By CRAIG MAUGER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING — It’s almost 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in downtown Lansing, and the most popular doughnut shop in walking distance of the State Capitol is closed for a private party.
The event that’s closed Glazed and Confused on this April morning is a fundraiser for State Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker (R-Lawton). Inside, Schuitmaker can be seen mingling with lobbyists and fellow lawmakers. At about 7:50 a.m., Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) joins the festivities.
According to a notice for the event that was spread among lobbyists and also a sign posted outside the doughnut shop, the fundraiser is scheduled to run from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. There’s a bit of a problem, however, because Schuitmaker is due at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Technology Committee at 8 a.m.
So at about that time, 8:01 a.m., Schuitmaker walks out of her fundraiser, which continued without her, and walks toward the committee hearing a block away. During the journey, she happens to cross paths with Sen. Goeff Hansen (R-Hart), who was heading toward her fundraising event.
From the porch of another downtown eatery, Hansen can be heard asking Schuitmaker, “Did I miss it?” She informed him the event was ongoing. That's despite the fact that she had legislative business to attend to.
While it’s impossible to tell the frequency of situations like the one that occurred Wednesday with Schuitmaker, it’s clear that in 2015, state lawmakers held hundreds of fundraisers with the majority of them taking place within walking distance of the Capitol on legislative session days.
The Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) analyzed disclosures for state officeholders’ candidate committees and political action committees (PACs) and found that there were at least 315 fundraisers held in 2015 — an off-year with no regularly scheduled elections.
Of those 315 fundraisers, 170 of them — 54 percent — occurred in Lansing on days when at least the House was scheduled to be in session.
The House had 102 planned session days last year. Documented fundraisers were held on 82 of those days — about 80 percent. The Legislature generally meets three days a week — Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday — from mid-January through the end of June and from early September through mid-December.
Not only are legislative session days popular days for fundraisers but locations within walking distance of the Capitol and committee meeting rooms are also popular.
This set-up allows lawmakers who are raising money and lobbyists who are donating money to quickly move from their fundraisers to their legislative appointments.
For instance, this week on Wednesday, four different lawmakers were scheduled to hold fundraisers within two blocks of the Capitol building, according to a schedule viewed by MCFN. Sen. Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy), Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit), Rep. Henry Vaupel (R-Troy) and Schuitmaker were all scheduled to hold events near the Capitol during the day, according to the schedule.
The events for Knollenberg and Gay-Dagnogo were scheduled to take place inside a conference room maintained by Karoub Associates, a multi-client lobbying firm. The firm’s “Governors Room” is located within the same block as the Farnum Building, which houses the Senate offices.
“The Governors Room is Lansing’s premier legislative reception facility,” Karoub’s website says. “Located just steps from the Capitol Building and within two blocks of all legislative offices, this events space offers an unparalleled location for legislators to host off-site activities."
It continues, “Our client receptions in the Governors Room offer you the opportunity to interact with legislators in a casual yet elegant setting.”
MCFN tracked 58 documented fundraisers that listed Karoub’s address, 121 W. Allegan St., as their location in 2015. That’s about 18 percent of all of the fundraisers state officeholders reported.
While Karoub is a firm that lobbies on behalf of a laundry list of interest groups, one specific interest group, the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, is also a major player in the fundraiser-hosting game.
MCFN tracked 24 fundraisers that occurred at the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers’ downtown Lansing office in 2015. The office is located at 332 Townsend St. It takes roughly three minutes and 20 seconds to walk from that office to the door of the State Capitol.
Lawmakers reported raising about $250,000 in 2015 at fundraisers held at the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers’ office.
House Health Policy Chair Mike Callton (R-Nashville) reported raising $40,800 there during a September event. Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor), the vice chair of the Senate Regulatory Reform Committee, reported raising $8,949 there in September as well.
Earlier in 2015, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) had a breakfast reception there — on a session day — and reported raising $29,500.
According to the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers’ own website, “literally hundreds of state lawmakers” have partnered with the organization since the early 1980s “to assist with their fundraising efforts” through the use of the organization’s space.
“With our headquarters building just two blocks south of the State Capitol in Lansing, it makes for an ideal location for such events,” the website says.
It adds, “Raising the resources necessary to conduct successful political campaigns is a never ending struggle for state lawmakers and use of the 1933 Room can make the task more manageable.”
And the statistics indicate that it’s “more manageable” to raise money at events in Lansing, where lobbyists and interest groups are located, than back in lawmakers’ districts, where constituents are located.
According to MCFN’s tracking for 2015, $3.04 million was raised at Lansing-based fundraisers while $1.44 million was raised at events elsewhere.
Asked why home district-based fundraisers are so unpopular, one source with knowledge of fundraising strategies put it, “There is no reliable, institutional money floating around Palookaville.”
On Wednesday, numerous lobbyists representing diverse groups, like the Michigan Association for Justice and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, could be seen leaving Schuitmaker’s fundraiser while Schuitmaker was a block away attending the committee meeting and listening to testimony on proposed energy policy reforms.
Asked about the situation this week, an email from Schuitmaker’s campaign emphasized that the senator’s first priority is her constituents.
“Her event was scheduled well in advance of the committee hearing being scheduled,” the Schuitmaker campaign said. “But her obligation is to the committee, which is why she left her event and attended the entire hearing.”
As for how much Schuitmaker raised on Wednesday, the campaign said that total would be reported at the next campaign finance reporting deadline in July.
Amber McCann, the Senate spokesperson for Meekhof, declined to answer the question of whether Meekhof supports the idea of his members having fundraisers going on while casting votes or listening to committee testimony.
McCann said she doesn’t comment on senators’ fundraisers or campaign activities.