This column originally appeared in the Detroit News.
Bipartisanship from Whitmer, Nessel, and Benson? It didn’t last long.
We’re not even two months into their terms, and Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, and Attorney General Dana Nessel have already shed bipartisan problem-solving.
Instead of focusing on issues that matter to Michigan families — roads, jobs, schools — Whitmer, Benson and Nessel have focused on scoring political points for their campaign contributors and radical special interests.
Nessel’s leftward lurch is probably the least surprising. She campaigned as a liberal provocateur and hasn’t changed. Rather than focusing on her job — defending the laws of Michigan, regardless of her feelings — Nessel’s dedicated time to staking out extremist positions on culture war issues. She's staked out extremist positions on abortion. She’s declared war on religious liberty. She’s even withdrawn the state’s support from a lawsuit supporting free speech rights.
Whitmer, for her part, has spent the first two months attempting to erase state laws with executive orders, ignoring lawmakers, staking out fanatical environmental positions, breaking campaign promises by refusing to open her office to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, and laying out plans to expand government spending — and taxes — by billions per year.
Then there’s Jocelyn Benson. Benson spent eight years as a candidate carefully crafting an image as a policy wonk and a nonpartisan elections expert. Apparently, it was all a sham. Benson’s administration (and Whitmer’s, in the process) has already been tainted by scandal and corruption. First, there are astounding conflicts of interest. Five Benson campaign donors in 2017 sued the previous secretary of state, demanding Michigan redraw its political district boundaries. Their lawyer in the case is former Democratic Party chairman Mark Brewer, who also happens to be a Benson campaign donor and has been described as her political mentor — the man who recruited her into politics.
When she took office, Benson first fired her department’s lawyers on the case and replaced them with another firm that had — you guessed it — written her campaign checks. Next, she convened secret meetings with her campaign donors and their lawyer (also a campaign donor), excluded Republicans from the talks, and crafted a secret settlement that would force many Republican district lines to be withdrawn while ignoring the boundary lines in most Democratic districts.
As part of the agreement, her political mentor would get rich, making millions of dollars at taxpayer expense. Even the liberal court where the case is being decided smacked down this scam.
More unsavory — and unethical — she and Whitmer this month partnered up in the kind of corruption scandal that makes voters further lose faith in government. The state determined in December that a political group allied with Whitmer criminally engaged in “express advocacy” advertisements and illegally coordinated with the Whitmer campaign.
The committee — Build a Better Michigan — violated campaign finance law, spending millions of dollars on coordinated television advertisements and illegally failed to disclose them as “in-kind” contributions to the Whitmer campaign. The committee was run by lobbyist Mark Burton, who was subsequently rewarded with an appointment as the governor’s chief strategist.
A similar violation in 2014 committed by a Republican-allied group resulted in penalties administered by the secretary of state that matched the amount illegally spent. If she had followed the precedent of established law, rather than being a craven partisan huckster, Benson should have fined Burton’s group in excess of $2 million.
Benson took over the case in January, reached out to the governor’s chief strategist, and crafted another secret deal. Instead of leveling fines exceeding $2 million, she asked them to pay only $37,500 — less than 2 percent of the expected penalty. She didn't even require fellow Democrats to admit guilt.
So much for eight years of campaign promises about strengthening the state’s campaign finance laws.
For Benson, Whitmer, and Nessel, real bipartisanship was probably too much to ask for. Sadly, it turns out, so was integrity.
Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.