Thursday, April 27, 2006

Ass-Backwards Labels

I can't be the only one who thinks today's political labels have outlived their usefulness. The tags "liberal" and "conservative" or "left" and "right" are supposed to serve as a kind of ideological shorthand that helps us make sense of the political world. The code is all garbled.

Many liberals hate the "L" word, or at least fear it, although when you look it up in the dictionary it's hard to see why. The word comes from the Latin liber, which means "free." One dictionary defines liberal as "generous" and "tolerant; broad-minded" and "one who favors reform or progress."

Among the definitions of conservative is "tending to preserve established institutions; opposed to change" and "moderate; cautious."

If Webster's is to be believed, liberals play offense and conservatives play defense. Yet in modern politics, it's the self-described "conservatives" who are on the attack, seeking to dismantle the New Deal and Great Society reforms of yesteryear. And it's the "liberals" who always seem to be on their heels, seemingly incapable of an original thought, gamely defending decades-old programs.

We are sorely in need of some new labels. How about commoners and royalists? Under this new lexicon, we would stop thinking from left to right and start thinking up and down. If the defining standard became whether you are for those on top or for those on the bottom, many "liberals" and "conservatives" fall in the same category as they slavishly service their wealthy campaign donors. The bankruptcy of the old labels is apparent.

If you really want labels that speak truthfully about the condition of our democracy and faithfully describe our current batch of elected officials, how about distinguishing between the naturally born and the test-tube babies? That is, those politicians who are genuine products of their communities as opposed to those who are essentially clones of the political bosses and were groomed in the Capitol farm system. You could call 'em "amateurs" and "professionals" if you prefer. Again, if measured by this standard, most "liberal" politicians and their "conservative" counterparts are cut from the same cloth. The old code fails us again.

There's significance in the increasing uselessness of our old political vocabulary. It means the ground has moved beneath us, but our language has not yet caught up to this shift in the tectonic plates of our democracy. Something historic is happening, but we haven't figured out how to talk about it yet. Once we do, politics will begin to make more sense to more people again. That can only result in something good.

To Cover Your Behind, You Need A Good Front

Back in 2004, the Democracy Campaign issued a report showing how special interest money was increasingly moving under the radar, leaving voters in the dark about who's really paying for election campaigns. This trend away from the fully disclosed, out-in-the-open electioneering of years past to today's clandestine campaigning is enough to bring anyone who remembers clean and open government in Wisconsin to tears.

One of the features of today's election campaigns that is most most degrading to democracy is the rise of money-laundering, law-dodging, character-assassinating front groups. They first started making a significant impact on state elections in Wisconsin in 2000. That year, they operated under names like the Alliance for a Working Wisconsin, People for Wisconsin's Future, Project Vote Informed and Wisconsin Voter Education Fund.

In 2002, they sprouted like weeds. Citizens for Clean and Responsible Government, the Coalition for America's Families, Coalition to Keep America Working and Working Families of Wisconsin joined the fray. Of these four, two were tied to the Democrats and two were for the Republicans. Any idea which is which?

The most notorious of the groups that played a major role in influencing 2000 and 2002 legislative races was Independent Citizens for Democracy. That was Chuck Chvala's group, which specialized in laundering corporate donations that are illegal in Wisconsin through out-of-state receptacles like the Kansas Democratic Party and the Washington, D.C.-based Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

In 2004, All Children Matter, Americans for a Brighter Tomorrow, Citizens for Wisconsin's Future and the Greater Wisconsin Committee weighed in heavily on behalf of their special interest patrons.

Considering how much these groups' names sound alike, we figured the people who run these stealth operations must be running low on imagination by now. So we started a "Name a Front Group" contest and asked our statewide e-mail network to let the creative juices flow and send us their suggestions.

In a matter of days, we were flooded with entries. Some were cryptic, a few were profane, but most were just laugh-out-loud funny. They included Noxious Lobbyists for Motherhood and Apple Pie, Americans for Free Parking, Citizens Laboring Against Promiscuity (CLAP), Citizens Revering Everything Excellent and Pure (CREEP), the Association of 8-Year-Old Hunters and Other Idiots, Ultra-Patriotic Americans for a More American America and the Wisconsin Faith-based Repeal Of New Taxes Group (Wisconsin FRONT Group).

Our panel of judges narrowed the field down to three finalists, including Citizens for Grass Roots Engagement and Economic Development (Citizens for GREED), Families Allied for Keen Elections (FAKE) and the People's Front for the Corporate Behind.

Then we asked our e-mail network to make the final decision. The winner, with 47% of the votes cast, was the People's Front for the Corporate Behind. Citizens for GREED got 35% of the votes and FAKE received 11%, with the remaining 7% spread among a number of other entries. One of those votes went to a late entry deserving of special mention, People for the Unethical Treatment of Voters (PUTV). If that one had been suggested earlier, it would have been a strong vote-getter.

Thanks to all who submitted entries and all who voted in our contest. It was good fun. What's going on in our elections these days is enough to make you cry. Laughing is a better option. But we also hope this contest served as a good-natured reminder of a most disturbing trend in our election campaigns.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Swift Boat Contributions Floated To Foundations, Disney Resort

More than $342,000 in contributions made by Wisconsin residents and others to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have been donated to conservative foundations or used to pay for a meeting at Walt Disney World.

Swift Boat Veterans is a 527 group named after the IRS code that governs these unregulated electioneering groups that can collect and spend unlimited amounts of money.  They use most of their money on negative television and radio ads like the ones Swift Boat ran criticizing Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s war record during the 2004 elections.

In 2005 and the first quarter of 2006, the group raised only $2,300 but spent $782,541.

Swift Boat, which was co-founded by retired Admiral Roy F. Hoffman, raised $68,700 from Wisconsin residents in 2004.

Finance reports filed with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service show Swift Boat contributed $100,000 on February 8, 2006 to an outfit called the Admiral Roy F. Hoffman Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia.  In 2005, the group donated $10,000 to Hoffman’s foundation, $100,000 to the Vietnam Veterans Legacy Foundation and spent $132,087 on “meeting expenses” at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.

What Hoffman’s foundation is up to is a well-guarded secret.  The foundation has the same address as a business called Political Compliance Services, which Swift Boat and other conservative Republican groups use for consulting and complying with Federal Election Commission reporting requirements.  

Media reports and the telephone directory list Michael and Susan Arceneaux as company contacts, and an August 24, 2004 New York Times story revealed that Susan Arceneaux helped establish and run Swift Boat.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Stepp One: Help Out The Influence Peddlers

WDC has frequently shown how wealthy, influential campaign contributors get special treatment from elected officials, but we recently found a favorable break of a different kind.

Republican State Senator Cathy Stepp has given back $23,700 in campaign contributions because she decided not to run for reelection this year.

The curious thing is who got their money back.  Many of the returns went to wealthy, influential special interests.

Stepp, a home builder, returned contributions from builders and school choice advocates.  They were mostly contributions between $100 and $1,000 that were made in 2005 before she announced October 3 that she would not seek reelection.  One contributor, Racine manufacturer Willard Walker, got back $1,000 for contributions he made to Stepp in 2003, 2004 and 2005.  

Wealthy out-of-state school voucher interests got back $3,700 in contributions, including Amway founders Dick and Betsy Devos of Michigan and Jim and Lynn Walton of Arkansas whose family founded Wal-Mart.

Missing from the list of returns are the numerous small contributors most of whom probably contributed to her because she is their state senator.
Retiring politicians can give back contributions until their campaign coffers are empty, donate the money to charity or contribute to other candidates down the road.  They cannot use the money to buy personal items.

It is unknown whether these donors asked for their contributions back or she decided to return them.  But Stepp raised $66,533 in 2005 and had an ending cash balance December 31 of $36,890 with no outstanding debt.

Why not float some cash back to your real constituents, Cathy?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Not Enough!

Not upfront enough. Not open enough.

That’s our take on a nearly year-old group called Enough! that was formed to oppose additional off-reservation casinos in Wisconsin. The group’s executive director, Brian Nemoir, has refused to identify the group’s members and funding sources. The State Ethics Board feels they are not legally required to do so.

Here’s what we do know about the group and its chief. Nemoir said in January the group has about 300 member organizations and individuals. Our guess is a lot of them are restaurants, taverns and others in the tourism industry which has had a longstanding beef over how Indian gambling hurts their pocketbooks.

Last year the group spent $165,366 on three lobbyists – an ex-Republican state senator and two aides to former GOP Governor Tommy Thompson – to push a bill that would require legislative approval of Indian gaming compacts. The governor now has the lone authority to do so.

Curious thing – the group spent 161 hours lobbying in the first half of 2005 and 243 hours in the last six months of the year, but their costs dropped from $87,500 to $77,866.

The proposal, Assembly Bill 461, has been stuck in the Senate for five months with two weeks to go before it dies, but Doyle, whose 2002 election campaign benefited from $700,000 worth of contributions by three tribes, has said he opposes it.

Nemoir is an Oconomowoc resident and former state GOP party official who runs a business called Full Impact Communications. Nemoir is also a campaign consultant whose latest client, Republican Representative Ann Nischke, should have been a slam-dunk winner in the mayoral race in heavily Republican Waukesha. She outspent her Democratic opponent 3-to-1, with more than a third of it going to Nemoir who charged the campaign $12,450 for printing, postage, design and automated telephone messages.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

California Cheese Wheys In On Green Campaign

Mark Green has been tied to convicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the state Capitol caucus scandal, indicted former GOP House leader Tom DeLay and some shady Illinois donors.

But what could really get him in trouble around here is taking campaign cash from a California cheese maker.

Yep, Green’s year-end 2005 campaign finance report shows he collected $845 from a salesman for the Hayward, California-based Pacific Cheese Company.  The company is among several featured on the Real California Cheese web site, and boasts being the “leading supplier of high-quality natural cheese in the western United States.”

Wisconsin lost its decades-long title as the nation’s #1 dairy state in the 1990s to California, and to rub it in Sunshine State cheese makers frequently run talking-cow television ads to push their product here.

In a state that once banned the sale of margarine, should this guy really be taking money from California cheese makers if he wants to become Wisconsin’s next governor?

Drug Execs Travel On UW's Dime

Check out the latest report from our friends at the Center for Public Integrity.

Food & Drug Administration employees have taken hundreds of trips since 1999 paid for by groups and universities that have financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry, which the FDA regulates.

Number 10 on the overall list, and #3 among universities, was the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The report says the UW spent $47,000 on 50 trips for FDA employees.

UW-Madison is a heavyweight among research institutes, and has conducted clinical trials for Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and other drug companies.