BRIAN DICKERSON: Lobbyists woo legislators with fundraisers in shadow of State Capitol

Running for re-election is expensive, and Michigan lawmakers are busy people. So the special interests who seek to influence legislation make it easy for them, sponsoring fundraisers that allow our harried elected representatives in Lansing to raise most of their campaign cash within a short walk from the State Capitol and on days when the state Legislature is in session.

None of this strikes most reporters and lobbyists who regularly rub elbows with members of the Michigan House and Senate as particularly noteworthy. On most any of the 100 or so days those bodies are in session each year, the Michigan Independent Research Service (MIRS) and Gongwer — the two subscription-only news services who comprehensively record the daily business of state government for a specialized audience of lawmakers, lobbyists and journalists —  list special-interest fundraisers honoring a revolving cast of legislators among their daily calendar items, where they attract about as much public interest as the regularly scheduled meeting of the House Agriculture Committee.

But Craig Mauger, a veteran of the Lansing press corps who recently succeeded Rich Robinson as executive director of the non-profit Michigan Campaign Finance Network, thinks it’s significant — and a little disturbing — that so much fundraising takes place in the Capitol’s shadow.

“This happens in the light of day, almost every session day,” Mauger says. “A lobbyist and the chairman of a House committee can be talking to one another at a fundraiser the lobbyist is throwing for the member, and an hour later, the lobbyist is testifying in front of the chairman’s committee.”

“If you spend most of your time in Lansing, you don’t even notice it,” Mauger continues. “But when I describe the phenomenon to people who don’t live here, they often ask me: “Is that even legal?”

Multitasking while the sun shines

It’s perfectly legal, of course. And the money lawmakers raise at these regularly scheduled get-togethers is generally disclosed (albeit weeks or months after the fact) in mandated campaign-finance reports filed with the Michigan Secretary of State’s office. Once they’ve been filed, voters adept at navigating the SOS’s online database can see for themselves which special interests are cozying up to which members of the Legislature.

It was by examining those legally mandated filings, as a matter of fact, that the MCFN was able to discover just how much campaign cash lawmakers raise within a short stroll of the House and Senate chambers.

The MCFN learned that in 2015 — a year, Mauger points out, in which no legislator in either chamber faced a primary or general election contest — candidate committees for state officeholders and political action committees (or PACs) that raise money for redistribution to candidates held 315 fundraisers. More than half — 54% — took place in Lansing. And four-fifths of those fundraisers took place on days the Legislature was in session — sometimes during hours the fundraiser’s principal beneficiary was scheduled to attend a committee meeting or participate in some other legislative business.

One of the lawmakers Mauger spoke to, state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, pointed out that she left an early morning fundraiser at the Glazed and Confused doughnut shop down the street from the state Capitol an hour before it was over to be at a meeting of the Senate Energy and Technology Committee.

It’s not unusual for legislators or PACS to rent restaurants or coffee shops where donors can drop in for a quick bite while delivering a check. But according the MCFN’s analysis, a disproportionate number of fundraisers take place in private reception spaces owned or leased by lobbying firms and industry organizations.

Mauger notes that one of the state’s most perennially generous groups, the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers, advertises its headquarters building two blocks south of the state Capitol as “an ideal location” for fundraising events.

“Raising the resources necessary to conduct a successful political campaign is a never-ending struggle for state lawmakers,” the beer and wine wholesalers’ website observes sympathetically, “and the use of the 1933 Room can make the task more manageable,” In 2015, the MCFN found, candidates or PACs raised a quarter-million dollars in 24 fundraising events at the wholesalers’ headquarters.

Hiding in broad daylight

Late last week, I asked Mauger whether training a spotlight on well-publicized fundraising events whose sponsors and beneficiaries are readily identifiable might distract voters’ attention from a more-sinister development — the explosive growth of untraceable contributions to third party groups who account for an ever-increasing proportion of total campaign spending. In recent state Supreme Court elections in Michigan and other states, for instance, such undisclosed dark-money expenditures have far out-stripped expenditures by the candidates themselves.

Dark money is a huge problem, Mauger conceded, “But it’s important not to ignore the things that are happening right in front of us.

“People don’t run for office with money from the constituents they represent, and our report shows you who is really funding these campaigns.”

As for doing it all while the Legislature is in session, and within a stone’s throw of the place where they make the laws by which the rest of us all live — well, that’s just more convenient for everyone involved.