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Nancy Kaffer: Bridge battle imbalance – a billionaire’s campaign vs. an underfunded effort

From the Detroit Free Press
September 27, 2012

By Nancy Kaffer

The Detroit Regional Chamber supports the New International Trade Crossing. So does Business Leaders for Michigan. The Detroit Three automakers say the bridge is “vital” and “critical.” In fact, business support for a second, publicly owned span across the Detroit River is all but universal — save, obviously, for Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun.

So where’s the money?

Before the August primary, Moroun spent $10 million, blanketing the state with anti-NITC ads. And the rest of the business community? All but silent.

Now, with a measure on the ballot that would amend the state Constitution to require voter approval to build a new international bridge, Detroit Regional Chamber President and CEO Sandy Baruah says business is ready to weigh in.

Baruah has two theories about the business community’s lack of action: “The benefits of delay, the benefits of opposition, are very concentrated with the Ambassador Bridge Co. Whereas the benefits of moving forward are very diffuse. … So we kind of have an imbalance.”

At the same time, he says, companies that rely on the bridge have been reluctant to antagonize Moroun.

The chamber has contributed to Taxpayers Against Monopolies, a group that was formed to fund an ultimately unsuccessful legal battle to keep the bridge proposal off the ballot. With that fight lost, the group intends to campaign against the ballot proposal, Executive Director Tom Shields said.

But the roughly $100,000 the group has already raised will be largely consumed by the cost of the legal battle, he said. Shields wouldn’t name the group’s other donors prior to the Oct. 25 campaign finance filing deadline, or name a target amount to raise before the November election. Both Shields and Baruah say there’s no way the pro-bridge group will outspend billionaire Moroun — Baruah estimates that pro-bridge groups will be outspent by as much as 6-1 — but both men note that polling puts Moroun at a disadvantage.

Shields says he’s not sure what form his campaign will take, but says he envisions a grassroots effort via the employers, workers and union members who would be affected if the publicly owned bridge is not built.

Business Leaders for Michigan spokeswoman Kelly Chesney said her organization has donated about $130,000 to Michigan Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, a Michigan Chamber of Commerce-backed group that opposes three November ballot proposals, saying that her group wants to maximize its limited resources. And Business Leaders for Michigan, Chesney said, contends that even if the constitutional amendment were passed, it wouldn’t impact the NITC.

While the Detroit Three say they support the bridge, the automakers aren’t leading a cash charge. A spokesman for Ford Motor Co. said the automaker is a “strong proponent” of the NITC, and says the company has contributed financially to efforts in support of the bridge but wouldn’t specify how much and to whom such donations have been made.

A General Motors spokesman says the company supports the bridge but hasn’t contributed any money and hasn’t decided whether it will in the future. Keep in mind, the vote is less than two months away. Chrysler declined to comment, referring instead to a statement of support for the project issued in June.

So, on the one side, you’ve got a billionaire with apparently endless pockets, a monopoly to protect and a willingness to spend whatever it takes to get the job done. On the other side, a grass-roots campaign and a group that’s dividing its resources among three proposals.

It’s hard to say what’s driving the apparent apathy among bridge supporters.

“Maybe (the business community) is just real confident people will figure it out, but that is a reckless strategy,” said Rich Robinson, head of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Robinson said that bridge supporters spent about $250,000 on statewide ads over the summer. But that’s not nearly enough to move the dial. For effective messaging, he says, budget $500,000 — a week.

“The long and short of it is, essentially this is a campaign that was running a $10-million (anti-bridge campaign), and the governor was trying to push back with an earned media campaign,” Robinson told me. “If this means something to the business community, where’s their voice?”

Contact Nancy Kaffer at 313-222-6585 or nkaffer@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @nancykaffer