Michigan voters spoke, but Morouns don’t seem to listen

Jack Lessenberry | November 16, 2012

DETROIT — Suppose the day after the presidential election, Mitt Romney had his spokesman announce that he didn’t accept the verdict, that he now believed President Obama wasn’t a legitimate president because he was born in Kenya, or maybe on Pluto, and that he might sue to prevent Mr. Obama from staying in office.

Sound farfetched? Well, no more so than the latest antics from Michigan’s least-beloved billionaire, Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel Moroun. After months of trying to preserve his monopoly with a shameless and misleading ballot proposal campaign called “Let the People Decide,” the people did, indeed, decide.

The Morouns didn’t like the verdict one bit.

On Election Day. Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposal 6, a state constitutional amendment designed to protect the Moroun family’s monopoly on moving billions of dollars’ worth of goods across the Detroit River.

Mr. Moroun, his wife, Nora, and son Matthew are the sole owners of the Ambassador Bridge, the only place between Buffalo and Port Huron, Mich., where heavy automotive components and other freight can be hauled across the Detroit River.

The Ambassador, which was built in 1929, is showing increasing signs of wear, including holes in the pavement and roadbed. For years, political and business leaders have argued that a new bridge is needed.

This year, they did something about it. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a pro-business Republican, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper signed a deal in June to build a second bridge, tentatively called the New International Trade Crossing, about two miles south of the Ambassador Bridge.

The deal was an amazing bargain for Michigan. Canada agreed to cover, upfront, all of Michigan’s costs, an estimated $550 million. They would be repaid only when the bridge is built years from now, out of the state’s share of tolls.

Additionally, Washington agreed that the Canadian cash can be used as matching funds for a federal highway grant, meaning Michigan should get $2.2 billion in badly needed money to fix the state’s roads, free of charge.

But if that was a good deal for citizens, it enraged the 85-year-old Mr. Moroun, who is believed to make as much as $140 million a year from tolls and sales of gasoline and items from his duty-free shops. He has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Michigan lawmakers’ campaigns and pet causes, and was able to block any bridge bill from coming to a vote in the Legislature.

However, Governor Snyder found a clause in the state Constitution that enabled him to bypass the Legislature by making an “interlocal” agreement with Canada. The Morouns then spent at least $34 million to try to muscle an amendment protecting their monopoly into the state Constitution.

First, they paid out-of-state firms to collect the needed signatures to put the proposal on the ballot. Next, they flooded the airwaves with incessant commercials that the nonpartisan Michigan Truth Squad said were “flagrantly foul,” as in, false.

Canada’s consul general in Detroit, Roy Norton, was peeved that Michigan business interests, primarily the Detroit Three automakers, didn’t fund an ad campaign to counter Mr. Moroun’s.

It wasn’t needed. The voters didn’t buy Mr. Moroun’s lies.

Those who went to the polls rejected the Moroun amendment by a stunning 844,000 votes. Yet the next morning, Moroun spokesman Mickey Blashfield acted as if the election never had occurred.

“It would be a mistake to assume taxpayers support a flawed government bridge that puts taxpayers at risk,” he said. He then charged the proposed new bridge was going to be built over “unstable salt mine foundations.”

The salt mine charge was dismissed with a laugh by a spokesman for the governor, who said of the bridge project: “It’s full steam ahead.”

But Sandy Baruah, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he expects the Moroun family to file more lawsuits to stall the new bridge.

“They use the court system like I use the bathroom,“ Mr. Baruah told Crain’s Detroit Business. Mr. Baruah, a supporter of the new bridge, added that for the Morouns, flinging even hopeless lawsuits makes sense. If they can delay a new bridge even a year, that means millions of dollars more in profit for their monopoly.

Even in a best-case scenario, ground for the new bridge is unlikely to be broken before late next year. The soonest a new bridge could open is 2017.

Meanwhile, the Morouns are attempting to confuse things further by alternatively saying a new bridge isn’t needed, and that they intend to build a second one next to the Ambassador anyway.

Canadian government officials say they never would allow that to happen, because environmental concerns and traffic congestion. They also openly loathe and distrust Mr. Moroun.

What may be most baffling is why an 85-year-old man whose net worth is at least $1.5 billion thinks he needs more money, or whether the thrill is in the power a monopoly brings.

Perhaps not even Mr. Moroun really knows.

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.

Tempers Flare Over Villain-In-Chief At Southwest Detroit Bridge Permit Hearing

Nov. 14th | Deadline Detroit

It was supposed to be a routine state permit hearing in a Southwest Detroit school, but nothing that involves Matty Moroun is routine.

Neighborhood residents shouted at pro-Moroun speakers who rode in a chartered bus to a hearing on Ambassador Bridge company plans for a second span, reports WXYZ’s Tom Wait, who calls the session “bizarre and definitely very heated.” reports.

Local attendees, including a Democratic state legislator, accused the bridge company backers of being paid shills.

State Rep. Rashida Tlaib (right), who represents the area around the Ambassador Bridge, lashed out at Matty Moroun’s bridge company for bussing in the supporters.

When we asked those people who paid for their ride and why they came to the hearing we were referred to a spokesman for the group. He told Action News the group was not paid, and that they were only in attendance because they cared about the bridge issue.

Everyone in the group who spoke during the hearing delivered pro-Moroun testimonials to the state officials holding the session.

Bridge company president Dan Stamper told Wait: “These are some of the community groups we work with on other issues.”

The Department of Environmental Quality hearing at Western High involved the Moroun company’s request for renewal of construction permits.

Stamper told Action News Moroun has not given up on building a new bridge of his own, despite plans by the state and Canada to construct a new span.

Matty’s money pit

Curtis Guyette | MetroTimes

As the election results arrived last week, few outcomes gave the malcontents here at the Hits more satisfaction than Manuel “Matty” Moroun’s Proposal 6 had been thoroughly rejected by voters.

We don’t care whether that rejection was the result of confusion caused by a surplus of ballot measures and a mass of conflicting advertising that prompted voters to say “no” to all measures.

It’s enough that one billionaire and his family — the owners of the Ambassador Bridge — couldn’t con the people of this state into voting against their own best interest in order to help the Morouns maintain their virtual monopoly over cross-boarder truck traffic between Detroit and Windsor.

Instead, voters, in a roundabout way, provided support to Gov. Rick Snyder and his efforts to build a publicly owned bridge (that would be financed by the Canadian government!) downriver in the Delray area.

By some estimates, the Morouns spent as much as $40 million to have their greedy way with us, and they failed spectacularly.

But anyone who thinks the rebuke is going to stop the Morouns from continuing to fight the new bridge doesn’t know Matty, a guy who apparently never learned the meaning of the word “no.”

Once the election results were in, Mickey Blashfield, director of government affairs for the Moroun’s bridge company and head of the ballot committee that attempted to halt construction of what’s now being called the New International Trade Crossing (NITC), issued a statement that, in part, declared:

“It is clear the voters resisted amending the constitution, but it would be a mistake to assume taxpayers support a flawed government bridge that puts taxpayers at risk. Proposal 6 successfully invited public scrutiny of the $3.5 billion government proposal. We have full confidence that the citizens, legislature, and financial community will continue to hold any bridge to its promises of ‘not one dime of taxpayer money.'”

He concluded by saying:

“If the governmental proposal doesn’t collapse from the weight of legal and congressional scrutiny, the NITC will never be built over unstable salt mine foundations, where land speculators are lining up to get rich on the government’s tab.”

The salt mine issue is, by all appearances, another bridge company red herring.

We’re more interested in the phrase “legal and congressional scrutiny.”

We’re not sure that even Matty and his well-heeled kin have enough cash to purchase a majority of Congress, but we do know that, whether he has any real foundation, he is more than willing to spend his money tying things up in court as long as the courts will let him get away with it.

In the long run, we don’t think this is a battle he can win. But that’s not gong to stop him from fighting on and on and on.

Snyder makes final pitch to defeat bridge Proposal 6

By Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Governor Rick Snyder and Steven London, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Bekum America Corporation

Williamston — Gov. Rick Snyder made his closing arguments Monday morning against Proposal 6 at a mid-Michigan manufacturing facility that supports construction of a new publicly owned bridge to Canada for its international business dealings.

Snyder has spent the past week crisscrossing the state in a last-ditch effort to defeat Proposal 6, a ballot initiative sponsored by Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun and intended to halt or delay Snyder’s plans for the Canadians to finance a $2.1 billion bridge from Windsor to southwest Detroit. Noting the Buffalo, N.Y., area has four bridges, Snyder said there’s enough traffic to support the Ambassador Bridge and a new crossing two miles downriver.

“Shouldn’t we at least have a second crossing to say we’ve got that got that covered so we have opportunity, it allows us to grow, to be more successful?” Snyder asked during an event with supporters of the New International Trade Crossing at Bekum America Corp., a Williamston manufacturer of machines that make plastic bottles. “About everyone is behind this bridge except for the people who have the Ambassador Bridge.”

Canada has offered to front Michigan its $550 million share of the new bridge, which would be paid back to Canada through tolls for cars and commercial truck traffic. Moroun’s the People Should Decide campaign on Proposal 6 has suggested Michigan taxpayers may some day be responsible for billions in debt, despite a contract between Michigan and Canada that calls for Canada to assume all costs, debts and liabilities.

The narrator in a new Moroun radio ad claims, “It’s our money. It should be our choice.”

“It is our money. We are taking a loan from Canada of $550 million,” said Mickey Blashfield, director of the People Should Decide campaign and governmental relations director for Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Co.

Snyder denounced Moroun’s ads insisting construction of a new bridge will divert taxpayer dollars away from schools, roads and social services.

“When they talk about taking dollars away from the classroom — that’s absolutely incorrect,” Snyder told reporters.

Snyder was joined at Bekum with the company’s employees and representatives of a coalition opposed to Proposal 6 and in favor of the NITC, including Ford Motor Co. and the Detroit Regional Chamber.

Ford moves 600 trucks a day across the Detroit River shipping cars and parts between Michigan and Ontario, said Charlie Pryde, regional director of governmental affairs for the Dearborn automaker.

“We need world-class infrastructure … and right now we don’t have it,” Pryde said.

Steve London, executive vice president of Bekum, said the company needs “another good passage into Canada” because the Ambassador Bridge is sometimes backed up.

“Sometimes getting into Canada is a challenge to even support a warranty on a machine,” London said.

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.