Six years ago, I did a little magazine story on a modest man named Ron Thayer who was completely unknown to the public, but was an awe-inspiring legend to some of the state’s biggest political names. That’s because politics today is increasingly impossible without vast sums of money, and he was, and is, a fundraiser’s fundraiser.
Name the candidate, name the cause, and if Thayer believed, and took it on, the money was certain to come rolling in, usually by the barrel. He had, and has, a fairly anonymous day job in “economic development” for Wayne County, but everybody knew his real job is to generate green oil to lubricate various Democratic campaigns.
He was so successful, everyone said, for two reasons. One was that he wanted no publicity and nothing for himself; he seemed to get almost a childlike pleasure in helping people he believed in succeed. But more important was that he had absolute integrity. L. Brooks Patterson, never a man known to have a lot of good to say about a Democrat, told me, “politics is a lot nicer and a lot cleaner for people like Ron Thayer.”
Last week, to his horror, Ron Thayer, who hadn’t even wanted me to write that little piece years ago, was all over the news. This year, although his boss is Ed McNamara, the creator of Jennifer Granholm’s political career, Thayer is working hard for the man he thinks is the best candidate, former Gov. Jim Blanchard.
Suddenly, his confidential fundraising papers turned up in the possession of the Granholm campaign, which distributed them gleefully to reporters.
Thayer, who never has been known to speak ill of another Democrat, was, perhaps for the first time in his life, truly outraged. “They stole them out of my briefcase,” he told me flatly. The Granholm campaign said a flunky-oops-part-time volunteer driver for her High Mightiness, ah … found them on a Wayne County copying machine.
Yeah, sure. The fact is that everyone who knows Ron Thayer, except perhaps Granholm, is convinced he is telling the truth. Even her main patron McNamara, to his credit, said over the weekend that he tended to believe the Blanchard camp.
“I’ll be happy to take a lie-detector test right now,” Thayer told me Sunday. He filed a police report accusing the flunky (who is about “to take a leave” from the campaign) of stealing them. My guess is that’s about the last we’ll hear of that.
So what’s all this really about? Why should we care about such petty political dirty tricks? Well, on one level, it says something, I think, about the Granholm campaign, which always has had a highly annoying holier-than-thou attitude. Early on, some of her creatures tried to tell me “confidentially” that Jim Blanchard was going to drop out.
When I later wrote what I thought was a balanced column questioning her husband’s blatant use of her name to solicit consulting contracts, she bitterly assailed me. “How can you question his integrity? He went to Yale Divinity School,” she said.
Though I managed not to say anything about priests, it was, I thought, a truly Nixonian moment. No, I don’t think she knew or would have approved of stealing papers out of Thayer’s briefcase. But her folks would have been wise to take ethical advice from John Engler, of all people, who noted that when some similar flunky stole debate briefing papers from George Bush two years ago, Al Gore’s camp returned them, unopened.
But the deeper meaning is that our politics have been completely corrupted by money. Years ago, in an effort to prevent special interests from buying the governorship, Michigan decided primary campaigns would be partially funded by the state, provided that candidates observe certain rules, including spending no more than $2 million.
Yet they don’t have to. Geoffrey Fieger, who is richer than God, elected to finance his own 1998 campaign and not accept matching funds. This year Granholm has done the same, in part because she was able to convert money people gave her to use to run for her re-election as attorney general into gubernatorial campaign funds.
But for those who do, there are lots of creative ways to get around the system, such as having an “independent” political action committee. Blanchard’s folks were doing that, which is what the theft of the papers was designed to reveal.
They all do it. And on such a scale that our democracy itself is being threatened. Kevin Phillips isn’t exactly a left-wing revolutionary. He started his career as a strategist for Richard Nixon and wrote a famous book called The Emerging Republican Majority.
This year, he has a new book, Wealth and Democracy, which I think everyone should read. If you are thinking, it will scare your ashcroft off. “The imbalance of wealth and democracy in the United States is unsustainable,” he argues.
Either we do something about this, “or wealth is likely to cement a new and less democratic regime — plutocracy.”
That is, if it isn’t already too late.
Never too late: Hope springs eternal, and this Sunday, MERC, the Michigan Election Reforms Coalition, is holding what promises to be a lively Clean Money Election Forum at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church on Cass near Wayne State. There will be some top politicians, a sexy video (without either Katherine Harris or Candice Miller) and lots of opportunity for questions on money in politics.
They’ve asked me to moderate, but other than that, it should be worthwhile.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]