Can One Man’s Money Sink a Bridge?

Dome Magazine

Jack Lessenberry

DETROIT—The most important election in Michigan this fall may not be the contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. This fall, voters will also decide whether one incredibly rich man can blatantly and cynically buy state government for his own selfish interests, crippling the state to make his family even richer.

His name is Manuel J. “Matty” Moroun and, so far, he is winning. He owns the aging Ambassador Bridge, the only way heavy freight can be moved across the Detroit River.

Canada wants a new bridge so much it is willing to pay all the costs. Industry unanimously agrees the bridge—which would create thousands of jobs—is needed. Michigan’s last five Governors agree. Current Governor Rick Snyder insists that a new bridge is absolutely necessary for Michigan to be economically competitive over the next century. Economists on both sides of the border also agree.

But for years, Moroun has stalled the bridge. He has lavished nearly a million dollars in “campaign contributions” on state Legislators and some of their pet causes. As a result, his allies in the Legislature made sure the bridge didn’t even come up for a vote. Eventually, Snyder found a legal loophole allowing him to craft an “interlocal” agreement with Canada to construct the New International Trade Crossing. But, Moroun was already hard at work on his next effort to protect his monopoly.

The Morouns—Matty, wife Nora and son Matthew—paid out at least $4.6 million to canvassers to collect enough signatures to get a state constitutional amendment (Proposal 6) on the November ballot. Such an amendment would require either a two-thirds vote of the Legislature or public approval of an expensive, statewide referendum before any new bridge could be built. Presumably, the Morouns are confident their legislative henchmen can prevent either from occurring.

On top of that, the family spent several million more dollars to successfully place a second constitutional amendment on the November ballot; one which could effectively destroy state government’s ability to respond to any crisis. Proposal 5 would also require either a two-thirds vote of the Legislature or public approval of a statewide referendum before any new taxes could be levied, no matter what the circumstances.

Virtually every responsible civic group views this tax limitation measure as bad, risky and strongly opposes the idea. It’s been denounced by both staunchly Republican Chambers of Commerce and Democratic labor unions. But, alarmingly, polls show that if the election were held today, voters would overwhelmingly vote to pass Proposal 5 — possibly because they‘ve been hammered with anti-tax rhetoric for years.

What is this all about? Rich Robinson, the Executive Director of the non-partisan, non-profit Michigan Campaign Finance Network said, “It almost seems like Moroun is saying, ‘if I can’t have my way on the bridge, I am going to destroy the state.’“ I asked Robinson, who has been analyzing campaign spending in the state for more than a decade, if he could remember any other case of such extreme wealth trying to buy elections. “No, not like this,” he said. “Dick DeVos and his family did spend millions on a school voucher amendment,” that failed in 2000. They then spent millions more on a subsequent, successful amendment to define marriage.

Real estate magnate Al Taubman also poured millions into a successful referendum to make embryonic stem cell research legal. But, there was a difference: “Whether you agree with them or not, those efforts were in support of wider causes,” Robinson said. The Moroun drive is aimed solely at enriching his own family.

Polls now show the bridge vote too close to call. But the Moroun family is pouring millions of dollars into what may be the most blatantly deceptive TV commercials in state history.

State records show that before the end of July, the Morouns spent $9.4 million in television ads designed to convince voters that the new bridge is not needed and will cost them hundreds of millions of dollars. The non-partisan Center for Michigan’s truth squad analyzed the ads and declared them, “flagrantly foul.“ Others, including Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Canadian Consul General Roy Norton, call them, ”a pack of lies.” And yet the ads keep running. Robinson estimates the Morouns will likely spend another half-million dollars a week on reality-distorting, anti-bridge ads between now and the election,

“It bothers the hell out of me,” said Robinson, who has devoted his career to attempting to increase transparency and accountability in the political process. He finds it hard to imagine that there isn’t more outrage. The League of Women Voters has been trying to get citizens to do something about false campaign advertising in general. Susan Smith, President of the Michigan branch, said, “the League is dismayed by the number of misleading statements and untruths that are used in many of today’s campaign ads.“

Without specifically citing the bridge ads, she said, “We are urging our members and the general public to fight back by contacting their TV station(s) and asking the manager to take down specific misleading and untrue ads.” As she notes, no station is required to accept questionable advertising. But, the Morouns pay well, the ads keep running and public outrage seems nonexistent.

Whatever else happens on November 6th, Michigan’s voters will decide whether one billionaire can buy their government to further enrich himself, even when that is clearly against their own public interest.

If that isn’t frightening, it’s hard to say what would be.