As the number of ex-lawmakers in Michigan piles up due to term limits, the changing face of Lansing politics is perhaps personified by state Rep. Lee Chatfield.
The northern Michigan Republican is just 30 years old, with a little less than four years of experience in politics, yet Chatfield is the clear favorite to become the next Speaker of the House if the Republicans maintain their majority in the lower chamber of the Legislature.
He’s well on his way after his leadership PAC (a type of political action committee formed by legislators) has raised an astonishing $750,000 so far in the 2017-18 election cycle to help fellow House Republicans win in November. In comparison, during the 2014 campaign season when Chatfield was first elected to office, only one leadership PAC had raised more than $200,000 at this point in the cycle.
A former Christian school teacher, Chatfield already serves as the youngest speaker pro tem – the House’s No. 2 position — in the history of the Legislature. Nearly two years ago, Republican lawmakers put Chatfield in charge of 2018 GOP candidate recruitment and campaign strategizing for House elections.
Leadership PACs are essentially a means for key lawmakers to boost their status and gain favor with their colleagues by spreading the wealth around to like-minded officeholders and candidates. The enticing distinction that makes leadership PACs popular is that they can accept unlimited donations and some this year are attracting individual contributions of more than $30,000.
Chatfield’s PACs (he has two versions) have raised $750,605 and given $455,550 to GOP candidates and causes since the start of 2017, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN). His two top donors, each at the $50,000 level, are the DeVos family, which includes U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and state Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser.
The nonpartisan MCFN, a watchdog group, reports that Chatfield’s bounty has come at a time when a record-setting $5 million has flowed to leadership PACs even as the general election remains nearly 90 days away.
Earlier this year, MCFN revealed that Chatfield, the son of a minister, was the top-ranking lawmaker in the amount of free food and drink he accepted from lobbyists. Based on lobbying disclosure reports filed with the state, the Republican from the tiny town of Levering, received $3,702 worth of wining-and-dining in 2017.
Earlier this month, donations to Chatfield’s re-election campaign committee raised eyebrows amid claims that he benefited from a conflict of interest. The controversy began when Chatfield was detained by the TSA as he was about to board a plane at Pellston Regional Airport with a loaded handgun in his carry-on bag.
Emmet County Prosecutor James Linderman made a surprise decision not to charge Chatfield based on a bit of a legal technicality involving a conflict between state and federal law. Campaign finance reports showed that Linderman had donated eight times – a total of $625 – to Chatfield over the past four years.
Both men denied any preferential treatment took place and Chatfield apologized to his constituents.
In a statement given to the Petoskey News-Review, Chatfield said:
“I’m sorry for my irresponsible mistake and for causing any distraction to the people of Northern Michigan. Whether an elected official or not, nobody is above the law, and prosecutor Linderman treated this case no differently than he has others in the past dealing with the Pellston Regional Airport. I will receive my fine from the TSA and will pay it in full, and I remain committed to continue fighting for the hard-working people of Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.”