New state lawmakers raise cash differently

By Mike Householder

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- Dan Benishek, a general surgeon and self-proclaimed "citizen candidate," often said during last year's campaign that he was spurred to make a first run for federal office by out-of-control spending in Washington.

Criticism of "career politicians" became a fixture in the Crystal Falls Republican's stump speech as he sailed to victory in Michigan's 1st District over a Democratic state lawmaker. The seat was open after nine-term Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak said he would not run again.

A recently released campaign fundraising report for the first three months of Benishek's initial term, however, shows an unexpected pattern for the political outsider: he accepted tens of thousands of dollars' worth of donations from out-of-state political action committees -- a development one industry watcher claims is evidence of how the culture of Congress already has changed Benishek and another that says it's just how business gets done in Washington.

Benishek, who says he's running again in 2012, received $89,106 in contributions of $200 or more in the first quarter of 2011, 74 percent of which was from out-of-state donors, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data conducted by the Democratic-leaning Public Campaign Action Fund.

"Until we change the way campaigns are financed in this country, Rep. Benishek and his colleagues will have to spend too much time raising money from big money donors and too little time focused on their constituents," said David Donnelly, national campaigns director for Public Campaign Action Fund.

A member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Benishek, 59, accepted $5,000 each from Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. PAC and Exxon Mobil Corp. PAC; $2,000 from XCEL Energy Employee Political Action Committee; $1,500 from DTE Energy Co. Political Action Committee and $1,000 from COAL PAC.

Spokesman Kyle Bonini said that as Benishek's profile increases so too will the number of donors who want to help. And, Bonini said, his boss is happy to accept their assistance.

"The congressman's views on fiscal responsibility, lower taxes and less regulation are becoming increasingly known," Bonini said. "As his political philosophy becomes more pronounced, he will naturally receive political support from like-minded individuals both inside and outside Michigan. Those who wish to endorse Congressman Benishek's efforts are welcomed supporters."

Early in his candidacy, Benishek aligned himself with tea party groups who shared his disgust over a soaring budget deficit, corporate bailouts and what they considered to be an out-of-control federal government.

"I couldn't take it anymore. I had to do something. So I stood up, and that's why I'm running today," he said at a 2010 campaign event. "I think voters see my candidacy as that of a citizen candidate, an activist, in a year in which people are expressing their strong opposition to career politicians."

Rich Robinson, who heads up the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonpartisan group that conducts research on campaign contributions and their relationship to election outcomes, said he's not surprised at Benishek's fundraising method.

"It's not new. It's the way business is done," Robinson said, adding that much of the money Benishek brought in for his run last year came from outside groups.

"The lobbyists are the ones who can fill a breakfast meeting with people who can write checks on behalf of PACs," Robinson said. "It's a very corporatized-kind of a process. It's not like: Call your neighbors and ask them if they can send you 50 bucks."

While one of Benishek's fellow Michigan congressional freshmen -- GOP Rep. Bill Huizenga of Zeeland -- also took in most of his money from PACs during the January-March period, the state's two other Capitol Hill first-timers took different approaches to raising campaign dollars.

Detroit Democratic Rep. Hansen Clarke accepted 25 donations from individuals worth $15,000 and 25 from PACs worth $27,150.

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Kent County's Cascade Township, largely eschewed big-money givers, taking in $33,375 from 32 individual donors -- all of them from Michigan. Amash only accepted donations from four political action committees, compared with 28 for Huizenga and 25 for Benishek.


Mike Householder can be reached at

Published: Tue, May 17, 2011