Group reveals donors behind Whitmer ad campaign

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Gretchen Whitmer, Democratic candidate for governor, raises her hands with UAW President Dennis Williams, left, and Frank Stuglin, Assistant Director of Region 1, after accepting the endorsement from the UAW this morning.

Lansing — The group behind a $1.8 million advertising campaign featuring Democrat for governor Gretchen Whitmer is primarily funded by union and liberal groups, a new disclosure report reveals.

Build a Better Michigan on Monday voluntarily released a report due to the Internal Revenue Service on July 15 but not yet published by the federal agency. The delayed disclosure, which may have lasted through the Aug. 7 primary, had prompted “dark money” criticism from Democratic rival Abdul El-Sayed of Shelby Township.

"Build a Better Michigan is proud of our record of 100 percent compliance with all IRS regulations and requirements,” President Mark Burton said in a statement, “but as the Trump Administration’s IRS continues to lag in its duty to make this filing public, we are going above and beyond our responsibilities by releasing this ourselves today.”

An initial read of the disclosure report offered few surprises. Whitmer is endorsed by most major labor unions in Michigan, and the report shows they're helping fund television ads from the outside group launched by her allies.

The United Auto Workers and the Teamster’s DRIVE committee each contributed $250,000, according to the Internal Revenue Service report. Michigan Laborers District Council kicked in $151,000 and the Regional Council of Carpenters $150,000.

The single largest donor to Build a Better Michigan was the Progressive Advocacy Trust, an “administrative account” for the Ingham County Democratic Party that contributed $300,000 and whose internal donors are not known. The Philip A. Hart Democratic Club in Mount Clemens, which discloses its own donors to the Federal Election Commission, kicked in $250,000.

State Sen. Steve Bieda of Warren this month filed a federal campaign finance complaint against the Philip A. Hart Democratic Club, alleging the club is misusing its bingo license to harm his campaign for Macomb County clerk and boost one of his rivals. The Michigan Lottery Bureau suspended the club's bingo license in 2016.

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon has discouraged county and congressional parties from taking sides in contested primaries, but “it’s a little bit harder to do that with our caucus and our clubs, because they’re often times set up with a more specific purpose,” he said.

While opponents have bashed Whitmer for her connections to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and suggested special influence, one of the only affiliated donors to Build a Better Michigan appears to be Richard Whitmer. Her retired father is the former president and CEO of the state’s largest health insurer.

The largest business contribution came from Ajax Paving Industries Inc. of Troy, which gave $25,000. The Livonia-based Cochran, Kroll and Associations law firm gave $20,000, Haas & Goldstein of Farmington Hills gave $10,000 and Sakthi Automotive Group USA gave $5,000.

The disclosure report shows Ann Arbor attorney Mark Bernstein, who is helping Whitmer vet potential running mates, gave $32,000 to Build a Better Michigan. Bell’s Brewery owner Larry Bell of Kalamazoo contributed $10,000.

Burton said the IRS report shows the advocacy campaign is supported by a “strong, progressive and incredibly diverse coalition” of workers, small businesses and political groups.

“This broad coalition is united by our shared vision of building a better Michigan by expanding affordable health care, improving skills training, repealing the retirement tax and fixing our roads,” he said.

Whitmer picked up another notable labor endorsement Monday, winning the backing of the Service Employees International Union’s Michigan State Council. 

Burton previously said Build a Better Michigan had mailed its disclosure report to the IRS instead of filing electronically because the agency had not provided a PIN number. He did not respond to requests last week to voluntarily disclose the document.

An IRS spokesman told The Detroit News it can take as long as eight to 10 weeks for the agency to upload a report submitted by mail to its public website, meaning that without Monday's self-disclosure, Build a Better Michigan’s full donor list would not likely have been released prior to the Aug. 7 primary.

The political organization established under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code on Friday released a “fact sheet” summary with an overview of donor categories. The full report, disclosed Monday, includes an itemized list of contributions and expenses.

Build a Better Michigan had raised more than $2.2 million through June 30, according to the IRS report. The group had spent more than $1.8 million, primarily on TV and online ads through Great American Media of Washington, D.C.

Separately, the state Bureau of Elections is investigating a complaint filed against Build a Better Michigan by the Michigan Republican Party. The group is running “issue ads,” which are not supposed to direct a viewer to vote for a candidate, that identify Whitmer as a “candidate for governor” while outlining her campaign themes.

Burton has called the complaint a “frivolous” political attack. Build a Better Michigan requested and received an extension to formally reply to the GOP complaint, said Secretary of State Spokesman Fred Woodhams. The reply is now due Aug. 6, meaning the bureau will not finish its review by the primary.

(517) 371-3662