When my friend Allan Lengel was still publishing his feisty independent publication called Deadline Detroit, I wrote multiple commentaries railing about the dismal state of Michigan’s political leadership. Michigan is a beautiful state whose natives have made a disproportionate contribution to U.S. culture, business, and sports, but its political leadership has been on the decline for quite some time. It’s a consequence of having a media that’s not aggressive and often nearly brain dead.
Senator Debbie Stabenow, Michigan’s elder statesperson in Congress and before that served 16 years in Lansing, is a Pure Michigan! politician. Stabenow made national news back in June when she disclosed at a hearing that she no longer cared about soaring gas prices because she had recently bought an electric Chevy Bolt. Given that most Americans drive gas powered vehicles, the comment revealed an alarming cluelessness even by Michigan’s dismal political leadership standards.
Stabenow should be making lots of news these days, given that she figures into two significantly prominent national news stories. One of them is the collapse of the crpto trading firm FTX. The other is a Department of Labor lawsuit filed against Packers Sanitation Services Inc. alleging the giant company providing janitorial services to leading slaughterhouses and meatpacking facilities was using child labor. It’s unfortunate if you aren’t aware of the lawsuit because the allegations are a disturbing commentary on U.S. society and business, particularly given the ownership of Packers Sanitation.
It’s been well reported that Sam Bankman-Fried, the former CEO of FTX, showered Democratic politicians, including President Biden, with tens of millions of political contributions. According to the Washington Post, SBF was the fifth biggest political donor in the 2022 midterm elections, donating more than $39 million to Democratic politicians and organizations. OpenSecrets reports that Stabenow received a total of $23,000 from FTX, but CoinDesk and the Los Angeles Times pegged Stabenow’s FTX largesse at more than $26,000.
SBF is a California native with no ties to Michigan that I’m aware of, but one doesn’t require his MIT degree to figure out his love for Stabenow. SBF was aggressively lobbying Congress to ensure the crypto market was regulated by the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, which lacks the more formidable resources of the SEC.
As Chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, Stabenow has oversight over the CFTC. Rostin Behnam, the agency’s chair, is a former Stabenow aide. SBF also greased other members of Stabenow’s committee, including John Boozman (R-AK), Tina Smith (D-Minn), and Richard J. Durbin (D-IL).
Given FTX’s collapse, one might expect that a bill advocating CFTC oversight of the crypto industry would be dead in the water, but Politico reported that Stabenow is still pushing ahead, despite protests from other members of Congress. Better Markets, a prominent consumer advocacy group, said the CFTC “failed miserably” supervising FTX’s U.S.-based subsidiary.
Stabenow, who also is chair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, has been a professional politician pretty much her entire adult life, running for public office when she was still a graduate student studying social work at Michigan State University. There is nothing in Stabenow’s background to suggest she’s even remotely qualified or capable of understanding the intricacies of crypto, a weakness SBF certainly recognized and sought to exploit.
Stabenow earns $174,000 a year for her Senate gig and receives an annual $88,000 pension for her time in Lansing.
Packers Sanitation Services
Before I explain Stabenow’s connection to Packers Sanitation Services, let me tell you a bit more about the company. From a November 16, 2022, article posted by Slate::
Packers Sanitation has a terrible workplace safety record; a 2017 study by the National Employment Law Project found that the company had the 14th-highest number of severe injury reports nationwide among 14,000 companies tracked by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Since 2018, OSHA has investigated at least four amputations and three fatalities among Packers Sanitation employees, including a decapitation. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the company’s 2015 amputation rate (almost 10 dismemberments per 10,000 workers) was almost five times higher than for U.S. manufacturing workers overall. In short, this isn’t scooping ice cream at the neighborhood shop or lifeguarding at the town pool.
The (Labor Department) court pleadings are heartbreaking. In one example, a 14-year-old worked through the night “cleaning machines ‘used to cut meat’ while attending Walnut Middle School.” A report cited in the lawsuit detailed this child “falling asleep in class and missing class as a result and suffering injuries from chemical burns.”
What kind of people would operate a company with this sort of safety record? Hopefully, readers of this blog readily answered the question.
Private equity people, Blackstone to be exact, although other PE firms owned the company prior to Blackstone claiming it in 2018. This report provides additional insight about Packers Sanitation under Blackstone’s ownership.
OpenSecrets reports that Blackstone has contributed nearly $29,000 to Stabenow’s campaign coffers, making the firm her biggest campaign contributor. Having a financial relationship with the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee could prove helpful in wake of the Department of Labor’s lawsuit against its Packers Sanitation portfolio company. As well, Blackstone in August hired a cryptocurrency veteran to advise the firm on its growing crypto efforts.
Whitmer, Nessel, and Benson
The re-election of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel, and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson underscored the severity of Michigan’s leadership problem and the ineptitude of the state’s Republican party. It should have been a cakewalk taking down all three politicians.
Under Whitmer’s leadership, Michigan has failed to attract any major investments without significant taxpayer subsidies. She’s given GM and Ford considerable funds and tax breaks, despite these companies looking to expand their manufacturing presence in Mexico and elsewhere. Indeed, I expect Ford within the next 12 months will relocate its electric vehicles operations to Tennessee or another more business friendly state.
While attorneys general like Ohio’s Dave Yost and Washington State’s Bob Ferguson are aggressively pursuing healthcare companies and hospitals allegedly ripping off their state’s residents, Nessel has set her sights on Michigan’s Choice Tree Service for allegedly overcharging residents to remove trees and stumps in Gaylord (pop. 4,314) after a Tornado last June. Nessel has been threatening to go after the company for months, but they don’t seem to take her all that seriously.
Both Whitmer and Nessel ignored warnings about the implosion of metro Detroit’s Beaumont Health, a once respected regional hospital system that declined under a CEO who was paid about $50 million for seven years of service and is believed to have received more than $10 million as part of his golden parachute.
Then there’s Benson, formerly CEO of a nonprofit funded by controversial billionaire Stephen Ross, who pledged to build the Detroit Center for Innovation, a collaboration among his real estate firm, the Ilitch family’s Olympia Development of Michigan and the University of Michigan. When Ross announced the deal, he made no mention that it would require taxpayer money.
Months later, Michigan legislators approved $100 million in taxpayer funds for the project — 40 percent of its estimated cost – in a hastily called late evening session. Two days earlier, Benson’s husband, Ryan Friedrichs, registered as a state lobbyist for Ross’ firm.
Friedrichs in 2019 was one of three senior staffers disciplined following a probe by Detroit’s Office of Inspector General that found mayor Mike Duggan “unilaterally” directed city resources toward assisting the nonprofit Make Your Date, which was led by a woman to whom Duggan is now married.
Denise Ilitch, whose family owns the real estate company partnering with Ross and U of M to build the Detroit Center for Innovation, sits on the university’s Board of Regents. U of M is Stabenow’s fifth largest contributor.
None of this is considered big news in Michigan, which is why the Great Lakes State has been on the decline for quite some time.