Susan Demas: The Role of Interest Groups in Shaping Michigan Politics

>>Hi. Good morning,
almost afternoon. Welcome. Thank you for
joining us today for our talk about the role of [inaudible]
in shaping policy in Michigan. I’m Deborah Horner from
the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy,
also known as CLOSUP. Today’s talk is sponsored by
CLOSUP as well as co-sponsored by the department
of political science and the environmental
law and policy program. It’s part of the CLOSUP in
the classroom initiative. Through the current Ford School
undergraduate course entitled Michigan Politics and Policy, the CLOSUP in the classroom
initiative is working to integrate student experiences with the center’s
research activities. Both the class and this talk
are made possible by a grant from the provost office. So [inaudible] thank them. This not only helps us
to get U of M’s state and local government
research in to a classroom, but also allows us to
bring in expert speakers like our guest today,
Susan Demas. You can read about her full
biography in the handout that was given before the talk, but just let me summarize
a little bit by telling you that Susan is the
editor and publisher of “Inside Michigan Politics.” She’s been a journalist for
15 years, covering politics for several national and
regional publications. She’s the only Michigan
journalist to have been named to the “Washington Post’s” list
of best political reporters, the “Huffington Post’s” list
of best political tweeters and the “Washington Post’s”
list of best political bloggers. In 2010 Susan helped launch
the Michigan Truth Squad which investigates and
fact checks political ads and speeches. And most recently Susan
served as the deputy editor for Michigan Information
and Research Service where she covered national
and state politics. So the publication “Inside
Michigan Politics” analyzes political and policy trends
for several thousand readers, including corporations, trade
associations, labor unions, government agencies,
the White House and several foreign governments. Founded in 1987,
IMP has been cited in many different media sources,
including “The New York Times,” “Detroit Free Press,”
“Detroit News,” “Christian Science Monitor,”
“The Washington Post,” “Roll Call,” “The Wall Street
Journal,” “USA Today,” “Hotline” and the “Associated Press.” You may be inspired today by
what you hear to make sure that you are voting in the
upcoming November 8th election. In case you are not
registered, I have brought with me registration forms that will take you one
minute to fill out. So I want to encourage you
if you’re not registered yet, if you’re putting it off, please
come see me after the talk. I will get you registered and
you can be assured to be able to vote here in Michigan
on November 8th. And now, without further ado, let me turn the floor
over to Susan Demas. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Hi. Thank you so
much for having me. Can everybody hear me okay? I don’t want to use the
voice I use with my kids because you won’t
like that very much. They’re teenagers and
they don’t listen well. So the way that I’ve structured
the talk is I’m just going to kind of give a
broad view of kind of the practical issues involved with special interests
lobbyists in Michigan politics. And what I’m really looking
for too is at the end to leave plenty of
time for your questions because I’ve been lucky
enough to come and speak to many different
classes at the Ford School over the last several years
and of all the talks I do, and I do quite a few,
hands down this is where I get the best questions. So I’m really looking
forward to that. So, as Deborah mentioned,
I’m the editor and publisher of “Inside Michigan Politics.” It’s a publication that most
of you may not have heard about because I write mostly
for people in [inaudible] and Washington who really
want to know what’s going on with Michigan politics. Elections, policy, who’s in
charge, what they’re doing. And it’s been around for
almost 30 years and, you know, it doesn’t look very
different from when it debuted. It has blue paper, but
we do have a website because I’m slowly,
but surely dragging it in to the 21st century. But it’s subscription
based so it’s for a more limited audience. I do a lot of writing
for broader audiences, for people basically
who hate politics, and try to make them
care about it. That’s a unique challenge. But today I’m going to
go more in to things that people maybe don’t
know as much about, but are very important in terms
of understanding what goes on in Lansing and the
rest of the state. To be totally honest, if
you understand the way that special interests function
in Lansing, you’re really going to understand much
more of how things work than the vast majority
of people do. And there are a lot
of stereotypes. People, you know, kind
of think of lobbyists as these shadowy figures and
nobody quite knows who they are and maybe they meet in
parking garages like Watergate, if you guys have
heard of Watergate. But, you know, to be honest, the
way things function in Lansing, at the capital, you know,
these are people who, yes, are out in the lobby. There are many of them,
especially on days when there’s a lot going on. I anticipate when the
legislature finally comes back to really get work
done after the election in the lame duck session
the capital is going to be quite a busy place and probably be open 24 hours
a day towards the end because, just like any of us, we tend to
leave stuff until the very end. And cram a lot in. So if you’re a reporter,
as I’ve been for 15 years, and I’ve covered the state
capital for 10 years, you know, you see lobbyists all the time. When you go to get
your sandwich, they’re in the expensive
restaurants, not in the ones I go to. You see them out in the hallway. And if you really want
to know what’s going on with specific
pieces of legislation, a lot of times they’re going to
be able to tell you a lot more than if you interview
a senator on the floor. That’s just the truth. By way of a little background,
I actually started reporting in the state of Iowa which
has a part time legislature and it’s not nearly — not
nearly as big of a budget, not nearly as much staff. Michigan is, you know,
the 10th largest state. It was the 8th when I
started to cover it. And we have a full
time legislature which a lot of states
don’t have. So there’s always
something going on. There are always
issues to watch. So it’s definitely different
than what you might find if you’re from other
states or, you know, if you take jobs there
after graduation. But this will give you a
sense of how things work and Washington is
not very different. My husband is a political
consultant and he does public relations
and actually he just registered as a lobbyist a few
months ago because there’s so much overlap in what he does. So just to throw that out
there so you know the fact that I actually do
live with a lobbyist. He doesn’t do a lot of
work that way, but you know when you start talking with
people who actually live and work in downtown
Lansing it’s — you run across quite a
few people who do lobbying in one form or another. So I’m going to start in a
place that a lot of people start out when you talk
about special interests and right away they want to talk
about money because most people, you know, have the perception that special interests get
things done by spending money in campaigns and with direct
lobbying expenditures. And certainly that is
a big part of things in the state of Michigan. If you go to the Michigan
Campaign Finance Network, that does a very good
job tracking everything. They just put out a report that
lobbyist spending is on track to be $21.7 million in July. So it’s on track to be the
highest amount spent ever, higher than it was by $700,000 at this time of the
year in 2015. Not particularly surprising, but
interesting to know the numbers. And, you know, when you
consider what law makers have to deal with, the vast,
vast swath of issues, not to mention their
chief duty which under the “Constitution” they
have one duty — Do you know what that is? Their one responsibility
in office is to balance the budget
every year. Unlike the feds, they
actually have to do it. You can say that they
may not do it well. I’ve certainly been there
for all night sessions when the government shut down
when they did not do it well. But that is what
they have to do. And $55 billion is an
incredible amount of money. Not too many of us have ever
dealt with that amount of money. Not too many people in Lansing,
law makers, have had experience with government on that level. Some of them come
from local government. Quite a few of them do. More and more in the era of [inaudible] these law
makers come to government with no experience whatsoever. The people in town who have the
experience come from two places. One, their staff. Two, the lobbying core. There’s been quite a
bit of overlap in staff and so there’s not nearly
the institutional knowledge that there was even
5 or 10 years ago. For the lobbying core
there are a lot of people who have been there for decades. You know, there’s some very
prominent former legislators and politicians who
are lobbyists. Names that people know. Frank Kelley, the long
time attorney general, has a very prominent
firm, Kelley Cawthorne. And former Speaker of
the House, Rick Johnson, this is going back quite
a few years at this point, but his firm is Dodak Johnson. But by and large the people
who make up lobbying firms, it’s a lot of former
staff members. And I’ve thought
about this a lot because four years ago I
actually had the opportunity to interview Jack Abramoff
and this dates me a bit because this was a scandal a
decade ago, but he was kind of the embodiment of everybody’s
idea of evil in lobbyists. You know, if you
saw the pictures, he looked like a
mafioso with a fedora. And looked like somebody
who was wining and dining people
and up to no good. And, as it turned out, he was. He was convicted and —
for influence peddling. And spent some time behind bars. Since then he’s really
tried to remake his image, peel back the curtain of
things that can go wrong, abuses of power, do
a public mea culpa. He, frankly, you know, was
very charming and really wanted to talk more about his
daughter than he wanted to discuss the book
that he was hawking, which I thought was a pretty
good PR move on his part. But one thing that he said that
struck me is he said, you know, “I don’t really like
hiring former law makers.” I mean that’s the revolving
door we all hear about, right? You go straight from earning
a paycheck from the people, tax payer dollars,
and then you go to a big fat cat lobbying firm and you make millions
upon millions of dollars. Jack Abramoff said, “In general, I don’t like hiring
former members of Congress, former senators or
legislators, for one reason. They’re lazy and they don’t
know what’s going on as much. I want their staff members. Those are the people
who know how to work. And those are the people
who have relationships.” And however cliche
it is, it’s true. Relationships do make a
big difference in politics, both in Lansing and
in Washington. So if you served for a long
time as the committee clerk for like the energy committee
and then you go to work for a multi-client lobbying
firm that specializes in your specialty
of energy policy, well you have a lot
of relationships. You have a lot of
inside knowledge. You’ve got a lot of friends
who are still at the capital. So that’s very useful. In terms of how things really
work, I know a lot of lobbyists who care very deeply
about policy. Highly intelligent
people do not fit that Jack Abramoff stereotype. There are certainly ones who
fit it more, but I have to say as a reporter the thing that
I’ve found most eye opening when I started covering the
capital full time 10 years ago was the fact that lobbyists
do write legislation. And there’s really no
attempt to pretend otherwise. I can’t tell you how many
committee meetings I have covered, because I used to be a
reporter covering for, you know, day to day publications
where I actually had to sit through five hour committee
meetings all night for action, all that good stuff
that, frankly, most publications don’t
bother with anymore. And, you know, I would sit
there as lobbyists would testify on pieces of legislation
and present amendments. And of course some lawmaker
would put their name on it, but they wrote it and
there was no pretense. That happens quite a bit. So in terms of how things
really work in Lansing, lobbyists definitely have
a huge role in policy and in how specific legislation
is written because, frankly, with term limited lawmakers
who are there for a maximum of six years in the House,
eight years in the Senate, a lot of them just
don’t have the expertise to write complex legislation
themselves and even some of their staff doesn’t. So understanding more about the
process and who these people are and how they go about
things is really critical to understanding the pace of
things in Michigan government. So one of the things that you
do see stories of when it comes to lobbyists — A couple
times a year you hear stories about these law makers
who get $2,000 worth of free lunches from lobbyists. And that’s a fun story
and you always want to see if it’s your rep or your
senator and what they’re doing. And that’s a good symbol
for what people don’t like about government,
what people don’t like about politicians and what
they don’t like about lobbyists. And really that’s a
drop in the bucket. A lot of stuff probably
is not reported. And there’s really no evidence
that having a fancy lunch with a lobbyist is going to be
more influencing than having, you know, several
meetings in your office. But it’s something that definitely voters
do not care for. It’s kind of interesting. We have a state house
race going on right now. I’m not sure how many people
have heard anything about it. It’s at Macomb County. And the county commission
candidate who is running for the — as the
republican in a seat, his name is Steve Marino. He’s a former lobbyist. And he’s been caught on tape
at coffee hours bragging to constituents about
picking up bar tabs for appropriation chairs
and being a big shot and having the ear of the
government and the governor and really filling
that stereotype of the Jack Abramoff lobbyist. Now, once he’s been caught he
says he was just talking a big game and he’s relatively
young, just 27, and I think that may
very well be the case. But things like that I think
definitely don’t inspire a lot of confidence with people
because a lot of people that you talk to just assume
the government is corrupt and that’s the way it goes. So going beyond the
general picture, I want to talk a little
bit about issue lobbying and some prominent groups. As far as Michigan government
goes, there are lobbyists for just about every
issue under the sun. As I said, we’re a big
state, full time legislature, big budget, lots of concerns. And pretty much the
movers and shakers tend to be these multi-client
lobby firms. Some of them are law firms
that really just specialize in more lobbying work. There are a lot of names
that people outside of Lansing don’t really know, but some of them are
Governmental Consultant Services Incorporated, GCSI, there’s
Kelley Cawthorne and [inaudible] and Associates, Midwest
Strategy Group, RWS Advocacy. These groups tend to
represent many different causes and companies. They’re the biggest spenders,
by and large, when you look at those charts of
top lobbyist spending. But from there it’s pretty
hard to know what’s going on because were they spending
money on the energy fight, were they spending money on
the Detroit school fight, on some other more
obscure issues? Those are things that
don’t have to be disclosed. And if you take a look at
some of the other big spenders like usually if you go on Michigan Campaign Finance
Network they have very handy charts about the top
spenders this year, full list. It’s a pretty eye
opening view of what, you know — who the players are. As far as this year goes,
you had the Michigan Health and Hospitals spend heavily,
Nationwide Mutual Insurance, National Federation of
Independent Businesses. So, you know, there
are a number of issues that they might be involved in. We’ve certainly had some
insurance reform debate, especially on the no fault side which Nationwide would
probably be very interested in. Michigan Health and
Hospitals Association, obviously very interested
in this debate over a healthcare claims
tax that involves a lot of Medicaid aid from
the federal government. See if you can kind of draw
some of the lines that way. And a lot of times when you
look at those issue groups, those names shuffle a bit more
than the multi-clients do based on what are the hot
button issues that year. But there are always going to be
groups that will just give a lot of money and campaign donations or on the lobbying side
regardless of what’s going on, even if their top issues
really don’t have a shot at getting through this year. It’s about relationship
building. It’s a good way to get a new
lawmaker to know who you are. And that’s just kind of
the way business is done. What I’ve noticed. Michigan has been under
republican control since 2011. There’s definitely been
a shift in spending. Certainly republicans
are getting more money which is typical. You go with the party
who’s in power. They have much more power to
set the agenda and to put it through or to block it. But prior to that, when
we had divided government, you would see a lot of
groups playing both sides. And there are a lot of
groups in town that still do. But more and more
kind of dovetailing with more partisanship that
we’ve seen, hyper partisanship. You will see that there
are a lot of groups that really do just concentrate
on one party or the other. And it’s pretty logical
who these groups are. For democrats, you know,
it’s a lot of union groups. Michigan Education
Association is a huge player. You’ve got the UAW [inaudible]
carpenters, teamsters. They’re not beyond
giving to republicans, but unlike in past decades when
you could peel off a few votes for things, and you had some
very strong pro public education republicans out there — One of
them teaches at the Ford School, Joe Schwartz, who’s a
very good friend of mine. They’re a more rare
species nowadays. And so the unions, accordingly,
have just concentrated more on getting democrats elected and lobbying democrats
who are in office. On the flip side,
the Michigan Chamber of Commerce only rarely
will endorse a democrat. Not all chambers of
commerce are like this. Other states function
in different ways, but in our state
it’s a huge force in republican politics
and nationally. Actually the state chamber of
commerce was very instrumental in some of the national campaign
finance suits that we’ve seen. Richard Mclellan is a
very prominent attorney and does excellent
work on their behalf. You do have other
business groups that kind of spread the wealth
around a little more. Michigan Manufacturers
Association. Small Business Association
of Michigan. But, you know, the
National Federation of Independent Business
is even [inaudible] the Michigan chamber. So they only tend to
play in that sandbox. And then there are the major
forces in Michigan politics that tend to be more bipartisan. Blue Cross, Blue
Shield of Michigan which is the top health insurer in the state has cornered
the market at about 80%. So they like everybody and
they give very generously to everybody. Groups like DTE Consumer’s
Energy, Michigan Association of Insurance Agents, Michigan
Retailers Association, they tend to be less
focused on just one party or the other, year depending. And the best example
I can give you is one that is very well
known in Lansing. Surprisingly not known
as much beyond Lansing. And that’s the beer
and wine wholesalers. If you look, year after year
they tend to give, you know, donations to 148 representatives
and senators, all of them. Maybe there are a
couple of exceptions. There aren’t that many
issues that really come up that have to do with alcohol. You know, we do have a
liquor control commission. Not every state does. We happen to. But occasionally, you know,
there are [inaudible] bills and can you sale
craft beer and wine at farmer’s markets
and ancillary issues. But we just had an issue come
up about raising the beer tax which was met with hysteria. We have not raised the beer tax
in Michigan since the 1960s. That’s before my time. But it is considered to be such
an off the wall idea because, first of all, it’s a
good way to anger voters. And there are probably
only a handful of lawmakers from either party that really
want to go down that road. If any of you were
around for the last decade when we had two government
shutdowns and the state was broke
and we were in recession for an entire decade, we
needed money from anywhere. We ended up raising
the income tax. We raised cigarette taxes. We didn’t even consider raising
the beer tax and we were broke. So certainly at a
time now when we’re in recovery you see
very little interest. So, you know, they’re an
extremely effective lobby. And you’ve even seen like the
Michigan chamber has jumped all over the issue kind of trying to
get at the forefront of fighting against the beer tax
because it’s a popular issue. Why not? You know, now that
we’ve cut business taxes, they have to move on to
smaller issues because that was at the top of their
list for a long time. And you do see that. When groups tend to meet
their major objectives, like for the Michigan
chamber cutting business taxes in the state or forming
the personal property tax, going after regulatory reform, especially for environmental
policy, they’ve checked off
a lot of boxes. Well, the Michigan chamber
is not going to fold up. There’s still work to be
done and a lot of people who support the organization and want a strong business
voice in the legislature. So then you see a
switch in tactics to some of these smaller issues. Right to Life of Michigan
is a great example. We have a lot of major policy
limiting abortion in this state. We have waiting periods. We just had legislation a
couple years ago that clamped down on clinic practices and
shut down a lot of providers. When you look in terms of where
to chip away at abortion rights in this state, you have
to get pretty creative. If — You know, because
obviously we do have still a federal court decision in play. So they’re very creative. You know, we just had this
legislation that ups the penalty for so-called coerced abortion. They’re always looking
at the next fight. They’re always looking at ways to inspire their members,
to inspire giving. And to stay relevant. They do a very good job with it
and they’re a group that tends to be more on the republican
side of where they concentrate, but there are a number
of pro life democrats and they’ve been very successful
with that because even when there was a
democratic majority in the state house they still
had a pro life majority. So that’s your ideal
situation as an interest group. A couple more things that I just
want to touch on before I want to get your questions. I would say that not
all lobbying is equal. You know, I think
there’s an idea and a lot of times reporters kind of
pursue this line of, “Okay. Well, you have a major issue
like energy policy reform. So let’s take a look at the
interest groups involved and how much they’re
giving to lawmakers and there’s a straight line. Well, you got a lot of
money from [inaudible]. You’re going to vote
a certain way.” It often doesn’t work that way. Money certainly is something that politicians
need desperately. So nobody wants to
turn down a check. But I’ve seen a number of times
people who have accepted money and the rules don’t change. It’s really a relationship
builder. It’s a matter of
building trust and trying to get your ideas out there. And, you know, I think some of
the smarter groups try and do that with a wide
swath of legislators, not just concentrating on
one party or the other. And the consistency makes a big
difference because if you go in there one year because
your big issue is up, all of a sudden you’re
talking with lawmakers, you’re giving your donations,
and then you disappear, well, by the time your
next issue comes up you don’t have
those relationships and people know what
you’re doing and they don’t trust
you as much. They’re going to work with
people more who they know and who they’ve turned to
in good times and in bad. Now the depressing
side of this is this, and I get asked this a lot. So if I call up my
representative, if I go down to the capital
to protest, because I care about an issue, how much does my
voice count versus a lobbyist? My experience is
not nearly as much. They don’t know you. A lot of times you’re
going to go down because you’re
upset about something. A lot of times they may peg you as somebody who’s probably not
going to vote for them anyway. All these things
work against you. And you’re just one person. Or you’re not even
from their district and you’re just inundating their
phone lines with complaints about your favorite issue, and
so you’re not a constituent. And you don’t have
those relationships. And to me that is the most
troubling part about a system that relies so much on lobbying
and special interests is that, you know, unless you’ve hired
your own personal lobbyist for your issue, your
voice is not going to be recognized as much. Public protests are supposed to be a good way
of countering that. I can’t really remember the
last time I saw a protest move any votes. I’m not saying that
you shouldn’t do it. It’s a constitutionally
protected right. I think it’s part of democracy. But now that the partisanship
is at such a fever pitch, it’s very difficult for
people to change their minds on things even if they do
have a lot of constituents who don’t agree with them. And that’s definitely a question
for us to wrestle with because, you know, people are supposed
to have a voice with the people who are supposed
to represent them. And not everybody can
afford a lobbyist at GCSI. You know, one way that people
are very eager to change this is with campaign finance reform. Michigan’s campaign finance
system is particularly bad just in terms of transparency
because a lot of times you have no idea how
much money is really flowing in to election until after
the election has passed, with late donations
and dark money. Dark money is the biggest issue. In 2010 it was widely known that the Michigan republican
party spent $25 million on that election, especially
with [inaudible] races for the state legislature. Very little of that ever showed
up on a campaign finance report because there are ways to
cast for money and other ways where you don’t have
to report them and there are independent
groups and whatnot. That’s only becoming
more and more prevalent. And it’s certainly not on just
the republican side at all. We had some really big steps
towards campaign finance reform on the national level
last decade. It’s pretty interesting now as you take a look
at this election. The two founders of McCain-Feingold are
both on the ballot. Facing some tough elections. John McCain and Russ Feingold,
McCain is a republican, Feingold’s a democrat,
they’re being vastly helped by pack money at this point
because that’s the only way that you win elections now that the law has
essentially been taken apart by the U.S. Supreme Court. So, to kind of rectify
this imbalance, there is a movement towards a
U.S. constitutional amendment which, as you know,
very high bar to meet. There’s been some rumors
about trying to do something at the state level, but even to
do a constitutional amendment at the state level, which
the bar is far lower, in general you would need about
$20 million to make that fight. There aren’t too many groups
out there that have $20 million and there are a lot of
groups that I just mentioned that would contribute
far more to fight it. So there’s really never
been a serious attempt. But I think it’s worth
keeping an eye out on because I think there’s
a growing consensus. I think a lot of people,
democrats and republicans, think that some changes need to
be made and we’ll have to see if people are willing to spend
the money on what’s considered to be a wonky process. So I think I’m just going
to leave it here and open up to questions and,
you know, please tell me if there are other areas
that you want me to tackle. I’m happy to talk about
whatever you’d like.

Maurice Vega

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