On Oct. 17, Ann Arbor City Council voted 10-1 to pass a resolution directing the City Administrator to look into ways the city could take prospective vendors’ political views and activities into account during its procurement processes. The resolution came after an advocacy effort from Defend Black Voters Coalition, a Detroit-based social justice coalition including Detroit Action, MOSES Action, Michigan People’s Campaign, Mothering Justice Action Fund, Emergent Justice and Color of Change.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Ponsella Hardaway, executive director of MOSES Action and co-chair of Defend Black Voters Coalition, said the group found that major health insurance providers in Michigan, including Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS), have provided campaign funding for voter suppression initiatives that hindered community efforts to encourage voter turnout among minority groups.
“In 2020, we worked together in a very successful turnout and community engagement despite the pandemic,” Hardaway said. “We came up with a lot of tools and engaged with people so they could take advantage of the law that just passed in 2018 and cast absentee ballots well before Election Day. … Then there are articles that came out publicly with voter suppression bills. … We have to do our research on that. There’s a certain segment of legislators who are supporting these bills and petitions, and you follow the money on who’s funding these legislators. That’s how we develop a strategy.”
According to this year’s campaign finance report, BCBS of Michigan PAC has made 59.55% of its donations toward Republican candidates. Some of them — including one of the top donation recipients U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland — have publicly backed Secure MI Vote, a petition that proposed more stringent voter ID checks but failed to make it onto the ballot this year.
In an email to The Daily, Meghan O’Brien, BCBS public relations and social media manager, provided a statement from BCBS that affirmed company leadership’s position against voter suppression and attributed the campaign funding to the decision of an independent employee-funded fundraising group.
“Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan has been a leading voice calling for fair access to the ballot for all Michigan voters,” the statement reads. “We will continue to express this core principle in our conversations with policymakers. … Our employee PAC, BluesPAC, is not funded with corporate dollars, but rather through voluntary contributions from employees whose political views run from very conservative to very progressive. The function of BluesPAC is to build strong bipartisan relationships with policymakers who support our objective to improve health care — it has never functioned to punish those whose points of view diverge from our own.”
Hardaway said MOSES Action will continue to press BCBS to use its political leverage in the right direction and undo the harm.
“Our minds have been really open to knowing that there’s going to be these divides that happen in the business, especially when our country is polarized in many different ways,” Hardaway said. “Corporations have power and influence and we want them to back up their statement to actually use their power and influence to make sure that (voter suppression bills) don’t happen. Corporations like Blue Cross Blue Shield have large amounts of dollars. They have lots of institutions and leverages as major contractors or vendors. How do we put pressure on institutions and vendors who have access to Lansing?”
On paper, current Ann Arbor procurement processes have already included non-monetary considerations. In 2021, Ann Arbor enacted a voter-approved policy requiring the city to consider vendors’’ total value to the city instead of only the cost of services. However, in an email to The Daily, City Administrator Milton Dohoney Jr. said corporations’ political activities are not currently factored in these decisions and explorations on how the city could incorporate them are still early in the process.
“Presently the City of Ann Arbor does not have anything in our procurement policy or practice that factors in a company’s political views, corporate values, or related contributions,” Dohoney wrote. “Therefore, none of it currently plays a role in any aspect of the City’s procurement. Over the next several weeks we will be examining what it would take to incorporate it somehow. It is too early to tell what is possible in that regard, or what obstacles the request presents. Our conclusions will be presented in a report due to the Council in mid-January.”
Besides healthcare, Hardaway said MOSES Action is also examining how major utility companies’ rate hikes and outages have disproportionately affected minority groups. The organization held a protest Monday against utility and healthcare companies in Detroit. Hardaway said MOSES Action also welcomes collaborations with local like-minded organizations in advancing equity and social justice.
“Our theory of change is having those public dialogues, planning sessions and listening sessions to craft what are some of the major issues that impact people and how to get people to work together,” Hardaway said. “In Ann Arbor there is a group that MOSES helped organize. I also know there’s been some work around energy independence. How are we allowing people to have access to that against corporations? We don’t want to lose those resources and revenues. Other communities across the country have solar farms. But you know, it’s still a struggle here in Michigan.”
Daily Staff Reporter Chen Lyu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.