Blue Cross execs help Whitmer raise cash for gov run

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — Top executives at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan are asking employees to donate to Democrat Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign for governor, according to a new fundraiser invitation obtained by The Detroit News.

The invite for the March 7 event was sent by Whitmer’s campaign but signed by four Blue Cross officials who lead the nonprofit health insurance corporation’s political action committee. The PAC gives to candidates on both sides of the aisle and regularly ranks among the state’s largest donors.

The PAC “gave one-time permission” for the Whitmer campaign to use member addresses for the mailing, Blue Cross spokeswoman Helen Stojic told The News, noting that not all of the company’s 8,000-plus employees are PAC members.

“While bluesPAC does not formally endorse candidates, it periodically provides its members an opportunity to directly support candidates for elective office,” Stojic said. “And this is one of those opportunities.”

The fundraising assist by PAC officers does not appear to cross any legal boundaries, according to Craig Mauger, a watchdog with the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

“Corporate funds are not allowed to be given directly to a candidate in Michigan, or a committee controlled by a candidate,” Mauger said. “What makes this interesting is you have individuals in a corporation asking people who are their colleagues to support a candidate.”

PAC contributions and health care have emerged as issues in the Democratic primary. Former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed has sworn off corporate PAC money and joined calls for a single-payer “Medicare for all” healthcare system. Shri Thanedar, a wealthy Ann Arbor businessman who is largely self-funding his own campaign, has proposed universal coverage for children.

Whitmer, the top individual fundraiser in the Democratic field through the end of 2017, has outlined a handful of health care objectives on her campaign website and has said she intends to release a more detailed policy platform in coming months. Her father, Richard Whitmer, was president and chief executive officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan from 1988 to 2006.

Blue Cross is Michigan’s largest health insurer with traditionally 70 percent or more of the market. Term-limited GOP Gov. Rick Snyder signed a 2013 law allowing Blue Cross to transition from a charitable trust into a tax-paying, nonprofit mutual liability insurer.

The Whitmer fundraising letter notes the former state senate minority leader worked with majority Republicans to expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

Whitmer is committed to “continuing, protecting, and expanding” the Healthy Michigan program for low-income families, officials wrote. Snyder signed the Medicaid expansion in 2013, and more than 680,000 residents have enrolled, according to the state.

“Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan plays a major role in Michigan’s economy and the health of Michigan’s citizens,” the letter said. “The vibrancy of Michigan’s economic climate is driven by public policy put forward by our state’s governor, and we believe Gretchen Whitmer will be a great leader for Michigan.”

The fundraising pitch was signed by Lynda Rossi, Blue Cross executive vice president of strategy; Laurie Parmely, vice president and general counsel; Tricia Keith, executive vice president; and Mark Cook, vice president of public affairs, a registered lobbyist who oversees company efforts at the Michigan Capitol.

Cook previously served as director of legislative affairs for former Gov. John Engler, a Republican, and worked for several Republican lawmakers.

Asked about the fundraiser, campaign spokeswoman Annie Ellison said Whitmer has “built support from a large, broad coalition of people” who care about issues like roads and jobs. She noted Whitmer’s work to expand Medicaid eligibility but did not say exactly where the candidate stands on growing Democratic calls for a national single-payer healthcare system.

“Whitmer has a record expanding health care in Michigan, and she’s focused on fighting to protect that coverage from Republican attacks,” Ellison said. “She believes that everyone in this state deserves access to quality, affordable health care, and is going to look at any federal health care policy with a lens for how it affects the people of Michigan.”

El-Sayed spokesman Adam Joseph responded to questions about the Whitmer fundraiser by noting that his boss is a vocal supporter of Medicare for All and doesn’t accept corporate PAC money “because it’s time to stand up to the insurance industry that has profiteered on sick Michiganders for too long.”

“One of the biggest problems in Michigan is that Lansing politicians are putting corporations over real people,” Joseph said.

The Blue Cross political action committee is funded by employee contributions. It raised nearly $650,000 in 2017 and spent $625,356 to support candidates, according to disclosure reports filed with the Michigan Secretary of State.

BluesPAC contributed $5,000 to Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Calley on Nov. 27, one day before he launched his own campaign for governor. It also donated $5,000 to the Michigan Democratic Party earlier in November.

“They’re one of the PACs in Michigan that gives to a large, large number of lawmakers, and they seem to give without any preference” to political party, Mauger said.

The Feb. 2nd letter signed by PAC officers asks them to donate directly to Whitmer’s campaign and join them for a fundraising luncheon at the Firebird Tavern in Detroit. It recommends contributions between $100 and $6,800, depending on the employee, with higher sums for corporate officers than managers.

The fundraiser is “not a bluePAC-hosted event,” Stojic said. “It is an event hosted by the officers of the bluesPAC.”

In what appears to be a similar effort, Blue Cross officials last year asked employees to contribute to the re-election campaign of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a Democrat, Crain’s Detroit reported. The company also is a regulator contributor to funds and PACs associated with Snyder, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Whitmer is the early frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, which Michigan voters will decide in the Aug. 7 primary. Republican candidates include Attorney General Bill Schuette, Calley, state Sen. Patrick Colbeck and Saginaw obstetrician Jim Hines.

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