Me: Ok, If you could introduce yourself and say what it is that you do.
Rich: I’m Rich Robinson, I’m executive director for Michigan Campaign Finance Network, and I do research and public education on money in Michigan politics.
Me: Why did you become involved in this issue?
Rich: My observation… well, in the first place the reason I became involved was I needed a job and there was a classified ad advertising this and it was something I felt I was able and interested to do. The compelling reason, professionally, personally, is that money has had a profound influence on the shaping of public policy, and I don’t think there’s anything particularly new about that, but the extremes of it, the extremes in the amount, from narrow sources, ever deeper pockets, ever fewer donors, and the fact that public policies that serve them best don’t serve the broad public best, and in fact in many cases are at the expense of the broad public. So it was to be involved and showing the facts, the data, that illustrate the trend lines of how money is a dominating feature in our public life, our political life.
Me: Where did you go to school?
Rich: Michigan. I was a natural resources major as an undergraduate, I was in the Peace Corps for three years, came back and did a concurrent MA in Asia Studies and a Master’s in Public Policy.
Me: Great. Let’s talk about tactics; what sort of tactics do you use in order to influence policy?
Rich: Well, my tactic has been, pretty purely, public education: compiling these data and analyzing these data and trying to bring them to the public’s attention. I think at this point in doing this, I’m in my 15th year here in doing this, I have to concede some major shortcomings. I thought that the sweet truth would be enough to persuade good public policy and it’s pretty clearly not. My organization has no social media presence, so a very limited capacity to organize in a meaningful way, and furthermore the makeup of the legislature now indicates to me that there will be no success in this legislature in doing anything meaningful to push policy of money in politics in a small “d” democratic direction—I just don’t believe that’s in the cards. So where I think that there’s opportunity, though, is in local jurisdictions in Michigan. Because I think, one, I heard of a poll of local elected officials, for their perception on state elected officials, and they were very bleak. This was done by the center for local and state policy at the Ford school, at Michigan, and I think that local jurisdictions present the opportunity to be a test bed for ethics, lobbying, campaign finance… general public interest, public accountability kind of ordinance, and I think that if we were successful in bringing such policies to a number of municipal jurisdictions it would be harder for the state… let’s be particular about it, it’s Republican legislators… to ignore this as an issue, to pretend that it’s alright to conceal the sources, large sources, of money in state politics. It’s clearly not. The public is not of that perception at all. I mean 90 plus percent of citizens, probably more than what would agree that the grass is green, believe that there ought to be disclosure of the sources of money in politics. So the ethical, and even the moral high-ground is with transparency, but that’s a tough sell in Lansing right now to be blunt about it.
Me: Why do you think that is?
Rich: Because I think the interest groups who bring the Republican legislators to the dance are very averse to the attention that comes with campaign finance disclosure. And so there framing is that this is all about freedom, and never mind, and don’t you try to bully these poor innocent billionaires who’d like to shape your life.
Me: And that’s pretty much where the buck stops, right?
Rich: That’s right. I mean, Democrats can introduce bills, but they can’t get a hearing for their bills unless the Republican chair of the committee chooses to give the bill a hearing, and there’s a pretty limited scope of what will get a hearing.
Me: Ok, so as far as the successes that you’ve experienced, are they pretty limited?
Rich: Well, few and far between, generally pretty small bore. There is increased frequency of reporting by both candidates in non-election years, and political action committees. I’m not claiming credit for it but I had been talking about it for a number of years and Secretary of State Johnson led the direction of adopting that change. So I was a part of that conversation, I’m not claiming credit for it, but that’s one of the small things that has happened that went in the right direction, more frequent reporting. But there’s such terrible shortcomings in the percentage of all spending that’s disclosed, of the timeliness of reporting in whatever is reported, in both lobbying and campaign finance.
Me: So who would you say… well you’ve touched on this, the Republicans are the typical opponents and that’s what usually stops the conversation?
Rich: Well yeah. For example, there was a bill that passed in December of 2013 that doubled the limits on contributions to candidate committees and ultimately blocked the Secretary of State from an administrative process that was going to lead to greater disclosure of spending on “issue advocacy.” It was a response as soon as she made the announcement she was going to do this. Now she was going to do it because she had been requested by the State Bar of Michigan to correct a situation because over half the money spent in our Supreme Court elections, going back as far as the year 2000, has been off the books. That’s particularly perilous in the judiciary because judges can’t preside over cases involving their major campaign donors; that’s a violation of their opponents’ due process right to an impartial court. As soon as Secretary Johnson announced she intended to bring disclosure to cases in response to the State Bar, the Senate Elections Committee acted to amend the definition of a campaign expenditure, and say that unless it included the words “vote for”, “vote against”, it wasn’t a campaign expenditure at all and therefore no reporting was required. Well, the true nature of the problem there is that nobody’s ad say vote for me or vote against the other person, they say “I’m fighting for you” and “I have your values”, or they say “this other person wants to take your life to hell, don’t let ‘em do it.” No mention of voting, but you kind of get the gist of it, when it’s the candidate for election the week before the election. So that was a major achievement in precluding the kind of transparency that was anticipated by the legislature that wrote our Campaign Finance Act in 1976; their interpretation was if there is clear inference of support or opposition, they recognized that word games play out in campaign communications, so they wanted to bring that under the disclosure umbrella. Now it’s been thwarted by a 2013 Michigan Legislature.
Me: Have your opinions of state politics and policies changed since you’ve been involved in this issue?
Rich: There have been some interesting developments over this time. One of the things I think is clearer in my mind than ever is that the legislative caucuses are very responsive to the interest groups who support them, and that shouldn’t be a great surprise to anybody I guess, but the degree is what, I think, is a little bit surprising. I don’t think there are insidious actors in the legislature. I think sometimes good people just get rolled politically, and so we end up with some policies that are pretty self-serving for the interest groups that support them and propel them forward. Any other surprises about it… I think that the distance between the legislature and the electorate, really, is a bit of a surprise to me. I don’t think there’s a deep connectedness there. That’s my impression anyway.
Me: I agree; do think even the Democrats have to get involved with this process, because they have to reach certain parity with the Republicans, do you think they have to start paying attention to larger donors as well?
Rich: Well nationally, Democrats are very good at tapping large donors, and in state politics the unions are very strong supporters of the Democratic Party and they’re significant interest groups. I mean they rank high in having the largest PAC’s and so forth. In our 2014 gubernatorial election campaign there were probably ten or so labor, and some other progressive super PAC’s that just popped up for that election, spent over $3 million on a ground campaign that was largely unnoticed, at least by the public media, and provided a lot of advertising. I mean the advertising on Mark Schaur’s behalf came through the Democratic Governors Association. Behind governor Sneider a lot of it was from the Republican Governors Association. Essentially the first, oh I don’t know, seven or eight months of 2014 was a proxy war between the RGA and the DGA, answering back and forth with advertising trying to soften up the electorate and predispose them to their candidates. So very little of that had to do with local funding. So I guess that’s maybe another kind of revelation in all of this, is the degree to which state elections have been nationalized. They become a matter of interest of national funding conglomerates and it takes away the relative influence of financial supporters in the state. And this is, I guess, a celebration of the first amendment, or somebody’s interpretation of the first amendment. Now the idea of “money is speech,” if it was not absurd before Citizens United it certainly is now.
Me: I’ve noticed that this is kind of a trend for the courts, to say that money is speech, I think that Buckley vs. Valeo was the first time that was mentioned?
Rich: Well it was but with certain recognitions that… you know, the whole basis for regulation of money in politics is to preclude corruption. So the interpretation is if an interest group or a wealthy individual were to give money to your campaign committee that could be corrupting. But if they merely spend $5 million to propel you, without consultation with you, that is not corrupting. You would never give any extra consideration to someone who gave $5 million to get you elected. Well that’s nonsense, people give money in politics for consideration. And the reason to have transparency in all of this is to be able to detect when those considerations cross the line into the illegal or the unethical. So that’s the whole bit with transparency, its inoculation against corruption. But this interpretation that anything spent by an independently incorporated committee can’t have that kind of corrupting effect on your conduct as an office holder, is really the basis in all this sequence of campaign finance decisions from the Roberts/Alito court. And I refer to it as Roberts and Alito because these cases have all unfolded subsequent to the untimely retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who had experience, as a legislator she was the Senate Majority leader in the Arizona Senate, she understood retail politics and campaign finance politics personally, in a way that nobody on the court does today. So all these, kind of theoretical, idealized notions that the money you spend is not corrupting the public policy, it all derives from this absence, the ideology that’s used to screen Supreme Court candidates now. I think an argument can be made that over the last ten years John Roberts has been more influential than Barack Obama.
Me: That’s a good point. So do you think that if there were to be disclosure reform, that would have the most teeth as far as getting a grip on this problem?
Rich: Well I think it’s the only thing we can do right now. In Citizens United, the Supreme Court directly addressed the disclosure question, and that was not a close vote, that was 8-1 that absolutely disclosure can be required. So it’s unambiguous, it’s constitutionally permissible, but the Supreme Court’s not going to do that for us. The legislature, the congress has to do that. But, at this point you’re certainly not going to limit what people can spend… public financing is a tough sell right now, at least at the national level. We’ve got the presidential public funding system that no one availed themselves of in 2012, or it was to a minor degree I guess in the Republican Primary, but to a very minor degree. Disclosure is really the best we’re going to see, but that can do a lot, I would maintain. It’s worth it; it may seem small bore but I think it is worth it.
Me: You’ve mentioned that you have worked on educating the public and that really hasn’t taken affect. Why do you think that is?
Rich: Well I think, one, there are a lot of people who get it, and are very concerned about it. I’ve had considerable luck getting news coverage from the conventional media, from newspapers, from television, had access to various opinion pages to write my op-eds about what’s going on. On one level, I think there’s a large part of the public that sees it as “money’s influencing public policy, what a surprise… what can we do about that?” I think the real enemy in this is that kind of sense of helplessness in that it’s not worth the effort. I think it is; I say that and I guess theoretically too because we haven’t won anything at all right now, but I do think a strategy that targets local jurisdictions is the way to go.
Me: There’s this quote from Bernie Sanders that I wanted to bring in, “If anyone thinks that the issues of the economy, the minimum wage, overtime, job creation, climate change, education are not directly related to campaign finance reform you’re terribly wrong.” That was Bernie Sanders. You think Americans just aren’t making that connection?
Rich: Maybe somewhat not making the connection, somewhat just not being organized or outraged enough to the point of doing it. You know the last major campaign finance reform, the McCain-Feingold reforms of 2002, Carl Levin said that wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the Enron scandal at the time. And that really brought a sense of outrage within the public, a political momentum that couldn’t be resisted at the time. And frankly, when you go back and review the testimony of the US Senators at the time of McCain-Feingold some of the strongest, most eloquent statements in support of the legislation were Senate Republicans, Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, Allen Simpson of Wyoming, John McCain of Arizona—they get it—but that same consciousness doesn’t seem to exist, if at all, in the Republican caucus in the US Senate at this time. You know, the US House is almost a frat boys’ food fight kind of a thing right now. I mean, certainly no consensus about the need to reign in the effect of money and in fact you have a lot of proponents who are just saying get out of the way, let money have its way, that everything can be monetized, it has a value, let it reach its just equilibrium. That doesn’t work well for most of us.
Me: In what way do you think the shifts that have been caused by finance deregulation have affected policy, both domestic and foreign policy?
Rich: Well there’s this, almost a fetish, about a balanced budget and it’s really all about shrinking government which is really all about not paying taxes. I think it was a lack of stimulus in the post great recession recovery that kept things from picking up more and more quickly than they did, to the great expense of a lot of working Americans. So I think that’s one area; so much of the momentum against developing any kind of meaningful public policy to deal with climate change is being propelled by the fossil fuel industry. Period. And so we’re delaying not only to our own detriment but to the detriment of generations of humans on board, because of this unwillingness or inability to resist the influence of the carbon industry. The failure to deal with poverty—poverty isn’t even a topic among most public conversations anymore—there is no money propelling the interest of the poor. Education, if I can borrow a phrase from Matt Taibbi, a lot of what’s going on in the commercialization of public education is the giant vampire squid tapping into the $14 billion dollar vein of revenue. No greater creativity, no greater results, but money going into private hands and having less experienced, poorer compensated teachers. Now I understand the role of excellent charter schools, but the across the board, willy-nilly commercialization of public education is not a successful experiment: that’s brought to you by money in politics.
Me: So you said that there… I forget the exact wording… no malevolent force in this; the ideology is just to deregulate and let the free-market take control.
Rich: That’s right. I mean you hear “freedom,” as a word in rotation, is more often cited now than any other time I can recall in my life. Not that I think we were not free all that time, but it’s invoked in a certain way to imply “deregulate,” “don’t tax,” anything that’s done in the name of the public has been done wrong and probably ill-conceived. It’s this theory that all the individuals just acting in their own individual interest will somehow create an Earth of equilibrium.
Me: This will be the last question. I read an article you did with Mother Jones a few years ago, and you describe a money filtering scheme involving the RGA and Republican members of the Michigan House, and you compare this to the scheme that got Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay indicted in 2005. Can you describe this scheme?
Rich: Well, the DeLay scheme was, money was being turned around to Texas legislators to move forward with a mid-decade redistricting. What I was getting at, probably, more than… if I implied that there was something criminal about what the RGA was doing, I think that’s too strong, but there were a series of Michigan donors who put money into the RGA and then when the RGA spent on the gubernatorial campaign, it was a relatively equal amount. A large part of what went into the RGA from Michigan that year was the Michigan Chamber of Commerce putting in $5.5 million, donors of which there was no disclosure, so that’s a lot of money that went into the system, through the Michigan Chamber in that case, with no real accountability for whose money it was. And again, after the fact, when public policy is being developed, as considerations for supporters, when you can’t see who the donor is, and you can’t tell what considerations they may be pursuing, you can’t really connect the dots and evaluate whether this is ethical and certainly is it legal. The absence in transparency in all of this is just inexcusable. I mean if people seriously think billionaires are going to be intimidated or bullied by people who know about their activity, I think that’s really misguided. Now, could they possibly face a commercial backlash? Yes, and I would hope that they would. Certainly they idly spend hundreds of millions of dollars to toy with people’s well-being and the well-being of the planet as a whole, if there’s some commercial backlash to their political spending, so be it, buck up.
Me: Do you think that would be the most effective way to do it, in imposing reform, if consumers were to take a commercial approach?
Rich: I think that could be one kind of an action. You’ve had various groups react to right-to-life nationally. There was a well cited case in Minnesota where Target had supported a gubernatorial primary candidate who had taken a specifically anti-LGBT position, and the LGBT community in Minnesota organized a boycott against Target and Target said “whoops.” You know I think you’re gonna see a lot less of public corporations getting involved directly in politics, it’s really wealthy individuals I think more so, aggregating their money in non-profit corporations, but I think that at least the publically held corporations don’t want to deal with the political backlash. So you have privately held corporations, like Coke Industries or Amway, being leading spenders in this whole political spending escalation more so than the public corporations. Do they respond to consumers? I imagine they would.