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

Gretchen Whitmer, Abdul El-Sayed

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.

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

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

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