Former law dean views candidacy as road to 'change'

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

In 2010 – long before the Russians, Facebook, and American elections seemingly became joined at the hip – Jocelyn Benson published a book, “State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process.”

It would not become a New York Times best-seller, but the book was hardly written with that goal in mind, according to Benson, who served as dean of Wayne State University Law School for nearly four years before becoming the CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, a nonprofit organization founded by philanthropist Stephen Ross to improve race relations and drive social progress.

The book, which came out the same year that Benson made an unsuccessful run for secretary of state in Michigan, did serve a higher purpose, illustrating “best practices” from secretaries across the country and how they can work to “advance democracy and election reform.” Its scope was given high marks from a range of academics, including Heather Gerken of Yale Law School.

“Benson’s book is devoted to the understudied and often underappreciated role that the Secretary of State plays in our election system,” Gerken wrote in a review. “Benson had unprecedented access to Secretaries of State across the country, and I can think of no book that canvasses this topic so thoroughly. With its lively and engaging prose, the book is sure to become a seminal work on the subject.”

Last fall, Benson announced her candidacy for state office again, aiming to become the 2018 Democratic nominee for secretary of state in what is expected to be a wide open race to succeed incumbent Ruth Johnson, who is term limited.

Her candidacy, coming at a time when the sanctity of the voting process is at peril, rates as most welcome news for those who value transparency and accountability in politics.

In a recent campaign letter, Benson promised to help shine a “light” on the “dark” money that has taken an increasing hold on the election process.

“To me, one of the most important ways to ensure that we as citizens are informed and engaged – crucial to any healthy democracy – is to know who is influencing our lawmakers, who is bankrolling their advertisements, and whether their personal financial investments impact their votes,” wrote Benson, a Harvard Law grad who earned her bachelor’s degree magna cum laude from Wellesley College.

To that end, Benson has set forth a multi-step program to better promote election and leadership credibility. Foremost, she said, is “increased and instant transparency and disclosure,” authorizing the state to “require unions and corporations to publicly file reports when they spend money to influence elections, including so-called ‘issue ads’” that have become more commonplace in recent election cycles.

Benson also is calling for a “ban on foreign money in Michigan elections,” saying that “organizations controlled by foreigners should be prohibited from using their funds to support or oppose candidates or issues in Michigan.”

The co-founder of the Military Spouses of Michigan, Benson additionally has proposed eliminating the “potential for quid pro quo corruption” in state government.

“Companies that have contracts with, grants from, or that receive tax benefits from the state of Michigan or any local government should be prohibited from spending their funds to influence Michigan elections,” Benson declared.

If elected, Benson said she would push for lobbying reform and expansion of the FOIA law.

“Michigan’s Lobby Law should require full, timely disclosure of all lobbying expenses and require a two-year ‘cooling off’ period before former public officials can become paid lobbyists,” she said.

“Just like others serving in state government, the governor and members of the legislature should be subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act,” she added.

“Our elected officials work for us,” Benson noted. “But we can only know if they do by shining a light on their decisions and the money that influences them.”

Now, as she travels the state building a campaign network and taking her message to Michigan voters, Benson continues to view the “political process as an avenue for change,” an outlook that she has the smarts and desire to frame in positive terms come November.
 

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