Friday, October 21, 2011

Do We Have A Democracy?

Among the letters to the editor in today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is one that caught my eye titled "Democracy is dead; the wealthy reign." Made me think back to a couple of weeks ago when I was on the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh campus giving a speech very much like the one I gave a few weeks earlier at Fighting Bob Fest.

After finishing my remarks about the growing threats to democracy and the compromised health of our political process, a question came from the audience: "Do we even have a democracy?"

The way I answered it at the time was to say there are degrees of democracy. American democracy is unquestionably in a weaker state and at greater risk than it has been at any time in living memory. But that is not to say it does not exist at all in our country. The fact that I could stand in a public place and harshly criticize our state government and condemn the social injustice inherent in today's politics and not be banned from campus or arrested is itself an indication of democracy's existence.

Upon reflection, I wish I would have answered differently. It's not that I now think my answer was wrong. I just think there's a better one. And it is staring up at me from a postcard sitting on my desk that had been sent to me by Ruth Meyer, the faithful assistant to Doris "Granny D" Haddock, after Granny's passing.

On the card is a photo of Doris standing on the steps of the New Hampshire Capitol with a quote at the bottom: "Democracy is not something we have, it's something we do."

Doris Haddock taught me many things. And she was right about that. Democracy is more a verb than a noun. As long as we practice democracy, we will have a democracy. When we all stop acting as citizens in a democratic society, then and only then will democracy in America be truly dead.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Bad Road Team

Only eight Major League Baseball teams are good enough during the regular season to make the playoffs. And only one of those teams will win its last game. Every other team's season ends with bitter disappointment. But the fact that this ended up being the Brewers' fate doesn't diminish the team's accomplishments. The Brewers had a helluva year.

The Crew was especially good at Miller Park. The Brewers' home record was 57-24, while they couldn't reach .500 on the road, finishing 39-42 away from home. Not bad actually when you consider the Brewers at one point in the season had the National League's worst road record at 16–29.

Watching the Brewers sparkle at home and struggle mightily on the road got me to thinking about Democrats of all things.

There are two sources of political power – organized people and organized money. When the U.S. Supreme Court declared that money is speech 35 years ago, organized money gained the upper hand. Big time. It is no coincidence that the nation's highest court so ruled just as television was becoming the dominant medium of political communication. It is also no coincidence that national policymakers made sure that the U.S. remained the only major democracy on the planet without some system for providing free television air time to those seeking public office.

When money is speech, speech ceases to be free. And with the exorbitant price of television air time, political speech is prohibitively expensive speech. Getting a message out to voters via the primary means of political communication costs an arm and a leg. Which means that the few who have great wealth get to do most all of the talking in election campaigns, while the many effectively have no voice.

For generations the Democrats have fancied themselves the party of the working class and have sought to brand the Republicans the party of the rich. If you buy their labeling, that makes the Democrats the party of organized people and the Republicans the party of organized money. Which makes it all the more curious that Democrats over the last three decades have so meekly acquiesced to and even enthusiastically embraced organized money's cornering of the political marketplace.

It's as if the Democrats are a team that has willingly chosen to play all its game on the road. And they're willing to play the game by rules that decidedly favor their opponents. Like a National League team agreeing to allow an American League opponent to use a designated hitter while its own pitchers hit. Like an NBA team giving its opponents the three-point shot while all its own shots count for only two.

Now that the rabble are rousing, the Democrats are not at all well-positioned to take advantage of the 99% movement. Author Michael Lind recently listed six reasons why Democrats can't (or won't) go populist in response to corporate greed and Wall Street malfeasance. You don't really need to read beyond the first reason to get the picture. "Reason No. 1: The Democrats depend on Wall Street for campaign donations."

Democrats took up the tin cup three decades ago. Some of them – like Obama nationally and Jim Doyle here in Wisconsin – have flourished politically as corporate Democrats. That's not to say the president and former governor are exceptions to the rule among Democrats, only more electorally successful than many of their brethren. Wisconsin Democrats across the board have been getting six times as much campaign money from business interests as they get from organized labor. And that was before Scott Walker and his allies in the Legislature made it substantially harder for unions to collect dues and even to continue to exist.

Democrats are on a playing field that requires them to forever run uphill while their opponents run downhill. Look, corporate executives and other filthy rich types are much more likely to consider themselves Republicans than Democrats. For every Warren Buffett or George Soros, there's a David Koch . . . and a Charles Koch . . . and the whole Walton family . . . and several dozen other titans of industry who pledge allegiance to the GOP.

The bottom line is that in a system where organized money is king and organized people barely matter, the Republicans possess an enormous competitive advantage.

And for three decades now, the Democrats have been more or less fine with it.

How stupid is that?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

'Hello David, Scott Walker Here. Just Wanted You To Know The Sky's The Limit....'

It can't be easy to get Scott Walker to take your phone call. Unless you are David Koch. Or at least someone Walker believes is David Koch.

A little under eight months ago, the idea of getting a personal call from a billionaire kingmaker was so exhilarating to the governor that he let himself get punked by some guy named Ian Murphy who runs an online news service called the Buffalo Beast.

Now that a drive to recall him from office is a certainty, Walker won't very likely be waiting for the phone to ring. He will soon be dialing up his richest supporters and making a pitch he has never been able to make before. Donate, pretty please, and give as much as you want.

Normally individuals can give no more than $10,000 to a candidate for governor. But a quirk in Wisconsin law lifts that limit for a period of time for targets of recall elections. Recall organizers will have 60 days to gather the more than 540,000 signatures needed to trigger an election. From the moment they file the necessary paperwork and begin gathering petition signatures to the time when an election is actually authorized, there will be no limit on what donors to the governor may give.

What just happened during the run-up to this summer's senate recall elections provides some indication of what to expect when Walker becomes the target. Normally individual donations to state senate candidates are limited to $1,000. But thanks to that quirk in state law, targeted senators received 368 contributions of more than $1,000 while petition signatures were being collected. Those donations averaged nearly $2,900 and totaled almost $1.1 million. The donors gave nearly $700,000 more than they would have been allowed to contribute if the normal legal limits had applied.

These above-the-limit donations went to senators in both parties. But because there were six Republican senators who ultimately had to stand before voters in a recall election and only three Democrats, more of the money went to the Republicans. Targeted GOP senators received 319 over-$1,000 donations totaling more than $981,000 while Democratic senators got 49 such contributions totaling just over $81,000.

Some of the donations were substantially higher than the normal limit for senate races. For example, Tamarack Petroleum owner Daniel McKeithan and his wife gave Milwaukee-area Senator Alberta Darling $31,500 and McKeithan also made $1,250 donations to Ripon's Luther Olsen and Dan Kapanke of La Crosse. Oconomowoc businessman Jere Fabick gave Fond du Lac's Randy Hopper $20,000 and gave Darling and Kapanke $15,000 each. Johnsonville Foods CEO Ralph Stayer gave Hopper $15,000. Darling also got $24,500 from Michael and Billie Kubly of the Charles E. Kubly Foundation.

You can bet Governor Walker will be getting a great many donations at least as large or even bigger during the holiday season.

The law that lifts campaign contribution limits for targets of recall elections makes no sense. State law restricts the size of campaign donations in an attempt to limit special interest influence over our government and prevent political corruption. Those purposes are no less important in recall elections than they are in regular elections. Letting recall targets operate outside the law that normally applies to campaign fundraising leaves us with winners of recall elections who are even more beholden to wealthy special interests than other elected officials already are.

The law allowing unlimited fundraising during recall petition drives can and should be changed. Legislation has been introduced as Assembly Bill 296 to do just that.

I'd love to see what odds the bookmakers in Vegas would give on Walker's allies in the Legislature passing this bill and the governor signing it some time in the next month.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Punished For The Sins Of Others

In a recent article for his newspaper's "PolitiFact" feature, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Tom Kertscher declared two claims to be untrue. One was made by the Walker administration. The other by the head of an association representing town governments.

So did Kertscher put the governor on the PolitiFact hot seat? Nope. Did he shine his light on the town official? Nope. He took me to task for telling people what they said.

Kertscher first e-mailed me and then telephoned to question me about four different comments I made in my speech at last month's Fighting Bob Fest. He ultimately determined a remark about government spending on road building was the only one needing scrutiny.

I told him I was citing a statement made on page 14 of a budget document issued by the Walker administration in March that said the spending plan sunk "a total of $5.7 billion in Wisconsin's transportation system, including a $410.5 million (14.7 percent) increase in highway funding over base amounts."

I also told him that another newspaper reported in early September that the Wisconsin Towns Association's executive director "says he knows of several townships with blacktop roads in need of repair that have opted to dig out the blacktop and go back to gravel."

Curiously, neither Kertscher nor any of his colleagues at the Journal Sentinel had ever questioned the assertion made in the budget document. They gave the administration a pass and allowed the claim to go unchallenged for more than six months. It was not until a citizen activist brought it up in a speech that it was deemed worthy of examination. And then after judging it factually inaccurate, he assigned the blame to me.

Kertscher concluded that the budget for highway spending didn't increase by 15 percent, it actually went down.

He did not base his conclusion that the Walker road spending claim was untrue on the word of a private research group like the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (which, by the way, issued a study this year showing that borrowing for road construction has been increasing at an annual rate averaging 17 percent) or reporting by an independent news organization like the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism run by former Wisconsin State Journal reporter Andy Hall (which reported that Walker's budget as amended by the Legislature ended up increasing state highway spending by 13 percent).

Comically, he cited two administration sources who now insist there is a cut in the budget for road building. That's the very same administration that was responsible for making the original claim of a 15 percent increase. Did Kertscher turn his journalistic wrath on the Walker administration for talking out of both sides of its mouth? No, he did not.

Perhaps now it's clear why he didn't challenge another statement I made in my speech, namely that when millions of Americans are looking for real news and some honest-to-goodness truth telling about what’s going on in the country, they tune in to Comedy Central.

What Kertscher wrote struck me as juuuust a bit unfair. But hey, life's not fair. Serves me right for putting any stock in anything the Walker administration has ever put out there. And shame on me for repeating a direct quote from a local government official who was speaking on the record.

Yes, I regard his reporting in this instance to be unfair. But he also crosses the line that separates unfair and hypocritical by faulting me for doing what he and other reporters do every single day. Reporters cite official government documents all the time and they quote public officials all the time. And then if someone says their reporting is factually incorrect, they say "hey, don't look at me, I'm just reporting matters of public record." But when I pointed out two matters of public record, Tom Kertscher effectively branded me a liar. That is a flagrant double standard.

Kertscher's reporting in this case is either the byproduct of exceedingly sloppy journalism or some very troubling bias.

In any case, this is the kind of thing that gives a noble profession a bad name.