As well-financed PACs rapidly expand their dominance over the Michigan Legislature, the evidence against an allegedly corrupt lawmaker demonstrates how some legislators’ votes may be for sale.
According to the allegations, Republican state Rep. Larry Inman was playing the field last year, weighing whether his vote on a key bill could bring in tens of thousands more campaign dollars from pro-Democratic unions or from pro-GOP business groups. The issues at stake – voting for or against a controversial bill to repeal Michigan’s 1965 prevailing wage law – seemed to place a distant second for Inman compared to his obsession with winning re-election.
His Traverse City area district had turned increasingly purple, a toss-up between Democratic and Republican voters, and in June 2018, with election season approaching, Inman apparently was playing let’s make a deal with high-powered forces within state politics. He now faces bribery and extortion charges though he refuses to step down from his House seat.
The Detroit News reports that text messages that will be introduced at Inman’s trial show that a leading GOP figure warned the lawmaker that his political career was on the line:
Democratic voters won’t “come to your side” and “you will shut down any incentive for the big (Republican) donors to give” to your re-election campaign, Dan Pero, chief of staff to then-House Speaker Tom Leonard, told Inman in a June 2018 text on the morning of the vote.
“You’re on the edge, pal,” Pero continued, warning Inman he already risked losing financial support from business community donors and PACs because of his positions on other bills.
“You’ve been a ‘no’ vote on the income tax and no fault; you support fee increases; and if you become a no vote on PW (prevailing wage), there’s zero incentive for the big (business) PACs to write you a check,” Pero texted. “You vote yes on PW, my friend, you will get a pass on the other votes.”
The text messages, disclosed by federal prosecutors as Inman heads toward trial for allegedly trying to sell his vote to a union group opposed to the repeal, highlight the outsized influence interest group donors have on Michigan politics and how PAC contributions can influence legislative votes.
Legislator said he needed ‘a ton of money’
Meanwhile, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN), a nonpartisan watchdog group, revealed this week that the top 150 PACs (political action committees) in the state have raised 14 percent more this year than in the same period last year. And that’s an admittedly apples-and-oranges comparison.
In 2018, Michigan voters elected a new governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and 38 state senators. None of those positions are up for grabs on the upcoming 2020 ballot.
Craig Mauger, MCFN executive director, said the rapid rise in PAC money is not so much the result of fundraising actions by the private sector or labor unions. Instead, the two parties each have flexed their muscles — as a group and through the efforts of partisan legislative leaders — to exert tremendous influence over Inman and other lawmakers who are anxiety-ridden about raising enough campaign cash to win re-election.
If he switched to Democratic donors, Inman said in one text, he would need “a ton of money” because the Republican Party “would be all over my a–.” Inman stuck with the GOP and won re-election last November by one percentage point over his Democratic challenger.
The four party-led caucus committees at the Capitol — the main fundraising groups connected to the House Democrats, House Republicans, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans — have combined to raise $4.5 million so far in 2019. Over the same time period in the last “off year,” 2017, they raised just $3.1 million.
Politicians’ PACs can collect unlimited contributions
What’s more, the growing trend of high-ranking lawmakers raising large sums of money through their own personal PACs, the “Leadership PACs,” is prompted by state law that allows these lawmakers to play arbiter in elections. The reason? The Leadership PACs can accept unlimited contributions from donors. Who established this system? The Legislature, of course.
According to the MCFN, between Jan. 1, 2019, and July 20, 2019, 12 PACs connected to individual state lawmakers raised at least $50,000. Over the same time period in 2017, only seven raised more than $50,000.
Beyond the contribution rules, Michigan law allows PACs to give candidates 10 times more than individuals can. Under limits the GOP-led Legislature increased in 2013, an individual can give up to $1,050 to a state House candidate while a PAC can give $10,500. Leadership PACs, with their no-holds-barred fundraising, serve as a funnel, directing major cash infusions to candidates who remain loyal to their party.
The four main party leaders — Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering, Democratic House Minority Leader Christine Greig of Farmington Hills, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich of Flint — have each used various committees to raise more than $100,000 from interest group PACs since the 2018 election.
All of this is part of a long-term trend. The House Republican Campaign Committee, a fundraising juggernaut that doles out campaign money from various business organizations, has increased its campaign giving to candidates by more than five-fold over the past 10 years.
Pero, a longtime aide and adviser to former GOP governor John Engler, warned Inman in a June 2018 text that voting with the Democrats to preserve the prevailing wage law was strictly a money decision. The Dems eventually would hold back on financial support for the state representative because he couldn’t deliver enough votes to be seen as a reliable facilitator.
“My gut tells me,” Pero told Inman, “your analysis will see you lose in November because you won’t have enough lettuce to feed the rabbits.”