Truth Squad: Gretchen Whitmer says El-Sayed takes money from corporate execs

Gretchen Whitmer, Abdul El-Sayed

Former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer has been attacked by her Democratic rivals Abdul El-Sayed and Shri Thanedar for benefitting from the political nonprofit Build a Better Michigan. Earlier this month, she pointed the finger back at El-Sayed and said he’d received $170,000 in donations from corporate executives.

Oct. 2018: Truth Squad | Ads unfairly attack Whitmer on healthcare, missed votes
Sept. 2018: Turning Gretchen Whitmer into Granholm, a Republican gamble in governor race
August 2018 update: Gretchen Whitmer wins Democratic primary for Michigan governor

A long-standing source of tension between gubernatorial candidates Abdul El-Sayed and Gretchen Whitmer — corporate donations — boiled over during the final Democratic gubernatorial debate before the Aug. 7 primary. 

In the July 19 exchange, El-Sayed lambastes Whitmer for benefitting from a 527 political group, Build a Better Michigan, which he called “a path for dark money to flow into our politics,” a claim El-Sayed has made before, and which Truth Squad earlier addressed (That Truth Squad has now been updated based on newly available documents.)

Whitmer fires back: “Give me a break, Abdul, you have received $170,000 in your campaign from corporate executives. You can’t be half-pregnant on this one.”

Zack Pohl, Whitmer’s spokesman, defended her statement.

“He was being hypocritical to attack her for, by his claim, taking corporate money,” Pohl told Truth Squad. “And the reality is he’s raised plenty of money from wealthy corporate donors and executives.”

We rate her claim mostly inaccurate because it is misleading.  

The claim

“Give me a break, Abdul, you have received $170,000 in your campaign from corporate executives.”

The facts

Whitmer’s campaign offered a list of almost 150 contributions made to El-Sayed’s campaign by people sporting an executive-level title such as CEO, COO or “director” in 2017 (the last campaign finance reporting period available before that debate.) Together, those donations totaled nearly $200,000.

The leader of a mom-and-pop business and a large corporation might both be dubbed “CEO,” and that breadth is reflected in the list: It includes donations from the CEO of men’s clothing company Bonobos and a vice president at Amazon as well as the leaders of a variety of small-to-mid-sized nonprofits.

So at face value, her claim is supported by data. El-Sayed has accepted thousands of dollars from “executives.”  

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Experts say it’s a false equivalency to compare individual donations from executives to donations from corporations.

“There’s a difference between an individual giving money based on individual interest and a corporate PAC that’s giving money to advance the interests of a corporation,” said Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

The El-Sayed campaign made a similar argument.

“This seems contrived and meant to confuse voters,” spokesman Adam Joseph wrote in an email, adding that donations from executives at small nonprofits would not sway El-Sayed’s decision-making as governor.

Build a Better Michigan — the political group that has issued an ad featuring Whitmer and is often the focus of ire from the El-Sayed camp — can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money (including from corporations) under federal law, while individuals can only donate up to $6,800 to a campaign under state law.

According to its federal filing, Build a Better Michigan has raised $2.2 million. Many of the group’s donors are labor groups and individuals, but more than half a million dollars came from groups that state campaign finance experts say are not required to disclose where they got their money: Progressive Advocacy Trust and the Philip A. Hart Democratic Club.

While Build a Better Michigan is legally independent of the Whitmer campaign and cannot explicitly endorse her, it is headed by her former chief of staff and has paid for a television ad that Whitmer narrates and which highlights her legislative history. Its significantly larger fundraising capacity makes a comparison with individual donations moot, experts say.

“It is not the same to be working hand in glove with an (organization) that can take unlimited funds as it is to be accepting donations from anyone that is subject to some sort of contribution limits,” said Daniel Weiner, an expert in campaign finance at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

Gretchen Whitmer
Says El-Sayed takes money from corporate executives
The Call
Mostly Inaccurate

Pohl, the Whitmer campaign spokesman, makes the point: “Who gets to decide what corporate money is?”

Experts acknowledge that definition is a gray area and often a moniker loaded with political subtext. The El-Sayed campaign has indeed received more than $170,000 in donations from people with executive level titles, including some who work for large, national or multinational companies.

But those donations are limited and individualized, and can’t be reasonably compared with the unlimited donations possible through nonprofit political groups such as Build a Better Michigan, according to campaign finance experts.


Truth Squad assigns five ratings to the political statements we review, in descending levels of accuracy:

ACCURATE ‒ No factual inaccuracies in the statement and no important information is missing

MOSTLY ACCURATE ‒ While the statement is largely accurate, it omits or exaggerates facts, or needs some clarification   

HALF ACCURATE ‒ Truths are interspersed with mistruths, or the speaker left out significant facts that render his/her remarks misleading in important respects

MOSTLY INACCURATE ‒ The major point or points made are untrue or misleading, even while some aspects of the claim may be accurate

FALSE ‒ The statement is false, or based on false underlying facts

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Thu, 08/02/2018 - 9:22am

Craig Mauger, Michigan Campaign Finance Network: “There’s a difference between an individual giving money based on individual interest and a corporate PAC that’s giving money to advance the interests of a corporation.” Wrong. In practice, donors who make a point of stating their title and employer are trying to influence candidates to further the employer's agenda. This was SOP at Dow Chemical. Dow donated an amount, then its executives sweetened the pot with personal donations, and made sure the candidate knew those were coming from Dow executives. The goal was to influence the candidate to favor Dow positions on issues.

Paul Jordan
Thu, 08/02/2018 - 12:57pm

When you donate, the law requires that you identify your employer and your job title.
The behavior of Dow is interesting, but irrelevant. Any businesses affiliated with folks who donated to Mr. El Sayed's campaign didn't donate to his campaign, because he isn't accepting PAC money or corporate donations.

Fri, 08/03/2018 - 8:45am

a corporation is not an individual, much of this is foolishness . bottom line uaw is a lobbyist there continued support and obamas bailouts gave them a sweetheart deal. so if you took money from the dnc you in fact took money from corperations and lobbyists

Kevin Lignell
Thu, 08/02/2018 - 1:33pm

Campaign finance law actually requires you to submit your employer and title every time to make a donation to make sure you are not trying to skirt the system. It's not a "making a point". (Or maybe it is, but everyone has to do it so it would be impossible to tell.)

A. Abbas
Thu, 08/02/2018 - 2:28pm

Taking money from an individual account is not money from a corporate account, no matter what is the individual position in that corporation. Of course you reach the rich one, who has a good position in an industry to donate generously for your campain, but not the poor or the unemployed

Fri, 08/03/2018 - 10:21pm

Vote El-Sayed on August 7th!