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Sunset at the Zoo Benefactor Bash
Cynthia and Edsel Ford, who hosted the first party for Sunset at the Zoo benefactors in 2005, opened their doors again for the 2016 benefactors ($750 ticket) and some 100 of them attended. Socializing centered on the back porch and in the gardens – both with traditional sensibilities and a splendiferous view of Lake St. Clair. Conversation paused for zoo director Ron Kagan to thank everybody, especially new Polk Penguin Conservation Center lead donors Stephen and Bobbi Polk and the hosts, who were presented with a penguin-shaped topiary (see photo gallery). All guests left with a plush penguin souvenir.
06/02/2014 - The saying "money makes the world go round," is especially true in politics. Just as the rich guy may get the pretty girl, very often, it's the person with the deepest pockets and biggest purse who gets the most votes. It's not because they're buying those votes, but because money purchases access to voters, helps acquire credibility and can signal to others that they're a serious candidate.
As we enter another election season, the role money is playing in local elections is just as important as on a national level, and just as in flux. That is because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, McKutcheon v. FEC (Federal Election Commission), that was issued in April 2014, which struck down a decades-old cap on the total amount any individual can contribute to federal candidates in a two-year campaign cycle. It is believed that the ruling will increase the role money already plays in American politics, and follows another Supreme Court ruling, from 2010, Citizens United v. FEC. In the Citizens United case, the court ruled that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting expenditures by corporations, associations, or labor unions to campaigns. In essence, it permits PACs – political action committees, to spend as much money as they choose, either for a candidate, or against one, without any limits. And contrary to some interpretations, it is not one-sided. PACs, representing differing electoral ideologies, pour money into candidates and issues on both sides of the aisle.
"We've had some Supreme Court decisions that have really relaxed the rules, and changed those rules, and it's really a new game," noted John Klemanski, a political science professor at Oakland University. "We're going to see a lot more outside money because the Supreme Court basically said anyone who's interested in a race can give as much as they want."
Klemanski explained that in the Citizens United case, the court ruled that any source can spend unlimited amounts of money from any source, provided they were not actually coordinating with the campaign itself.
Jocelyn Benson, dean of the Wayne State University Law School, said this election cycle will realize the full effects of both Supreme Court rulings. "We're now seeing the influx of money coming into Oakland County. There are no requirements (from the rulings) to disclose all of the money coming in," she said. "The only requirements is the money from the PACs cannot be spent directly on the candidates. If money that is spent says specifically 'vote for', 'don't vote for', 'reject', or 'elect', then the ad has to disclose where the money has come from, otherwise they don't have to. If the ad says they're a bad person or a good person, they don't have to disclose anything, like some of the (Mark) Schauer (for governor) ads – 'The Schauer's over.' If they don't mention an election exactly, under Michigan law, they don't have to disclose their funding. It's new this year – (Gov.) Snyder just signed this into law."
"The only limitation is that they cannot work directly with the candidate," Klemanski pointed out. "They can say, 'I like this candidate; I hate that one.' Outside interests do a lot of negative advertising, and then the individual candidate will not have to do that actual negative advertising because the outside interests have done it for them."
On December 27, 2013, Gov. Rick Snyder signed Michigan Public Act 252 of 2013 into law, originally Senate Bill 661, which allows for doubling campaign contribution limits and protects the secrecy of issue ad donors, a change to Michigan's 40-year-old campaign laws. Under the new law, the maximum donation to a candidate seeking statewide office is now $6,800; to a candidate for state Senate, $2,000; and for a state House seat, $1,000.
Snyder asserted he sought these new limits and campaign donor protections in efforts for greater transparency, but it was actually in opposition to fellow Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson's campaign transparency efforts. She had sought rule changes to require public disclosure of issue ad donors – so that those PAC ads would have to disclose their funding. Instead, Snyder backed a Senate committee amended bill that included wording to prohibit such a change, an effort that the full legislature late approved and he signed.
Benson said that Michigan's law is now more lenient towards donors than federal law. "The federal law states that any race that mentions something that can influence a voter within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary election is considered a campaign ad because it can influence an election," she said. Federal rules apply to presidential, senate, and congressional races.
"The big picture is that as time goes on, more and more campaign spending will not be done by the candidates but by these big groups. One of the things that happens, at least on the federal level, is how much they are spending, and not from what sources. You don't know who is spending the $10 million to get someone elected," Klemanski said.
"The amount of money that can be spent in the aggregate, in a state House or Senate race, and what will be the impact, is unknown," said Bill Ballenger of Inside Michigan Politics. "We still haven't seen the full impact of Citizens United in 2010, and here it is 2014, and here's this new Supreme Court decision. It's just staggering to contemplate."
Even more than the breadth of money and the financial impact is what Klemanski feels these decisions are doing to the electoral process itself. "To me, this does not move us forward in protecting democratic interests," he said. "There are too many wealthy interests influencing campaigns and elections, and ultimately, the results. I think the process is broken. Even if you try, you can't ever discover who is donating to these (PACs) sources. That is not the way the political process is supposed to work. And it's going to happen more and more as time goes on. Campaign spending is now protected under the First Amendment. Bottom line, money has become too important. The whole rationale for restrictions in the 1970s (for campaign spending limits) was because you didn't want a wealthy person to have too much influence or corruption in the process. That's all gone now."
While money is a key factor in any political race, it is not the only defining characteristic. Oakland University Political Science Department Chairman David Dulio said that while money can be a huge factor and oftentimes we see the side with the most money winning, it's not everything.
"Money allows a candidate to purchase election year services," Dulio said. "On the local level, that money usually buys you mailers and postcards to residents. More and more today it helps with online access, polling and social media services. Having money also allows you to raise more money. It allows the candidate to hold events and fundraisers for more money. It's also a signal of viability, both to people in Lansing and to PACs, but to major donors as well, who may see a candidate's financial filing report and realize that the candidate has a chance to make it. People always want to back someone with a strong chance of making it."
Ballenger said that while money is critical, he can remember a U.S House race where too much money actually proved fatal for two candidates. "I can think of when too much money being spent impacted the voters in a bad way," he recalled. "In 1992, you had (Republicans) David Honigman, a state Senator, and Alice Gilbert, a judge who left the bench, and they had mutually-inflicted destruction. They cancelled each other out. They actually bombed each other. Voters were so repelled, and Joe Knollenberg, this insurance agent, snuck through and won the primary. No one was paying attention to Knollenberg and he squeaked through. And once he won the primary, and then the general in the Republican district, he was there for 16 years – eight terms – until (Gary) Peters beat him in 2009. That can happen."
Ballenger also noted the efforts in 2012 by Manuel "Matty" Moroun, owner of the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, to block the construction of a new bridge over the Detroit River International Crossing. Despite spending approximately $40 million to mount a statewide ballot proposal to fight the new bridge, it still went down in defeat. "You can spend an obscene amount of money, like Matty Moroun did for the bridge, but it backfired, and it dragged him down," said Ballenger. "It also took down all of the other yes votes for the other proposals, too."
On the other hand, he acknowledged, "What would you rather have, too much money or too little? You always want too much. Money always tilts the campaign towards you. It's very seldom that you find a candidate spending less than their competitor and winning."
In Oakland County, that doesn't portend well for current U.S. Congressman Kerry Bentivolio of Milford in the 11th District (R-Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Commerce Township, Walled Lake, Wolverine Lake, White Lake), who has raised $448,441, according to campaign finance reports, against debts of $90,602, and has spent almost $300,000, leaving his campaign with just $131,176 as of March 31, 2014. His primary challenger, Republican David Trott of Birmingham, had total contributions of almost $1.7 million. While his campaign spent $710,729 in the first quarter of 2014, that still has left him with over $1 million of cash on hand.
Trott, a successful attorney and businessman, has contributed $808,000 to his campaign, according to campaign financing reports for October 2013, February 2014, and April 2014. His reports also show a wide range of contributions from local supporters in all levels of denominations.
"Self funding can be a double-edge sword," Dulio pointed out. "It can help the candidate by seeding themselves for the campaign. It can also look like you can't garner support so you have to self-fund."
Michigan Republican Party Communications Director Darren Littell said that self-funding can help, but it's not a defining factor. "Financial resources are always helpful, but they're not the only defining attributes. So many different candidates bring so many different resources to the table," he said. "Trott's not just seen as self-funding. He has other attributes that make him a viable candidate."
Bentivolio's history, for those who may have forgotten, is a strange one. He's been called the "accidental congressman", having won his congressional race by default when former Rep. Thaddeus McCotter imploded. McCotter, a Livonia resident and former state senator, had been the U.S. Representative for the district since 2003, and while from July 2 to September 21, 2011, he was a candidate for the Republican nomination for president in the 2012 election, his candidacy never gained traction, and he was never included by Republicans and others in any national debates. With a safe and securely redistricted seat that now spread from Livonia, Westland and Novi into Commerce Township, Walled Lake, White Lake, and Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, it was a campaign no-brainer. He just had to get the required signatures filed for the August 7, 2012 primary, where only one other candidate had filed to run against him, a former U.S soldier, teacher, and reindeer farmer and Santa Claus, Kerry Bentivolio of Milford.
But strange events can happen in politics. McCotter is proof of that. In late May 2012, after the official filing deadline, it was discovered that an overwhelming majority –85 percent– of the signatures on his filing petition had been fraudulently signed, a fraud perpetuated by his staff, it was discovered, since 2006.
The fallout led McCotter to resign from Congress on July 6, months shy of the end of his term, leaving his constituents high and dry, and forcing voters to not only choose a replacement for him in the August primary and November general election, but in a special September election, where Democrat David Curson prevailed to finish the six weeks left in McCotter's term.
Besides being appalled by the fraud and scandal that McCotter left in his wake, state and local Republicans by and large weren't thrilled with the only choice they had on the ballot: Bentivolio, who had previously only run once before for any elected office. In 2010, he was unsuccessful in his bid for the state Senate in the 15th District, against the more experienced Mike Kowall. Party members sought a write-in candidate, approaching local businessman David Trott, amongst others, who declined. Former state Sen. Nancy Cassis (R-Novi), who had been term-limited, bit the bullet for the team and launched a write-in campaign.
Bentivolio went on to win the general election in the Republican district, having raised only roughly $41,000 himself, and is the current representative, where he has been trying to pay off campaign debts of approximately $112,000, according to reports, while trying to raise money for the 2014 run. An August 2013 fundraiser at The Townsend Hotel in Birmingham featuring Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner was largely avoided by local Republicans, and Bentivolio raised only $12,000 in local money – a pittance by fundraising standards.
By and large, local Republicans have not been happy with Rep. Kerry Bentivolio. Littell, the communications director for the Michigan Republican Party, said that "Bentivolio hasn't said or done anything bad, but he's not seen as a strong candidate."
Why don't mainstream Republicans like Bentivolio? He is Libertarian-leaning and an outspoken opponent of the Federal Reserve, and is primarily supported by various Tea Party groups. In August 2013, as a U.S. Congressman, he announced that he had consulted lawyers about potentially impeaching President Barak Obama, but discovered you had to have a reason and evidence in order to do that.
He said that he examined impeaching him after he met the president, which left him disgusted just by standing next to him.
That point of view may appeal to some GOP primary voters. And while local party establishment money may not flow to Bentivolio, PAC money from national groups, like Americans for Prosperity, ahs already started to pour into local elections around the country, as evidenced by the recent Baldwin Library bond election in Birmingham in which the national Free Congress Action advocacy group did mailings and robocalls to help defeat a local ballot proposal.
Americans For Prosperity-Michigan Executive Director Scott Hagerstrom wrote on their website that "The Kochs (the funding mechanism for Americans For Prosperity) worked with other anti-labor billionaires, corporations and activists to fund conservative candidates and groups across the country."
Repeated calls to Hagerstrom were not returned.
"In the 11th and the 9th (Bloomfield Township) U.S. Senate races, we're seeing multimillion dollar races," commented Benson. "Look, Trott raised more than a $1 million just in the last quarter. It's not just the candidates – it's outside groups sending the money. And they're willing to spend the money. Close to the election, we could see spending of upwards of $10 million to influence the election, like with (Rep.) Gary Peters (D) in 2012. There will definitely be outside interests influencing these races.
"The voters will see a lot more misinformation, which is unfortunate," she continued. "The more money spent, the less the facts will break through. The ads become much more personal, and more attacks, which is unfortunate for the voters."
The 9th District congressional district, which includes Bloomfield Township, Franklin, Beverly Hills, Bingham Farms, Royal Oak and Ferndale, has been represented by Rep. Sander Levin (D), who has been in congress since 1982. Levin received $977,906 during the last filing period, of which $229,637 he funded. His campaign currently has $377,277 cash on hand. His Republican challenger, George Brikho, received $18,539 in the first quarter of 2014, and spent more than he took in, with a $4,637 deficit at the end of the filing period and no cash on hand. He did not provide his campaign with any money.
The 11th District race is not the only one that could be a cat fight this primary season. On the state level, the 13th District state Senate race features Republicans who will hammer each other to see who will emerge the victor in August to face either Democrat Ryan Fishman, a 26-year-old Andover High School alum who has been actively campaigning and gaining support, particularly from the local Jewish community, for months, or Cindy Peltonen. The 13th District represents Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township, Troy, Rochester and Rochester Hills, is currently represented by Sen. John Pappageorge (R), who is term-limited.
The Republicans battling over replacing Pappageorge are Ethan Baker, Al Gui, former state Rep. Marty Knollenberg, former state Rep. Chuck Moss, and former state Rep. Rocky Raczkowski. "It's just a big dogfight," noted Moss.
Moss' campaign currently has the most money in its till, largely coming from the candidate himself. Of the $166,541 his campaign raised in the first quarter of 2014, Moss provided $152,191. Knollenberg, Raczkowski and Gui all waived reporting their financial statements. Baker reported that his campaign did not spend or receive in excess of $5,000, the filing threshold.
On the Democratic side, Fishman raised $98,492, of which he provided $33,481. Peltonen provided her campaign $525 of the $1,145 she raised in the first quarter.
"Moss is probably the most moderate of the Republicans running, but he has the skimpiest of geographical bases, and it will be difficult for him to win," Inside Michigan Politics Ballenger said, not taking into account dollar figures. "Raczkowski or Knollenberg have the greater ability to win because of their geographic bases. They're not extreme Republicans. Knollenberg has that great name recognition, and Raczkowski has a big military background, with Pappageorge already endorsing him. It may make him more acceptable to Republican voters. It's still a 56 percent Republican district. It will take a stretch and a reach for a Democrat to win, especially in this year, which will be very difficult for Democrats to win, which will not help Ryan Fishman."
Ballenger said that newcomer Fishman is being taken seriously by the Republicans "because he has the ability to really raise money. And it will depend on who the Republicans nominate in the primary (to go against Fishman). If the independent (voters) or Jews don't like him, Fishman could spring an upset."
In the state Senate's 15th District, covering Commerce Township, Walled Lake, White Lake, and Wolverine Lake, first-term Sen. Mike Kowall (R) is being challenged by two Tea Party Republicans, Matt Maddock and Ron Molnar. The winner of the August primary will face the victor of the Democratic primary, between Tom Crawford and Michael D. Smith.
Kowall raised $61,040 in the first quarter of 2014; almost $21,000 from his own pocket. Of the other $40,000, his donors primarily consisted of trade associations around the state and political PACs.
Kowall's two challengers, both with Tea Party-affiliations, do not appear to have raised much money so far. Molnar waived the filing and Maddock did not spend or receive in excess of $5,000. The two Democratic challengers in the district, Crawford and Smith, also did not spend or receive in excess of $5,000.
"That's a more conservative area of the county," Dulio acknowledged. "There are some debates about how strong the Tea Party is and how strong the (traditional) Republican Party is."
Littell, who said the state party stands apart from the primary process, waiting to endorse until the general election, said, "Kowall's record speaks for itself. He's represented the district to the best of his ability, even if not everyone agrees with his position. The primary process makes the candidates stronger because it allows the candidates to speak about the position, and makes them stronger."
Littell echoed that same sentiment for the open state House seat in the 44th District (White Lake), which term limited Rep. Eileen Kowall (R) is vacating for a county commission run. Republican challengers Dennis Garlick, Jim Runestad, Liz Fessler Smith and Russ Tierney are competing in the primary to see who will go against Democrat Mark Venie in November.
In the first quarter of 2014, Runestad self-funded his campaign $58,260 of the $68,120 his campaign raised. Tierney provided his campaign with the entire $50,000 donation his campaign had for the first quarter. Garlick and Fessler Smith did not expect to spend or receive in excess of $5,000. Democrat Venie waived his filing.
Similarly, current state Rep. Klint Kesto (R) in the 39th District (Commerce Township, West Bloomfield) is facing Republican challengers Deb O'Hagan and Alan Stephens. The victor will confront the winner of the Democratic primary, Sandy Colvin or Michael B. Saari. Kesto's campaign has raised $51,000 so far, with his challengers waiving filing or not expecting to receive or spend in excess of $5,000 for the first quarter of 2014.
In each of the races, big or small, it will come down to money and how well the candidates get out their individual voters in the highly partisan primary election.
"To me, one of the greatest travesties is how money influences how a candidate acts. The more there is rhetoric on TV about a candidate, the more there is rhetoric from the candidate themselves," said Wayne law school's Benson. "At the end of the day, it deters good candidates from running, deters good government from functioning.
"In my opinion, the root of the problem is the money, and how it warps our political arena. Until we figure it out on the federal and state level, and how we rectify that, we're not going to see changes that will help improve the rhetoric of our political arena. It will just continue to stagnate and devolve."