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.