Pro-Whitmer nonprofit beats pro-Snyder groups by raising $6.5M in one year

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A nonprofit group that's supported Gov. Gretchen Whitmer raised $6.5 million from undisclosed donors in 2020, a significant financial haul that's more than double what similar groups tied to former Gov. Rick Snyder collected in a single year.

The organization, named Road to Michigan's Future, received donations of at least $100,000 from 23 different contributors, according to a tax filing obtained by The Detroit News. One contributor — potentially a person, a company or another group — individually gave $857,000, and another chipped in $400,000.

"Dark money groups are playing an increasingly prominent role in Michigan elections,” said Simon Schuster, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network,  noting the group's fundraising total.

It's unclear how closely the nonprofit has worked with Whitmer. However, of the five fundraising consulting firms that Road to Michigan's Future disclosed working with, Whitmer's campaign committee has used four of them. Mark Fisk, spokesman for the organization, confirmed Monday that the governor has helped with fundraising "as she is legally permitted to do."

The phone number listed on Road to Michigan's Future's tax filing for 2020 went to a voicemail box for Whitmer's current campaign treasurer, Heather Ricketts. She works as an independent contractor for Road to Michigan's Future, said Maeve Coyle, spokeswoman for Whitmer's campaign.

"The campaign works with the nonprofit as is legally permitted," Coyle said.

The nonprofit group launched in January 2020. In the days after Whitmer announced a $3.5 billion bonding plan to boost the state's crumbling infrastructure, the organization began airing television ads to promote the initiative. The idea was the focus of the governor's 2020 State of the State address.

"The worst roads in the nation — right here in Michigan. They're dangerous, and the longer we wait to fix them, the more expensive it gets," one TV ad said. "But Lansing legislators keep putting up roadblocks to road repairs. And we're paying the price.

"That's why Gov. Whitmer is moving ahead with a responsible bond plan to start fixing the roads now."

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which tracks the role of money in state politics, said the group had initially purchased $750,000 in ads. In the tax filing for 2020, Road to Michigan's Future reported spending $1.4 million on "advertising and promotion."

One page of the 2020 tax filing for Road to Michigan's Future shows two individual contributors gave $857,000 and $300,000.

The $6.5 million revenue total reported by Road to Michigan's Future makes it one of the most active political nonprofits in the state for 2020. Whitmer's official campaign committee, which must disclose its donors' names, reported raising $3.8 million over the same period.

Snyder, the former Republican governor of Michigan, was tied to two nonprofit groups  during his time as the state's top officeholder: the New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify Fund (the NERD Fund) and Making Government Accountable. The largest single year fundraising haul for either of those organizations was $2.2 million for Making Government Accountable in 2015, according to tax filings.

The board of Road to Michigan's Future featured Whitmer allies: Richard Wiener, who served as chief of staff for Michigan's Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm; John Cherry, Granhom's lieutenant governor; and Robert Emerson, who served as budget director under Granholm.

Wiener declined to answer questions from The Detroit News during a brief Monday phone conversation, including whether the governor had helped with fundraising.

"I am going to refer all calls to Mark Fisk," Wiener said.

Fisk, a partner at the Lansing-based public relations firm Byrum & Fisk, has previously said the group launched to "support Gov. Whitmer’s bold plan to fix Michigan’s crumbling roads and deteriorating infrastructure without increasing taxes or waiting for the Legislature to act."

Nonprofits' annual tax filings with the Internal Revenue Service usually become publicly available about a year after the end of the period they cover. Groups' public filings have to provide broad details about financial activities and a list of contributions over $5,000, not including the names of the donors.

About 75% of the money Road to Michigan's Future brought in came from donors who gave at least $100,000, according to the filing.

Road to Michigan's Future reported spending $4.4 million in 2020, meaning it had $2.1 million still available to start 2021.

The 2020 tax filing for Road to Michigan's Future shows the group raised $6.5 million.

In addition to the spending on advertising, the group made a series of large contributions to other organizations, including giving $800,000 to the 21st Century Fund — an account tied to the Michigan Democratic Party — and $750,000 to Keep Michigan Safe, which opposed the Unlock Michigan petition campaign to limit the governor's emergency powers.

Road to Michigan's Future also gave $488,000 to The Voting Project, a group that aims to make voting more accessible, according to its website.

Gus Portela, communications director for the Michigan Republican Party, tied the activities of Road to Michigan's Future to Whitmer's use of an exception in state campaign finance policy that allows candidates facing recalls to raise unlimited amounts of money for their campaigns from individual donors.

"In addition to raising funds in excess of the state’s contribution limits, Gretchen Whitmer is finding ways to involve new outside groups to promote her plans ahead of an election cycle," Portela said.

"She should be investigated for how transferred campaign funds personally benefited her," he added.

According to other tax filings, two of the large donors to Road to Michigan's Future in 2020 were nonprofits tied to the state's top electric utilities.

Michigan Energy First, a group connected to DTE Energy, gave $250,000, and Citizens for Energizing Michigan's Economy, a group connected to Consumers Energy, gave $200,000.

cmauger@detroitnews.com