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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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Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=11384

21 Comments for “Why Is Ann Arbor’s State Senator Accepting Free Meals From the City’s Own Lobbyist?”

  1. Analyze why the school is better. And take that
    analysis to an indepth level.
    Feedback, rate of attention, compliance training, consistency in
    teaching, commitment by staff to do the job.

    Do not make broad generalizations that people
    can and will use.

  2. @Rose: No, I don’t work at one of these schools though I often tell people that I’m a black woman trapped in a white man’s body.

    Improved schools is the same thing as a better graduation rate for blacks? Perhaps there is a different definition of a better school. Is a school better because more of the graduates go on to become CEOs of companies (and many fail)? Or is the school better because all of the graduates go on to college?

  3. Ok. It took me a couple of days to think about what you wrote. First of all, I take it you don’t actually work at one of these schools?

    Actually, that’s not the first things. We when talk about they and them are better over there and not over here, that’s discriminatory thinking in it’s purest sense. You are not really saying that the schools were improved, you are saying, put this bunch in this setting and I have an school advertisement to show you.

  4. I’m really confused on how to respond. You mean you’ve never heard the phrase “he dances like a white dude?”

    http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/03/31/27kipp_ep.h30.html
    http://www.good.is/post/q-a-solving-the-black-male-school-achievement-puzzle/
    http://www.ibabuzz.com/education/2011/11/10/in-oakland-a-charter-school-for-black-boys-and-other-proposals/

    Also, locally, think of what Mike Madison was trying to work out at Dicken (of course now I might partially understand your anger) but I haven’t the faintest idea of what I’ve stepped on here.

  5. One article in the nydaily news… Reread your statement and think harder about why it’s a problem. You equate race with culture.

  6. @Rose: ?
    Here is what I refer to: http://articles.nydailynews.com/2010-08-24/news/29439041_1_charter-schools-achievement-first-public-school-counterparts or http://www.thegrio.com/specials/making-the-grade/urban-prep-provides-blueprint-for-blacks-seeking-higher-ed.php

    Far from skin color, we’re talking culture here.

  7. Wow, that’s miserable, offensive statement…are we talking light skinned blacks or dark skinned? I’m being sarcastic and it’s a nasty statement on your part.

  8. @rose: On the charter schools, the evidence is that black kids do very well in classes with other black kids, which is a real strength of the charter schools. The MEA is likely to open a divide in the state Democratic party on this issue if the other side is able to seize on this (probably was the major fear of a Cain candidate).

    Also, on for profit vs MEA: MEA are public employees with collective bargaining rights, they have way more sway than any private outfit.

  9. Rich Robinson, a U-M grad, has done a great job in advocating reforms in campaign financing and tracking the flows of money from donors to legislators and judges.

  10. @A2P: Well, the Republicans on the Committee found time to be there and it was announced ahead of time. I think their intentional scheduling of the hearing two days before the holiday and while the Legislature was on break was nothing short of odious. Nonetheless, she should have been there as an advocate, to ask pertinent questions and show solidarity for the workers of Michigan. She’s the “thin blue line” in a manner of speaking. We need all hands on deck at all times.

  11. I like Rebekah and her politics in general but I agree that these free lunches are inappropriate. It’s hard to criticize our political opponents (in my case the Republicans) when our own representatives in the legislature are pulling the same “stuff”.

    That said, I’m actually far more grumpy that Rep. Warren didn’t attend the Senate Reforms, Restructuring and Reinventing Committee hearing on workers compensation “reforms” last week. The only other Democrat on the Committee, Coleman Young II showed up an hour late and she didn’t show up at all. As I said on my blog, “There isn’t much standing between Republican overreach and the working citizens of Michigan. It would be nice if the Democratic lawmakers that are our primary advocates in the legislature took the job a bit more seriously.”

    • No doubt Senator Warren started her Thanksgiving holiday a little early, alas. Scheduling this hearing right before a holiday was a sure way to keep coverage out of the media.

  12. You are right about the district, it’s just the lesser of evils
    that we seek…no,no, the perfect is the enemy of the
    good..oh wait, I don’t have any more platitudes, except
    we live with what we can’t rise above..that’s from a
    Springsteen song.
    I’m willing to give Rebekah some leeway. I have
    liked a lot of her votes. Were she a guy would
    I have complained? Of course I would, and I would have been
    quite pleased to see Liz Brater picked on.

  13. As for Rebekah, you are picking on her some. I still like her and even if you point out the problem with the non free, free lunch angle, I don’t think it’s influencing
    her. I’ve found her smart and aware. Unlike Liz Brater, who someone really should have been picked on more.

    • @rose, if Rebekah were, say, a man, would you say A2Politico’s piece about her penchant for lobbyist-paid meals was “picking on her?” I don’t think sitting down with the county’s own lobbyist is influencing her. That’s the point. Aren’t we paying her to represent us, and the lobbyist to lobby pols whose votes we need? Either Warren is completely mercenary and must be bribed by a lobbyist to represent her District, or she is someone who has the scruples of a toaster oven. Either way, she needs to rethink her priorities. Does Washtenaw County deserve Shrimpbowl Becky? As for Brater, had A2Politico been around I’m sure Senator Brater’s work would have been scrutinized.

  14. Unbelievably, the a2journal has a good article on the charter school issue. Charters sound good in theory, and stink when you get up close to them. Been there with my kid myself. As my BIL has pointed out to me, is the for profit any different than the MEA? And I asked him, what kind of argument is that?

    • @rose I saw the A2Journal piece. Public education sounds good in theory and stinks when you get up close, as well. Look, the AAPS is not run as a revenue neutral model. They run a surplus which they have been spending, quietly, so that the District can continue to spend more than it brings in. It’s all about money, alas.

  15. You are just ragging on this woman lately.
    Why aren’t focused on the charter school problem
    or something else more substantial then the lunch bill>

    • @rose I know it’s appears as though she ‘s just not getting a break here. Partially, it has to do with what’s happening in the news, and partially it’s because we’re picking on girls this week. Seriously, it’s not a lunch bill. It’s your money. It’s a state senator who is behaving as though no one is watching. As for the charter schools, in theory competition is supposed to be good for a marketplace. The jury is out on the overall efficacy of charter schools, I think. However, why on earth shouldn’t a kid in Detroit get to go to a school where there are motivated teachers, books, good facilities and classrooms with 20 students in them? If that’s the nearby charter school, well then, why not?

      I am very concerned that the MEA and the state pols whom the organization donated to in 2010 are motivated by money, and not by what could be in the best interests of the kids.

  16. @A2politico,

    Nice job on this story. While I disagree with your presentation of Warren’s support for the regional transportation study group, free meals from lobbists really are unecessary and set a bad image. I don’t think Warren, nor any other pol, should get their lunch comped by lobbists. She earns a fair salary. She can pay for her own lunch (or pack one) and still get information.

    • @Brandon thanks. I really enjoy your perspective, particularly because we often see the issues somewhat differently.

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