Matty Moroun’s Bridge to Nowhere

November 7, 2012 | Emptywheel

There was a lot of chatter last night about how unsuccessful millionaires and billionaires have been at buying political seats for themselves, with Linda McMahon now having spent $100M to lose two elections in Connecticut. The exception–Mike Bloomberg in NYC–in a sense proves the rule, since he did it as an Independent.

But there’s another example of that rule which might be just as interesting going forward.

In MI, we had 6 statewide referenda this year: 3 pertaining to labor, 1 on renewable energy, 1 on taxes, and 1 effort by a local businessman, Matty Moroun, to cement his business monopoly in the state constitution.

Moroun owns the Ambassador Bridge, currently the only bridge from Detroit to Canada (there is a tunnel–which can’t carry commercial traffic–out of Detroit and another bridge crossing about 30 miles Northeast that is convenient from areas north of Detroit, like Southfield). Moroun’s bridge, which is the busiest trade border crossing in North America, is a big bottleneck (it’s not unusual for even cars to wait 45 minutes, and trucks often have longer waits). And it makes him rich.

Governor Snyder worked with Canada to craft another bridge plan that was publicly funded–largely by Canada. Seeing his cash cow threatened, Moroun used the referendum process to try to protect his monopoly. He paid signature gatherers and then spent $33 million on ads to pass an initiative that would require a referendum before building any publicly supported international bridge.

This proposal would:

  • Require the approval of a majority of voters at a statewide election and in each municipality where “new international bridges or tunnels for motor vehicles” are to be located before the State of Michigan may expend state funds or resources for acquiring land, designing, soliciting bids for, constructing, financing, or promoting new international bridges or tunnels.
  • Create a definition of “new international bridges or tunnels for motor vehicles” that means, “any bridge or tunnel which is not open to the public and serving traffic as of January 1, 2012.”

Moroun’s TV ads have been on for 6 months, and utterly dominated the campaign season (indeed, utterly dominated TV advertising generally). The bridge ads have been a running joke here in MI, though earlier polls showed it fairly close.

It failed, however, along with every other initiative (the closest one was the referendum affirming Snyder’s new Emergency Manager law).  Voters rejected it by a 60-40 margin.

There will be a lot of discussion about the super-rich trying to buy our political process. It has very rarely worked for individuals–not for Linda McMahon, not for Meg Whitman, not for Dick DeVos (though of course the Kochs have been better at buying politics, if not seats). But it’s not just political seats these very rich are trying to buy: Matt Moroun also treated out democratic process like his own personal investment game.

Thus far that effort failed. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Manufacturers praise Ontario-Michigan bridge vote

Hank Daniszewski & John Miner | The London Free Press

LONDON, Ont. — Manufacturers are breathing a sigh of relief after an attempt to block a new bridge between Windsor, Ont., and Detroit, Mich., was shot down by Michigan voters Tuesday.

The voters turned down a proposal to require a referendum on the issue despite an intense media campaign by the billionaire-owner of the Ambassador Bridge.

In an amendment to the Michigan state constitution, Proposition 6 would have required a state-wide vote before a new bridge could be built.

Many auto parts plants and other manufacturers in the London, Ont., area depend on exports to the U.S., most of if passing through the Windsor-Detroit corridor.

Andy Mavrokefalos, chairman of the London Region Manufacturing Council, said a second bridge is essential to keep goods flowing freely from manufacturers on both sides of the border.

“We need that bridge. This will be very positive for both Canada and Michigan,” he said.

A total of 2,091,763 Michigan voters rejected the proposition while 1,339,460 voted in favour, according to unofficial results posted on the Michigan Department of State website Wednesday morning.

The Detroit Free Press called the results “a stinging rebuke” to Manuel Moroun, the 85-year-old businessman fighting the planned New International Trade Crossing bridge.

The Ontario Trucking Association has been one of the most vocal groups lobbying for a new bridge. OTA president David Bradley said Michigan voters “got it right.”

“It looks good on the people of Michigan. There has been so much misinformation bandied about but they weren’t buying it. It restores your faith in democracy.”

Bradley said even if the Ambassador Bridge is not backed up with traffic, the route requires driving through downtown Windsor and Detroit.

“When you drive a truck from Toronto to Miami you go through 16 stoplights, and 15 of them are in Windsor,” said Bradley.

A new freeway approach is already under construction in Windsor to provide a direct connection to the future bridge.

Bradley said he expects Moroun will continue to launch court actions to delay the project.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed a deal for the bridge in June under which Canadian taxpayers bear much of the upfront cost of the $3.5-billion project. The cost would be recovered through future toll revenue.

Harper called the new bridge the most important public works project his government will build, and said it’s worth the risk and investment.

“Whatever battles lie ahead, this bridge is going to be done,” Harper predicted.

Moroun reportedly spent $33 million fighting the bridge. Michigan airwaves were saturated with ads claiming the state’s taxpayers would be stuck with paying for the bridge for generations to come.

Stephen Henderson: Last-minute Prop 6 ad is hypocritical and low — even for Manuel (Matty) Moroun

Stephen Henderson | Detroit Free Press

November 4, 2012

Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun has stooped so low, so many times to defend his monopoly that it’s hard to cook up much outrage when he lunges for yet another nadir.

But his last-minute blitz for Proposal 6 — which would require a statewide vote before any new bridge to Canada is built — was appalling even by Moroun’s standards.

This weekend, his campaign started scapegoating the people of Detroit, people whose neighborhoods he has victimized for years with his abandoned buildings and relentless residential truck traffic, by suggesting they would somehow make out on government dollars related to a publicly built bridge across the Detroit River.

In flyers distributed in well-to-do suburbs, Moroun suggested Prop 6 would be a firewall against “community benefits” and other “giveaways” for southwest Detroit. The ones distributed in Grosse Pointe, for example, sport pictures of destitute Detroit neighborhoods on them and suggest that voters, rather than politicians, should decide whether those areas get more “pork.”

The reference here is to agreements that were debated, but never finalized, when the new Detroit River crossing was brought up in the Legislature. They’re pretty standard with big infrastructure projects, and they’re intended to ensure that the areas around those projects aren’t decimated.

Talk about nerve.

For starters, the flyers repeat the outright lie that Michigan tax dollars will pay for any part of the new bridge. That has been established over and over, despite Moroun’s $33.2-million-and-still-counting campaign to pass Proposal 6.

But even more important, the neighborhoods at issue here are in southwest Detroit, where Moroun himself is Blighter in Chief, owner of Michigan Central Station and dozens of other empty, unused, awful-looking structures that have held the area back economically. People come from all over the world to marvel at the train station, a modern-day ruin whose gap-toothed facade and looming, derelict infrastructure cast a filthy shadow across the area near Moroun’s bridge.

Moroun also indulged a years-long battle with the state over the Gateway Project, a re-routing of the access roads to his bridge designed, in part, to keep truck traffic off residential streets. The fight — which Moroun lost in court — prolonged the trundling of diesel behemoths, many also owned by Moroun, past people’s homes and businesses in southwest Detroit.

In a just world, Moroun would be the one paying out community benefits in those neighborhoods. That $33.2 million he has blown on ridiculous campaign ads? It ought to go into fixing up the train station and every other decrepit piece of property he owns, and to help rebuild the neighborhoods he has dragged down.

But in his twisted campaign to preserve his bridge monopoly, the vulnerable people of southwest Detroit are a soft target he can pummel to spark classist timbre with suburban voters. It’s the tired old bogeyman of “public dollars wasted in Detroit,” trotted out by an oligarch who helps keep Detroit looking like a wasteland.

If shame were in Moroun’s vocabulary, I’d suggest he ought to feel a mountain of it.

As it is, I’m just hopeful that Tuesday’s election shows him that people across this region — whether in the city or the suburbs — reject his ridiculous and self-serving manipulations.

Stephen Henderson is editorial page editor for the Free Press.

Today’s column by Free Press Editorial Page Editor Stephen Henderson should have said no Michigan tax dollars would be used for a new, publicly built bridge across the Detroit River. Some U.S. tax dollars would be used for related projects. It has been corrected above.

Editorial: Stop the outrage

Toledo Blade

It would be hard for Hollywood to invent a cartoon villain on the scale of Manuel Moroun, although Mr. Burns on The Simpsons comes close. The billionaire Mr. Moroun is spending millions of dollars in his effort to buy Michigan’s constitution and preserve a monopoly that makes him vast amounts of money but threatens this region’s economy.

Mr. Moroun owns the 83-year-old Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ont. It’s the only place between Port Huron, Mich., and Buffalo where heavy automotive components can cross the Detroit River. He also owns trucking companies, duty-free shops, and gasoline and diesel stations at the bridge that make him hundreds of millions of dollars a year by some estimates.

Virtually every corporate and political leader knows a new bridge is needed between Detroit and Canada. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the Canadian government have announced plans for a bridge that won’t cost Michigan taxpayers a cent. The new bridge would create thousands of good-paying construction jobs and cause Washington to give Michigan $2.2 billion in badly needed highway repair funds.

But the thought of competition enrages Mr. Moroun, whose current net worth is at least $1.5 billion. So he spent millions of dollars to get a constitutional amendment on the Michigan ballot.

Proposal 6 would effectively prevent any new tunnels and bridges to Canada, ever, unless a statewide vote is held on each project. That’s something he calculates he can easily prevent from happening, thanks to the vast campaign contributions he makes to state lawmakers.

Mr. Moroun’s monopoly is so lucrative that he has spent an astonishing $31.3 million, largely for blatantly dishonest TV commercials, to try to fool citizens into voting yes on Proposal 6 and ensuring forever his monopoly control of trade and the Detroit-Windsor border.

Every Michigan voter needs to turn thumbs down on Proposal 6, thus sending a message to Mr. Moroun that their constitution, their independence, and their state’s democracy are not for sale.

‘Greedy’ U.S. billionaire urges Michigan voters to reject free bridge to Canada

“Canada, understand, has agreed to pay for the bridge in full, including liabilities — and potential cost overruns — under an agreement that was about a decade-in-the-making and officially announced to much fanfare, at least on the Canadian side of the border, by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in Windsor/Detroit in mid-June.”

National Post

Joe O’Connor

Roy Norton, the Canadian consul general in Detroit, has been putting a lot of miles on his five-year-old Canadian-made Mercury Marquis of late.

Crisscrossing the great state of Michigan, speaking at business luncheons, to university crowds and at town hall meetings, stumping in support of the multi-billion-dollar “New International Trade Crossing” (a.k.a. bridge) spanning the border at Detroit/Windsor, while trying to convince Michiganders that there is such a thing as a free bridge.

Canada, understand, has agreed to pay for the bridge in full, including liabilities — and potential cost overruns — under an agreement that was about a decade-in-the-making and officially announced to much fanfare, at least on the Canadian side of the border, by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in Windsor/Detroit in mid-June.

For Michigan, it is a slam-dunk arrangement. As Mr. Norton told one audience: ‘‘If this proves to be a dumb financial decision, it’s on us, not on you.’’

It’s a free bridge, a vital new piece of publicly owned infrastructure — for both countries — and yet one that is in grave danger of being demolished before construction even begins when Michigan voters head to the polls for a ballot initiative attached to the Nov. 6 elections.

“There are no arguments, literally no arguments that anybody in Michigan should embrace against the new bridge,” Mr. Norton says. “But, again, the owners of the Ambassador Bridge are prepared to say and do anything to mislead the public…

“The Morouns are greedy. They are manipulative. They are cynical.”

Manuel (Matty) Moroun, an 85-year-old self-made billionaire who owns the 83-year-old Ambassador Bridge, is Cynic-in-Chief. The Ambassador is currently the only transport truck-bearing bridge in town. Twenty-five percent of Canadian-American trade, representing about $120-billion, flows across it each year.

It is a perfect monopoly for the Moroun family, a golden goose that just keeps on laying eggs, putting upwards of $80-million a year in tolls, duty free gas and shopping sales in their pockets. Allowing a Canadian-financed competitor into the ring without a fight isn’t an option.

For months, Michiganders have been fed a robust diet of Moroun-family-financed television commercials urging them to vote “yes” to Proposal 6 on Nov. 6. Proposal 6 is a statewide ballot initiative that, if successful, would see Michigan’s state constitution amended and make any new “international bridges” subject to the approval of a majority of Michigan voters.

The Morouns have reportedly spent over $10-million to thwart the free bridge, an effort highlighted by door-to-door flier campaigns, robocalls and their ubiquitous television spots featuring a soundtrack of ominous-sounding piano chords and a series of plain-talking Michigan folk — retired cops, stay-at-home-moms, nurses aides and longtime Detroit residents — striking apocalyptic notes about a paid-for-by-Canada border crossing.

“There is no such thing as a free bridge,” one woman says.

“Eventually, we the people are going to end up paying for it,” warns a Vietnam veteran with an American flag on the back of his motorcycle.

“Quit being so arrogant with our money,” a weathered-senior in a yellow golf shirt growls. “We can’t go out and start building bridges, our grandkids are going to have to pay the debt off.”

The message: “The People Should Decide.” The impact? It is working. Polls show voter support for Proposal 6 at about 50%, down from 57% a few months ago, but still a figure that no Canadian, anywhere, and especially not one living in southwestern Ontario, where the economy is bound-and-tied to the Big Three automakers and the American industrial heartland beyond, should be comfortable with.

Dan Daniel, the Vietnam vet featured in at least two of the television commercials, is a retired Troy police officer. I phoned the station house in Troy, looking for a forwarding contact for Mr. Daniel. The officer who answered was a friend of “Danny’s”. He assured me he would pass along my message and chuckled when I mentioned the free bridge.

“You mean the bridge to nowhere?” he said. “If you believe that it’s free I’ve got some swampland down in Florida I can sell you.”

A Moroun family spokesperson did not respond to an interview request. But in a recent interview with Michigan Radio, John Bebow, with the Center for Michigan’s Truth Squad, a non-partisan watchdog that monitors political advertising in the state, pointed to the falsehoods underlying the Morouns ad campaign.

“It’s been very well documented that grandkids in Michigan are not going to have to pay that [bridge] off because the Canadian government is going to pay for it,” he said.

“Michigan taxpayers of any age, including your grandkids, are not on the hook.”

Most unions, the automakers, the Michigan Governor’s office, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, assorted economists, and the Ohio and Indiana state legislatures back the bridge.

On a dreary Tuesday, our consul general was in Bay City, Mich., for a Rotary Lunch, selling Michigan voters on a sure thing.

“I am here, and I am out here, literally every day, giving a speech,” Mr. Norton said. “Every device that you can imagine is being utilized by the Morouns and their henchmen to persuade Michiganders that this [bridge] is going to cost them money — and it won’t.”

Gov. Rick Snyder: We need to build new bridge to Canada

By Brent Snavely
Detroit Free Press Business Writer

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder urged backers of a new bridge to Canada on Monday to do more than just vote “no” on Proposal 6.

“That’s not good enough,” Snyder told several hundred people in Southgate. “I need you to go out, and the next person you see, and the next person (you see) after that, and say … ‘We need to build this bridge.’ ”

Snyder is using public appearances and counting on word-of-mouth to counter an estimated $10-million-plus TV ad blitz in support of Proposal 6 by Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun.

Proposal 6 calls for a constitutional amendment that would require a statewide and local vote before any new bridges and tunnels could be built between Michigan and Canada. If passed, it could delay or derail plans for a $2.1-billion New International Trade Crossing and other projects.

The NITC would be paid for by Canada, create an estimated 10,000 construction jobs and would ease the flow of everything from auto parts to food products between Ontario and Michigan.

“So, this is a great deal,” Snyder said.

But Proposal 6 opponents are wielding the news media equivalent of a slingshot against Moroun’s carpet bombing of Michigan’s airwaves. Moroun’s ubiquitous ads are designed to cast doubts about the plan to build the bridge and the final cost.

The State of Michigan is barred from spending taxpayer dollars on political commercials. But Snyder said Monday that businesses and other bridge supporters are planning a last-minute push.

“Some members of the business community are stepping up, putting dollars on the table,” Snyder said. “But it will be fairly short and limited.”

Tom Shields, spokesman for Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, a coalition of business, labor and government groups that support the NITC, declined to provide details about plans for the ad campaign.

As of late September, Proposal 6 opponents had raised about $100,000, but Shields told the Free Press much of that money already has been spent on the failed legal attempt to prevent Proposal 6 from getting on next month’s ballot.

“It will be our committee. We’ll let you know when we are ready to go,” Shields said.

Snyder said Moroun is outspending the business and labor community that oppose Proposal 6 because political budgets are strained by a number of other controversial ballot issues.

Proposal 2, for example, would protect collective-bargaining rights in the Michigan Constitution. That issue has business and labor groups spending money against each other instead of joining forces to defeat Proposal 6.

“Part of the challenge we have this year is we have a crazy ballot year. We have six of these (statewide ballot issues.),” Snyder said. “So a lot of resources are being tied up in all of those different proposals.”

What’s more, Snyder and Canadian Consul General Roy Norton both said Moroun’s ads are filled with misleading statements — such as a claim that it will cost Michigan taxpayers.

Under an agreement announced in June, Canada would pay for all of the construction costs for the $2.1-billion project, including Michigan’s $550-million portion.

Moroun’s commercials say Michigan would somehow get stuck paying for cost overruns, or other hidden costs.

“They are just wrong … there are no Michigan taxpayer dollars involved at all,” Snyder said.

Norton went to great lengths to explain that Canada will bear all of the costs for the NITC.

“We will pay for the interchange on the U.S. side, we will backstop the private-sector builder of the bridge. If there are cost overruns, ultimately, they are on us,” Norton said. “If tolls are insufficient, that too will be on us. The State of Michigan pays nothing for this project and faces no liability.”

Some commercials from a Moroun-backed group called the People Should Decide allege that steel from China will be used to build the bridge.

“For that lie, and it is a lie, … frankly they should be ashamed of themselves,” Norton said.

“The People Should Decide fully stands behind our ads regarding foreign steel and foreign labor, which is precisely why Michigan voters should have a say on the bridge ballot issue,” said Mickey Blashfield, director of government relations for the Moroun business network and head of the People Should Decide.

It is true that the State of Michigan has asked for a waiver from the federal government that would allow the bridge to be built with steel from outside the U.S., but both Snyder and Norton said all of the steel will come from either the U.S. or Canada.

“The governments of Canada and Michigan have repeatedly made clear that there will only be U.S. or Canadian-made steel in the project,” Norton said.

Snyder also reacted Monday for the first time to the UAW’s decision to remain neutral on Proposal 6.

“I don’t understand why they would” remain neutral, Snyder said.

UAW President Bob King told the Free Press on Saturday that the UAW has decided to remain neutral on Proposal 6.

King’s comments came after the Free Press reported last week that the union had considered joining forces with Moroun to pass Proposal 6 in return for Moroun’s support on Proposal 2, the collective-bargaining ballot issue backed by unions.

“I find that difficult, in terms of how they could get to that conclusion given the broad support from everyone else and that this would create a lot of union jobs — I mean this is a great job creator,” Snyder said.

More than 237,000 Michigan jobs (1 in 8 in Southwest Michigan and 1 in 7 in West Michigan) depend on trade with Canada