By SIMON D. SCHUSTER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING (July 6, 2020) — When a resolution came to the floor of the Michigan House of Representatives June 17 to "discourage local units of government from defunding or abolishing their local police departments," it was approved by a wide margin.
Most of those legislators had accepted campaign donations from unions representing the police. So had a majority of the 29 Democrats who voted against it.
The Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) found 112 of the 147 state legislators currently serving have received donations from a police union in the last 10 years, either to their campaigns or an associated leadership PAC. The unions have collectively made more than $1.4 million in political contributions since 2010, donating in contests ranging from the gubernatorial election to local judgeships, according to data compiled by MCFN.
The killing of George Floyd in police custody and the widespread calls for change that followed have focused on the purported influence of police unions as a roadblock to reform. MCFN exhaustively reviewed campaign finance data to assemble a detailed picture of these organizations’ financial footprint in Michigan politics over the last decade.
Police unions are just one of many labor organizations with a presence in Lansing. The political contributions of any police union pales in comparison to those made by larger unions, such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME contributed nearly $2.2 million since 2010), or United Auto Workers ($11.3 million).
While those other unions back candidates and make targeted contributions supporting their policy interests, contribution data suggests police union donations have been more broad. The unions identified by MCFN have given liberally to officials in both parties, though the majority of the largest unions’ money went to Republicans, who have spent nearly all of the last decade in full control of state government and currently control both chambers in the legislature.
The five most politically active organizations did not respond to repeated requests from MCFN to discuss their legislative priorities or candidate endorsement criteria.
The exception was the Retired Detroit Police and Fire Fighters Association, whose president Don Taylor told MCFN the organization is mainly social, no longer engages in political advocacy and declined to answer questions. Their website still offers a link to donate to their PAC and the organization disclosed it spent $36,000 on outside lobbyists in a 2018 filing with the Internal Revenue Service.
For the most part, police unions have contributed to officials with the most direct control over their department’s funding and working conditions.
The largest contributor in state politics is the union representing Michigan State Police (MSP) troopers, which spent nearly $500,000 in donations since 2010. Among elected officials in state government now, they’ve given approximately $107,000 to Democrats and $173,000 to Republicans.
MSP’s budget has increased by 34% since 2005 to $763 million the last fiscal year, according to the House Fiscal Agency. It’s about 1% of the state’s total budget. While the overall number of police in the state has declined 8% from 2008 to 2017, the ranks of the MSP have increased, though this is against a background of declining city budgets which largely fund local departments.
Here you can view a spreadsheet of the police union contributions compiled by MCFN. Entries with candidate names have been combined with their associated leadership PACs when available, while committees names in all caps are as they appear in campaign finance filing data.
A Force in Local Politics, Diminished
Recent reporting on police unions has underscored their ability to exert influence in local politics, often at the bargaining table and at times in elections. Michigan’s largest cities are no exception.
Municipalities often rely on local millages — increases in property tax revenue — to help fund their police departments. MCFN identified only about $3,000 disclosed by police unions in the last decade specifically earmarked to weigh in on local ballot proposals.
Since 2000, the Detroit Police Officers Association (DPOA) has contributed more than $340,000 to candidates inside the city running for all levels of government and nearly $500,000 statewide. Only a little more than a fifth of that money was spent in the past 10 years.
DPOA has shown no qualms about shifting their support. In 2005, when Freman Hendrix challenged then-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, whose first term embroiled himself and the police department in scandal, DPOA gave Hendrix’s campaign $34,000. In the 2009 special election to replace Kilpatrick after his resignation, DPOA gave acting mayor Ken Cockrel Jr.’s campaign $17,000. When Cockrel ultimately lost to Dave Bing, DPOA contributed $10,000 to Bing in the following months.
Greg Bowens, a former journalist and Detroit-area political consultant, was the spokesperson for Hendrix in 2005. He said he knows officers in Detroit and said the union’s role became particularly important as working conditions declined through the aughts.
“You give a little to get a little,” he told MCFN. “You give a little, supporting a candidate to get them on council, so that you can, when it comes time to negotiate, have an ear that will listen to you about some particular provision in the contract that could be important to getting folks a raise.”
There are myriad factors behind the diminishing role of the union in Detroit, Bowens said, but none more significant than the appointment of an emergency manager, who had the power to rip up union contracts during the city's bankruptcy. Backing from Detroit’s police unions also once translated to votes in elections, but state law passed in 1999 removed a requirement that officers live in the city. From 2000 to 2011, the percentage of officers living outside Detroit increased from 20% to 53%. In a similar time frame, the number of offers on the street dropped by more than a third as the department's resources became increasingly limited.
Still, the union has donated a total of about $25,000 to eight of the nine current city council members. Brenda Jones, who has served on the council since 2005 and is currently running for Congress, has received $12,175.
Sam Riddle, another consultant with a deep and colorful history in Detroit politics sees it very differently. He characterized the city council as beholden to the mayor and the union. Referencing Detroit's ugly past relationship between police and its residents, he argued this moment could redefine of the role of policing in Detroit but the city’s political leaders must choose a side of history to stand on.
“We're at a period of time where we're returning to the status quo to relegitimize isolation of the police department from the needs of a community for public safety. That's a contradiction that ultimately will destroy policing and the police union,” He told MCFN. “Short term, they'll be able to hang on, but those narrow-minded politicians with no vision that are just going to take the political contributions and behave accordingly with the wishes of the union, they will find themselves out of a political job.”
Both Bowens and Riddle emphasized Detroit's unions must play an active role in discussions surrounding police reform if they want to maintain their relevancy.
In Grand Rapids, the PAC of the Grand Rapids Police Officers Labor Council has given a total of $17,500 to current city commissioners Wendy Falb, Jon O’Connor and Kurt Reppart, in addition to $3,000 to the current mayor, Rosalynn Bliss. They also contributed $6,000 to a commissioner who left in 2018, David Allen. That year the union donated $3,500 to a prosecutor with a 96% conviction rate who was running to be a judge in Kent County circuit court.
Other unions, such as the Warren Police Officers Association Separate Segregated Fund, have contributed to that city’s mayor, Jim Fouts, as well as the city county president and city clerk.
When Michigan’s Largest Police Union Fundraises, Telemarketers Get Rich
The Police Officer’s Association of Michigan represents, according to their tally, 543 smaller unions throughout the state. MPOA acts as an umbrella organization for these associations, providing them legal representation and labor services.
Unlike other labor unions in Michigan, which mostly collect money for political donations from their members, POAM uses telemarketing to fund its advocacy.
In the past 10 years the two PACs connected to POAM have received $1.72 million in donations from all sources. They've contributed only about $235,000 — $1.43 million went right back to their telemarketer, Midwest Publishing DN.
An Arizona-based professional fundraiser, Midwest keeps the vast majority of what it raises, between 85% and 90%, according to oversight reports and former employees interviewed by MCFN. They have worked as POAM’s fundraiser since at least the 1990’s.
In the first quarter of 2020, POAM reported raising nearly $95,000 from about 4,700 donors contributing an average of $20, according to state campaign finance disclosures. About $81,000 was paid to Midwest, indicating they kept 85% of the donations. Calls to POAM and Midwest were not returned.
One former employee, who worked at a Midwest call center in metro Detroit for three years, agreed to speak with MCFN on the condition of anonymity, out of concern of jeopardizing current professional relationships. He called the company a “boiler room operation” where the owners became millionaires fundraising for law enforcement unions across the U.S. and kept 90% of what they raised.
“There's no way that we were saying, ‘donate now, because 10% goes …’ No, they actually literally had to ask before we would say anything,” the former employee said. “We would just talk up the police ... You know, ‘they need your help, our boys in blue,’ that type of thing. But we never really actually said where the money went.”
This practice isn't unique in the nonprofit world, but not commonly used by prominent organizations. On Google, POAM has a 1.9-star rating, with negative reviews left largely by people angered by the solicitations. Midwest was sanctioned in Iowa in 2008 for using what that state’s attorney general called practices that “encouraged deception and abuse.”
According to IRS disclosures, POAM took in about $5.8 million in revenue in 2018, of which about $1.6 million went to “executive compensation.” When POAM’s president, Bruce Tignanelli, ran and was twice elected Bruce Township Supervisor as a Republican, POAM’s PAC donated $1,367 to his campaign.
While POAM has its own legislative director, other unions have retained some of Lansing’s most well-connected lobbyists.
“No police union can properly represent its members without maintaining close and effective working contacts with lawmakers,” the Michigan Association of Police (MAP) website explains. “No police union anywhere is more influential or respected in the political arena than the Michigan Association of Police.”
The Michigan Association of Police Organizations, which is another umbrella organization for unions representing officers in MAP, the Michigan State Police, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Warren and Kalamazoo, retains the lobbying firm Karoub Associates.
There’s no straightforward way to determine how much that representation costs, but a nonprofit called Michigan Police Legislative Coalition, which shares an address with MAP and the Police Officers Labor Council, reported spending $44,734 in 2018 on lobbying, according to filings with the Internal Revenue Service.
The Michigan State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, a division of a national organization, boasts on its website that it is “THE voice of law enforcement in Washington DC and Lansing.” They say they use the lobbying firm Muchmore, Harrington, Smalley & Associates, but do not report the amount they spend on lobbying in IRS filings.