Thursday, December 16, 2010

Prosser's Pitch

Justice is supposed to be colorblind. But Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser clearly can see red. His recent announcement of the hiring of a Republican operative to run his campaign for reelection caused a bit of a stir because Prosser sure made it sound like he sees Scott Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers as teammates.

Maybe it was just clumsy wording and should be taken with a grain of salt. What's clear is that the spell checker was turned off, because Prosser obviously meant to say he would complement the governor-elect and legislative Republicans, not compliment them.

Of greater concern is what we've been hearing for several weeks now about what Prosser is saying as he makes the rounds looking for support for his reelection bid. A prominent outstate attorney provided the Democracy Campaign on condition of anonymity an account of one such pitch Prosser made earlier this month.

Here is that account:

I am writing to you anonymously to inform you of comments that were made by Justice Prosser in his stump speech to Wisconsin Association for Justice at its board meeting on December 2, 2010. In his comments, Justice Prosser indicated that he wished the trial lawyers to know that if the race led to him being attacked from the "left," that he would move to the right and the trial lawyers would suffer for it. He stated that it would be in the best interest of the trial lawyers if he stayed in the middle. In fact, he said "don't force me to run a campaign that is not down the middle and honorable." When asked to explain that, he indicated that if the left demonizes him, it will push him to the right. He said he would do whatever was necessary and would side with those who were supporting him so he would not be retired as a Justice.

It was evident to those in the room that he was issuing a threat that if he was not supported by the trial lawyers, then they could expect that the decisions he renders will be against the interests that the trial lawyers espouse on behalf of injured consumers. It appears clear by his comments that he would prejudge any issue that came against him from someone who did not support him in the campaign.

It should be noted that Justice Prosser's comments to the Wisconsin Association
for Justice had been made privately to other individuals who reported that he was contacting them for support. In his contact, he would indicate that if he was not supported by those on what he considers the "left," he would move to the right in his decision making if he were to be re-elected. He further indicated that he wished he didn't have to do that but would do so if necessary so that he would be re-elected. These comments are not in keeping with the judicial code of ethics. These are clearly questionable campaign tactics for someone who seeks to sit on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.


A Concerned Attorney

The political class will no doubt see the alleged conduct as benign and the lawyer's reaction to it overwrought. Some might even question why anyone in the legal community would be surprised or taken aback. After all, Prosser is a former Assembly speaker who agreed to serve as a character witness for Scott Jensen and was prepared to testify that he did the same things Jensen was criminally charged for. And as a Supreme Court justice he voted for new judicial ethics rules written by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Wisconsin Realtors Association allowing judges to rule on cases involving their biggest campaign supporters.

Still, for anyone who believes justice and the law should be colorblind, a fact remains. David Prosser sees red.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Our Magic Mirror

That's some mirror most Americans are looking at.

It doesn't show how soft we've become. Nowhere in its reflection can you see our collective obesity or self-indulgence. It reveals no greed, no shortsightedness.

Stand before it and you see power. You see ingenuity and industriousness. You see generosity.

You also see the image of one who is deserving. Entitled. Not to mention aggrieved. Put-upon.

We are hopelessly in hock, yet while our economy tanked the richest of the rich got grotesquely richer. They still have their hands out. What they have is not enough. It's never enough. Most of us are OK with that, regardless of our political leanings. Put it on the credit card. Send the bill to the kids and grandkids.

If we feel the least bit unsafe, a war is started on our behalf. No longer are we asked to pay for it. No scrap drives or rubber drives. No rationing. No war tax. Put it on the credit card. Bill the kids and grandkids.

America's politicians, whores that they are to the less than 1% of society who paid to put them in their stations, feign concern over the exploding national debt while driving us down an expressway to bankruptcy. Most of us are OK with that, regardless of our political leanings.

Cut our taxes. Keep your hands off our Social Security and Medicare. Spare no expense in fighting the terrorists. We're entitled. Put it on our tab.

OK, things are falling apart. Blame some foreigner. Some immigrant. Someone browner. Someone lesser.

That's some mirror.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Why There Is A Permanent Republican Majority

There's no forever in politics. So politically speaking, permanence is a relative term. But a generation or even a decade feels like forever.

By that measure, there is a permanent Republican majority in America and it extends into the future as far as the eye can see. Yes, I do realize there's a Democrat in the White House and the Democrats still will control the U.S. Senate in the new year. But can anyone look at Obama's tax-cut deal and fail to see that it's really the likes of Jon Kyl, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell who are calling the shots?

Some 30 years ago, Ronald Reagan announced to the world that government is not the solution, it's the problem. Ever since, most everything that's come out of the mouths of Republicans has been a variation on that theme. And more often than not over the course of the last three decades, voters have elected Republicans to key offices. Every once in a while, they hand over the keys to a Democrat or two, but almost always it turns out to be a triangulated if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em Democrat like Bill Clinton, who of course announced to the world that the era of big government is over. More on that theme later.

A normal person hears talk of triangulation and has visions of being strangled by a geometry teacher. A Clinton or an Obama sees a lifeboat.

Liberalism as an ideology is shrinking. Even the word "liberal" has been turned into an expletive, as in "Conservatives say the way to end federal budget deficits is to cut taxes for the richest 2% of Americans, turn the social safety net into a single high wire, and engage in preemptive warfare instead of waiting for enemies to attack. No leading (expletive deleted) could be reached for comment."

Take a moment to look at Gallup's most recent polling on the most respected professions in America. What's interesting is that four of the top eight – military officers, grade school teachers, police officers and judges – are government employees. Also in the top 10 are nurses and doctors, quite a few of whom also are employed by the government.

Yet Americans hate the government and see it as the problem. That's because of how elected officials are regarded. Look again at Gallup's poll. Members of Congress and state office holders are at the bottom of the list, right there with lobbyists and car salesmen. Many of those who toil in government jobs are highly respected for their service, but we don't get to vote for soldiers or teachers or police officers. We vote for politicians who sometimes hire lobbyists to run their offices and frequently become lobbyists and cash in on K Street as soon as they leave office.

Most Americans clearly don't have much use for either of the major political parties, but the Republican Party becomes the default option because it is seen as the anti-government party. That is why the Republicans have been in the driver's seat for 30 years and will remain at the controls into the foreseeable future.

There is a way out for the Democrats, of course. They can do what the Republicans did 30 years ago and name the problem. And name the enemy who is the root of the problem.

In the late 1800s Rockefeller, Carnegie and Vanderbilt became household names. That wasn't an accident. They called 'em robber barons. These were the faces that still came to mind when FDR railed against the economic royalists at the height of the Great Depression. As he named the problem and named the enemy, he was even able to say out loud that paying taxes is a privilege, not a sacrifice. And most Americans revered him, making him the only four-term president this country has ever had or ever will have.

Does the name Edward Liddy ring a bell? How about Herbert Allison? John Koskinen? Frederick Henderson? Vikram Pandit? Kenneth Lewis? These are all modern-day CEOs who ran their companies into the ground and ran our economy off a cliff. They should be held accountable for the harm they've done to our country. We don't even know who the hell they are.

There is a reason the villains have not been named, not been held accountable. Look at Obama's donor list. Closer to home, it's the same story.

There is a road to redemption for the Democrats. But it is a road the party's establishment cannot imagine traveling.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

How Plutocrats Think

"Common practice here in D.C. looks an awful lot like plain old corruption everywhere else in the country."

– John Feehery, lobbyist and former
aide to ex-Republican House leader Tom DeLay

For his part, DeLay said his conviction on money laundering charges amounted to the "criminalization of politics," complaining that what prosecutors and ultimately the jury saw as a conspiracy to violate election laws was really just a series of routine money swaps that are common transactions for political parties.

"In this day and age, in order to fully participate and have your First Amendment rights, you have to be able to spend money."

– David Bossie,
president of the conservative group Citizens United

If you spend enough time in a mine shaft, your eyes adjust to the darkness. So it is with political corruption.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Honey, Who Shrunk The Liberal?

From the Latin liberalis meaning "freedom," liber meaning "free." Showing or characterized by broad-mindedness; not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox or authoritarian attitudes, views or dogmas; tolerant of the ideas and behaviors of others; open to new ideas for progress, favoring proposals for reform; free from prejudice or bigotry, tolerant; generous, tending to give freely; willing to give unstintingly; favoring equal rights and civil liberties.

In a political context, there are at least four pillars of liberalism. Three are even enshrined in the motto of the French Republic: liberty, equality and brotherhood. The fourth is a predisposition to favor change and desire progress (explaining presumably why so many prefer being called "progressive" now that the word liberal has been cursed).

Any honest evaluation of the embrace of those four principles by today's politicians in this country shows how liberalism here has been whittled down to microscopic size or abandoned altogether.

Let's start with liberty. It is what most would still call a liberal administration that's running the TSA and blessing that agency's virtual strip searches at airports. And who can forget one of the most striking assaults on basic freedoms when every member of the United States Senate, save one, voted for security over civil liberties and authorized everything from warrantless wiretapping and other forms of eavesdropping to indefinite detentions of immigrants. And despite President Obama's campaign promises to the contrary, his administration made it clear soon after his election that it had every intention of staying the course.

As for equality, for 30 years now policies have been put in place making the rich in America richer, the poor poorer and the middle class an endangered species. It started under Reagan, but continued and even expanded under Clinton and hasn't been meaningfully curtailed by Obama. Large numbers of Democrats have joined Republicans in Congress over the years to support these policies. And it's not just in the area of economic equality where "liberals" are lacking. They've largely stood idly by for the past 40 years as the First Amendment has been radically reinterpreted, transforming the right to speak into a privilege that must be purchased at great expense.

The notion of brotherhood has fared no better. When is the last time a national political figure spoke regularly and passionately and sincerely about the poor? It's hard to remember. Bobby Kennedy? Hubert Humphrey? Maybe Teddy Kennedy in his early years? In any case, it's been ages. Today's liberals talk a lot about the middle class. They rarely if ever talk about poverty. But in spite of all the liberal rhetoric about working families, people who shower at the end of the day have been sold out. Their jobs have been outsourced and offshored as fair trade went out the window with NAFTA and CAFTA, and it took both Democrats and Republicans to do it. The right to organize in the workplace and collectively bargain with employers has been steadily eroded. "We're all in this together" has been replaced by "You are on your own."

So that brings us to the reformist impulse. Here too liberalism has become small. In many ways liberals have become conservative, seeking merely to preserve the status quo, trying to safeguard past reforms like the New Deal and the Great Society from attacks by reactionary forces. In other ways liberals have gone to the dark side. Politics is more corrupt today than at any time in our lifetimes. Government is less trusted. And a great many liberal officials and liberal groups have stubbornly resisted reforms to combat corruption and have actively sought to subvert or undermine what modest changes have been made to campaign finance regulations, ethics rules or lobbying laws.

Liberals in Washington and in state capitals long ago stopped fiercely defending core freedoms, ceased establishing and protecting the commons, gave up on economic equality, and surrendered the mantle of progressivism. All that is left is what could be called "lifestyle liberalism." Smokefree restaurants. Gay marriage. Hybrid cars.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying these sorts of things, not to mention reproductive freedom and public broadcasting and a hundred other things, should not be liberal causes. It's that when liberalism is confined to such concerns it is too narrow, too limited, not enough. When liberals and liberalism grow this anorexic, our democracy and our society suffer. Thought and discourse are starved. Voters are deprived of meaningful choices at the ballot box.

When liberals grow afraid of their own shadows, afraid even to call themselves liberal, that fear has a stultifying and stupefying effect on our politics. And it weakens our country.

Monday, November 22, 2010

6 Steps To Restoring Sanity

It's said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

By that definition, American voters are insane.

Less than 1% of the population pays for the campaigns of those seeking office. Some Republicans are elected, some Democrats. They proceed to cater to the less than 1% who paid to put them in office, driving the other 99% up a wall.

Without demanding changes in the way elections are paid for, voters reelect most of those who drove them crazy. They throw out a few in the interest of shaking things up, in hopes of a different result. Maybe a few more Democrats are elected this time, along with some Republicans. The newly elected officials got the money for their campaigns from less than 1% of the people. They continue catering to that fraction of 1% of the population. The rest feel let down and left out again.

Another election comes. No changes in the way campaigns are waged and financed have been demanded or made. Less than 1% pay for all the ads, all the mailings, all the robocalls. Once again, most of those who were in power stay in power. A few get tossed, maybe a few more than usual. Voters hope against hope for a different result, for some bipartisan cooperation and constructive problem solving, for some consideration of the greater good. Let's say this time it's the Republicans who are elected in greater number. Those Republicans, and the surviving Democrats, got their campaign money from less than 1% of the people. They cater to those donors.

Another election comes. And another. The same thing is done over and over again, yet a different result is somehow expected. Insane is what it is.

If voters are ever to regain their senses and if American democracy is ever to become, you know, like an actual democracy, we can't keep doing the same thing over and over again, election after election. We have to do some things differently. Here are six things we can and should do, in no particular order:

1. Require full disclosure of all election spending and all donations used to pay for that campaigning. Both federal and state law in Wisconsin need to be changed to uphold the right of voters to know who is writing the checks for all that election advertising we have to endure.

2. Create publicly financed campaigns. Right now less than 1% of the population pays for all the candidates' campaign expenses. Once elected, those candidates-turned-elected-officials are hopelessly beholden to those special interests that supply them with the money to run for office. Our elections, and by extension our government, are owned by less than 1% of the people. We could and should have a system where all of us pay directly for elections so we have elected representatives who truly belong to all of us.

3. Establish corporate accountability laws requiring shareholder consent for election spending. Currently top corporate managers can spend investors' money on elections, supporting candidates of management's choosing, without even informing shareholders much less getting their permission. The law could be changed to introduce an element of democracy into corporate management, requiring notification of shareholders when a company wants to try to influence an election and requiring the company to get approval from a majority of those who own stock.

4. Give candidates free air time. America is the only major democracy on the planet without some system for allowing candidates to communicate with voters around election time without paying for the air time. The broadcast airwaves are public property. Use of those airwaves should be granted only on the condition that they be used to serve the public interest. Making politicians prostitute themselves in order to campaign for public office is most definitely not in the public interest.

5. Protect Net Neutrality at all costs. We have a free and open Internet. The ruling class wants to get rid of that in the worst way. We can't let them succeed.

6. Push for a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment has been radically reinterpreted, effectively removing the "r" from free speech. The Constitution should be amended for a 28th time to clarify that putting reasonable limits on campaign contributions and election spending does not violate the First Amendment and reestablish that money is not speech, corporations are not people, elections are not auctions, and public offices are not commodities to be bought and sold on the open market.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mining For Influence?

The owner and some executives of a company that wants to develop an open-pit iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin have begun laying the groundwork for their project - making their first ever campaign contributions in Wisconsin.

Media reports say Gogebic Taconite, which has yet to file any information with the state about the project, bought an option last summer to lease the mineral rights on 22,000 acres in Ashland and Iron counties.

Gogebic will need project approval from the Department of Natural Resources and other state agencies and that could take years. But company officials have already spoken with Republican Governor-elect Scott Walker, a conservation group and an area Indian tribe in recent months. Two company officials met August 5 with Democratic Senator Bob Jauch of Poplar for information about the state's mining approval process.

Meanwhile, company owner Chris Cline of Beckley, West Virginia and two of his executives and their spouses from Florida contributed $5,000 August 6 to Democratic State Senator Jeff Plale of South Milwaukee and a total of $2,500 August 3 and August 5 to Republican Representative Mark Honadel of South Milwaukee. Plale was defeated in the September 12 primary.

Gogebic is a subsidiary of the Cline Group, which controls large coal reserves throughout Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio and West Virginia.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Great Champion Of Democracy

I learned yesterday that Larry Hansen has passed away. Larry was the longtime vice president of the Joyce Foundation who directed the foundation's Money and Politics program. I knew Larry for just 14 years of his remarkable life and considered him both a mentor and dear friend. I also considered him the single most influential figure in the democracy reform movement nationally.

A very touching retrospective on Larry's life has been posted here on the Midwest Democracy Network's website. It sums up Larry Hansen better than I ever could.

All of us who knew and loved Larry mourn the loss of this great champion of democracy.

Corporate Lawyer Spins 'Em Dizzy

I about fell out of my chair this morning while reading a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story about a report issued by the state Government Accountability Board on outside interest group spending in this year's state elections.

A corporate attorney in Madison who is richly compensated for representing the most powerful lobbying groups in Wisconsin, not to mention running interference for some of the shadiest electioneering groups operating in the state, gave the newspaper's reporter this take on the GAB report:

Mike Wittenwyler, an attorney who works with independent political groups, noted that of the $9.9 million in disclosed spending, about $2.5 million was from corporations in the new category created by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United. That shows corporations didn't hijack the political process as some critics of the ruling had predicted, he said.

"The sky didn't fall," Wittenwyler said. "Corporations did not do what everyone was predicting."

Saying that corporations spent only $2.5 million twists the truth beyond recognition. It is a lie of omission, but a lie nonetheless.

The $2.5 million figure Wittenwyler cited was spending by so-called "1.91 Corporations." This is a new category of reporting triggered by a rule (GAB 1.91) approved by the Government Accountability Board earlier this year. But that's hardly the only kind of election spending that was funded by corporations. There was another $1.95 million spent by what GAB labeled "Corporation PACs." And of the $3.8 million that fell into the category the GAB called "Other Committee Types," much of that spending was done by the corporate-funded Republican Governors Association through its RGA Wisconsin 2010 PAC.

Then there is the unreported spending. For example, conspicuously absent from the list of reported spenders is Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, whose election spending in 2010 reached seven figures but was not reported to the GAB.

While all of WMC's spending was of the undisclosed variety, RGA was one of several groups that did both reported and unreported spending. Others in that category include the liberal group Greater Wisconsin and the conservative American Federation for Children, which is undoubtedly corporate funded. Groups that also did unreported spending and almost certainly did it with corporate money include Jobs First Coalition, the National Association of Manufacturers' American Justice Partnership and Club for Growth Wisconsin.

The Democracy Campaign has accounted for at least $5 million in additional outside group spending in the 2010 state elections that went unreported. We are not done digging for evidence of such activity and are still tallying what we've found so far.

I don't know about the sky falling, but contrary to some very disingenuous spin, corporations did behave precisely as expected and took full advantage of the Citizens United ruling.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Atlas Mugged Us First, Then He Shrugged

Just ran across two eye-popping numbers that speak volumes about our country's direction. $22.6 million and $1.1 trillion.

The first comes from the national Institute on Money in State Politics, which issued a report this week showing that the 20 richest Americans and their companies donated $22.6 million from 2005 through 2008 to influence state-level elections. That number doesn't even begin to account for what they spent on federal elections.

The second has to do with the redistribution of wealth in America. Looking at IRS data and calculating the percentage of total income for each income class, you can see how dramatically the middle class's share of the nation's income has declined and how the percentage claimed by the wealthiest in our society has skyrocketed. In fact, from 2001 to 2007 more than $1.1 trillion in income was shifted from people who make less than $100,000 to people who make more than $100,000. The people at the very top really cleaned up, as almost a third (29%) of that $1.1 trillion income transfer over the six-year period went to those making $10 million or more.

The second number is no accident or coincidence. It happened by design. It is the result of a whole series of public policy decisions made in places like Washington and Madison. And those decisions have everything to do with numbers like the first.

Ayn Rand and her 53-year-old novel Atlas Shrugged and its money-is-everything, greed-is-good ethos are in fashion these days. The book's title refers of course to the titan in Greek mythology who held up the heavens on his shoulders and went on to serve as Rand's metaphor for captains of industry and men of means who she claimed are responsible for society's productivity.

When the Atlases of Rand's mind felt put-upon and overburdened, they shrugged and shut down the engine of the world, leading to the collapse of civilization. The moral of the story was, as Rand wrote, "Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction."

Well, if modern-day Atlases are doing any shrugging, it's only because they are so unrepentant for their rape and plunder.

And what has the embrace of Rand's vision as national policy and the realization of her dream world done for us? Our economy has plunged off a cliff. Millions saw their jobs shipped overseas. Even more saw life savings vanish almost overnight. Home foreclosures are epidemic. Our natural environment has been badly damaged, threatening the health of both our planet and the people who inhabit it. Families are more stressed than ever. Our culture has grown more violent.

You know, not a single new state university campus has been created in Wisconsin since 1968. But since 1994, our state has built eight new prisons and purchased a ninth that was built by a private company on speculation, added hundreds of beds to existing correctional facilities and shipped inmates to five different states to deal with overcrowding. We got tired of investing in success, and started paying more and more for failure.

There is only one way out of the mess that's been made. And it involves doing something about those two eye-popping numbers.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Imagining Political Innovation

You are an independent. Part of the biggest bloc of voters in America. So why then do you feel so alone, so powerless? You hate Democrats. And you hate Republicans. You vote for one side and end up feeling snookered. So you vote for the other side the next time. Snookered again. And again. What next?

You are a liberal, or at least you lean left. Republicans make you insane. But the Democrats constantly let you down. You think of joining the Green Party. Visions of wasted votes and spoiler candidates dance in your head. It's hard to imagine a better Green Party candidate than Ben Manski, and it's hard to imagine greener pastures than Madison's 77th Assembly District. If a Green can't win in the 77th, can one win anywhere? If Manski can't win, can anyone? So now where do you turn?

You are a conservative, or at least that's the label that seems to best fit you. Democrats give you nightmares. But Republicans never deliver that limited government they promise. When they look for things to cut, it's funny how the programs benefiting their biggest campaign donors are spared the ax. Starts making the Libertarians look appealing. Drats, even the brother of one of the biggest names in Wisconsin political history barely pulled 10% running as a Libertarian. Guess you'll have to silence that inner voice that keeps saying you are too smart, too sensible and too sane for the Tea Party.

What if the politically homeless across the ideological spectrum could start to see their common plight? What if the disaffected took notice that America doesn't have a parliamentary system but rather one that assiduously reinforces a two-party landscape? And what if that caused them to stop toying with the idea of joining a third party that only stakes out territory to the left of the Democrats or to the right of the Republicans? What if they also got tired enough of holding their noses while voting and choosing between the lesser of evils, and started thinking about creating a first-party movement aimed at either transforming or supplanting one of the major parties?

What if it dawned on enough people that less than 1% of the population is paying to keep the existing major parties in power? What if they started to insist on a party for at least a good number of the other 99%?

What if they then realized how the "r" has been effectively removed from free speech in our country, and did something truly subversive to get out of the pay-to-play trap? What if 5,000 or 10,000 people from every corner of the state took to the sidewalks and the shopping mall parking lots and the country roads and became walking ads and living billboards to deliver the new party's message? And traveled the electronic highways and byways of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube to do the same thing?

To cover expenses, what if a few thousand 99ers all over Wisconsin became panhandlers for the politically homeless? Brother, can you spare a voice in Washington and Madison? Small change for a big change.

What if common folks with some common sense started practicing uncommon politics for the purpose of advancing the common good? What if neighbors started challenging neighbors to think we first instead of me first? What if the 99ers were able to win over 50,000 Wisconsinites? The effort would likely fall flat. But what if they were able to capture the hearts and minds of 500,000 or a million? At least one of the major parties and maybe both would have to evolve or perish. Wisconsin politics would be dramatically altered.

You may say I am a dreamer. But I'm not the only one.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Hate-Em-All Lurch

One thing's sure about yesterday's election results. They will be overanalyzed and misinterpreted by the media pundits and a clueless political class. We'll hear endless talk of historic political realignment. We'll be told voters moved sharply to the right just as we were told the electorate had shifted dramatically to the left in 2006 and 2008, bringing about historic political realignment.

Voters are no more fond of Republicans today than they were last month or last year or four years ago. And voters didn't become dyed-in-the-wool Democrats in 2006 and 2008. The vast majority of voters hate both major parties with a passion. Virtually all voters are holding their noses when they cast a ballot and feel doomed to choose between the lesser of two evils.

The Onion got it right. Millions of Americans courageously lined up to vote yesterday despite the very real threat of electing the 112th Congress. Thank god for satire. The last safe harbor for truth.

Another thing we'll surely hear from the pundits and the politicians and their handlers is that the 2010 elections sounded the death knell of campaign finance reform, particularly in light of Russ Feingold's defeat.

This too is nonsense. Yesterday was a referendum on the economy. Nothing else mattered. Not the war in Afghanistan. Not global climate change. Certainly not campaign financing.

This fact remains. The average voter understands that their elected representatives are listening to and working for the lobbyists and their big campaign donors, not the general public. Less than 1% of the population paid for all the election advertising we had to endure. And that fraction of 1% will be amply rewarded by the politicians. The average voter gets that, and is pissed about it.

Last night's election results change little or nothing for the Democracy Campaign. Hell, Jim Doyle never once was willing to meet with us. Too busy dialing for dollars, no doubt. Russ Decker never once met with us. He was probably on the phone with Chuck Chvala. Mike Sheridan never once met with us. He was forever courting a lobbyist, literally and figuratively. They are all gone now. Good riddance.

Both parties are playing the money game, and both have been corrupted by that game. Both are dutifully servicing the lobbyists and their donors. Neither is working for the general public. The average voter gets that. It's the single biggest reason why virtually all voters hate both parties with a passion. It's the single biggest reason why most have to hold their noses while voting and choose between the lesser of evils.

It's never been more important than it is right now to address the fact that money is more important than issues or ideas or people in our elections.

If the pundits need fodder, there are serious questions that need answering. Where is authentic political leadership going to come from in our country? When and how is at least one of the major parties going to reconnect in a meaningful and enduring way with a disgusted and increasingly cynical citizenry? Is the public capable of imagining civic innovation to create a new residence for the politically homeless if there is no admission of infidelity forthcoming from the Republicans or Democrats and no sincere attempt to patch things up with estranged voters?

Here's one more question in urgent need of an answer. . . . How do we get beyond partisan gridlock and political paralysis so the many seemingly intractable problems plaguing our society can be tackled and solved? There always have been divisions and competing factions in America, and there always will be. But the political process used to serve the useful purpose of working out those differences so we could be governed. Today it actually magnifies our differences and aggravates the divisions.

Until we work our way through that conundrum it would be foolish to expect the electorate to do anything but continue to lurch, changing colors like a chameleon from election to election.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A False Choice

Those who've taken to calling themselves tea partiers are fond of saying that the solution to our nation's problems is to get back to following the Constitution. Good advice. Trouble is, as John Nichols aptly pointed out in a recent column, the constitutional principles to which they profess fidelity often are unrecognizable to the rest of us and would be equally unfamiliar to the framers themselves.

Christine O'Donnell's take on church and state clearly is the most amusing and frequently cited example of this, but the problem does not begin or end with her ignorance of the Establishment Clause. Tea party groups are in league with Citizens United and have come down firmly against campaign finance reform, even opposing more disclosure of campaign donors and election spending. They say any such reform is inconsistent with the First Amendment.

It's not just the tea partiers who've bought in to the notion that we have to choose between preventing government corruption and allowing free expression. The venerable Wall Street Journal falls prey when it asks "Should free speech be curbed in the name of good government?" Some who long supported disclosure now say political transparency and political discourse are incompatible. Even pro-reform commentaries often fall into the trap of believing that keeping our government as clean, open and honest as possible is a goal that might have to be sacrificed because of the Constitution.

The choice that is relentlessly thrust upon us is a false one. It has its basis in a radical reinterpretation of the First Amendment. We were 200 years into the American experiment and the First Amendment was 185 years old by the time the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted those 45 words to mean that money equals speech in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo case.

From that moment on, it's been drummed into us that we must choose between protecting the right to speak and safeguarding our government from corruption and our republic from the onset of plutocracy. At the same time, any thought to whether the right to speak bears any relationship to the ability to be heard in our society has been beaten out of us.

It's not an either-or. The future of the American experiment depends on our ability to break free of the brainwashing we've been subjected to for 30-plus years. It is possible and indeed necessary to combat corruption and have a vibrant marketplace of ideas. It is both possible and essential that we protect the right of each individual to speak and ensure that the First Amendment has real meaning to those who don't possess great riches by seeing to it that the wealthiest in our society aren't the only ones whose voices are heard. We can and must follow the Constitution and reestablish that money is property, not speech. In fact, reestablishing that fact is the single most important way we can honor the framers' design.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Now You See Them, Now You Don't

By our latest count, there are 43 different interest groups spending money like crazy to influence the outcome of state-level elections in Wisconsin this year. Eleven of the 43 are disclosing their donors while three-quarters of them are able to keep their funding sources a secret. The ones structured in a way that allows them to conceal their donors are doing the vast majority of the spending, so the public is being kept in the dark about the origins of most of the money being spent by outside groups.

The other thing that is striking about these outfits is their fly-by-night nature. Of the 43 groups active in state-level races in 2010, only 14 of them were around in 2008 and 11 were doing electioneering in state races in 2006.

The shadiest of these groups have names that ooze grassroots authenticity and evoke images of patriotism or motherhood and apple pie. They pop up, travel the low road doing the dirtiest of the political dirty work, and then vanish, to be replaced by new groups run by the same cast of characters.

The Democracy Campaign has been tracking this political sleight of hand since it started in earnest in Wisconsin in 2000. That year, the campaign hijackers were named Americans for Job Security, Independent Citizens for Democracy, People for Wisconsin's Future and Project Vote Informed.

Independent Citizens for Democracy was anything but independent and was really just one citizen, namely Chuck Chvala, who was then Senate Democratic leader and later of course a convicted felon. Chvala's group returned under the same name to haunt Wisconsin elections one more time in 2002. Project Vote Informed morphed into the Alliance for a Working Wisconsin. They were joined by Citizens for Clean and Responsible Government, Citizens for Wisconsin's Future, the Coalition for America's Families, Coalition to Keep America Strong and Working Families of Wisconsin.

In the next election in 2004, Citizens for Wisconsin's Future stuck around for a repeat performance and was joined by All Children Matter, the Alliance for Choices in Education and Americans for a Brighter Tomorrow.

All Children Matter remained active for two more elections in 2006 and 2008. Another group that surfaced in 2004, the Greater Wisconsin Committee, continues to intervene in state elections to this day. They were accompanied in 2006 on the left by Building Wisconsin's Future, not to be confused with Building a Better Wisconsin, the campaign arm of the Wisconsin Builders Association. And there was Working Families PAC on the right, not to be confused with Working Families of Wisconsin that helped Democrats in 2002.

Joining the fray in 2008 was Advancing Wisconsin, a regional group called Keep Our North Strong, and the Wisconsin Institute for Leadership. Only Advancing Wisconsin has been heard from in Wisconsin since.

This year, All Children Matter has been reincarnated as the American Federation for Children. This group's efforts are being orchestrated by former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, who is awaiting a new trial on corruption charges. It is best known for attacks leveled against Green Bay-area state senate candidate Monk Elmer, who has served on the Kimberly school board. The group lambasted Elmer and his supposed fellow board members for declaring a financial emergency and hiking taxes by exceeding state revenue limits on school budgets. The ads cite as evidence an article that appeared in a newspaper . . . in Idaho . . . about the fiscal woes in a Kimberly school district in that western state.

Other groups sponsoring campaign ads in 2010 include the American Justice Partnership, Building a Stronger Wisconsin (not to be confused with Building a Better Wisconsin or Building Wisconsin's Future), Citizens for a Progressive Wisconsin, Citizens for Fox Valley Jobs, Citizens for Southwest Wisconsin, the Club for Growth, Jobs First Coalition and Northwoods Patriot Group. Two of the biggest spenders this year are the Republican State Leadership Committee, one of the few such groups with a name that gives voters a clue which side it is on, and RGA Wisconsin 2010 PAC, whose initials would provide a clue if voters knew they stand for Republican Governors Association.

The reason most of these electioneering groups don't have to reveal their donors is they are gaming the tax code. This also helps explain why they come and go so quickly. Staying one step ahead of the law, don't you know.

Many of these groups are organized under section 501c of the federal tax code. Political campaigning is not a permissible primary purpose for 501c organizations under federal law. Some complaints have been filed calling on the IRS to investigate, but one wonders if the subjects of the complaints will exist anymore by the time the IRS finishes investigating and tries to enforce the law.

Trying to chase groups that spring up like weeds one moment and evaporate into thin air the next is exceedingly unlikely to get us anywhere good. Instead, Congress and states like Wisconsin should pass new laws requiring disclosure of the source of funds used for election spending regardless of how a group is organized. In the meantime, the IRS could do the public a huge favor by refusing to automatically grant 501c status to groups intending to engage in electioneering. Make them organize under section 527. Political campaigning can be the primary purpose of so-called 527s, but they have to disclose their donors.

Our elections are filthy with party fronts and shadowy interest groups that the IRS considers charitable organizations that promote the social welfare. This is a ruse. Both common sense and the public interest demand that they be required to operate as 527s and made to prove that influencing elections is not their primary purpose before being granted 501c status.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Political Malnutrition

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been truth-testing this season's political ads and, as one of the newspaper's columnists observed last week, there hasn't been much truth to be found.

The architects of our society's third stage of ownership, their minions in public office and apologists in academia like to say that all these ads are good for us, even going so far as to call them multivitamins for democracy. The more advertising the better because it creates a more informed electorate.

Excuse me, but how does a steady diet of scurrilous claims, half-truths, character assassination and outright lies leave us one bit more "informed?"

I know, I know, the comeback of the third stagers is that voters are smart enough to see through lies and figure out who's telling the truth and who's not.

But what if no one is telling the truth? Are slander and deception and duplicity and crookedness still politically nutritious?

Lying is not new to politics. What is new is the ever-expanding ability of candidates and their surrogates to do end-runs around traditional truth meters and deliver unfiltered lies directly to voters.

In the past, politicians delivered their campaign messages through a medium. When they told a whopper, there were trained journalists who researched the statement's validity. If it was found to be untrue or even highly misleading, the claim was often never reported to us. If it was reported, it came to us with the appropriate background information allowing us to judge its truthfulness. No more.

Now if you have enough money you can bypass the truth testers and buy your way straight into voters' living rooms with a pack full of lies. You won't be held accountable. You'll even have judges bless your deed and some professor somewhere will say what you did was actually good for democracy and a godsend to the voting public.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Death Of Courtship

Used to be that politicians were always on the lookout for a crowd, any opportunity to meet and greet potential voters. And time was when those same politicians were constantly tugging at the shirtsleeves of the news reporters, pining for a chance to share a story or a pithy quip that might make it into the papers.

Now most all of them are surrounded by handlers who advise them to severely limit public appearances and debates and steadfastly refuse media interviews. If, god forbid, they are left with no choice but to open their mouths during an unscripted moment, they are schooled in the art of staying "on message," which in practical terms means they are drained of any and all spontaneity and originality and turned into freaking automatons.

Used to be that in Wisconsin we elected Bill Proxmire to represent us in the U.S. Senate. He famously ran his statewide campaigns for a couple hundred bucks. And seemingly everyone in the state had their own story of an encounter with Prox. Maybe it was at a Lambeau Field tailgate or out in front of Camp Randall. Or they ran into him while eating something-on-a-stick at the State Fair, or you-know-what at Cheese Days in Monroe. It could have been at a plant gate at the GM factory in Janesville, or standing in line to get a kringle at O&H bakery in Racine. When you weren't running into Prox in a restaurant or outside a tavern somewhere, you were reading about him and his Golden Fleece awards in the papers. He had no handlers, at least none who could keep up with him on the trail, and certainly no one was telling him to avoid media interviews.

Now the pollsters tell us there's a good chance we'll send Ron Johnson to Washington to represent us in the Senate. Has anyone ever actually met Johnson? Can someone out there confirm for certain that he's not merely a green-screen image that will be digitally superimposed on the Senate floor during debates?

State secrets have nothing on Johnson's campaign schedule. He almost never agrees to talk to reporters. Hell, the executive editor of Johnson's hometown newspaper serves with him on the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce, and couldn't get an interview.

Johnson is running a thoroughly modern campaign. One TV ad after another after another. All style, no substance, much nonsense. Everyone knows government doesn't produce jobs . . . I know how to create jobs so send me to Washington and put me in your government and I'll make the economy hum. In a span of a little over four weeks, over 18,000 TV ads aired in the U.S. Senate race at a cost of more than $7 million. Close to $4 million of that came from Johnson himself, with another $625,000 coming from interest groups supporting him.

Used to be if you wanted to get married, you had to meet the family before popping the question. You had to break bread. And you had to have "the talk" with your future father in law. In politics, there was something akin to that courtship.

Now if you want to represent us in the halls of Congress or at the State Capitol you don't have to meet us or get to know what makes us tick or answer our questions. You don't have to have the talk. You just have to beam your green-screen image into our living rooms over and over and over again.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

'No End Of Consternation'

The state Government Accountability Board issued a statement yesterday voicing concerns about a mailing sent by an outfit calling itself RGA Wisconsin 2010 PAC. The mailing is part attack ad targeting Democratic governor candidate Tom Barrett and part absentee ballot application, already filled out for the voter and pre-addressed to the voter's local election clerk. Included are voter birthdates and telephone numbers. Some receiving the mailings are unsettled by the breach of privacy, others are downright freaked out.

GAB director Kevin Kennedy said in the statement that the mailings are technically legal, but "often provide no end of consternation to voters and election officials."

That's putting it mildly. For more than a week now, the Democracy Campaign has been getting daily doses of this consternation in the form of hate mail and nasty phone calls. See, RGA Wisconsin 2010 PAC does not have a website, which is by design as these kinds of smear groups don't want people to be able to easily figure out who they are. Voters get the garbage they send out in the mail, promptly go online to Google or some other search engine and type in RGA Wisconsin 2010 PAC and are directed here, our write-up about this outfit.

Despite the fact our description is under the heading "Hijacking Campaign 2010," quite a few consternated individuals have nevertheless jumped to the conclusion that the Democracy Campaign and RGA Wisconsin are all part of one big happy family. And they fire off an e-mail or ring us up on the phone to share some choice words.

One said she received the "most disgusting piece of electioneering" from us that "defamed (Barrett) with your distortions and republican lies." Another called us "elitist Smucks." Followed by yet another saying "You can take your lies on your Milwaukee's Worst mailer and shove them up your ass."

We've tried explaining that we didn't mail them anything, but rather are only monitoring the activity of these types of groups. More often than not our explanations have fallen on deaf ears.

The other night I got a call at home from a voter in Trempealeau County who was outraged by a mailing from another group that has been making its maiden electioneering voyage in Wisconsin in 2010. The shadowy sponsor of this charming ad, RSLC Inc., claims it will spend $1 million this fall to influence the outcome of state legislative elections in Wisconsin.

The only good thing that can be said about all this is there's only 19 more days to go 'til it's over.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

One Way Out Of This Mess

Doesn't matter who you talk to. Neighbor. Co-worker. Stranger on a street corner. Ask them about political ads on TV. Here's what you hear: "Can't stand 'em." "Don't watch them." "Never pay any attention to that garbage." "I change the channel as soon as I see one."

Of course many if not most who say that are lying. If no one is watching the ads, how does anyone in Wisconsin know who Ron Johnson is, much less support him? He has no public record to examine because he's never held any public office. He's never even sought one before. In his current bid for U.S. Senate, there haven't been any candidate debates yet. Johnson has avoided media interviews like the plague.

His campaign has consisted of TV ad after TV ad after TV ad. If no one's paying attention to the TV ads, no one would know Ron Johnson exists.

To seriously compete for public office in our country nowadays, you have two options: Have a personal fortune or be willing to take out a second mortgage on your soul. Either way, you spend a bundle and people conclude you bought the office. One way, we end up with a House of Multi-Millionaires. The other, a House of Whores. This is the Cash-22 of contemporary American politics.

Voters have it in their power to break us free of this wretched plight. All the money is needed to pay for TV air time. If people really and truly would do what they say they do already, namely ignore the ads completely, it wouldn't take that long for candidates and their operatives to figure out that spending boatloads on TV is a colossal waste of money. They would be forced to innovate, to come up with new ways to reach voters. They would have no choice but to debate and do media interviews.

And we would have something more closely resembling an actual democracy.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Damned Either Way

No doubt about it, most Americans can't stand the Democrats. And with Democrats currently controlling both houses of Congress and the White House (not to mention both houses of the legislature and the governor's office here in Wisconsin), most in the political class are figuring lots of them are going to be sent packing in November.

Problem is, if the latest polling done by The Associated Press is to be believed, the Republicans are even more hated than the Democrats.

Spooked by the parallels between present-day America and the fall of the Roman Empire, even mainstream political observers like Tom Friedman are left to ponder whether we have reached a point when the existing two-party arrangement is no longer sustainable. He quotes a Stanford University political scientist stating the obvious, that we "basically have two bankrupt parties bankrupting the country."

Friedman seconds the motion, observing "our two-party system is ossified; it lacks integrity and creativity and any sense of courage or high-aspiration in confronting our problems."

No kidding.

We are all enduring what will most assuredly prove to be the most expensive midterm election in history. And the least transparent election of any kind in anyone's memory. Thanks to the Roberts court for that. Outside interest groups are pouring vast sums of carefully laundered money into television advertising, get-out-the-vote campaigns and other electioneering efforts. Some analyses have Republican front groups outspending Democratic groups by as much as 6 to 1 on TV ads.

It's hard to feel sorry for the Democrats on this, though. Before Ted Kennedy's death, they had a filibuster-proof majority in Congress and failed to take any action to alter election financing. They eventually adjourned and hit the campaign trail without passing the Fair Elections Now Act or the DISCLOSE Act or the Shareholder Protection Act.

It was the same story at the state level. The Democrats had majorities in both the Assembly and Senate as well as Jim Doyle as governor, but failed to reform the way their elections are paid for. Oh, they passed public financing for state Supreme Court, but pointedly refused to do the same for their own elections. The Senate passed major campaign finance disclosure legislation, but despite the fact the votes were there in the Assembly to put it on Doyle's desk (who promised to sign it), Democrats in the lower house closed up shop and went home without acting.

Obviously they wanted the bed made this way. So now they must lie in it. Even if it winds up being their death bed.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Why The Ruling Class Needs To Kill Net Neutrality

The Internet is remaking our world in too many ways to keep track of. Facebook and other social networking sites are reshaping the way we interact with each other. E-mail and all the various forms of instant messaging have laid a major hurt on the U.S. Postal Service. Sites like Craigslist have made conventional classified advertising all but obsolete, delivering a crushing financial blow to the newspaper industry.

But when it comes to political campaigning, the Internet is in its infancy. Television is still king. For how long is anybody's guess, but as of today candidates for most offices need to be on TV. If they're not, they have no chance. Internet electioneering is growing and changing by the day, and its potential is vast, but it's not what decides elections in the here and now.

One can easily imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when that will change. Both of my parents passed away without ever having so much as turned on a computer. They never owned a cell phone, either. Once their generation is gone and is replaced and then some by ultra-tech savvy children of our computer-geek children, it is easy to imagine a time when most if not all election campaign messages will be beamed directly to whatever hand-held personal electronic devices come to be in vogue. It is not hard at all to imagine the Internet doing to the television industry what it already has done to newspapers.

If the Internet remains free and open, it has the capacity to revolutionize politics. It could put an end to the transactions that both define and doom present-day democracy. Everyone knows the drill. Politicians have the power to set government policy, but need to be on TV to win elections and that air time costs a fortune. Those who can afford to put the politicians on TV need those politicians to clear the way for them to become richer still. The wealthy donors do their part, the politicians do theirs, and the fee for service is passed along to the TV stations as compensation for getting the politicians into our living rooms morning, noon and night.

Which brings me to why the ruling class in our country is so bound and determined to colonize the Internet. I wrote last week about how the instruments of social control and political manipulation have evolved over our nation's history. It started with slavery and disenfranchisement. That gave way to institutionalized voter suppression and segregation. When those policies largely fell by the wayside, they were replaced by a third stage of ownership that can be summed up as the creation of an exclusive political marketplace where participation is prohibitively expensive for all but an elite few.

The architects of this third stage can see into the future. They can see how the Internet will one day take the place of television as the dominant medium of political communication. And they can see how a truly free and open Internet (or "net neutrality," in the unfortunate vernacular of Webheads) could create an inclusive political marketplace where participation is downright inexpensive. That's why it's so important to them that the information superhighway be transformed from a freeway into a tollroad.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Third Stage Of Ownership

No keen powers of observation are required to see the parallels between the 19th Century Gilded Age and the times we live in. I recently called ours a Stilted Age where a privileged few have once again been lifted above the pain and suffering inflicted on the masses. Eerie similarities abound. Differences too, of course. We are not on the tail end of an Industrial Revolution or reexperiencing post-Reconstruction upheaval. No, we have economic convulsions of our very own, with our post-Industrial world morphing into Not-Quite-Sure-What.

How do you describe our economy? Service? Digital? Post-Human? It suffices to say that economic dislocation, occupational insecurity and financial anxiety are hallmarks of our moment, just as they were in the late 1800s. Likewise, instruments of social control and political manipulation are being put to daily use by a privileged few to establish and maintain ownership of our government and our society, just as they were at the end of the 19th Century. But those instruments have mutated.

At the dawn of our nation, slavery and disenfranchisement were the control mechanisms. Only white male property owners had access to the ballot and, consequently, any say over affairs of state. Call it America's first stage of ownership.

Decades-long . . . no, generations-long struggles eventually put an end to slavery and won voting rights for women, blacks and unpropertied men. But those who succumbed to the abolitionists and the suffragettes had no intention of surrenduring control or relinquishing power. They moved on to poll taxes, literacy tests, Jim Crow laws, and relied on coverture and the like to achieve their objective. The second stage of ownership.

Then came the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1968, and the enactment of Title IX in 1972. After painful and drawn-out fights, the crude second-stage instruments of sociopolitical control were gradually swept away. But the ruling elite's sense of entitlement to political power was never extinguished.

It is no coincidence that the great civil rights and women's rights breakthroughs of the 1960s and 1970s were followed in short order by the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Buckley v. Valeo establishing that money is speech. Buckley marked the beginning of the third stage of ownership.

As Roger D. Hodge writes in an exceptionally insightful essay in the latest issue of Harper's, campaign contributions and other forms of political spending have assumed the old exclusionary function. Only those who can afford to pay have a voice. Only those with vast wealth are truly able to control their political destiny.

The massive transfer of America's wealth to the richest 1% that began in earnest in the early 1980s and has continued unabated during Republican and Democratic administrations alike is no coincidence either. As Hodge rightly declares, it was the result of a long series of policy decisions that were bought and paid for by the less than 1% of Americans who annually pour hundreds of millions of dollars into political campaigns.

The current U.S. Supreme Court radically expanded on Buckley and accelerated our plunge into the third-stage abyss with its ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allowing corporations and other powerful groups to spend unlimited sums on elections, even though it had to resort to the rankest hypocrisy to do so.

Remember, it was the U.S. Supreme Court that gamely defended and empowered the ruling elite during the first stage of ownership by ruling that people could be property. Is it any surprise that the highest court in the land is now serving its masters by ruling that property can be a person?

Friday, September 17, 2010

. . . And Try To Keep It All The Year

Happy Constitution Day. It seems strange to set aside a single day to celebrate it. Honoring it properly means exercising the rights it spells out day in and day out, while taking responsibility for safeguarding its blessings on an ongoing basis, and working to change it if necessary.

The Constitution and its 27 amendments have been interpreted in many different ways over the years. It is worth reflecting on the fact that we were 200 years into the American experiment and the Constitution and the First Amendment were nearly two centuries old before the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the First Amendment to mean that money is speech. And we were well into the nation's third century before the highest court in the land radically expanded on that dubious doctrine to manufacture a right for corporations and other powerful groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections.

You can read the Constitution from its first word ("We") to the last word in the 27th Amendment and you cannot find the word "corporation." You can read all 45 words in the First Amendment and you cannot find the word "money."

As I said in my remarks at last Saturday's Fighting Bob Fest, there comes a time when the actual words of the founders must be respected and honored. The way to make every day Constitution Day is fighting to reassert and reestablish that the rights enumerated in the Constitution belong to "We the People" and are reserved for living, breathing, flesh-and-blood citizens.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

There Comes A Time

In case you weren't able to make it to this year's Fighting Bob Fest, here's video of my remarks.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Crowd One Person Too Small

It was a simply gorgeous day Saturday, and official estimates put attendance at Fighting Bob Fest somewhere between 6,500 and 7,500. Bob Fest organizers must not pay much attention to tea party rallies, because if they did they surely would have claimed that at least 50,000 people were there.

All I know is the crowd was in the many thousands with countless others sending word they were unable to attend due to one conflict or another but were there in spirit. One who was absent but whose presence was most certainly felt was Doris "Granny D" Haddock, the cross-country-walking, straight-talking campaign finance reform advocate who passed away earlier this year at the age of 100.

Ruth Meyer, a loyal friend and longtime assistant of Granny's, made the long trip from New Hampshire with members of her family to be there in her mentor's place. Ruth brought along with her a draft of a speech Doris was working on last February shortly before her death, and shared it with me. It was to have been delivered at Fighting Bob Fest.

Granny D's thoughts filled seven single-spaced pages, but these words in particular stood out: "America is angry and divided and rather like a mentally-disturbed person. Many of its citizens are turning away from obvious truths and embracing angry and dangerous fantasies instead.... It's hard to settle arguments and put away anger when we are desperately anxious about our future and our family's future. That sort of anxiety is driving America's politics today. And where does it come from? Anger and blindness to the facts are the twin childen of powerlessness. Powerlessness over one's own and one's family's future."

Friday, September 03, 2010

The Haves And Have Nots Of Lobbying

Two weeks from today is Constitution Day. Here's hoping this commemoration will inspire at least a few to pick it up and read it. "We the People" jumps right off the page of course, but you don't find "We the Corporations" anywhere. In fact, you don't find the word corporation a single time in the Constitution or any of its amendments. There is nothing that could remotely be understood to mean "money is speech." All of that was the doing of activist judges.

The recent report detailing the amount spent on lobbying in the 2009-2010 legislative session in Wisconsin brings to mind the commercialization of speech once again. The top 10 spenders represent about 1% of the lobbying organizations in the state but account for nearly a fifth of all spending.

At the top of the list is the state teachers union, which has spent more than $2.1 million trying to influence our elected state representatives. Next is an Indian tribe, the Forest County Potawatomi, which spent over $1.9 million. The rest of the top 10 are all corporations or trade associations representing mostly business interests. The Wisconsin Insurance Alliance, $958,000. Altria (previously Philip Morris), $840,000. Wisconsin Hospital Association, $820,000. Wisconsin Medical Society, $697,000. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, $680,000. Wisconsin Petroleum Marketers, $626,000. Wisconsin Energy Corporation, $573,000. Wisconsin Independent Businesses, $561,000.

Lobbyists representing those 10 interests collectively spent more than 51,000 hours prowling the halls of the State Capitol on their behalf.

At the other end of the spectrum you have the Clark County Humane Society, which reported four hours worth of lobbying costing $80, the Wisconsin Bowhunters Association at two hours and $102, and the Wisconsin Park and Recreation Association at four hours and $298.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dark Comedy

New state rules requiring disclosure of interest group spending on election ads and who is funding the campaigning were supposed to take effect August 1. They now are on hold thanks to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Even though a federal court already had taken the case and started hearing it, our Supreme Court butted in and issued a temporary injunction preventing the state Government Accountability Board from enforcing the rules. In doing so the court not only overlooked a proposed settlement of a federal lawsuit under which the GAB clarified how it would enforce the rules, but ignored a legal principle known as comity, which discourages multiple courts from simultaneously considering the same issues.

You'd think the comic characters on our highest court would be familiar with comity, if for no other reason than if you say the word out loud it sounds a lot like comedy. But as Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote in her dissenting opinion, "Given that another court has already exercised jurisdiction and held hearings on the case, most courts would at least pause to consider the rule of comity. Unfortunately, in a rush to judgment, this court fails to even mention the rule of comity let alone honor it."

Justice Bradley also had choice words for the majority's decision to issue the injunction "even though the petitioners have not requested it. By issuing this temporary injunction, four justices go above and beyond the relief sought by the petitioners."

Sounds like the kind of judicial activism these justices all claim to be allergic to.

Then there's the question of conflict of interest, something the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel raised this morning in an editorial. As the newspaper noted, there "are justices who arguably owe their elections to the intercession of the kind of groups suddenly fearful of disclosure."

Indeed, such groups accounted for more than half of the spending on the 2007 Supreme Court election and outspent the candidates by a 4-1 margin in the 2008 race. The winners of those elections, Annette Ziegler and Michael Gableman, have a vested interest in keeping the public from knowing too much about whose pocket they are in. So does David Prosser, who is up for reelection in 2011 and no doubt is counting on the help of the kind of groups that are fighting so doggedly to protect their ability to invisibly buy elections.

By siding with Ziegler, Gableman and Patience Roggensack in voting to block campaign disclosure, Prosser has gone all in with the big interest groups. After all, this latest action comes on the heels of his approval of new judicial ethics rules allowing Wisconsin judges to hear and rule on cases involving their biggest campaign supporters.

Ethics rules proposed by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and Wisconsin Realtors Association, mind you.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Still Hiding After All These Years

Two groups on opposite ends of the political spectrum agree on one thing: Disclosure should be avoided at all costs.

The liberal One Wisconsin Now and the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth have joined forces to sue the state over new campaign finance disclosure rules that went into effect over the weekend. They'd obviously like to block these rules for the 2010 election season, if not for good.

It's hard to be against disclosure. That's undoubtedly why they are trying to claim that the rules approved by the state Government Accountability Board and reviewed by the Legislature are an unconstitutional violation of their free speech rights.

Never mind that the rules don't prevent them from airing any ad or otherwise spreading any message, but rather just require them to disclose how much they are spending and who's paying for it. They know that being for free speech is better than standing for secrecy, so they are relentlessly spinning this as a First Amendment case.

Their spin apparently made editors at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel dizzy, causing them to slap a headline over reporter Jason Stein's story that bears no relationship whatsoever to reality. It says "Political opposites protest ad rules; They file joint suit over new restrictions."

Restrictions? What restrictions? What activity is banned by these rules? What is being limited? What ad can't be aired? What can't be said? The rules just require disclosure.

So why are these groups so deathly afraid of disclosure that they go to such extreme lengths to mislead people about what these new state rules actually do?

Look, disclosure of who's behind a message and who's paying for it immeasurably helps the audience decide how much stock to put in that message. If you are told that Frigidaire makes better kitchen appliances than Maytag, it's pretty important to know whether that opinion comes from Consumer Reports or Frigidaire.

Special interests that want to own our government know that if the electorate is made fully aware of who they are and where their money comes from, voters will be much less likely to buy what these groups are selling.

That's why operating in the shadows is so very important to them. But they can't very well come out and say so. So after exploiting loopholes in the law for years to keep their election activities hidden from public view, now they are using the First Amendment to keep their true motives for working to keep those loopholes open a secret.

How terribly fitting.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Promoting The Commercial Good

Articulating a need for a separation of church and state was enough to get Thomas Jefferson cut out of history textbooks by the Texas Board of Education earlier this year.

Imagine how many calls to ban Jefferson there would be if more people were aware that Jefferson less famously emphasized a similar need for a distinction between commerce and democracy, a separation of corporation and state if you will.

Jefferson wrote, "I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

Jefferson was deeply wary of corporate power and believed if the people were to govern themselves corporations needed to be kept on a short leash politically. And he wasn't alone. For the better part of the new nation's first century, corporations operated under revocable charters confining them to strictly commercial activities and requiring them to serve the public interest.

With the Tea Party movement all the rage in our current moment, people forget that the original Boston Tea Party was not only a protest of British rule but also specifically an act of civil disobedience against the British East India Trading Company. Those tea partiers understood how unrestrained corporate power went hand in hand with political oppression.

My, how that understanding has waned. Target Corporation is now in the news for its decision to pump $150,000 into the race for governor in Minnesota, one of the early manifestations of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in January that corporations can spend as much as they like to influence elections.

By backing a candidate who strongly opposes gay rights, Target now finds itself scrambling to reassure gay customers and employees there is no bigotry behind the company's political activities. In trying to smooth things over, Target's top management is revealing something other corporate execs have been loathe to publicly acknowledge, namely that they sink money into elections strictly to enhance their bottom line. Or as Target's CEO said in a letter to employees, "to advance policies aligned with our business objectives."

To hell with civil rights. To hell with social justice. To hell with what's best for the whole country. To hell with any concern for the common good. Governing this nation is about nothing more than a single-minded pursuit of "business objectives."

This is what will be reaped from what the Supreme Court sowed with its decision in the Citizens United case.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Where Campaign Cash Really Comes From

In the hours before political candidates file their campaign finance reports, their campaigns issue ritual statements showcasing their numbers and generally boasting about their fundraising prowess, complete with a stock claim that most of the donors gave small amounts of money. What they don't tell you is that most of the funds raised came from a few who gave exceedingly large sums.

Mark Neumann's campaign for governor didn't deviate from the standard boilerplate in summarizing its fundraising over the first half of the year. The statement issued a few days ago says the campaign raised $1.96 million in the six-month period, adding that 96% of the donors are from Wisconsin and 85% gave $99 or less.

There's a lot in the Neumann camp's statement that leaves you scratching your head. The actual report his campaign filed with the state Government Accountability Board lists $2,844,282 in contributions, not $1.96 million. And if you look at who gave the slightly more than $2.8 million the campaign reported, you find that $2,525,170 came from Neumann's own pocket.

Scott Walker and Tom Barrett also closely followed the well-worn script in describing their fundraising. Both claim a substantial majority of their supporters donate small amounts. Like Neumann, neither Walker nor Barrett says anything about where most of their money comes from.

We will be filling in that blank in the weeks to come. I'm betting that what we find will look an awful lot like what we found in the last race for governor in 2006.

Our findings mirror those of the national Campaign Finance Institute, which monitors election financing at the state and national levels. As the bar chart below illustrates, CFI's analysis of fundraising by candidates for state office in Wisconsin the last time we had a race for governor in 2006 shows that less than one-seventh of campaign money came from individuals giving $100 or less, while the lion's share of funds were donated by far more generous donors.

It could be worse. Like Illinois.

On the other hand, Wisconsin could do much better. Like Minnesota.

There's a reason why Minnesota candidates have come to rely so much more heavily on donors who give smaller amounts of money. For years, Minnesota has had a program that provided rebates of up to $50 to state residents who make small donations to political candidates.

Wisconsin could adopt such a program and join our neighbor to the west in encouraging citizen participation in state elections and weaning candidates from their reliance on big-money donors. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that Wisconsin could trade places with Minnesota. Our neighbor to the west just suspended its small-donor incentive program.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hold Your Nose And Vote Already

You can hardly blame people for having a tough time telling the difference between the two major parties, what with their slavish devotion and ceaseless pandering to big-money interests. On the other hand, there are obvious distinctions. For starters one party is scary, the other scared.

Some other distinguishing features are caricatures. One is the party of government, the other the party of free markets. To the extent there is truth in that exaggerated simplification, both parties have their work cut out for them.

The latest poll by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center shows most state residents don't have much use for public officials. Two-thirds of respondents said they trust state officials "only some of the time." Two-thirds also said public officials "don't care much what people like me think."

Well over half of those polled believe that government is "run by a few big interests" looking out for themselves and agree with the statement, "People like me don't have any say about what the government does." When asked how many people running the state are crooked, only 7% said "none" and 28% answered "only a few," while 42% said "some" and almost one in five said "most" or "nearly all."

As disillusioned as Wisconsinites clearly are with politics and politicians, the UW poll shows even deeper misgivings with the suits in the corporate boardrooms. Asked where they place their faith when it comes to fixing the economy, 52% of respondents said they trust a "strong government" while 40% said "the free market."

Given the low regard people have for government and public officials these days, that's like saying if there has to be either a child molester or an ax murderer living next door, they'll take the child molester.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

In Search Of Better Redistricting

Milwaukee Mayor and Democratic candidate for governor Tom Barrett yesterday put forward a plan for changing the way legislative and congressional redistricting is handled. May he not be the last public official in the state to tackle this issue.

Lord knows the current system needs improving. The way it's worked is that legislators get to draw new district lines every 10 years after each census, and the lines they draw are tailor-made for their reelection. Democrats find ways to pack as many Democratic voters as possible in their districts, and Republicans load their districts with GOP voters.

In the vast majority of congressional and state legislative contests, the outcome is a foregone conclusion because of the lopsided political makeup of the districts. Much is made of how Wisconsin is a purple state, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. But individual districts are bright red or dark blue.

At present Wisconsin arguably has only one competitive congressional district, the Green Bay area's 8th district. In fact, since 2000 only two U.S. House races have been competitive (with a margin of victory within 10 points), the 2000 election in the 2nd district and the 2006 election in the 8th.

Depending on the election year, either 116 or 117 state legislative seats are up for grabs. Over the last 10 years, the number of competitive elections has ranged from a low of 10 to a high of 29.

While this is a raw deal for voters, it's great for incumbent office holders. Since 2000, state legislative incumbents have been reelected 95% of the time. In 2000, incumbents won 102 times and lost three. In 2002, they went 89-6. In 2004, 91-4. In 2006, 97-9. And in 2008, 99-3.

State politicians go to great lengths to achieve these results. They spent somewhere between $2.6 million and $2.9 million of our money on consultants, personnel and legal expenses for the 2000 redistricting. And sometimes they had to draw weirdly shaped districts to enhance the job security of incumbents. The 64th Assembly district (pictured at right - click on image to enlarge) in the Kenosha area was named one of the 10 ugliest districts in America in a state-by-state analysis released this April by the Rose Institute.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

High Court Sinks To New Low

Yesterday a divided Wisconsin Supreme Court quietly finalized new rules allowing state judges to decide cases involving their biggest campaign supporters. This new ethical standard was proposed by two of the state's most powerful lobbying groups, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Wisconsin Realtors Association.

The rules stand in direct contradiction with the U.S. Supreme Court's 2009 ruling in Caperton v. Massey that a West Virginia Supreme Court justice had a duty to withdraw from a case involving a major campaign supporter and his failure to do so violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment that protects the right to a fair trial.

Four of the state Supreme Court's seven justices - Patience Roggensack, David Prosser, Annette Ziegler and Michael Gableman - ignored the Caperton decision and sided with WMC and the Realtors on the amendment to Wisconsin's judicial ethics code.

This move came on the heels of Prosser, Ziegler and Roggensack blocking disciplinary action against Gableman for authorizing an untruthful campaign ad. Gableman stood accused of judicial misconduct for violating the part of the ethics code prohibiting judges from making false statements about an election opponent. Gableman's ad claimed Louis Butler "found a loophole" and implied a child molester got off on a technicality of Butler's making and "went on to molest another child." Trouble is, the man Butler was representing as a public defender didn't get off. He was never released until he had served his entire sentence. Only after that did he commit another crime. The ad was a lie. And an obvious violation of the judicial ethics code.

Prosser, Ziegler and Roggensack overlooked the plain facts in Gableman's misconduct case and ignored the plain meaning of the judicial ethics code. They refused to conclude that Gableman's ad was untruthful. It was just "distasteful," they ruled. And protected speech under the First Amendment.

The justices don't have a leg to stand on between the three of them on the truthfulness of the ad. It was way beyond distasteful. It was a lie. Invoking free speech was a far more clever maneuver. It made letting Gableman off appear somehow principled.

There is no disputing that Gableman had the right to say what he said about Butler. But that doesn't mean he shouldn't be held accountable for violating the judicial ethics code. Employees have the right to publicly say their bosses are total losers. But they shouldn't be at all surprised if that free speech gets them fired. General Stanley McCrystal and his aides had every right to say what they said to Rolling Stone magazine. President Obama also was entirely within his rights when he relieved McCrystal of his duties.

The right to speak is constitutionally protected. But that doesn't mean speech has no consequences under any circumstances. Justices Prosser, Ziegler and Roggensack waived application of that common sense to their colleague and ideological soulmate Michael Gableman. Some might even be tempted to say they found a loophole in the state judicial ethics code.

Columnist Joel McNally said it best: "This time a lowlife really did get off on a technicality."