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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sends Dems $3.5M in campaign funds. GOP cries foul.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign raised a total $14.2 million in 2021, including at least $3.8 million in funds that exceeded campaign contribution limits (Bridge file photo)

LANSING––Gov. Gretchen Whitmer directed more than $3.5 million in campaign funds to the Michigan Democratic Party, according to campaign filings submitted Monday, with Republicans accusing her of improperly funneling money that exceeded contribution limits. 

Whitmer raised a total $14.2 million in 2021, including at least $3.8 million in funds that exceeded campaign contribution limits from more than 200 individual donors, according to a Bridge Michigan analysis.

Sponsor

Michigan law caps individual and political action committee contributions to gubernatorial candidates at $7,150. 

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But Whitmer was able to skirt state contribution limits based on a 1984 ruling, which waived individual donor limits for candidates facing active recall campaigns. During the pandemic, there were more than 20 attempts to oust the governor for her emergency COVID policies. None were successful.

A lawsuit and a government complaint claiming Whitmer improperly used the loophole in state law to raise cash for her re-election campaign failed. But Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, working on behalf of Secretary of State Joselyn Benson, stated in a court document that Michigan law forbids Whitmer from spending the funds exceeding contribution limits for her campaign, and the governor must “disgorge” the money to a charity or party.

On Dec. 29, Whitmer’s campaign gave $3.55 million to the Michigan Democratic Party, records show. The money could ultimately benefit Whitmer if the party uses it to buy ads promoting her or targeting her challengers, and the spending would be counted as “administrative” expenses not subject to disclosure rules, said Simon Schuster, executive director of Michigan Campaign Finance Network. 

Court rulings have indicated transferring campaign funds to Michigan state parties is allowable, Schuster said.

“This is utterly unprecedented at this scale, but it’s not at all surprising,” he said. “It’s important that Michigan voters ask themselves: … Do we want this to be a series of rules that are regularly taken advantage of?”

A Michigan Democratic Party spokesperson did not directly answer if the party will consider promoting Whitmer or attacking her opponents with the funds. “The Michigan Democratic Party will keep working to elect Democrats who will fight for Michigan’s families and communities,” party spokesperson Rodericka Applewhaite said.  

Gustavo Portela, spokesperson for the state GOP, argued in a statement the move allowed Whitmer to “launder illegally raised funds.” He said the money could be used to boost the campaigns of the state Secretary of State, attorney general and governor, all of whom are Democrats.

“This new level of corruption by Michigan Democrats will be put to an end when we defeat them all this fall,” Portela said.

Whitmer also returned $250,000 in contributions to her biggest individual donor Mark Bernstein, who sits on the University of Michigan Board of Regents. Bernstein’s brother, Richard Bernstein, is a Michigan Supreme Court Justice who could have ruled on Whitmer’s case against recall efforts last year.

Whitmer’s top donors

Even as critics bashed the Whitmer campaign for taking more money than it should have, big checks — far exceeding the $7,150 individual campaign limit — kept arriving.

Sharif Hussein, chief executive officer of LPK LLC, a strategic consulting firm in Okemos, has given Whitmer $107,150 during her tenure as governor, with $100,000 of that given after Whitmer appointed him to the state’s Children’s Trust Fund in December 2020. His latest contribution was $50,000 on Oct. 22, according to Monday’s filing.

Arn Tellem, vice president of the Detroit Pistons, has contributed a total of $95,650 to Whitmer’s campaign since April 2018, including a $25,000 check Nov. 2. 

Melony Lewis, a trustee at Colorado-based think tank The Aspen Institute, also gave the Whitmer campaign $25,000 on Oct. 25.

Among Whitmer’s other top donors are Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, billionaire philanthropist Patricia Stryker and Stacy Schusterman, founder and chair of oil and gas giant Samson Energy. Each of those donors has given $250,000.

Republican challengers pump own cash into runs 

Fundraising by Republican challengers to Whitmer lagged in comparison.

Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, a leading Republican contender for the governor’s race, raised more than $600,000 between October and December –– the most raised from individual donors among GOP gubernatorial candidates. He has raised a combined $2 million so far in the election cycle and currently has $845,970.64 on hand.

Many other challengers opened up their own pockets.

Bloomfield Hills businessman Kevin Rinke pumped $2 million into his campaign over the past two months. The former auto dealer, who promised to inject $10 million into his gubernatorial bid, is largely self-funded, with only $4,398 coming from other individual donors.

Sponsor

Garrett Soldano, a Kalamazoo-area chiropractor and conservative firebrand, loaned his campaign $25,000 between October and December. His campaign received a total of $250,000 during this period and has more than $315,000 in the bank.

In other statewide races, Nessel –– a Democrat who faces re-election for attorney general –– received more than $277,000 over the past three months. She had $1.6 million campaign funds in hand by the end of 2021. Former State House Speaker Tom Leonard, a Republican frontrunner in the attorney general’s race, raised more than $283,000 in the same period, including $60,000 he loaned to his own campaign. He had more than $665,000 in campaign funds by the year’s end.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, also a Democrat, outraised all her Republican opponents combined during the same period. Her campaign had a year-end balance of $1.4 million.

Bridge reporter Jonathan Oosting contributed.

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