News Story

CapCon Interview with Founding Editor Ken Braun and Mackinac Center President Joseph G. Lehman

On its fifth year anniversary, a history lesson

Today is the fifth anniversary of the first electronic edition of Michigan Capitol Confidential. CapCon marks the occasion by interviewing CapCon founding editor Ken Braun and Mackinac Center President Joseph G. Lehman.

CapCon: Ken, the CapCon news service was your original concept, starting with a print version back in 2007. How did you come up with the idea?

Ken Braun: When I worked with (then) State Rep. Leon Drolet during 2001-2006, we sent out a regular update to free-market activists across the state, explaining otherwise little-noticed budget and tax votes taking place in the Michigan House. We also presented the roll call votes which typically showed Leon and only a few others voting against most spending and government expansions.

These were things the news media weren’t paying much attention to at the time. But the result from just a few hundred newsletters landing in the right mailboxes was profound. Our readers often lived in the districts of GOP lawmakers who were on what we considered the "wrong" side of those votes, and some of the people on our lists were apparently not shy about ringing up their local politicians and complaining.

While this wasn't the intent, and got Leon in a tiny bit of trouble with some of his colleagues, it sparked a profound idea: "What would be the impact if we did this to a list of tens or hundreds of thousands of such people, rather than just a few hundred?"

CapCon: What did you want to accomplish with CapCon?

KB: Voter education that would lead to behavior change on spending in Lansing. Politicians who didn't just talk like fiscal conservatives at election time, but who would vote like it when they worked under the Capitol dome.

Politicians are used to their taxing and spending votes coming up at election time, and it changes their behavior. I wanted to educate citizens by making this a regular occurrence all year long, not just at election time.

Secondarily, I hoped to expose the suspected criminal misdeeds of an elected official, perhaps leading to a prison sentence. That part didn't happen.

CapCon: Some people thought it was a bit of a stretch for a policy think tank to establish a news service. How did you convince your colleagues to give it a try?

KB: I don't believe it is a stretch at all. Free-market think tanks are doing the comprehensive research real newspapers once prided themselves on but don't do enough of anymore. I believe think tanks really are news services, but too often climb into "academic" boxes that limit their impact.

I sold the Mackinac Center on CapCon as a limited way to break the think tank out of this box and put a toe in the water of what it really could and should be. The initial response from readers to the first issue – a flood of emails, letters and phone calls asking to stay on the mailing list – surprised everyone but me.

A free market news service should be a part of a think tank. It should work the other way around, and one day somebody in some state is going to engineer the product this way and cause the disruptive innovation that changes the game for everyone.

Joe Lehman: Our stock in trade has always been educating the public on policy matters. I didn’t know if CapCon would work, but informing our readers how their lawmakers voted on under-reported bills was consistent with our educational mission. But we didn’t know how to run a news service. And since we’re nonpartisan, we had to make sure we were even-handed and just reported the facts.

CapCon: Joe, why were you ultimately persuaded to give CapCon a try?

JL: It took Ken more than one try to convince me. He was persistent. He pointed out instances of lawmakers’ votes that citizens would care about if only they knew about them. We had not raised funding for the project – all our funding comes from voluntary donations – so I told Ken if he could figure out a way to give CapCon readers the opportunity to become financial supporters, we’d try it. He did, and we added hundreds of new donors in the first year.

CapCon: Ken, you hired the first CapCon reporter for the Mackinac Center, Tom Gantert. How did you know he’d do a good job?

KB: Tom tried to create a nonprofit news service all by himself, using his own money as seed money. While trying to keep that afloat, he still managed to produce solid content every single day.

I grew up in a family business. The example of my parents turned me into someone who thinks of job and mission every waking hour and even dreams about it. CapCon was my obsession, and I could tell from everything I could find about Gantert that he had the same drive toward the same goal.

And I was correct. We were on the phone with each other at all hours of the day and night, throughout the entire time we worked together, plotting how to capitalize on opportunities, address challenges, and take it to the next level. This was one of the best working relationships I've ever had.

CapCon: What are some of CapCon’s early accomplishments that you are most proud of?

KB: There are numerous examples of altered behavior linked to the reports we did. For example, Congresswoman Candice Miller pledged to swear off earmarks shortly after constituents contacted her about a report we did exposing the earmarks offered by the Michigan congressional delegation. I'm forgetting all the little examples like this one, but there were many cases where politicians were forced to directly reply to constituents and explain votes they probably didn't think would be noticed.

If I recall correctly, upon his arrival in the Michigan Legislature, former Rep. Paul Scott signed on to a bill that would allow school districts to create sinking funds. This was a favorite agenda item of the education spending lobby, and we reported on Scott and others who supported it, including those who described themselves as fiscal conservatives.

Fast forward a bit, and Scott (a smart guy) is the head of the education committee in the House and driving Gov. Rick Snyder's education reform agenda. He (Scott) did such a good job for the reform team that he ended up the target of a successful recall put on by the Michigan Education Association. (He had other issues that made him vulnerable, thus why they put the bullseye on him.)

Did we have any impact in showing Rep. Scott how to be a hero to the taxpayers rather than the unions? I can't prove that in his case or others. But I like our chances better when citizens are educated on their lawmakers’ actual votes on actual bills.

JL: I have my own favorite CapCon success stories. We did early and hard-hitting work on Michigan’s film incentive program. While our economic analyses were correct, they couldn’t compete for the public’s attention against the Hollywood movie stars the program subsidized. But when we uncovered, and CapCon reported, a tax-funded real estate scam involving the Hangar 42 studio near Grand Rapids after Gov. Jennifer Granholm praised them in her State of the State Address, some of the shine came off the program and it was eventually scaled back substantially.

I think it’s also fair to say that we wouldn’t have ended the SEIU’s unconscionable skimming of so-called dues dollars from Medicaid recipients without CapCon reporter Jack Spencer’s work. That union quietly stole $6 million a year from poor, sick people. Democrats and Republicans were complicit. We exposed it all and sued. Gov. Snyder pulled the plug on the skim. Our success laid the groundwork for last year’s Harris v. Quinn decision at the U. S. Supreme Court, which outlawed similar skims nationwide.

You could even make a case that Michigan wouldn’t have been ready for right-to-work without CapCon’s consistent reporting on unionized workers who believed their unions were not acting in their best interest. We did that work nearly alone, but it wasn’t ignored.

CapCon: Ken, you didn’t have a journalism degree or background, yet you conceived of the CapCon idea and now you’re a widely read political columnist in Michigan (MLive). How did that happen?

KB: I've always wanted to be a newspaper columnist, but never really respected much of the breed. Too many of them think their opinion matters. It doesn't.

Two things matter. One, did you provide most of your readers with an important fact they were not likely to find from the other sources of news they read? Or, two, did you provide most of them a perspective they were not likely to find elsewhere?

Really this: Did most of your readers understand what you've told them and think, "Hey, I've never heard that before?"

Lots of people get paid to write in newspapers and never grasp this. From an early age, I tried to discipline myself to keep that in mind in everything I wrote. And, I guess, people noticed. The MLive column was an opportunity that came to me because a former communications director I worked with in the Legislature told MLive (unbeknownst to me) they should give me a try.

CapCon: You saw a natural connection between the Mackinac Center’s legislative voting database and CapCon. Can you explain that?

I wanted lawmakers to deal with the consequences of their votes. MichiganVotes is a free, user-friendly source of all their votes. Political hacks have been poring through old votes for decades, searching for gems to reveal during elections. MichiganVotes makes it easy for anyone to do this. They don't need the legislative expertise, because that's been provided for them.

MichiganVotes certainly made my job easier, but I could have done a "CapCon" without it.

However, Michigan Votes makes it very simple for just about anyone to create their own CapCon. That's the potential impact, if it's used properly.

JL: Ken’s right. Back in 2001 our senior vice president, Joe Overton, conceived of the MichiganVotes idea and we hired Jack McHugh to run it. Joe is sadly gone now, but even then he saw how the Internet could revolutionize citizens’ understanding of their lawmakers’ behavior. Jack is the master editor who describes every single bill and amendment in a few words of plain English that explain exactly what the bills do, not necessarily what their sponsors hope their bills will accomplish. We link the bill descriptions to the comprehensive voting records of every lawmaker.

In those days, we thought citizens would flock to our votes database to find out how their lawmakers were voting. Some of that happened, but the site was used primarily by Lansing insiders – journalists, legislative staff, and opposing campaign staffs. CapCon later proved to be a way to provide citizens some of the MichiganVotes data in a form that was easier to use and more compelling.

And today, our new VoteSpotter smartphone app makes it even easier because we send notices right to your phone when important votes occur in the Legislature. With a button or two, you can give your lawmaker instant feedback. He’ll know how you feel before he spins up his PR machine or polling firm.

CapCon: Joe, how has CapCon become an integral part of the Mackinac Center’s strategy?

JL: The original idea of the Mackinac Center was to conduct top-quality economic policy research and publish the results. We were never shy about our free-market orientation. Government and public university researchers certainly weren’t making many free-market recommendations so we filled a real niche. In the early years we could get headlines merely by publishing a study. But the world changed and studies proved insufficient to advance a free-market argument. We needed a new vehicle to carry the free-market idea into public discourse.

A news bureau – CapCon – proved to be that vehicle. We still publish studies and always will. They are our backbone. But a study gives you one bite at the apple, and a bigger bite than a lot of people care to take. But a single Mackinac Center study can provide dozens of news story ideas, which our reporters then pursue. Reporter Tom Gantert says he gets his best stories from colleagues whom he affectionately calls “wonks.” A researcher might discover something interesting but not quite see the news value in it. Tom sees it immediately. James Hohman, Audrey Spalding, Vinnie Vernuccio, Mike LaFaive and other analysts are great sources for story ideas. Anne Schieber is a great video story teller.

Our stories turned up more and more people being harmed by bad policy, so we started a litigation division, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, to help them. In turn, their stories of seeking justice make great CapCon stories.

I like to say our research division predicts and studies government failure. Our news division, CapCon, tells the stories of people harmed by government failure. And our litigation division, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, challenges government overreach. Without CapCon, neither of the other divisions would be as effective.

CapCon: What do other news outlets think of CapCon?

JL: It’s a mix. I know they respect us when we break stories they wish they would have broken. Some of them are a bit jealous, I think, that we’ve figured out how to avoid some of the financial problems with the business model employed by the legacy media, which is downsizing and laying off great reporters in droves. We get some of their resumes. I think we were the state’s first real nonprofit news enterprise, but we’ve been joined by others. Some of their editors have quietly told me that we keep them on their toes when we correct mistakes their publications make, but that can go both ways of course. Some of them resent us for consistently including the free-market perspective somewhere in almost all of our stories. We think that’s balanced journalism. I’m very proud that professional journalism societies have recognized our reporters with several awards over the years. And the Columbia Journalism Review has profiled us in a way that I think shows respect and underscores our impact.

CapCon: Lastly, where does CapCon go from here?

JL: I won’t predict the future. But we will keep telling the stories of people harmed by bad policy and by government-backed compulsion. We believe that when the people understand the full effects of public policies their lawmakers support, they’ll close the feedback loop with them and that’s healthy in a democracy. We’ll keep reaching out to new readers, but we also know that it’s important to reach decision makers. Gov. Snyder told me once that he reads CapCon “every day.” I told him I was going to quote him on that unless he told me not to! Jarrett Skorup in our shop does a fantastic job using online analytics to learn what stories are having the most impact and reaching new readers. We’ll keep hiring great folks. CapCon names are well known in Michigan journalism circles. Ken Braun and Manny Lopez, no longer with us, are good examples of that. Dan Armstrong, Tom Gantert and Jack Spencer are respected by their peers in the journalism world. And we’ll keep making the case for supporting CapCon financially, because there’s certainly nothing like it in Michigan. We may be the best in the country, and I’ll put our track record against anyone’s. I’m forever grateful to the visionary donors who support our work every day and never tell us what to write.

CapCon: Thank you, gentlemen.

KB and JL: Thank you.

Ken Braun worked for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy from 2006-2011 and is the director of policy for Joe Lehman first joined the Mackinac Center in 1995. He has been its president since 2008.