The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, October 24, 2014

Totten for state attorney general: he'll take trades' case on prevailing wage

By The Building Tradesman

The Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council has endorsed Democrat Mark Totten as he seeks to unseat incumbent Bill Schuette for state attorney general in the Nov. 4 general election.

“I don’t think most people, whether or not they belong to a labor union, have much of an appreciation for how important the office of state attorney general is,” said MBCTC Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Devlin. “Specifically for the building trades, one of the top issues we’re always looking at is the enforcement of the state Prevailing Wage Act. And for the last four years, Bill Schuette hasn’t been working for us and actively prosecuting employers who cheat workers out of their wages.”

Totten, age 40, is a product of Kalamazoo’s public schools. A Yale Law School graduate, Totten clerked for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals and worked in the U.S. Department of Justice. He and wife Kristen returned to Michigan to raise their family. Today Totten is a law professor at Michigan State University College of Law.

On Sept. 18, Totten addressed a candidates night at Plumbers, Pipe Fitters and Service Trades Local 174 in Coopersville. And indeed, Schuette’s lack of interest in enforcing the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act was the focus of Totten’s talk.

“Let’s talk about the prevailing wage law,” Totten said. “The law is only as good as its enforcement. How many cases do you think that Bill Schuette has brought in the four years he’s been in office to enforce Michigan’s prevailing wage law?  Zero. He hasn’t brought a single case.”

Why does it matter? As we have pointed out numerous times, the Michigan Prevailing Wage Act of 1965 is the single most important law on the state’s books affecting the wages of construction workers, both union and nonunion. Prevailing wage, when it’s enforced, acts as a deterrent for employers from winning bids by hiring out-of-area, underpaid workers to toil on publicly funded construction contracts. When it’s not enforced, wage rates fall, and  local, law-abiding contractors lose work. And so do local building trades workers.

“Do you think you can have more success if you’re breaking the law and you’re dealing with a cop who’s not enforcing the law?” Totten said at the Local 174 meeting. “Absolutely. That’s absolutely what’s happening. If you don’t have a cop on the beat who’s enforcing the law, you can have the best laws on the books and it won’t do you any good.”

Totten said he looked at the prosecuting record of Illinois’s attorney general, Democrat Lisa Madigan, when it comes to prevailing wage. “Do you know how may cases she brings?” Totten asked. “About one a month. Now would that make a difference to someone obeying the law? If you’re someone who is competing and you’re trying to cut costs so you can make more money, do you think you can have more success if you’re breaking the law and you’re dealing with a cop who’s not enforcing the law? Absolutely.”

Michigan voters tend to keep incumbent attorneys general in office. Frank Kelley held the office for 37 years, and was succeeded by Jennifer Granholm, who left that office to become governor. Republicans Mike Cox and now Schuette have held the AG’s office since then. But Totten has polled well in his attempt to unseat Schuette.

“What started out as a fairly low-key race where Schuette appeared to be a shoo-in, has turned into a more competitive contest than many thought,” said an analysis published Oct. 4 by the Detroit Free Press.

Totten is a member of the Kalamazoo Board of Education.  He has drafted a plan for how state attorneys general can protect families and homeowners from the fallout of the economic crisis and hold wrongdoers accountable under new federal powers given to the states in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown. For the past few years Totten has worked to protect Michigan families from violent and other crime as a volunteer federal prosecutor, advocating for protecting children from child predators, victims of domestic violence from their abusers, and senior-citizens and low-income persons from predatory lenders.

Frank Kelley’s legacy, Totten said, was that he “protected consumers, he protected us against companies that competed unfairly, against predatory lending, The attorney general is on the front lines of holding criminal wrongdoers accountable. The attorney general protects children from sexual predators, women from domestic violence. Crimes don’t just happen on Main Street, they also happen on Wall Street and in corporate board rooms. We need an attorney general who will hold these types of wrongdoers accountable.

“I’m going to send a message to would-be lawbreakers out there that if you’re going to break the law, you’re going to be held accountable. I’m going to be standing with you.”