DETROIT — Manuel “Matty” Moroun is 85 years old and is worth, according to Forbes magazine, at least $1.5 billion. But that’s evidently not enough. So he is attempting to buy the Michigan Constitution to preserve his monopoly of truck traffic over the Detroit River.
Make that: buy himself a personal amendment.
If Michigan voters believe TV commercials on which Mr. Moroun has spent millions of dollars to flood the airwaves, he just might succeed.
Succeed, that is, in denying Michigan a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, that business interests say they need — a bridge that would cost Michigan nothing, because Canada would assume all the costs and liabilities. The bridge would create more than 10,000 new jobs, many of them high-paying and some permanent.
The bridge, known as the New International Trade Crossing, would cause Washington to give Michigan $2.2 billion in badly needed federal highway matching funds.
It also would provide necessary backup for the Ambassador Bridge, which was built in 1929 and is, some fear, nearing the end of its useful life. The bridge was not designed for modern, heavy tractor-trailers, and is increasingly showing signs of wear.
You would not know any of that, however, from any of the ads the Morouns — Manuel, his wife, Nora, and son Matthew — have been running almost nonstop in most Michigan media markets.
Independent analysts say these may just be the most fraudulent political ads that anyone can remember.
The Morouns don’t care about criticism; they want to persuade Michigan voters to vote yes on Proposal 6. This summer, the Moroun family paid $4.6 million to mainly out-of-state canvassers to collect signatures to put its amendment on the ballot.
The campaign theme is “The People Should Decide.” If voters approve it, the amendment would require a statewide vote before Michigan could do so much as spend a dollar to sketch a new bridge on a legal pad. The goal is to make sure the money-generating Ambassador Bridge is the only game in town.
“You should believe nothing said in those ads, because none of what they say is true, none of it,” said Roy Norton, Canada’s consul general in Detroit. Mr. Norton, 58, is a mild-mannered diplomat who has spent years working behind the scenes in high-level posts in Washington and Ottawa.
Normally, diplomats are unwilling to attack anyone publicly, much less a citizen of an allied country. But, Mr. Norton notes, he has never seen anyone like the Morouns. “They are so pathological in their lying that they no longer submit their lies to any kind of logic test before they go directly onto the airwaves,” he said.
“They say the New International Trade Crossing will cost the State of Michigan,” Mr. Norton added. “Sometimes they say $2 billion. Lately, they’ve been saying $8 billion. They say it will use Chinese steel. All lies.”
Observers who have analyzed the bridge deal, including the Center for Michigan and the Citizens’ Research Council, concluded that Canada’s consul general is correct.
The Canadian government feels a new bridge is so important to Canada’s continued prosperity, it will provide the estimated $550 million the project would cost Michigan. The state would eventually repay Canada out of its share of toll revenues.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced a new bridge would be a priority soon after he took office at the start of last year. Partly, it was a matter of national security. The aging Ambassador Bridge is the only structure between Port Huron, Mich., and Buffalo that can move than $100 billion in heavy manufacturing components across the river annually.
Mr. Snyder turned to the Legislature for approval, only to find that the Morouns have heavily contributed to the campaigns and pet causes of virtually every key committee chairman. The governor could not even get lawmakers to hold a vote on a new bridge.
Frustrated, he used a little-known clause in the state Constitution and signed an “interlocal agreement” with Canada to build the bridge about two miles south of the Ambassador.
The site was chosen because it would allow trucks to move swiftly between Canadian and American freeways. Incensed, the Morouns launched their campaign to stop all future bridges.
The governor and Canadian officials say they intend to build the New International Trade Crossing even if Proposal 6 passes. They contend it can’t apply to a bridge already in the works.
But in an interview, Mr. Norton conceded that passing the amendment would almost certainly lead to court battles and delays.
He is also annoyed that U.S. business interests haven’t spent more to counter the Morouns’ staggeringly lavish propaganda campaign. The Ambassador Bridge’s owners have spent $31.3 million of their own money on their campaign. Opponents have cobbled together barely $1 million.
Mr. Norton thinks it would be hard to overstate the issue’s importance. “The Morouns, you see, are hostage takers,“ he told an audience at Central Michigan University on Oct. 29.
“They’re quite prepared to take hostage the employment prospects of workers who produce 25 percent of the world’s largest two-way trade relationship, and maximize their monopoly profits for as long as they can,” he said. “Then, when their bridge is no longer functional, it will be a catastrophic problem for everyone else.”
On Election Day, the people will decide.
Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan. Contact him at: email@example.com