By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”
That incisive and perhaps cynical observation gets attributed to Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh, the legendary speaker of the California State Assembly and a highly influential player in national Democratic politics in the 1970s.
And just as milk can turn sour, so too can campaign money – a reality some politicians forget or ignore, to their own peril.
Campaign season in Michigan is wide-open – from the White House to a U.S. Senate seat to the U.S. House delegation to the state House to judgeships and to local offices.
The money is flowing.
In the U.S. Senate race, for example, GOP challenger John James collected $3.5 million in the last three months of 2019, while incumbent Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, took in $2.51 million, leaving $8 million in his campaign kitty.
In the presidential race, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has spent an estimated $6.6 for broadcast and cable TV ads in the state, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
Here are some lessons for candidates in the run-up to the November election.
Lesson 1: Greed is a common human trait in and out of politics, but greed should have limits.
The poster child for this lesson could be embattled Rep. Larry Inman, the Williamsburg Republican snared in a federal vote-selling investigation.
A grand jury charged him with lying to the FBI, seeking a bribe and attempted extortion for text messages that allegedly offered his vote on labor legislation in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in union contributions.
At trial, a jury acquitted the term-limited Inman of lying to the FBI but failed to reach a verdict on the other charges. Prosecutors are pressing for a second trial.
Meanwhile, he is clinging to his seat because constituents failed to secure enough valid signatures to force a recall election.
Lesson 2: Don’t ignore the paperwork.
Save yourself the embarrassment of appearing on the Secretary of State’s roster of delinquent candidates and committees that don’t file their disclosure reports on time. These reports are important to transparent elections so the public can quickly see where political money comes from and where it’s going.
As MIRS reported recently, committees for former Rep. David Nathan, D-Detroit, are in the deepest hole – owing $26,5000 – among past and present legislators for overdue reports.
Several incumbents appear on the Bureau of Elections November 2019 scofflaw roster, including Reps. Michael Webber, R-Rochester Hills; Brian Elder, D-Bay City; and Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, as well as Bryan Barnhill, an elected member of the Wayne State University Board of Governors.
Lesson 3: Don’t be in too much of a rush to cash the checks.
Do due diligence: Who really is the donor? Many campaigns, including those of presidential candidates Barack Obama and Donald Trump, have accepted – and then had to refund – foreign contributions, which are illegal.
Lesson 4: Take responsibility when things go wrong.
Candidates too often blame their campaign treasurers or aides, who, at least in state races, often have little or no experience with campaign finance laws and reporting requirements.
The ultimate moral – and sometimes legal – responsibility for errors belongs to the candidates.
Simon Schuster, the executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, says, “Campaign finance law and reporting is a complex undertaking, and even mandated electronic filing (of financial reports) is only relatively recent in the scope of Michigan politics.”
Lesson 5: Thou shalt not steal.
Seems simple, right? Donors contribute to support candidates and causes they believe in, not to subsidize candidates’ high life.
The latest poster child is disgraced U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, who pleaded guilty in December to conspiring to misuse campaign funds.
Authorities say Hunter and his wife misused $250,000 in contributions for personal expenses, including their children’s private school, extravagant travel, restaurants and clothes. He resigned Jan. 13.
Now here’s a lesson for voters.
Beware of ambiguous and feel-good names sported by political action committees.
Who could reasonably disagree with a PAC called “Citizens for a Better Tomorrow?” We all want a better tomorrow.
Ditto for the “Today and Our Future Fund.” And who could reasonably disagree with a “Consensus PAC?” Don’t we call for more consensus in policymaking rather than bitter partisanship?
Or “Michigan Is Yours?” The state surely belongs to all its residents.
Schuster advises looking for the small line on mailers and ads that disclose who paid for it. That can help voters assess the motivation behind the information they’re being fed.
This commentary is adapted from a column in Domemagazine.com