s trials are just beginning. If the race is perceived to be in doubt, they can look forward to a vast amount of negative advertising designed to destroy their integrity and character.
Three years ago, in a decision that has helped kill any attempt to clean up elections, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission) that no limits could be imposed on how much money corporations or special interest groups could spend on elections.
But in Michigan, the situation is even worse. While the Supremes refused to allow any limits on spending, they did specifically say states could require full disclosure of who is giving what to whom. But Michigan doesn’t even do that.
According to Rich Robinson who, as director of the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network, has the lonely job of trying to show us who owns our leaders, $18.6 million was spent trying to influence the three Supreme Court races last fall.
Three-quarters of that money came from mysterious, anonymous sources, some of which paid for an ad that tried unsuccessfully to slur McCormack as a defender of terrorists.
The Republicans Have Rigged our Elections
When they cast their ballots last November, Michigan voters — by a decisive margin — wanted Democrats to represent them in the state House of Representatives.
Statewide, roughly 2.4 million votes were cast for Democrats and 2 million for Republicans: If we had proportional representation, it would have meant 60 Democratic seats and 50 Republican seats. Yet, the result was almost exactly the opposite.
Republicans still emerged with a 59-51 majority. This is because they were able to draw the lines redistricting the Legislature the year before — giving them maximum advantage.
They did the same thing when drawing congressional districts. Democrats got an overall majority there too.
Republicans won nine seats and
Democrats, only five.
This happened on the same day that Democratic U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow was crushing her hapless Republican opponent by almost a million votes, and President Obama was beating Mitt Romney by 450,000.
Democrats had no problem winning statewide races where everybody’s vote counted the same. But when races were more local, the Republicans have found a way to rig them.
Something Even More Terrifying
Many of those in state government no longer feel accountable to the people.
Partly, Michigan’s system of lifetime term limits is to blame. As I discussed last week, if the most you can serve in office is three two-year terms, you have little incentive to make wise long-term decisions.
What you are likely to want more is to please lobbyists who might give you a job when you are finished in politics.
What about ticking off swing or moderate voters? Not to worry. Thanks to gerrymandering, most Republican legislators are in districts no Democrat will ever have a chance to win, and vice versa.
All that GOP lawmakers have to worry about is a challenge from some even crazier right-wing wacko in a primary election. That’s the reason behind many of the bizarre and terrible things going on in Lansing, including, for example, Republicans costing the state $40 million by refusing to create a health care registry.
That’s why they won’t spend money to fix the roads and have refused to
accept a Medicaid offer to insure
hundreds of thousands of people who now don’t have health care.
That’s why they are passing laws with appropriations bills attached, to prevent the possibility of them being overturned by angry voters. This is all very frightening on a number of levels.
Unless something changes, people may — sooner rather than later — give up on the democratic process. That could lead to a number of outcomes not in your civics textbook if and when people get desperate enough.
And none of those are very pretty.
Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.