Why Is Ann Arbor’s State Senator Accepting Free Meals From the City’s Own Lobbyist?
by P.D. Lesko
In September 2011, MLive political analyst Susan J. Demas outed Democratic State Senator Rebekah Warren (left) as one of only four Michigan legislators who had accepted more than $1,800 in free food and drinks from lobbyists during 2011. In contrast Representative Jeff Irwin, who was elected in 2010 to represent Michigan’s 53rd District (the seat previously held by Warren), didn’t make the list compiled by the watchdog Michigan Campaign Finance Network during the same time period. A2Politico included information about about Senator Warren’s penchant for free food from lobbyists in a November 15, 2011 piece questioning Warren’s sponsorship of a bill that subsequently benefitted her husband politically, Washtenaw County Commissioner Conan Smith. Three days later, AnnArbor.com’s government reporter picked up on A2Politico’s reporting and posted “Sen. Rebekah Warren ranks No. 4 on list of Michigan lawmakers receiving lobbyist-paid meals.” In that piece, Ryan Stanton identified the lobbyists from whom Warren had accepted food and drinks:
Warren had a total tab of more than $1,800, according to data provided by Rich Robinson, the network’s executive director.
The group’s analysis shows that included $105.14 from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, $972.02 from Governmental Consultant Services Inc., $61.25 from Kelley Cawthorne, $295.26 from the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, $364.28 from the Michigan Bell Telephone Co., and $3.26 from the Michigan Municipal League.
Comments in response to the AnnArbor.com piece ran the gamut. One commenter defends Warren:
Rebekah Warren is exactly who we want and need in Lansing. The fact that she’s had some free lunches from lobbyists and then voted against some of their bills really doesn’t bother me. If this really bothers you then call on the GOP, which controls all 3 branches of government, to enact better campaign lobbying rules. She’s right on all the issues and she’s the most progressive Dem in the Senate. I really don’t think this is much of a story.
The next comment implies that Warren has a reputation in Lansing as a free lunch chow hound: “Well she has earned her nickname in Capital circles ‘Shrimpbowl Becky’.”
According to the list of the Top 200 Michigan Lobbyists released recently by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, Governmental Consultant Services Inc. sits at number two on the list, behind StudentsFirst, the nonprofit launched by former Washington, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. StudentsFirst collaborated with Republicans on legislation that limited collective bargaining rights for teachers in Michigan. In the first six months of 2011, Governmental Consultant Services Inc. dropped $774,814 on lobbying Michigan’s 148 legislators and other elected and appointed officials. Again, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, in the first six months of 2011, the top 200 lobbying firms spent $13.5 million dollars trying to influence the votes of and curry favor within the Michigan legislature. That’s a 20.6 percent increase in spending by lobbyists in comparison to the first six months of 2010.
A piece published in the Detroit Free Press titled “No such thing as a free lunch? There is for state lawmakers in Lansing,” begins powerfully:
Six days a week at the City Rescue Mission in Lansing, about 50 people — many homeless and all down on their luck — line up for a free lunch that begins at noon.
All they must do for the meal — maybe soup and sandwich or a pasta dish with a salad bar and dessert — is show respectful behavior and promise to stay for the chapel service.
Five blocks west at the Capitol, state lawmakers and their staff can line up for a free lunch on many days, too. In exchange for the sandwich, chips and salad, or the restaurant meal from a lobbyist, legislators must listen to a special-interest group’s pitch, review materials created to bolster that pitch and be open to supporting (or opposing) bills that affect that special interest.
The majority of the lobbyists that took Warren out for meals should come as no surprise, as many of the groups also gave her campaign donations in 2010 through their political PACs. However, the lobbyist that spent the most money on Warren raises some interesting questions. The $972.02 from Governmental Consultant Services Inc., (GCSI) a little over half of the money spent on Warren in 2011, was spent by the lobbying firm employed by the city of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and half a dozen other local entities, including the University of Michigan, entities Warren represents in her position as a state senator.
“Integrity, diligence, bipartisan. Powerful words synonymous with Governmental Consultant Services.” This is part of the message visitors to the CGSI site hear when they land on the home page the first time. It’s a clever and powerful introduction.
However, one wonders what integrity and diligence GCSI demonstrates when the firm paid to lobby on behalf of Ann Arbor in Lansing uses taxpayer money from its contract with the city to lobby the city’s own state Senator, and what diligence and integrity Senator Warren demonstrates by double and triple dipping from taxpayers, first a salary, benefits, housing allowance (which she doesn’t use on housing because she commutes from Ann Arbor) and then meals paid for by GCSI. Shouldn’t Washtenaw County and Ann Arbor voters be able to expect Senator Warren to represent the best interests of Ann Arbor without the city’s own lobbyist having to convince her with free food and drinks on a regular basis?
Former legislators don’t equivocate when talking about accepting lobbyist-paid meals. Former state Senator Doug Ross, now Detroit Public Schools’ chief innovation officer, never accepted lobbyist-paid meals.
He told the Freep: “I went to my first luncheon with the AFL-CIO and they served these little steaks and potatoes, and I brought in a hamburger in a bag. I think they were a little offended. But when I ran for the state Senate in 1978, I told my constituents I would pay for my own lunches. I went out to lunch with lobbyists as much as anybody else because they are a great source of information, but I’d say, ‘Let’s split the tab.'”
While Democrat Rebekah Warren accepted lobbyist-paid meals at a clip, fellow Democrat, State Representative Vickie Barnett, of Farmington Hills, employs a different strategy when meeting with lobbyists. “I buy my own lunch,” she was quoted as saying in “No such thing as a free lunch? There is for state lawmakers in Lansing,”
It’s possible that the free meals given to Warren by GCSI have something to do with the fact that Washtenaw County employs the company to lobby on behalf of the county in Lansing. Warren’s husband, Conan Smith, currently chairs the Board of Commissioners — and in October 2011 voted in favor of a multi-year six-figure contract for GCSI to lobby on behalf of Washtenaw County. In addition to Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, Governmental Consultant Services Inc. represents the political interests of Ypsilanti Township, and Ypsilanti, as well.
What does GCSI deliver? According to a piece posted to the AnnArborChronicle.com in June 2011 when Ann Arbor City Council re-upped its contract with the company, “GCSI’s Kirk Profit, a former member of the state House of Representatives, typically makes an annual presentation to the council with an update on state-level legislative issues relevant to the city’s budget situation. Written updates to councilmembers on legislative activity are sent on a weekly or daily basis.”
Taxpayers might do well to ask why Senator Rebekah Warren couldn’t deliver an annual presentation to elected officials, or send regular updates, or why local elected officials, who are also paid by taxpayers, can’t navigate to the Michigan legislature web site and read for themselves about recent legislative activity. However, thanks to cozy political ties (Kirk Profit, Director of GCSI, is a regular contributor to the campaigns of many local politicos) and, perhaps, free lunches in Lansing, Washtenaw County provides Kirk Profit and his colleagues at GCSI with a steady gravy train of taxpayer dollars from the coffers of cities competing against each other in a bruising battle for state money.
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