By Ian Hawley
LANSING – The average state legislator in Michigan raised more than $50,000 to run for office in 2017, but they all aren’t focused on big contributions.
In fact, 16 lawmakers raised less than $5,000 in 2017, according to a Spartan Newsroom analysis of campaign finance records. Three of them raised less than $500.
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 ten times as much, up to $10,000. They are controversial because of the large influence they can give to the candidate in charge of distributing funds.
Although he’s running for a third and final term as a state representative, Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, only raised $150 for his campaign. He chooses not to accept PAC contributions for his own campaign to reflect 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.”
For his first election, Miller raised money from family, friends and other small contributors, he said. Some people make fun of the small amounts he raises, he said. “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 the 104th State 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,” Coffia said. “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.”
Her campaign was outspent by competitors 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 both attempts, but she out performed the national Clinton campaign in 2016 by 3 percent, 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.”
Numerous federal candidates have stopped taking corporate PAC money recently, including U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey. U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat who’s running for the U.S. Senate in Texas, has declined to take PAC money to fund his campaign against incumbent U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
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 company.
“If you have 110 members of the House [of Representatives 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 a lot of people are watching which groups are contributing, some experts say.
James Bebarski, a former campaign manager for Casey O’Neill, who ran for the 76th District seat in the Michigan House of Representatives during the 2016 election cycle, said that a 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 state legislature, I would want as much PAC money as possible.”
Bebarski said he wishes that campaign finance records were a bigger focus in the election process.
“I think 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.”
Tomorrow: Michigan lawmakers raised nearly $8 million to get your vote in 2017 – and there wasn’t even an election.
Editor’s note: This story is one of a series produced by a Spartan Newsroom campaign finance data analysis project. Andrew Birkle, Natalie Dymkowski, Jaylyn Galloway, Ian Hawley, Eli Pales, Zach Robertson and William Thiede contributed to the series. It was produced with the advice and collaboration of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.