Analyzing the Donors of Candidates in the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s RaceRuth Cassidy, with data entry & research help from other contributors
Although prosecutors wield major influence and power in the criminal justice system, this position receives relatively little attention and scrutiny in comparison to other local electoral positions. According to the Youth as Cultural and Civic Leaders collective, the county prosecutor decides 1) who gets charged, 2) whether or not a person is charged with committing a crime and how severe the charge is, 3) whether to charge a juvenile as an adult, and 4) what bail amount to recommend to the judge.
In general, only a very small proportion of UnitedStatesians contribute to political candidates, parties or PACs. According to an analysis done by the Center for Public Integrity, “the bulk of Democratic presidential campaigns’ campaign money comes from predominantly whiter, generally wealthier and relatively few places”. Prosecutor and district attorney races tend to receive a fraction of donations that national presidential races receive, resulting in early donors exerting an outsized influence on local political processes. Traditionally, few people outside of the criminal justice system have paid attention to prosecutor races, leading to most candidates drawing financial support from fellow lawyers (whether prosecutors, defense attorneys, or other litigators) and law enforcement. However, there has been a recent movement to elect “progressive” or “reformist” prosecutors, with a few races drawing more attention and funding from prominent liberal groups. Although detailed analyses of donor data in local prosecutors’ races is rare, patterns of donations in some prosecutors’ races have raised concerns for potential conflicts of interest.
For similar reasons why contributions from criminal defense attorneys and law enforcement raise concerns about potential conflicts of interest—contributions from those currently working to prosecute people should also raise concerns about who else benefits from their investment in a harmful and oppressive status quo. While many progressives are demanding change from prosecutor or district attorney offices, the fact of prosecutors, assistant prosecutors, and law enforcement injecting significant funds into these races may tip the scales towards candidates who are not committed to significant structural change.
This analysis examined the records submitted for donations to the 2020 campaigns of the three candidates for Washtenaw County Prosecutor: Hugo Mack, Eli Savit, and Arianne Slay. Although much coverage of this campaign has focused on platforms and issues, an examination of early campaign contributions may add further insight into professional allegiances.
Campaign finance records from May 20, 2019 to December 31, 2019 available on the Washtenaw County government website were used in this analysis. Records from January to July 2020 have just been released, but were not examined in this analysis due to time constraints. Using publicly available information, donations were identified as belonging to four categories: 1) prosecutor household, current or former; 2) law enforcement household, current or former; 3) criminal defense household, current or former; and 4) all other [a]. This analysis did not include in-kind contributions, although it is worth mentioning that Slay’s treasurer Yasmine Tucker, an Assistant Prosecutor at the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office, has purchased items for Slay’s campaign. The treasurers for the Mack and Savit campaigns appear to neither work for the county prosecutor’s office nor law enforcement.
In 2019: Hugo Mack received 10 contributions totaling $1,010. Eli Savit received 799 contributions totaling $144,683. Arianne Slay received 135 contributions totaling $39,597. The median contribution was $100 for all three candidates. The average contribution amounts were as follows. Mack: $101, Savit: $181, Slay: $293.
Mack received no contributions from prosecutors, law enforcement, or criminal defense attorneys. Mack’s top donors included therapist John Krisek ($250 total) and registered nurse Corey Warren ($200).
Approximately 2% of Eli Savit’s contributions came from prosecutor households, but zero of those contributions came from current Washtenaw County Prosecutor households. Two of those contributions came from households with former ties to the prosecutor’s office, with Judge Tim Connors and his spouse, retired Assistant Prosecutor Margaret Connors, contributing $500 and $75, respectively. All other donations in the prosecutor category came from those serving municipalities outside of Washtenaw County. Close to 0% of Savit’s contributions came from those working in law enforcement, with $100 donated by an administrator for the Detroit Police Department. Lastly, approximately 5% of Savit’s contributions came from criminal defense attorneys. Many of Savit’s contributions came from civil rights attorneys, which may reflect his own area of practice. Upon review, it appears that, as of the end of 2019, Savit remained true to the “Clean Campaign Pledge” by not accepting any funds “from current employees of the prosecutor’s office we are running to reform”.
Top donors to Savit included himself ($12,117 total) and two civil attorneys focusing on environmental issues, Jack Dema and John Dema ($4,000 total and $3,000 total, respectively). All three have worked at the same law offices, opened by Jack Dema.
Approximately 20% of Arianne Slay’s contributions were from prosecutor households, with 19% coming from those who currently work for the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office. 34% of Slay’s contributions came from law enforcement households, with around half (52%) of those funds donated by Slay’s father, a former police officer. About 6% of Slay’s contributions came from criminal defense attorneys.
Top donors to Slay include her father Ron Rowe ($7,000 total), her step-parent Dr. Cynthia Fisher Rowe ($7,100 total), and Slay’s former boss and current Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie ($3,450). Slay’s father was a police officer in Hammond, IN who is now retired and her step-parent is a doctor.
There are 27 prosecutors and assistant prosecutors currently employed at the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office. Among donors and in-kind donors to Slay’s campaign, 17 Washtenaw County prosecutor households were identified, including Brian Mackie and Slay’s campaign treasurer Yasmine Tucker. This suggests that a majority (63%) current Washtenaw County Prosecutor households have financially supported Slay’s campaign. None of the 27 prosecutors appeared on the donor records to the campaigns of Savit or Mack.
Current Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie has been challenged on his contributions to disparities in the criminal justice system, particularly around his handling of the 2014 killing of Aura Rosser by Ann Arbor police officer David Ried. Mackie declined to pursue charges against Ried and failed to call on an independent prosecutor to evaluate the case. Notably, although Brian Mackie is a major donor to Slay’s campaign, he is not listed on the endorsements section of her website. Mackie has been characterized as unresponsive to community questions and debates related to policing and biased/harsh prosecution. His office has also been criticized for overzealous prosecution in cases related to the expression of free speech and demonstration rights. Recently, Mackie tokenized Black assistants working in the Prosecutor’s office in an attempt to deflect ongoing criticism of severe racial disparities in the Washtenaw County court system.
Chief Assistant Prosecutor Steven Hiller shares the same residence as a political organization called “Citizens for Justice,” which supported the political campaigns of Brian Mackie. Hiller was the other prosecutor responsible in the decision not to charge the Ann Arbor Police Department officer responsible for the killing of Aura Rosser and is another notable donor to Slay’s campaign. Ann Arbor Police Chief Michael Cox, Deputy Chief Aimee Metzer, and Lieutenant Bonnie Theil are among Slay’s notable law enforcement donors.
In summary, Arianne Slay appears to be the only candidate with financial support from the current Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office and the only candidate with significant early financial support from law enforcement. Mack and Savit have received no or relatively small amounts of financial support from prosecutors and law enforcement households in general.
[a] Notes on methodology: Donations were categorized based on the occupation and employer of the individual donor and the occupation(s) and employer(s) of members of the donor’s household. Members of the same household were identified via their voter records, using VoterRecords.com. For example, the voter record of one donor to Slay’s campaign showed they resided at the same residence as Konrad Siller, First Assistant Prosecuting Attorney for the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office, so that donation was categorized as coming from a prosecutor or former prosecutor household (category 1). Donations from households containing more than one category of employment (a rare occurrence) were assigned to the lowest numbered category. For example, if a donor household contained both a prosecutor (category 1) and a criminal defense attorney (category 3), the associated donation was assigned to category 1. History of employment, not just current employment, was considered in this analysis.
If no voter record was publicly available, the donation was categorized solely by the individual donor’s occupation and employer. Attorneys can practice many areas of the law, including criminal prosecution (Arianne Slay’s experience), criminal defense (Hugo Mack’s experience), civil rights (Eli Savit’s experience), or other. An attorney’s area of practice was identified via internet search (using Google) and available profiles on LinkedIn, ZeekBeek, or their personal websites. Internet searches were limited to the first page of Google results; profiles of attorneys and police were usually found in the first page, if they exist.
All currency amounts are rounded to the nearest dollar. Percentages are rounded to whole percent.
Limitations: Although this analysis is more in-depth than typical analyses of donor data, which focus only on self-reported occupations and do not examine other household members, this analysis is still limited by what information is publicly available. Although attorneys tend to have a very robust online presence and thus information about their category of employment is usually not difficult to identify, law enforcement employees may be less publicly visible. There may be more donors connected to law enforcement than readily identified by this analysis. This analysis did not examine donations made in 2020 because such data was not released until July 2020 and this review was subject to time limitations.