What's the Price of Grassroots Activism?

10.27.12

A Billionaire's Tea Party

My National Post column deals with a direct example of the problems caused by the Tea Party.

From a Canadian point of view, the most important vote to occur November 6 is not the vote for president of the United States. It is not the contest for control of the House and Senate. It is not any of the governorships at issue, or the state legislatures.

It is a ballot proposition in the state of Michigan, Proposal 6, an amendment to the state constitution intended to thwart the building of a second bridge across the Detroit River between the United States and Canada.

The existing Ambassador Bridge, the busiest border crossing on Earth, debouches into downtown Windsor. That location may have made sense when the bridge was built in 1929, but it’s been apparent for a long time that a second span was needed to connect more directly to the Canadian highway system.

One obstacle: The Ambassador Bridge is privately owned by an American billionaire, Manuel Moroun. Moroun intensely opposes construction of a more modern crossing. Not only would a new bridge deprive him of toll revenue, but it would also divert business from his highly profitable duty-free gas station monopoly.

Nobody makes a billion dollars without considerable shrewdness, and Moroun has deployed his money to build political opposition to the plan for a modern bridge. First he persuaded the Michigan legislature to bar spending any state money on the bridge. Michigan’s Republican governor circumvented that bar by reaching a deal with Canada whereby the Canadian government would advance the bridge’s cost and repay itself by taking first claim on toll revenue.

Not to be defeated so easily, Moroun responded by buying himself a ballot initiative. Moroun has invested at least $24-million in his so-called “The People Should Decide Campaign.” (The $24-million is the Detroit Free Press’s estimate, based on Moroun’s publicly disclosed spending through late July. Since then he has certainly laid out much more, and not all the spending need be disclosed.) Moroun’s campaign has gained support from the local chapter of Americans for Prosperity, an important national Tea Party organization. The campaign has also been endorsed by Grover Norquist, the Washington conservative power-broker and sometime lobbyist.

Why do taxpayer groups oppose the construction of a bridge that will cost precisely zero in Michigan taxpayer funds? That’s a very interesting question, and I hope it’s not too cynical to wonder if the answer can be found in the stubs of Manuel Moroun’s chequebook.

Read the entire column at the National Post.