What do you get when you combine a first-time candidate for state office -- in the person of Andrew Fink -- with an unscrupulous, deep-pocketed dark-money group, and a four-way primary race in Michigan's 58th State House District?
You get the current situation.
Hillsdale city councilmember Bill Zeiser first brought this subject to light earlier this month in a post on Hillsdale's Hot Debates. As Zeiser noted in his post, the group "Citizens for Energizing Michigan's Economy" had not been active on Facebook since 2017 before buying ads for several state representative candidates this summer. One of their video ads paints Fink as a "conservative," a "former captain in the United States Marine Corps" who they claim has a "plan to protect our freedoms and Christian values."
"Citizens for Energizing Michigan's Economy" is also running ads for Ranjeev Puri, a Democratic candidate in Michigan's 21st District, located in western Wayne County (metro Detroit, for those who don't live in Michigan, which generally votes Democrat to begin with). A video ad for him touts the candidate as "an experienced leader who worked for President Barack Obama" who will make sure everyone has the "education, health care, and skills to succeed" following the coronavirus pandemic, and who they claim has a "plan for new opportunities for Michigan."
Not exactly a principled group, these "Citizens for Energizing Michigan's Economy."
So who exactly are they? According to the Energy and Policy Institute, they are a 501(c)(4) organization funded primarily by Consumers Energy, which uses the supposed "social welfare organization" to run borderline-legal campaign advertising in favor of candidates that (something something something maybe they get a promise from or maybe they just hope something something something) will support Consumers Energy's policy agenda in Lansing. In fact, on the topic of legality, EPI notes that around this time in 2018, Patrick Anderson of the Anderson Economic Group filed a complaint with the IRS to challenge "Citizens for Energizing Michigan's Economy" on their tax status. According to EPI:
Anderson writes that CEME is “operating in direct violation of its claimed purpose to ‘receive and administer funds for social welfare purposes’ … The primary purpose of CEME, as evidenced by its activities and expenditures, is to conduct political campaigns that support or oppose specific candidates for state offices in the State of Michigan.”
In 2017, EPI writes, CEME contributed $25,000 to the Electric Markets Research Foundation, a "front group for electric utilities" which has "commissioned papers supporting utilities’ positions on issues like net metering and the need to extend the lifetimes of non-competitive coal and nuclear plants, and has distributed them to state utility commissioners at [National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners] events."
EPI also notes the following connections:
- CEME President Howard Edelson, currently also president of the Edelson Group, managed Consumers Energy's 2012 campaign against a ballot initiative that would have increased the state's renewable energy level to 25% by 2025.
- CEME Vice President Brandon Hoffmeister is also Consumers Energy's Senior VP of Governmental, Regulatory, and Public Affairs.
- CEME Treasurer/Secretary Ronn Rasmussen is formerly Consumers Energy's Vice President of Strategy and Research.
- CEME's former Vice President David Mengebier was also formerly Consumers Energy's Senior VP of Governmental, Regulatory, and Public Affairs, and was also the president of the Consumers Energy Foundation.
In short, "Citizens for Energizing Michigan's Economy" is the dark-money political campaign arm of Consumers Energy.
When Bill Zeiser first pointed all of this out -- which he apparently found out about through seeing one of CEME's ads for Andrew Fink on Facebook -- I, among many others, immediately called on Fink to address the issue. Specifically, I gave him three questions to answer:
- Is he knowingly accepting dark money contributions -- regardless of whether they're direct or in-kind?
- If so, what does he plan to do for the donors in return?
- If not, does he denounce the group and reject their backing?
I issued those questions to him on July 9th. He did not bother responding until this morning, July 22nd, when publicly visible questions on his campaign's Facebook posts began picking up pace.
Now Fink is fighting a losing battle to claim that I'm spreading lies about him. Here's the long and short of it:
A bit of a mistake on my part there: they're a 501(c)(4) organization. An extremely minor detail, but the error necessitates correction.
Oof! Self-pwnage, as the kids would say. (See? I'm hip and with it.)
Another error on my part: the ad does not include video of Fink. It includes still images. To use a Bushism, I was misremembering it. To be fair, I only watched it once or twice earlier this month and hadn't seen it since, so I'm sure you can understand. However, the point still remains: working in media as I do, I know that it takes good-quality still photographs to produce the level of video that CEME did. I find it hard to believe that they just pulled some pictures off of Fink's social media pages to use for that spot.
For the record: yes, I DO support Mayor Stockford in this race, but I am not actively campaigning for him beyond sharing the occasional post of his on Facebook. I do not work for Stockford's campaign, nor have I donated to him. And my support for Stockford IN NO WAY has ANYTHING to do with Andrew Fink's refusal to condemn and reject the support of an unethical campaign arm of a monopolistic utility corporation.
I did not realize my error about the video until I prepared to write this piece. But again: the still images are of reasonably high quality, well-suited to the purpose. I find it hard to believe that was any coincidence.
Additionally, I want to make it absolutely clear why Lauren Fink's attempt to connect with me upsets me, because you might get the impression that I'm insulted by the lack of friendship due to our shared Hillsdale College connection.
No. That doesn't matter to me in the least.
What angers me is that Lauren reached out to me STRICTLY for the purposes of campaigning, almost as if she thought that our shared Hillsdale College connection meant that I would automatically be interested in supporting her husband's candidacy. As I pointed out in the comment above, I'm not a means to a political end, and the fact that I work as the public address announcer for Hillsdale College does not mean that I would simply support the political candidacy of someone also connected to Hillsdale College. I vote based on principle, not popularity in my various and assorted social circles. I also vote based on principle instead of political party. I vote based on principle, PERIOD. So trying to connect with me out of the middle of nowhere for campaign purposes does not sit well with me, and the impression I get that it was because we share that connection sits even less well with me. It's insulting, it's disingenuous, and it's not acceptable. That's why I didn't bother responding to the request, and I will not do so in the future, either.
That being said, somewhat ironically, Adam Stockford and I are also connected through Hillsdale College, he being a graduate of the school, as well. But Adam and I more specifically know each other through his own political career as a city council member and mayor of Hillsdale. I back him because I've seen his work, and I believe he is the best person for the District 58 seat. I have no such experience with Fink.
Perfectly stated by Zeiser here.
Then Andrew attempted to double down in several places where I had commented, but here's one from my Uncommon Sense page:
ALL of this could have been avoided If Andrew Fink had simply said, for example, "I reject the support of Citizens for Energizing Michigan's Economy, and I promise that I will do what is right for the people of Hillsdale and Branch Counties, not what Consumers Energy asks me to do."
But this candidate refuses to say those words, and now he's wrongfully accusing me of lying about the whole thing, hoping in vain to make it all go away. He refuses to condemn this unethical and misleading ad campaign... most likely because he knows he'll benefit from it. So the question must be asked: is he beholden to Consumers' agenda?
Some Christian values.
UPDATE: As of 11:30 PM this evening, he's still trying, which would be sad if it weren't so hilarious.
UPDATE 2 (7/23): Fink has now cleared up ANY question about the issue: he has been bought and paid for. Remember: a vote for Andrew Fink is a vote for Consumers Energy.