Michigan Democratic candidates spar over corporate donations
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Corporate donations have become a central issue in the Michigan Democratic contest for governor as the three candidates try to woo progressive voters ahead of the Aug. 7 primary.
The state bans corporations from giving money directly to candidates but Democratic hopefuls Shri Thanedar and Abdul El-Sayed have gone a step further with promises to refuse money from political action committees backed by corporations. Candidate Gretchen Whitmer criticized El-Sayed for accepting money from corporate executives during a debate last month.
The focus on corporate donations in this election follows a surprising presidential primary win in the state from Democrat Bernie Sanders, who rails against outside money influence on elections, just two years ago.
The Michigan race for governor is expected to be competitive in November as Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is term-limited.
Ahead of Tuesday’s primary, The Associated Press examined how each of the candidate’s 2018 campaign finance reports stack up against their claims:
EL-SAYED: The 33-year-old from Macomb County raised $4.3 million for his campaign as of July 22.
“I don’t take a dime of corporate money — and I never will,” El-Sayed has said on Twitter and Facebook.
His campaign spokesman said the promise refers to money from PACs formed by companies and a review of his reports revealed no donations from corporate PACs.
Whitmer challenged El-Sayed’s vow last month during a debate. She pointed out that El-Sayed had collected cash from people who identified themselves as company executives in campaign reports.
“Give me a break, Abdul,” Whitmer said. “You have received $170,000 in your campaign from corporate executives. You can’t be half-pregnant on this one.”
Whitmer’s campaign noted he accepted from donors listed as a president, vice president, chief executive officer or chief operating officer in 2018, and the donations do check out in El-Sayed’s finance reports. But he has not received many donations from executives running the state’s biggest companies. The AP’s review revealed a $250 donation from a Ford human resources vice president. Many of the other executives worked for small businesses, start-ups and nonprofits.
A donation from a single corporate executive does not indicate an attempt to skirt corporate donor rules, said Edwin Bender, the executive director for FollowTheMoney.org, a Montana-based organization that tracks campaign contributions in all 50 states.
“Individuals giving money, whether they’re a CEO or not, is (a) right and should be encouraged,” Bender said. “Where it should start drawing attention is when it gets to be either coordinated or gets to be very big.”
The AP found only one instance in 2018 where multiple executives from a single entity donated to El-Sayed. In that case, El-Sayed received multiple donations from leaders of a Michigan nonprofit called Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services.
THANEDAR: The 63-year-old political newcomer hasn’t solicited donations of any kind because he’s self-funding his campaign thanks to the fortune he made in the chemical-testing business. Thanedar has disclosed that his assets are valued at between $24.8 and $31.8 million.
In a December campaign ad, he promised not to take corporate money and he has repeated the pledge in debates and on TV spots. Thanedar had pumped $10 million of his own money into the race as of July 22.
“I’ve taken a pledge not to accept a single penny from corporate special interests,” Thanedar says in one campaign ad.
Thanedar hasn’t accepted any donations in 2018. Last year, Thanedar took roughly $2,400 in donations from individuals, some of whom listed themselves as business owners.
WHITMER: The 46-year-old former legislator from East Lansing had raised $6.9 million in the campaign as of July 22.
Whitmer has never pledged to refuse corporation donations and her opponents have repeatedly attacked her for that, focusing on her ties to politically influential health insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
Her campaign finance reports reveal she has accepted nearly $260,000 from people who identify as executives, presidents or vice presidents.
So far this year, multiple Blue Cross Blue Shield executives donated more than $48,000 to her campaign this year. In total this year, Blue Cross Blue Shield employees have given her a combined $120,000. Whitmer’s father is the company’s former CEO. Executives at Michigan-based DTE Energy also made multiple donations, totaling $13,500, on her behalf.
Whitmer has also oaccepted more than $490,000 in PAC money, including several ones for law firms and PACs that represent industries such as realtors and alcohol wholesalers. More than $100,000 of the PAC money comes from labor union PACs.
A nonprofit, called Build a Better Michigan and organized by Whitmer’s allies, however, can accept corporate money directly. Build a Better Michigan is organized as a 527 tax-exempt organization that supports political activities raised $2.2 million as of July 22 and has launched a $1.8 million TV ad campaign supportive of Whitmer. At least $87,000 of that cash has come from businesses.
Neither federal or state laws prohibit 527 tax-exempt organizations from receiving corporate donations, according to the secretary of state’s office.