Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Populist Face Of Plutocracy

As if Wisconsin did not already have enough phony front groups with motherhood-and-apple-pie sounding names flying under the radar and carpet bombing our airwaves and mailboxes with trashy ads, now a shadowy Milwaukee-area group that has specialized in removing local officials from office through recall elections is aiming to expand its sphere of influence statewide.

Citizens for Responsible Government is attempting a recall campaign against liberal Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and is beginning to set its sights on recalling Governor Jim Doyle. Democrats are not the far right-wing group's only targets, however. CRG takes particular pleasure in tormenting Republicans who are not sufficiently loyal soldiers in the neocon army. A feature of the group's web site is its "RINO Alert" devoted to outing any Republican In Name Only.

CRG has been linked to Tosans for Responsible Government, which was formed in 1997 and later helped defeat a moderate Republican state senator, Wauwatosa's Peggy Rosenzweig. She was replaced by Tom Reynolds, whose loopy ideas include a proposed private Autobahn on which motorists could drive as fast as they want for a fee. Even right-wing radio talk show host Charlies Sykes calls Reynolds a "nut job."

Along with its recall campaigns in Milwaukee County, CRG took credit for defeating former Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer and replacing her with the far more right-wing Glenn Grothman, nicknamed "Spooky" by legislative colleagues.

The group has been described in the media as a "populist movement." More closely inspect the tangled web that defines the organization's shape, and its grassroots look like AstroTurf.

Early in 2002, Tosans for Responsible Government created the Wisconsin Conservative Leadership Coalition to spread its ideals to the rest of the state. It publishes the Wisconsin Conservative Digest. That publication's editor is JJ Blonien, a friend of CRG and its satellites. One such satellite group with which Blonien is associated is United Wisconsin, which is pushing the so-called Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) in Wisconsin.

United Wisconsin is affiliated with the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which itself was created with funding from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. The Koch family's charitable empire was built from the oil and gas fortunes of Fred Koch, a founding member of the John Birch Society.

Americans for Prosperity's state director in Wisconsin is Mark Block, a top fundraiser for President George W. Bush and a notorious figure in Wisconsin politics in his own right. He masterminded a late-1990s scheme to illegally funnel money into the reelection campaign of Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox. As Wilcox's campaign manager, Block illegally coordinated activities with a pro-school voucher group known as the Wisconsin Coalition for Voter Participation. The case produced the largest fine ever handed down by the state Elections Board.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Survey Says...

An astonishing – and largely unreported – finding of the most recent statewide poll conducted by the St. Norbert College Survey Center for Wisconsin Public Radio is that political corruption is one of the most common answers people gave when asked to identify the most important problem facing the state of Wisconsin.

As many people cited corrupt politicians and the lack of political representation as the state's number one problem as mentioned gas prices. Amazingly, the sorry state of democracy in Wisconsin ranked ahead of health care, crime, poverty and the environment as the top concern of state residents. Only taxes, jobs and education outpolled political corruption.

St. Norbert's poll comes on the heels of a Wisconsin Policy Research Institute survey showing that only 6% of state residents believe elected officials are representing them.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Rent-A-Politician Industry

The rent-to-own industry has been trying for years to win an exemption from state consumer protection laws and hasn't been bashful about lubricating the political machinery with big campaign donations.

The industry has not hit paydirt yet, but has enlisted some important new allies and appears to have succeeded in resuscitating a consumer protection exemption bill that was all but dead.

When the state Senate took up the industry's exemption bill last week, it was defeated 18-15. Not one, not two but three motions to reconsider the vote were then offered. On the third attempt, the bill was revived by a one-vote margin, 17-16.

That's where one of the rent-to-own industry's new allies comes in. Sources close to the legislative negotiations tell the Democracy Campaign that an Ashley Furniture executive called Senate leaders to urge them to bring the bill back for another vote. Ashley reportedly plans to place its merchandise in 300 new rental centers if the bill passes.

A top executive with the Eau Claire-area furniture maker made $1,000 contributions right after the 2004 election to the bill's lead sponsor, Eau Claire Republican Ron Brown, and another Eau Claire-area senator, Republican David Zien, who also signed on as a sponsor of the exemption legislation.

Ashley also has taken quite an interest in another of the exemption bill's newfound supporters, Governor Jim Doyle.

Doyle's apparent willingness to sign the bill if it passes the Legislature is curious because during his long stint as state attorney general he often locked horns with the rent-to-own industry. He once sued the Texas-based Rent-A-Center for failing to disclose credit provisions and engaging in deceptive advertising. The lawsuit resulted in an $8 million settlement that was used to pay restitution to customers scammed by the company and its subsidiary Colortyme Inc.

The Democracy Campaign's database of contributors to state campaigns shows that Rent-A-Center has made a couple of large donations to Doyle this year and has been feeding campaign money regularly to the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate and the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee.

Another firm, Eau Claire-based Lebakken Rent-to-Own, also has given Doyle $3,000 since March 2004.

Neither Rent-A-Center nor Lebakken Rent-to-Own ever gave Doyle any money when he was attorney general. Ashley Furniture also never donated to Doyle until he ran for governor.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A Canary In A Coal Mine

In his column about the recent People's Legislature rally for reform at the Capitol, Bill Lueders, news editor of the Madison weekly Isthmus, recounts an incident that alerts the unsuspecting to the toxic environment in the people's house.

Lueders writes: "At one point, attendees . . . swarmed the Capitol to urge lawmakers to support their reforms. I went to catch the action outside the office of Assembly Speaker John Gard, arguably the Legislature's most powerful player.

"A receptionist directed me down a hallway to his room, but a moment later kept a protester with a 'Hello, my name is Nobody' tag from entering this same corridor. I asked about the double standard and was told, 'It depends on who it is.'

"The protester asked the receptionist to convey his displeasure with Gard's performance. She disappeared down the hallway and returned. Then a man emerged from within the chamber and shut the hallway door."

Hypocrisy Unlimited

To justify their stonewalling of campaign finance reform legislation that would reestablish public financing of state campaigns in Wisconsin, the mantra of the bosses at the Capitol is that it is wrong to spend taxpayer money on election campaigns when there are so many other pressing needs and so little money to meet them.

Forget for a moment that the state is invariably out of money when the powerless need help but there always seems to be plenty of cash on hand when a big campaign donor is looking for a perk or lawmakers want a pay hike. Hypocrisy at the Capitol runs much deeper than that.

As one of the Democracy Campaign's founding members and first executive director so aptly describes, legislators never raised a stink about using taxpayer money on election campaigns when they were paying state employees to run their campaigns on the taxpayer's dime in the corrupt legislative caucus offices.

One budget after another crafted by the very same legislators who ridicule public financing of elections as "welfare for politicians" contained $4 million a year for the state offices that were used as election headquarters for current office holders and were eventually abolished when they became the focal point of criminal investigations that yielded nearly four dozen felony charges against legislative leaders who oversaw their operation.

Ironically, $4 million is the annual cost of the public financing provisions of the leading campaign finance reform bill before the Legislature. When that same sum was spent year after year on illegal electioneering by state employees on state time, the bosses who run the Capitol vigorously defended it. But when it is proposed that the money be given to any qualified candidate for state office and not just those already in power, suddenly it is fundamentally wrong.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Accidental Reformer

Of course back-to-back felony convictions of former lawmakers and protesters rallying against corruption on the steps of the Capitol have something to do with the sudden momentum behind reform legislation. But if a single individual can be credited for getting things moving on reform after years of stonewalling by legislative leaders, it has to be James H. Miller.

Miller is not a prosecutor or a maverick legislator or a good-government activist. He is the head of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a self-styled "free market think tank." Miller's group is based in the decidedly upscale Milwaukee suburb of Thiensville and is funded by the right-wing Bradley Foundation.

Miller recently conducted a poll to take the public's temperature on a variety of topics. He clearly was surprised by what people told him when his questions turned to state government ethics and the public's impression of state elected officials. Miller found that only 6% of state residents believe elected officials are representing them.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of this poll finding. Before the poll was released, nearly all state lawmakers were resting easy, convinced that they are not implicated in the corruption scandals at the Capitol. Miller's poll made it painfully clear that while they may not have been implicated – yet – by law enforcement officials, every last one of them has been tied to the scandals by the public.

Nothing kindles interest in cleaning up your act like the knowledge that the people are on to you. We have Jim Miller of all people to thank for that.