MICHIGAN — Who pays attention to lame-duck politicians during a restive election year? The Detroit Free Press does, and the result is a revealing report by Paul Egan, the Lansing bureau chief, on politicians who can’t run for re-election, but who nonetheless are raking in the fundraising dollars.
It’s a welcome look at some ambiguities and quirks of Michigan campaign finance law and a reminder that the work of following the money does not end as elected officials near the end of their tenures.
Egan, whose piece appeared on the Free Press’s front page on Sunday, focused the article on state Sen. Roger Kahn (R—Saginaw) who raised $177,000 for his campaign committee in 2011, more than any other Michigan senator. Kahn is prevented by term limits from seeking re-election. He also happens to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Altogether, Egan counted 22 lame-duck state legislators who last year raised $568,000 and held 42 fundraising events. Nearly all of that money has been spent, though the funds are, Egan wrote, “primarily intended for election-related expenses.” This is a bipartisan and bicameral state of affairs: in a sidebar, the top ten lame-duck fundraisers are highlighted: four senators and six representatives, four Democrats and six Republicans.
The Free Press article turned to a campaign finance watchdog for insight on the numbers:
Aggressive fundraising by lame-duck officeholders is controversial because a major donor motive—helping an officeholder get re-elected—no longer exists.
“It really makes it a more direct connection between money and policy,” said Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a Lansing-based watchdog group.
It’s not surprising that Michigan’s two top lame-duck fundraisers are the appropriations committee chairmen in the Senate and House, he said.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m supporting you because I know we see eye to eye on my issues, and I want to make sure you’re re-elected’,” Robinson said. “That’s over.”
This is an important point—which is why it is surprising that in his otherwise solid article, Egan does not illuminate who exactly are the largest donors to lame-duck lawmakers. While the piece alerts readers to the possibility of influence (or the appearance thereof) it neglects to point out who is behind the donations. A quick look at Sen. Kahn’s 2011 campaign finance report, for example, shows contributions from numerous healthcare-related groups ($6,000 from Blue Cross/Blue Shield PAC, $5,000 each from SEIU Healthcare MI PAC and from Healthcare Assn. of Michigan PAC). There are also, of the 505 donations listed, two hundred or so small (less than $100) donations from Saginaw-area residents.
Egan talked with Sen. Kahn, who held five fundraisers for his campaign committee in 2011, and told Egan that he
continues to raise money for three main reasons: to pay for incidental office expenses, such as meals with constituents; to help other Senate Republicans get elected; and to build and maintain a political war chest that could be used if he decides to seek a different office.
Egan went on to detail—drawing from Kahn’s 2011 campaign finance report—how some of Kahn’s funds were used, including $1,400 spent in a single day at a candy store for gifts to attendees of a Valentine’s Day fundraiser, and $19,000 to reimburse himself for in-kind loans to his own campaign, most of which are unspecified in the records. Such expenditures are legal in Michigan, which has relatively lax restrictions, but if Sen. Kahn failed to specify what he bought with the in-kind loans, he would violate reporting requirements, a spokesman for the Michigan Secretary of State told Egan.