LANSING, Mich. — When he ran for governor of Michigan four years ago, Rick Snyder took a strong stand against secrecy of campaign donations.
“All electioneering communications — broadcast, print, and telephonic — that feature the name or image of a candidate for office or ballot initiative should be considered expenditures subject to appropriate disclosure requirements,” he proclaimed.
Last week, the governor broke his word.
While voters were celebrating the holidays and media attention was minimal, Mr. Snyder signed a measure that allows special interests to keep their spending secret.
Rich Robinson, executive director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network, called the governor’s signing of the bill “disappointing” and “a disgrace … that will probably lead to even less transparency and accountability in Michigan politics than we have seen over the last decade.”
The key point of the law is to make sure that those who have spent millions of dollars to smear a candidate, usually by falsely representing their stands on issues, can continue to keep their identities secret. Four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4, in its controversial Citizens United decision, that there could be no limits on campaign spending.
However, the high court said that states could compel full disclosure of who gives how much to whom. Eight of the nine judges essentially urged full disclosure. Even conservative Justice Antonin Scalia said: “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”
That’s the position Mr. Snyder took when he was running for office. Michigan law, however, has allowed those who pay for so-called issue-oriented ads to keep their identities secret.
Michigan law requires full disclosure of who gives money for ads that say “vote for Smith” or “vote for Jones.” However, some special interest group or extremely rich person or persons could spend millions of dollars for ads saying that “Smith likes terrorists and would move filthy homeless people into your neighborhood,” and remain anonymous.
That sort of thing has been happening more and more in Michigan politics, Mr. Robinson said. “Most of the money now spent on our state Supreme Court races is this ‘dark money,’” he said.
During the 2012 state Supreme Court campaign, a spokesman for candidate Bridget McCormack said an anonymous group spent perhaps a million dollars on ads that falsely claimed she was friendly to terrorists. She won, but the practice of secret smears has come under increasing criticism.
Last November, Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a Republican, agreed that secret campaign spending was unfair. She announced that she was going to issue an administrative rule requiring donors to so-called issue-oriented ads to be identified.
This immediately upset legislative Republicans, some of whom have been beneficiaries of dark money. State Sen. Arlan Meekhof (R., West Olive), the majority floor leader, almost immediately amended the campaign spending bill to prevent the secretary of state from requiring full disclosure.
The bill narrowly passed both houses. Then, both sides waited weeks to see what the Republican governor’s decision would be.
Two days after Christmas, it arrived. In justifying his signature on the bill, Governor Snyder said he had changed his mind because he had decided that forcing special interests to reveal the truth about their funding might leave them open to “intimidation.”
“I’m not sure I really appreciated the balancing of the free-speech aspect,” he told the Gongwer news service. Later, he added: “History has shown that disclosing donors’ names results in scare tactics that are designed to suppress speech and participation in the political process.”
The Michigan Campaign Finance Network’s chief called that claim “hogwash.” Mr. Robinson added: “The contention that some of the most powerful interest groups and individuals in the state have any legitimate fear of retribution is ludicrous.”
His criticism was mild compared to what Democrats had to say. Mark Schauer, the all-but-certain Democratic nominee for governor this year, vowed to make Mr. Snyder’s action a campaign issue.
Whether that is successful, it seems certain that the governor’s action is bound to alienate many of the moderate voters who supported him in 2010 — and confirm suspicions that he is firmly in his party’s hard right-wing camp.
● Weather blues: Mr. Snyder also was attacked for nonideological reasons over the holiday. He was heavily criticized for not declaring a state of emergency because of, and for seeming insensitivity to, a crippling power outage that left hundreds of thousands of Michiganians without heat or light at Christmas time.
The usually unflappable John Lindstrom, publisher of the Gongwer news report, said in a blog post that he had one message for the state’s “leaders and wanna-be leaders: Where the hell are you?”
In fairness, however, he added: “Mark Schauer, this doesn’t let you off the hook either.” Mr. Lindstrom noted that the Democratic candidate was neither on the scene nor calling for faster action in what might have been a prime political opportunity.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org