Feb. 29 2012 12:00 AM


Ahh, 2012: Leap Year, a presidential election and the beginning of the rest of our lives. Michigan is not immune to the onslaught of negative campaigning that swamped Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and other states whose primary elections are over. Be prepared: The amount of money in the coffers of big players and the vitriol that splits the two dominant parties (their similarities arguably out-flanking their disagreements) will no doubt deluge us before summer ends.

What has this to do with our consumer issues? Consider this: The positions taken by elected office seekers on consumer issues, in the laws they pass or hold back, affect what we know about what we purchase. There isn’t an economist alive who thinks “the market” can work without full and honest information. So knowing where something is made, by whom, under what conditions, whether it can be harmful to the consumer, the employee, the community or the planet, are important pieces of making sure the market can work via consumers executing decisions based upon this knowledge.

But an increasing area of overlap with elections is following the money that runs them. Who is bankrolling whom in this election? This has been made more challenging with the Citizens United case and the rise of Super PACs. It wouldn’t surprise me if those expenditures this year outweigh the ones for candidate committees, because funding is both unlimited and largely invisible. So much for allowing the market to work for our democracy.

Those limitations aside, one can follow the money more easily using key Internet sources. At the federal level, congressional and presidential candidates and their committees must file quarterly reports for all donations above $200 per person as well as expenditures. These figures are searchable through www.opensecrets.org. 

At the state level, we have the National Institute on Money in State Politics (www.followthemoney.org) that allows us to see donations above the $20 threshold that must be reported. For incumbents, these databases show where the money came from during the last election cycle and into 2011 — an off-election year with typically little activity. As the first quarterly reports due in April, the money trail will start showing up. 

So if you know a business owner, you can enter the name and see where they are putting their political investment. Perhaps their interest in the political sphere aligns with your own. Should it affect your business with them? It’s a legitimate question for the individual citizen/consumer to wrestle with. But if you are supporting a business that then uses your expenditures to support candidates and causes you are against, aren’t you voting against yourself?

So let’s take a glimpse at groceries. At the state level, the Michigan Grocers Association contributed more than $9,000 in 2010, all to Republican candidates. Note that not all retail grocers are members of MGA.  We can also see that Mark Murray, CEO of Meijer, gave more than $11,000 to Rick Snyder, Bill Scheutte, Pete Hoekstra and other Republicans in the 2010 election. Meijer itself gave $254,397 to candidates at the state level in 2011, with more than 77 percent going to Republicans. At the federal level last year, Murray gave more than $45,000 to the Republican National Committee, Mike Rogers, Tim Walburg, Pete Hoekstra, Bill Huizenga, and John Boehner. Meijer has already given $5,000 to Rep. Bill Huizenga for his 2012 race.

Kroger spent $275,000 on federal lobbying last year. Their Kroger PAC contributed $41,240 during the 2010 election cycle, with 52 percent going towards Republican candidates and 48 percent going to Democrats. None of those candidates were from Michigan. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union spent $240,000 on lobbying in 2011. They have contributed $602,000 nationally for the 2011-2012 election cycle, with a $5,000 contribution to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, their only Michigan contribution to date. Meanwhile, Stan Martin, CEO of the local Quality Dairy chain, donated $500 to Virg Bernero’s campaign in 2010.

As we enter the mayhem of the electoral season you may want to see if your dollars are supporting your political values. While Citizens United makes it easier for big donors to hide their money, the online tools for tracking the more traditional campaign fundraising allow us to align another set of our values with our consumer actions.

(Terry Link was the founding director of MSU’s Office of Campus Sustainability and recently retired as director of the Greater Lansing Food Bank.)