Not every lawmaker is a campaign rainmaker

By IAN HAWLEY
Capital News Service

LANSING — The average legislator in Michigan raised more than $50,000 to run for office in 2017, but not all focused on big contributions.

In fact, 16 lawmakers raised less than $5,000 last year, according to a Spartan Newsroom analysis of campaign finance records. Three raised less than $500 each.

Candidates have three main sources of funding: individuals, political parties and political action committees commonly known as PACs.

A PAC is a tool that businesses, labor unions and other interest groups use to raise money for candidates in hopes of influencing public policy.

Individuals can donate a maximum of $1,000 to a campaign. But PACs can donate 10 times as much, up to $10,000. They’re controversial because of the large influence they can give to the candidate who distributes the funds.

Although he’s running for a third — his final one allowed under term limits — a as a state representative, Republican Aaron Miller of Sturgis raised only $150 for his reelection campaign. He chooses not to accept PAC contributions as a reflection of his political views and lifestyle.

“After my [first] primary in 2014, I had a few independent PACs donate money,” said Miller, who chairs the House Elections and Ethics Committee. “After that I made a commitment, which I have honored to this day, not to accept PAC money from that point forward.

“It was a [decision] I thought about by myself, with my wife and with my campaign manager,” Miller said.

“I ran to be a regular guy and I asked myself, ‘How can I be different from the pack?’ The thing I thought that would best demonstrate myself and my character to the public would be to not accept PAC money,” he said.

For his first election, Miller raised money from family, friends and other small contributors. Some people make fun of the small amounts he raises, he said, but “I would say I have to be doing something right to have been here so long.”

It may put him at a financial disadvantage not to take PAC money, he said, but “I would say that I am not a prolific money raiser to begin with.”

Betsy Coffia unsuccessfully ran for a House seat in 2014 and 2016. She also took no PAC money. She didn’t even take money from her own party.

Campaigning without the money from big donors actually attracted voters to her, she said. It was an important plank of her platform.

“I initially ran because of the issues I saw with how campaigns are financed,” said Coffia, a Democrat from Traverse City. “I see big money as corroding to the political process. I ran with only individual contributions, which was tough because that meant my only means of fundraising starting out was going door-to-door spreading my message.”

But there are advantages, she said. “I found that if I told voters that I had no donations from big-money donors, that opened them up to listen to the rest of my ideas.”

Competitors outspent her 3 to 1.

“Instead of paying for costly advertising campaigns, we did meet-and-greet sessions with our constituents without asking for money,” Coffia said. “We wanted our events to be open to everyone, and people responded well to that.”

Coffia lost but outperformed the national Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016 by 3 percent in the district, she said.

“I’ve experienced the difference in lawmakers who are money-oriented as opposed to people-oriented,” Coffia said. “We all pay their salaries, so we as citizens should get the same respect from them as lobbyists.”

There are good and bad qualities about PACs, said David Waymire, a former political journalist who is now a partner in Martin Waymire, a Lansing public relations firm.

“If you have 110 members of the House and 38 Senate members all pushing their own agendas, (lawmaking) can get very messy and sometimes nothing will get done,” Waymire said. “The influence of PACs can help to push things forward. However, this does give a lot of control and power to a few individuals.

“I don’t believe PACs have been particularly good for Michigan,” Waymire said. “You know what they say about absolute power.”

And not many people are watching which groups are contributing, some experts say.

James Bebarski, a former campaign manager for Casey O’Neill, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for a Grand Rapids seat in the House in 2016, said lack of interest in state races makes it easy for candidates to take money from PACs unnoticed.

“Most people cast their votes in state elections based on which name they remember from the primary elections,” Bebarski said. “Voters either don’t pay attention to where funding comes from, or they don’t really care enough to let it affect their vote.

“If I was running for the state Legislature, I would want as much PAC money as possible,” he said, adding that he wishes campaign finance records were a bigger focus in the election process.

“If more people take the time to check into their candidates and see where the finances are coming from, they won’t be as surprised when their lawmaker passes a bill with the interest of their donors in mind,” Bebarski said. “It’s on the voters to do their due diligence if we want to see any real changes in the way finances are raised.”

Ian Hawley writes for Spartan Newsroom.