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Former Democratic Party chair Brandon Dillon joins Lansing lobbying corps

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — Brandon Dillon defended the Affordable Care Act against political attacks as chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party and voted for Medicaid expansion as a state lawmaker.

Now, he’s lobbying his former colleagues on behalf of one of the largest government-sponsored health care companies in the country.

Dillon officially registered as a lobbyist with the state on Feb. 3 — the day after Michigan Democrats officially elected Lavora Barnes as their next and current party chair.

Michigan Democratic chairman Brandon Dillon, seen at the party convention on Feb. 2, 2019, officially registered as a lobbyist with the state on Feb. 3, after Michigan Democrats elected Lavora Barnes as their next party chair.

He is the latest in a string of former lawmakers who have joined the lobbying ranks in Michigan, which is among a small handful of states that do not prohibit elected officials from immediately lobbying their former colleagues on behalf of interest groups.

Because he stepped down in 2015 to lead the state party, Dillon would not have run afoul of two- or three-year lobbying freezes that other states impose on elected officials to ensure their votes aren't influenced by future employment opportunities.

Dillon said he personally supports a "reasonable cooling-off period" for lawmakers to make sure they are not writing policy to appease potential employers. 

But his move shows how Lansing politician and lobbyist circles “are overlapping in many ways,” said Craig Mauger of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Dillon had not sought re-election to the political post after serving two two-year terms. Instead, the 47-year-old Grand Rapids resident formed a new consulting firm called the Winmatt Group — short for “winning matters” — with former Michigan Lottery Commissioner Scott Bowen.

"You know, being chair for four years was great, and serving in the Legislature was an experience that I won't forget," Dillon told The Detroit News. "But now it's time to do something different."

Through his new firm, Dillon is so far registered to lobby for a single client: The Centene Corp., a giant in the managed health care industry that is expanding in Michigan. But he is consulting for other clients and expects to lobby some of them as well. 

“I think the reason we started this is we both realize there’s been a pretty big sea change in the political landscape in Lansing and feel like we’re well positioned to help clients … navigate that changing environment,” Dillon said about himself and his partner.

Bowen served as Michigan Lottery director for nine years under Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. He stepped down in February 2017 and two months later was named senior vice president at NeoPollard Interactive, which won an iLottery contract with Michigan while Bowen was director.

Dillon led the state Democratic Party through a tumultuous 2016 election that saw Republican President Donald Trump win the White House and a successful 2018 election that culminated with the election of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

Republicans retained control of the state Legislature, and in this new era of divided government, Dillon touted that he and Bowen "have been involved in government at both the legislative and executive branch" and "understand the people involved."

"I just think there’s value in that,” he added.

Bowen is an initial investor in Winmatt and serves as an adviser, but he also recently registered as a Michigan lobbyist in case he ends up lobbying the Legislature for clients here. At NeoPollard, he primarily works with online gaming interests looking to establish a footprint in other states.

While their business relationship is new, Dillon and Bowen go way back.

“His mom was my fifth-grade teacher,” Bowen said. “I’ve known Brandon my whole life.”

Party boss

Dillon served in the Michigan House from 2011 to 2015 and is not personally planning any future campaigns.

“My days of running for office are over,” Dillon said. “I’m enjoying a new challenge and doing something different.”

Michigan political history buff Bill Ballenger could not recall a former state party chair moving so quickly into lobbying. He was surprised Dillon did not seek re-election to the post after “a successful tenure” as measured by 2018 results.

But he recalled many other high-profile politicians doing so, including former Attorney General Frank Kelley, whose name now adorns the Kelley Cawthorne lobbying firm in Lansing.

“It’s been going on since time immemorial,” Ballenger said. “This is nothing new, except it is unusual for a former party chair, simply because they usually have better things to do.”

Immediate past Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser remains active in politics as finance chair for the Michigan House Republican Campaign Committee and national finance chair for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.  

Weiser also chairs the University of Michigan Board of Regents and is serving on the boards of the Atlantic Council and will soon join the board of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

“I’m probably busier than I was before” as Michigan GOP chair, said Weiser, who previously founded McKinley Associates real estate company and served as ambassador to Slovakia from February 2009 to January 2011.

Former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson is now running a group called the WaterWorks Fund, which aims to “help solve water problems” by connecting investors to opportunities.

Mark Brewer, who ran the state party for 18 years before losing the post to Johnson, returned to law and is now an attorney for the Goodman Acker firm in Metro Detroit.

Health care

Dillon is one of several lobbyists registered to work for Centene, which is expanding in Michigan. Records show the firm also recently retained the lobbying services of Deb Muchmore, a longtime Lansing insider whose husband served as chief of staff to Snyder.

Centene is completing a $15 billion purchase of WellCare and its subsidiary Meridian Health, a Detroit-based company that operates the state’s largest Medicaid health plan.

Chris Priest, State Medicaid director under Snyder, went to work as a vice president of Medicaid solutions for Centene after leaving state government in late 2017.

While Dillon appears to be the only former state political party chairman currently registered as a lobbyist, he is the latest in a growing cohort of former elected officials who have walked through the so-called revolving door.

As The Detroit News reported, at least eight former state lawmakers and Snyder administration officials registered as lobbyists shortly after leaving office at the end of 2018. As of mid-June, that number had swelled to more than a dozen.

Recently registered lobbyists include Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, a Lowell Republican who chaired the powerful appropriations committee, and former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who is president of the Small Business Association of Michigan. 

Ballenger said he sees nothing unethical in Dillon's new arrangement, but it could “take the edge off” revolving door reform efforts often championed by Democrats.

“Anybody who doesn’t like this system that seems to produce people like ex-lawmakers becoming lobbyists, they’re not going to see this as a plus move," he said. 

Because Dillon had not held a publicly elected office for several years, “I don’t think it’s as problematic as someone who’s casting votes on public policy and then immediately going to work for someone they were regulating," Mauger said.

Legislation proposed by state Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, would create a two-year “cooling-off” period for most lawmakers and a three-year lobbying ban for lawmakers who chair powerful policy or appropriations committees.

Benson, who overseas lobbying regulations as secretary of state, supports the concept of a temporary two-year ban.

Similar laws in other states and Congress, while occasionally weakened by loopholes, are designed to reduce ethical conflicts. Those include the potential for interest groups to promise future jobs to officials in exchange for preferential treatment while they are still in office.