Monday, December 3, 2007

Lawyer keeps dirt out of campaign finances

Brian J. O'Connor / The Detroit News

Brett McRae is always cleaning up after politicians.

When he was a student, he worked his way through law school as a janitor at the state House of Representatives. Now as a campaign finance consultant, the 50-year-old Charlotte man keeps elections clean.

"A person's political reputation can really be trashed by things that can be found in those filings," said McRae, "like if you were late or made a questionable expenditure or took money from someone you shouldn't have."


Where he came from: After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1980, McRae was an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant and at a drug store before heading off to law school, with his eye on getting into politics. "I was always interested in getting involved in governmental service," he said.

The program at Cooley Law School lined up the evening job tidying up legislative offices, and he also worked at a center handling landlord-tenant disputes before landing a job as a lawyer for Democrats in the Michigan House.

As a staff lawyer he worked on open meeting laws and freedom of information laws.

"The most significant thing I did was drafting the South African divestiture legislation that was enacted in 1988," he said. The law aimed to punish apartheid in South Africa by keeping state purchases and investments out of companies that did business with the racist regime in that country. "It was probably the most thorough divestiture law, certainly in the nation if not the world."

What changed: During 16 years, McRae moved over to the Senate, working as a staff lawyer on the criminal justice, judiciary and other committees, including the government operations committee, which handles election and campaign finance rules.

"I enjoyed the public service aspect of it," McRae said. He also worked on high-profile legislation, such as equal access for women to golf and country clubs and the dispute over the "Baby Jessica" adoption case.

"Occasionally, the issues I was working on would become centered in the public eye and it was fun being part of that," he said.

By 2002 though, he was beginning to feel it was time to move on to something new, and wanted a career that left more time to spend with his family

"Seeing how the sausage is made gets you kind of cynical" McRae said. "It was time to try something different."

Moment of truth: McRae got his chance when term-limits came into Lansing, accompanied by an early-retirement offer for legislative staffers.

"I decided this is an opportunity to provide me with a financial platform from which I could do something else," he said. "I was 48 and the pension is enough to pay the bill, though it ain't getting me to Paris, either."

He rejected the idea of starting his own law practice and cast about for ideas. From his work in the state Senate he knew campaigns had trouble staying in compliance with finance laws and new electronic filing rules at the time required mastering complicated software.

"So I conceived this idea of providing compliance and reporting services to candidates and officeholders, as well as political action and ballot question committees," McRae said.

Stumbling blocks: Building any business takes time, especially one so specialized. McRae knows of only one other person and one law firm doing any of this kind of work, so candidates had to be educated about the benefits.

"For a lot of campaigns, the financial reporting gets shuffled to the bottom of the deck," he said, even though late fees and penalties can be costly and mistakes can be politically embarrassing. "This way, the staff can concentrate on winning the election."

In his first year he had about a dozen clients. By last year, McRae said he had he doubled his roster and income, and hopes to double it again in 2008.

His market has been through e-mails to new and prospective candidates and through referrals.

"Mostly it was just developing the reputation and getting to know people in the political community," McRae said. "You need to build trust with people to show that you're competent and that they can trust you."

The former Democratic staffer notes that he's even been able to attract several clients from across the aisle.

Words of wisdom: "The thing that I've really learned about starting a new business is persistence," McRae said. "You just have to keep at it."

McRae also stressed the importance of going into business with a plan. A friend who was a business consultant stressed the importance of writing a plan and understanding exactly what the proposed business would do.

And, in a tight-knit community like politics, make sure you deliver top-quality service, he adds.

"Know your client, anticipate what their needs are and give great service,' McRae said. "Go that extra mile to make them happy."

You can reach Brian O'Connor at (313) 222-2145 or

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(Campaign consultant Brett McRae stands outside the)

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    Brett McRae

    Home: Charlotte; married with two children
    Born: Michigan City, Ind., 1956
    Education: Huron High School, Ann Arbor, 1975; University of Michigan, 1980; Cooley Law School, 1986
    Old career: Legislative counsel
    New career: Campaign finance

    Work tips

    "Whether you are contemplating a career change or committed to your current job, some great advice can be gleaned from Brett McRae's story," said career coach Prudence Cole of Grosse Pointe, co-author of the book "Finding Power, Passion and Joy Being at Work" and author of the Web site

  • Over deliver: Get the attention of clients, bosses and recruiters by doing more than what is expected. If you are fully engaged in whatever you are doing, you can see opportunities to provide more value.
    Don't expect a straight career path: Most careers are a series of stops and starts, connected at right angles, not straight lines. In looking for your next step don't just look ahead. Many more opportunities can be found if you take a piece or two of what you do now and build it into something else. Ask someone you admire about the course of their career path. I bet you will find a zigzag course.
    Recognize priorities: One aspect of Brett's story is that he wanted to have time to spend with his children. This was part of his planning. Knowing how you want to spend your time relative to the eight major facets of your life -- work, personal relationships, health, personal growth, spirituality, citizenship, economics and play -- goes a long way in finding the best job fit for this stage of your life.
Have you remade your career?

Did you switch from engineering to sales? Escape the boss from hell? Use your severance pay as seed money to start a small business? The Detroit News wants to hear from readers who've successfully remade their jobs, professions and careers for future stories. To tell your story, e-mail Personal Finance Editor Brian O'Connor at