The worst elections big money can buy

Dana Nessel, the lead attorney in the landmark DeBoer v. Snyder same-sex adoption case, would like to be the Democratic nominee for state attorney general next year.

She has lots of interesting ideas, including how to better protect senior citizens and go after those cheating people on their car insurance. But she is experiencing frustration when she meets with leading Democrats to ask for support.

"All they want to know is how much money I've raised. How do my finances look?" she says.

That's disheartening, but here's what's bizarre about that. There isn't any primary for attorney general! Theoretically, she shouldn't have to raise any money before the general election.

The nominee will be picked by delegates to the Democratic state convention around Labor Day. Not, however, this year. The elections aren't till next year.

That's right. Candidates in both parties have already been frantically campaigning for months in races for which even the primary election is still nearly a year away.

Think of it: There are people out there who don't even know each other yet who will meet, fall in love (or at least lust), and marry before the primary elections for governor. Babies will be born before those elections who haven't even been conceived yet.

Nobody normal or sane is paying much attention yet to next year's statewide races, except for politicians, political junkies, and a few scruffy journalists like me.

So why are they running so early?

Money. "Every election cycle the costs go up," says Craig Mauger, executive director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

MCFN provides the immense public service of tracking campaign donations and spending as closely as it can, so we can get some idea of who is backing our would-be leaders, and how much they are paying for the privilege.

That's not always easy, since more and more campaign spending is secretive "dark money," and the corrupt creatures in the legislature — primarily Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof — are dead set against anything like full disclosure.

But the gallant folks at MCFN do their best to let us know who owns our leaders. Leaders, by the way, who spend much of their time begging for funds.

"Every year, candidates are expected to raise more money," in order to be taken seriously, says Mauger, who as a reporter focused for years on covering money in politics.

What's dismaying, he added, is that almost nobody — including the journalists — is focusing on anything else at this point than who has raised how much. "The stories I see are not about policy or programs, not about who is supporting who," Mauger says. "They are all about raising money."

Gretchen Whitmer, who declared her candidacy right after New Year's Day, was first to proudly announce she had raised a million dollars. Abdul El-Sayed, the former Detroit health commissioner soon announced he had raised a million too. On the Republican side, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette also has more than a million; he has been running for governor for years, even though he hasn't yet formally announced.

But they were all trumped by Shri Thanedar, who came out of nowhere to throw $3.3 million into his previously unknown campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Nobody expects his campaign to go anywhere. Cheerful and friendly, Thanedar, a native of India, speaks English with a considerable accent, and doesn't have a day's worth of experience in government at any level, nor seem to much clue as to how it works. But he has bought a ticket to the audition.

This is not a problem limited to Michigan; the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania cost at least $164 million last fall.

Mauger thinks the real cost of that race was close to $200 million. That's astonishing, and obscene — but the problem goes far deeper, and is becoming steadily more pervasive.

Insanely expensive campaigns are now becoming the rule for the state legislature. Last year, campaign spending in nine legislative races topped a million dollars.

This, for some fairly meaningless seats in that heavily gerrymandered body. Earlier this summer, I met with a brilliant young woman who was highly educated, had an impressive background, had done international work in Eastern Europe, and had then come home to Michigan to work for a foundation.

She very much wants to make a difference, and wanted to know if I thought she should run for the legislature. She was stunned when I told her not to even think about it, unless she had at least a quarter of a million dollars to burn.

More and more, we have an unrepresentative democracy almost completely controlled by the rich. Giving people an open bribe to vote a certain way is illegal.

But if the National Rifle Association or the United Automobile Workers union gives a candidate a contribution, you don't have to be a genius to know how they expect them to vote.

Most of these huge sums, by the way, go to buy highly expensive broadcast television commercials — and that could hold the key to our getting our democracy back.

The United States Supreme Court essentially ruled in the infamous Citizens United case that you can't limit corporate campaign contributions. But what goes out over the airwaves are different from print publications or the internet.

The networks that broadcast on them are subject to regulation by the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC. Imagine if the five commissioners issued new rules sharply limiting how much political TV advertising stations could carry, and setting strict standards.

That could both swiftly limit the cost and raise the quality of our campaigns. Now the current set of commissioners would never do that, nor would any Donald Trump is likely to name. But a future, much more enlightened president might name an entirely different set of commissioners who could help give us back our elections, and our country.

That would take years. But it might be our best and only shot. As it stands now, we are fast getting the worst state government that special interests and their money can buy.

Incidentally, I think that this is the proper time and place for me to announce that I am not running for office next year... or ever. I will, however, still accept contributions.

That's the American way!

When in doubt, kill the dog

Here's another dispatch from our sick gun culture: According to police reports, Eduardo Marquez, a contact utility worker inspecting lines for AT&T in Livonia last month, was confronted by a German shepherd mix in the next yard that he said was "lunging" at him.

Being the manly man he is, Marquez did what he thought was the right thing. He pulled out a semi-automatic pistol and blew the pooch's head off.

Turns out that the dog was restrained by an electronic fence, something Marquez apparently didn't bother to notice. After killing Katie the dog, he went back to his truck and waited for the authorities. You have to wonder why he didn't go to the truck in the first place and call to complain.

But as we all know, it is far better to use your gun first and your cell phone later. That didn't work out so well for Ted Wafer, who blew a drunken and stoned girl away through his screen door back in 2013 when she was knocking on his door.

He's doing 17 years now. Prosecutors declined to charge Marquez, but if his employer, Corby Energy, has any sense, they will have already fired him.

After all, just imagine what he might do if some mischievous kid threw a spitball at his truck.

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