Interview — September 30, 2013 at 7:14 am

INTERVIEW: Dan O’Neil talks about the Michigan Election Reform Conference in Traverse City – Oct. 11, 2013


A conference for anyone who is interested in fair government.

The corrosive impact of money in our elections, particularly here in Michigan, is clearly evident to anyone who pays the slightest bit of attention. Even the elections for our state Supreme Court justices are fueled by money from corporate interests and wealthy individuals. Unfortunately, due to the permissive laws of Michigan, much of the money spent to influence our elections is from unknown sources, the so-called “dark money” of politics.

There is a groundswell of activism in Michigan on this issue with a variety of groups working on it. On Friday, October 11, 2013, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, Michigan Center for Election Law, and Common Cause Michigan are putting on a Michigan Election Reform conference in Traverse City. The conference features an all-star line-up of election reform activists and leaders from around the state and around the country.

In the morning, you’ll hear from:

  • Ian Vandewalker – Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School
  • Mark Brewer – Former Michigan Democratic Party chair and political consultant at Goodman & Acker, P.C.
  • Jocelyn Benson – former candidate for Michigan Secretary of State and Dean of the Wayne State University Law School
  • Rich Robinson – Executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network

In the afternoon there will be panels on legislative, judicial, labor, and progressive issues, all with equally impressive panelists. Admission is only $35 for the entire day (which includes lunch) and only $25 for students and seniors. The conference takes place at the West Bay Beach Resort – Holiday Inn in Traverse City.

You can learn more and register for the conference HERE. The conference Facebook page which is updated regularly is HERE.

I spoke with one of the organizers of the Michigan Election Reform conference, Michigan Association of Justice executive board member and attorney Dan O’Neil to find out more about how the conference came about, what the organizers are trying to accomplish, and who should attend.

Thanks for chatting with me today, Dan. I was having a look at the website for your conference and I’m really very impressed. How long has this been in the works?

We started putting together the list of speakers in early summer but it’s really the culmination of some work that I’ve been doing for a couple of years. I’m a trial lawyer and, after the 2010 Michigan Supreme Court election, I started doing some work because it became apparent to me that most folks don’t really understand who these people are that are running for the Supreme Court or the impact that it has on them in their everyday lives. So I put together a program that I took out on the road to let folks know just who these people were and what kind of decisions we were getting. I spent a lot of time doing that and met a lot of people who are interested in the issue of how campaigns are run and particularly how they are financed.

This is a bit of culmination of that. It seemed to me that, while it’s important for people to understand the issues and who the candidates are, it’s even more important to have an underlying system that’s fair and that allows people’s views to be represented. This seems to me to be a sort of step back to get to the root of this thing.

Why do it in Traverse City instead of, for example, Lansing or Detroit?

Well, for one thing, I live in Traverse City! But, also, Traverse City in the fall is a terrific place and we hoped to be able to bring those folks that we have lined up up here because, one, we feel that folks from northern Michigan need to be involved in this issue as well, so we wanted to give them an opportunity to see these people, meet these people, and hear from them. And, two, I think it’s a good opportunity to get the people we have participating in the conference together in a place like Traverse City where they can spend a little time talking to each other, which I think is really important, as well.

It’s a really nice destination, actually, and it’s getting more and more attention. The Michigan Democratic Party just had a big meeting up there, for example. There seem to be more and more big-name conferences happening there, as well.

It is a terrific place for that kind of stuff. The film festival has gotten a lot of attention, too.

So, you have four different panels in addition to the speakers, which I thought was interesting. A Judicial panel which has some really big names, actually. Alton Davis and Elizabeth Weaver. Elizabeth Weaver, she’s from Glen Arbor, correct?

That’s right. She started as a probate judge over in Leelanau County.

I’m curious as to what the Progressive panel is. How would you characterize that? The Labor, Judicial, and Legislative panels are pretty obvious but what’s your focus with the Progressive panel?

I think it was hard to put a label on that panel. The purpose of the panels, as I envision it, is to be able to describe what it’s like to do the work that they do, whether it’s labor or legislative, with the absolute barrage of money that gets put into these races, and trying to do their work knowing that any decision they make, any effort they make may, one, trigger a barrage of money from somewhere that they may anticipate or may NOT anticipate. And, also, whatever work they do comes with a huge price tag in today’s political world.

So, the idea with the progressive panel was to get people like Jane Bailey from the Trial Lawyers and Melanie McElroy from Common Cause and Libby McGaughey from America Votes to talk about what it like to try to work in the arena of competing ideas where everything is dictated by how much money you can raise and how much money will be spent, either for or against, to give us an idea of what that’s like. And, also, to share what they think can be done; what’s realistic to do, what’s not realistic to do, what they think their membership is capable of and not capable of, things like that.

One of the overarching themes of this conference is that there are lots of groups around the state that are working on this issue and we want to get as many people from those groups under one roof as we can so that we recognize each other and begin to work with each other, and there are organizations that do that already. But the idea is to get them all together and, if there are ideas that people have that don’t work for specific groups, I think folks need to understand why that is. It may well be true that there are ideas for reform that labor would not be all that crazy about or that trial lawyers might not be all that crazy about. If people want to go forward with those sorts of ideas, they need to understand that. They need to understand that, well, you can go forward with that but expect to go forward without the support of labor or without the support of the trial attorneys. Let them make reasoned, confident decisions based on information and explanations from the folks who represent those organizations.

I was very impressed that you had Rich Robinson from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network speaking. I’ve seen him present before and he’s just dynamite on this stuff. So is Jocelyn Benson, of course. That right there is worth the price of admission, as far as I’m concerned.

I do, too, and I know Rich, I’ve seen him make presentations a number of times and I agree. His command of what actually happens in the real world is terrific. And Jocelyn, as well. I know Jocelyn and she is a terrific advocate for the kind of reforms we’re talking about. I think one of the most interesting speakers, actually, will be Ian Vandewalker from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School.

I’m not familiar with him so that will be interesting.

Well, the folks at the Brennan Center played a lead role in organizing the campaign finance reforms that were introduced in the New York legislature last fall in which they came very, very close to getting passed this spring. These reforms included, among other things, small donor matching which is a public campaign financing program which currently exists in New York City. There was also a bill in Congress called the Empowering Citizens Act which was introduced last January which also incorporates that small donor matching public financing program. They’ve really been working very hard, building a very good organization in the state of New York to try to get that done.

Ian’s going to be here to talk about that program but also to talk to us about how you build that kind of movement, how you build that kind of program. Who are the players you need, for example. In New York, they’ve had significant help from the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Foundation, groups like that. I think it will be very helpful to hear from him about his experiences and how we can get that sort of program going here.

Who would you say is your target audience as far as attendees? What would compel someone to come and who would you be encouraging to come to the conference?

I would be encouraging anyone who is interested in fair government to come to it. Ideally who we’d like to encourage to attend are folks who are working on this issue or who have an interest in working on this issue. They’ll be a lot of information there for people who have even just a passing interest and would like more information.

But, ideally, as I’ve said, we’d like to get under one roof folks who are energized about the issue and who are willing to go out and work on the issue because I think they will benefit most from hearing this lineup of speakers.

Thanks, Dan.

[CC photo credit: J.-H. Janßen | Wikimedia Commons, Dan O’Neil photo provided by Dan O’Neil]