Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Reform Enemies Getting Creative

The search is on. For the poison pill, that is. Even as the Wisconsin State Journal today editorialized that state lawmakers have run out of excuses for inaction on ethics reform, the Assembly’s ethics reform stonewaller-in-chief, Speaker-elect Mike Huebsch, is telling reporters that he and his legislative allies plan to try attaching an amendment to the ethics bill requiring a photo ID to vote in Wisconsin.

The photo ID requirement does not have the votes to pass in the new Legislature as a stand-alone bill. Repeated attempts to enact it in the past failed. It is a divisive and highly partisan idea that could take the “bi” out of bipartisan support for ethics reform legislation in a real hurry.

Opponents of ethics reform know that if a clean ethics bill is given an up-or-down vote, it will pass in both houses and will be signed into law by the governor. They know the only way to kill reform is to lace the legislation with poison. And Huebsch just tipped the obstructionists’ hand.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Howie Rich Sets Up Shop in Wisconsin

Our friends at the national Center for Public Integrity are reporting that Howard Rich has located two of his tax-exempt political organizations in Wisconsin and appears to be operating them illegally in our state.

Sure enough, the groups – the Parents in Charge Foundation and the Legislative Education Action Drive – list their addresses as 10 East Doty Street, Suite 800, Madison, WI 53703. And as of today, neither organization has been authorized to conduct business in Wisconsin by the state Department of Financial Institutions, the agency with which all nonprofit corporations must register if they are going to operate in Wisconsin.

Both of these private school voucher advocacy groups pulled up stakes across the border in Illinois and ran from the law there before landing here.

Who is Howard Rich? He's a New York real estate magnate. Friend of Grover Norquist. Godfather of the national movement to put a "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" in state constitutions. Sugar daddy to state puppet groups, like-minded candidates and a dizzying array of shell companies – Club for Growth State Action, Fund for Democracy, U.S. Term Limits, Americans for Limited Government and America at its Best. The list goes on and on.

He clearly likes to play dress-up, creating organizations around the country that sound like grassroots citizen movements but are actually pure Astroturf. There's "Oklahomans for Good Government" and "Colorado at its Best." And "Missourians in Charge." Also "Montanans in Action" and "Oregonians in Action." And "South Carolinians for Responsible Government." Then there's my personal favorite: "Protect Our Homes Idaho." All of them are really One Multimillionaire New York Real Estate Mogul with a Right-Wing Agenda.

For more on Rich and his operations, check out HowieRichexposed.com. Also go here, here and here.

Procedure Bites

This postscript to our recent blog, "Voters' #1 Concern," comes courtesy of All Politics Watch, a weblog on the online edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

TUESDAY, Nov. 14, 2006, 6:34 p.m.
Patrick Marley

Freese offers advice

Madison -- Before Assembly Republicans elected new leaders today, they recognized outgoing representatives, complete with plaques from the trophy shop owned by Rep. Dean Kaufert of Neenah.

As speaker pro tempore for a decade, Rep. Steve Freese (R-Dodgeville) was in charge of running Assembly debates and playing referee when the two parties disagreed over debate rules. He lost his race last week, which some have attributed in part to his vote against bringing an ethics bill to the floor for debate.

Freese had sponsored that bill, but voted against bringing it to the floor after his colleagues decided behind closed doors to kill it.

"If anybody ever says a procedural vote will never come back to bite you, don't believe them because I can point to examples all over the state," Freese told his fellow Assembly Republicans.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Turning Off The Mic

Mega media conglomerate Clear Channel and progressive talk radio always seemed like a poor fit. Still, it was disheartening – no, make that thoroughly disgusting – to hear that Clear Channel is pulling the plug on progressive talk on Madison's Air America affiliate – WXXM 92.1 FM "The Mic" – in favor of Fox Sports Radio.

I love sports as much as the next guy, especially baseball and my beloved Chicago Cubs. And I bleed Badger red, particularly during the college basketball season. But do we need more sports on the broadcast airwaves, at the expense of passionate discussion of political issues and civic affairs no less? Of course not.

Clear Channel clearly is putting its bottom line ahead of the best interests of the citizenry and our democracy. You don't have to take my word for it. Listen to Clear Channel magnate Lowry Mays, who has been quoted saying, "We're not in the business of providing news and information.... We're simply in the business of selling our customers' products."

What Mays stunningly but deliberately overlooks is that his company has received a free license to use the public's airwaves on the condition that its programming must serve the "public interest, convenience and necessity." More sports at the expense of democracy does not meet that condition. This move should be reconsidered.

If you feel like talking back to your radio, contact the station (WXXM, 2651 South Fish Hatchery Road, Madison, WI 53701 Phone: 608-274-5450 FAX: 608-274-5521) and also Clear Channel corporate headquarters (Clear Channel, 200 East Basse Road, San Antonio, TX 78209 Phone: 1-210-822-2828). To sign a petition to WXXM's management, go here.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Voters' #1 Concern

National exit polls showed that concern about corruption and ethics in government was the top concern of voters in Tuesday's election, outranking even the Iraq war as the biggest motivating factor for the housecleaning that significantly altered the political landscape at the national and state levels alike.

Corruption was a key issue in state legislative races in every nook and cranny of Wisconsin, and ethics became a deciding factor in several. All five Assembly incumbents who were thrown out of office – Steve Freese of Dodgeville, Rob Kreibich of Eau Claire, Judy Krawczyk of Green Bay, Gabe Loeffelholz of Platteville and Mark Pettis of Hertel – were implicated in the state caucus scandal and were among the state lawmakers identified in testimony during former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen's criminal trial as having received the illegal campaign help that Jensen was convicted of masterminding. All five also cast votes against ethics reform legislation, Senate Bill 1.

A sixth Assembly Republican incumbent may yet fall. Initial reports had Debi Towns up by six votes in the 43rd district. A canvass of the vote total now has Democratic challenger Kim Hixson ahead by nine. A recount will undoubtedly be done.

Overall, it was a rough day Tuesday for the Lobbyists' Legislature. Voters overcame formidable institutional obstacles to change – from incumbent-friendly district lines to huge cash advantages for current office holders – to significantly realign power at the Capitol.

In the Senate, three Republican incumbents were swept out and a Democrat won an open seat vacated by a Republican, giving the Democrats an 18-15 majority in the upper house. Democrats gained seats in the Assembly for the first time in 16 years, picking up a total of at least seven seats and narrowing the Republican majority to 53-46. Make that eight if Hixson ends up besting Towns in the 43rd. That would whittle the GOP majority in the lower house down to 52-47.

There were four other near misses for Democrats in Assembly races in the 47th, 80th, 87th and 96th districts. These four races were decided by a combined 1,054 votes out of more than 86,000 votes cast in those districts. Assuming Hixson holds on to his lead, then Democratic victories in three of these four districts would have given the Democrats a 50-49 majority in the Assembly. If just 624 votes in the three closest of those races had gone to challengers instead of the incumbents, Democrats would have taken over both houses of the Legislature.

Before the election, Capitol insiders were reminding everyone who would listen that all politics is local and insisting that strong anti-war sentiment and low approval ratings for President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress would not be a factor in state legislative races. But the Legislature has been rocked by political scandals mirroring those plaguing Congress, and a strong throw-the-bums-out impulse produced a much larger turnover than anyone had predicted.

Now it's time for the newly elected state Legislature and governor to get down to business and meaningfully address the electorate's top concerns. Campaign finance and ethics reform is at the top of the agenda for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Dave Zweifel, the editor of The Capital Times, is calling on Governor Jim Doyle in particular to take the lead in pushing reform.

Are they listening? Do they hear?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Trash Talk

The Associated Press was reporting with more than a week to go until Election Day that the major parties had spent nearly $160 million in ads attacking congressional candidates, compared to $17 million spent on ads with a positive message.

As AP reported, that's nearly $10 of nasty for every dollar of nice.

Anyone who has been watching the ads in state races in Wisconsin knows that the ratio might very well be worse here.

The professional political consultants who drive the strategic decisionmaking – and the ad buys – privately admit that campaigns are getting a diminishing return on each ad because viewers are increasingly tuning out the unrelentingly trashy messages. The campaigns' response to less bang for each buck? Raise even more money and buy even more ads.

The mantra of the political pros is that negative advertising is so prevalent because it is so effective. Yeah, sure they work. They make people a helluva lot more negative about politics and politicians. They make people hold their noses and choose between the lesser of evils.

If airlines advertised the way politicians do, would anyone in America fly again?

The candidates and their handlers can't seem to see beyond Election Day. They see negative ads as their ticket to office, but then when they get there they must realize that the public sees them as something between used car salesmen and child molesters. The way they are attaining power cripples them, undermining the very thing their legitimacy as elected officials depends on. Voter trust.

Going negative may be getting them elected, but it's also making it next to impossible for them to govern. I think the bosses at the Capitol are smart enough to see that. Which brings me to the real reason they can't get their campaigns out of the gutter. It's not that negative ads are so effective. It's that they're easy. It's far easier to tear something down than to build it in the first place. And it's far easier to trash an opponent than to inspire people.

Today's ads are a reflection of the poverty that grips our democracy. The greatest tragedy of our times is the absence of political leaders with the capacity to inspire.