The most important election in Michigan this fall may not be the contest between Ba-rack 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. “Mat-ty” 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.
Gov. 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 agree.
But for years, Moroun has stalled the bridge. He has lavished nearly a million dollars on “campaign contributions” to 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 make 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 at least $4.6 million to canvassers to collect enough signatures to get a state constitutional amendment (Proposal 6) on the November ballot to prevent any new bridge from being built without a two-thirds vote of the legislature or an expensive statewide referendum.
Presumably the Morouns are confident their legislative allies can always prevent either development from occurring.
On top of that, the family, also spent several million more to successfully get 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 prevent any new taxes from ever being raised, no matter what the circumstances, unless 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. But alarmingly, polls show that if the election were 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.’ ”
Polls now show the bridge vote too close to call. But the Morouns are 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 Mo-rouns already 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.”
Yet the ads keep running. Robinson estimates the Mo-rouns 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 Robinson, who has devoted his career to attempting to increase transparency 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.
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, and any public outrage seems nonexistent.
Whatever else happens, on Nov. 6, Michigan voters will decide whether one billionaire can buy their government to further enrich himself, even when that is clearly against the public interest.
If that isn’t frightening, it’s hard to say what would be.
Jack Lessenberry teaches journalism at Wayne State University and writes about people and issues in Michigan.