By Jack Lessenberry
DETROIT — The most important election in Michigan this fall may not be the presidential contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
Voters also will 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 “Matty” Moroun. So far, he is winning. He owns the aging Ambassador Bridge between here and Windsor. It’s the only way heavy freight can be trucked across the Detroit River.
Canada wants a new bridge so much it is willing to pay all the costs. Its construction would create thousands of jobs. Industry unanimously agrees a new bridge is needed. Michigan’s past five governors agree.
Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, 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 second that motion.
But for years, Mr. Moroun has stalled the bridge project. He has lavished nearly a million dollars on “campaign contributions” to state lawmakers and some of their pet causes. As a result, his allies in the Michigan Legislature made sure the new bridge didn’t even come up for a vote.
Eventually, Mr. Snyder found a legal loophole that allowed him to make an “interlocal” agreement with Canada to construct the New International Trade Crossing. But Mr. Moroun was hard at work on his next effort to protect his monopoly.
The Morouns — including his wife, Nora, and son Matthew — paid at least $4.6 million to canvassers to collect enough signatures to get a state constitutional amendment, Proposal 6, on the November ballot. That amendment would prevent the construction of any bridge without a two-thirds vote of the Legislature or an expensive statewide referendum.
Presumably, the Morouns are confident their legislative henchmen can prevent either development from occurring.
On top of that, the family spent several million dollars more to get on the November ballot a second constitutional amendment — one that could effectively destroy state government’s ability to respond to a crisis.
Proposal 5 would prevent raising any new taxes, no matter what the circumstances, unless they are first approved by a similar two-thirds vote of the Legislature or a statewide vote that could only be taken in November.
Virtually every responsible civic group strongly opposes the tax limitation idea as bad and risky. It’s been denounced by staunchly Republican chambers of commerce and Democratic labor unions.
But alarmingly, polls show that if the election were held today, voters would overwhelmingly 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 nonpartisan, nonprofit 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 Mr. Robinson, who has been analyzing campaign spending in the state for more than a decade, whether he could remember any other case of 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 and on a later successful amendment to define marriage, Mr. Robinson said.
Real estate magnate Al Taubman spent millions of dollars in a successful referendum to make embryonic stem-cell research legal. But there was a difference.
“Whether you agree with them or not,” Mr. Robinson said, “those efforts were in support of wider causes.” The Moroun drive is solely aimed at enriching one family.
Polls show the bridge vote is 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 had 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 nonpartisan Center for Michigan’s truth squad has analyzed the ads and said they were “flagrantly foul.”
Others, including Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Canadian Consul General Roy Norton, call them a pack of lies.
Yet the ads keep running. Mr. Robinson estimates that the Morouns are likely to spend another half a million dollars a week on reality-distorting anti-bridge ads between now and the election.
“It bothers the hell out of me,” said Mr. 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 league’s Michigan chapter, 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 TV station is required to accept questionable advertising. But the Morouns pay well, the ads keep running, and public outrage seems nonexistent.
On Nov. 6, Michigan voters will decide whether a billionaire can buy their government to enrich himself further, even when that is clearly against the public interest.
If that isn’t frightening, it’s hard to say what would be.
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