Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What One Person Can Do

In this age of political disillusionment, the greatest threat to the republic is not rampant corruption itself, but rather the widespread feelings of powerlessness in the face of that corruption.

You hear it time and again from citizens of every stripe. In one manner of speaking or another, they are saying the same thing. What can one person possibly do considering what we're up against? How can people overcome the power of all that money?

You can exercise all five rights granted to all of us by the First Amendment. Those rights aren't worth a thimble full of spit unless they are used. So you can speak up. Enemies of democracy are seeking to commercialize speech and make political participation prohibitively expensive for all but a few, making it more important than ever for us to be creative and find ways to make our voices heard. OK, you can’t afford to buy television air time, but you can text and you can tweet and you can blog.

At the same time, it’s important to remember the First Amendment doesn’t only guarantee the right to free speech. It guarantees freedom of the press. With newspapers dying and other traditional media increasingly falling under the control of a handful of plutocratic masters, it is essential that we create our own means of spreading the word and engaging each other in the conversation of democracy. The right to assemble and petition your government is guaranteed. You can do those things. We’ve seen a lot of that lately here in Wisconsin. Freedom of religion is guaranteed. You can worship as you see fit, or you can reject worship altogether. As the forces of theocracy assert themselves in our government, it is all the more important that we exercise freedom of religion, which includes fighting against any state establishment of religion.

More than anything, you can do what Cesar Chavez advised us all to do: Talk to one person. We’re all taught at a young age not to discuss two things in polite company – religion and politics. We need to talk politics with one another. It is often uncomfortable. So it takes courage. But it is where real change begins.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

And We Wait

Six weeks ago today the Democracy Campaign filed an open records request with the state Government Accountability Board seeking documentation of any enforcement action relating to the law requiring disclosure of the occupation and employer of campaign donors who give more than $100. We are still waiting for the information we seek.

The law requiring disclosure of contributors' employment information is the heart and soul of campaign finance disclosure in Wisconsin. It provides voters essential information about the financial interests of donors and some insight into their possible motives for seeking to influence state elected officials with campaign donations.

The Democracy Campaign has called attention many times over the years to the failure of numerous candidates to disclose this required information on the campaign finance reports they submit to the GAB. In fact, we filed a complaint with the board as recently as this June over missing occupational information on the reports of three senators who faced recall elections this summer. We have heard nothing from the GAB in response to our complaint, and there is nothing in the minutes of the board's meetings or other public records to indicate that any enforcement action has been taken.

With our current open records request, we are trying to answer a simple question: Is this key disclosure law being enforced? We suspect the answer is no, but we can't know for sure unless the agency obeys another pivotal law upholding every citizen's right to know what our government is up to.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Justice David Prosser, R - Beyond Wisconsin

Three of every four dollars in individual contributions raised by Supreme Court Justice David Prosser's reelection campaign and another committee created to pay for his recount expenses came from donors outside the state - much of it from a scant seven contributors, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign review found.

Campaign finance reports show Prosser raised $692,597 from all sources for his 2011 spring reelection, including a $400,000 state public financing grant, $266,000 from the Prosser Victory Recount Fund and $21,588 from individual contributions excluding returned contributions and a $5,000 self contribution to his own campaign.

All told, the two committees raised $294,309 in individual contributions - $70,640, or 24 percent, from Wisconsin donors and $223,669, or 76 percent, from contributors outside Wisconsin.

In addition to the large proportion of out-of-state givers, 24 individual contributions to the recount committee lacked the donor's last name and 50 contributions of more than $100 lacked employer information required by law.

Seven contributors to Prosser's recount committee - all from outside Wisconsin - gave between $5,000 and $50,000 each for a total of $210,000 or 72 percent of the total individual contributions to both committees. State law allows candidates to raise unlimited amounts of money to pay for legal and other expenses involved in a recount. Here's who these big donors are:

  • Dr. John Templeton Jr. and his wife, Josephine, from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania each contributed $50,000. Templeton runs the Templeton Foundation and is a heavyweight backer of conservative causes nationwide, including Freedom's Watch, the Cato Institute and numerous state efforts to ban same sex marriage.

  • Richard Uihlein of Lake Forest, Illinois and owner of Uline - a package, shipping, warehouse and janitorial products retailer - who gave $50,000. Uihlein is a longtime backer of conservative Republicans candidates and groups nationwide like Rand Paul, Eric Cantor, Michelle Bachmann and the Club for Growth.

  • Virginia James of Lambertville, New Jersey who contributed $25,000. James is a retired investor and longtime supporter of conservative political candidates and groups like the Club for Growth, as well as Republican causes like school voucher programs.

  • David Humphreys of Joplin, Missouri who contributed $25,000. Humphreys and his family own Tamko Building Products which is one of the nation's largest manufacturers of roofing materials, and he is a longtime backer of Republican political candidates and causes nationwide.

  • Stephen Mosling of Naples, Florida and Frank Baxter of Los Angeles, California who each gave $5,000. Mosling is a retired real estate developer who has contributed to Republican congressional candidates and party committees in Wisconsin and Florida. Baxter is a retired investment banker and former ambassador to Uruguay under President George W. Bush.
  • Friday, November 04, 2011

    The Only Answer

    On the cover of the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, the magazine asks "Is America Over?" That question is gnawing at nearly every American these days. The anxiety this pondering produces is what the Tea Party and Occupy movements have in common.

    It has dawned on most everyone that for the first time in our nation's history, we have a generation of parents who no longer can find reason to believe their children will be better off than they are. The belief in the next generation's reach exceeding the grasp of the previous generation always has been at the core of the American Dream. The core has rotted.

    The impulse of Tea Party types is to look for a rewind button that could return the country to an earlier time when parents could rest assured their kids were going to have it better than they did. Their search is doomed. What is past is past. Change is inevitable. Their yearning for a return to some nostalgized yesteryear is disfiguring the Republican Party and warping the country's future.

    Those drawn to the Occupy movement also are seething over the stolen dream. But their response to the anxiety they share with the tea partiers is totally different. They are putting their finger on what George Packer calls the "Broken Contract." Americans used to grow together. Now we are growing apart.

    The battle cry of the occupiers is "We are the 99%." This brilliantly reduces to bumper-sticker length the fundamental truth of the broken social contract in America. For the last 30 years, the top 1% has cleaned up and most of the rest of the population has been set adrift. The reason is simple. The top 1% has commandeered our democracy over the past three decades. They've bought the politicians and now own our government. Which permits them to rape and pillage the country while the masses are left with an unsteady present and an even more uncertain future. All 99ers instinctively understand that.

    There is only one answer. Recriminalize bribery.

    You have to go back more than a century, to the age of the robber barons, to find comparable social and economic conditions in America. The opulence of the Gilded Age led to the Panic of 1893 and a deep economic depression. It is no coincidence that bribing public officials was legal in places like Wisconsin at the time.

    Wisconsin became a state in 1848. Bribery was perfectly legal for the first half-century of statehood. It was not outlawed until 1897. That reform was followed in short order by another in 1905 banning corporate campaign contributions and election spending. Congress followed Wisconsin's lead in 1907 with the Tillman Act.

    The 1897 and 1905 political reforms in our state paved the way for the remarkable 1911 legislative session. The feature article in this year's Wisconsin Blue Book says this: "The year 2011 marks the centennial of what was almost certainly the greatest legislature in Wisconsin history, quite possibly in any state."

    Wisconsin's reputation for progressive policy innovation was established by that legislature. The actions of 1897, 1905 and 1911 made Wisconsin a beacon of clean, open and honest government. All of this was our inheritance. An inheritance we have squandered, largely because we have allowed bribery to become legal again.

    Oh, they aren't called bribes anymore. That's a big part of the reason why they are so accepted. Now they're called campaign contributions. Makes this grimy business sound philanthropic. Downright charitable. But the game's exactly the same as it was back in the days of the robber barons.

    If we are going to Occupy Democracy again, we have to do in our time the equivalent of what was done back then. Make legal bribery a crime.

    Tuesday, November 01, 2011

    The Symbol Of Fear And Loathing

    I return from a brief trip to Washington, D.C. with decidedly mixed emotions. The new monument to Martin Luther King Jr. is a beauty and it was a thrill to see it. My wife and I took my son there to visit friends and family, as well as show him around our nation's capital. Overall, we had a nice stay.

    Included on our to-do list was a tour of the Capitol building, courtesy of arrangements made by our congresswoman's office. How can I say this? The tour was lame. And as unsettling as it was unsatisfying.

    You used to be able to just walk in the Capitol from multiple points of entry. Now everyone is steered through a new visitor center, which has the look and feel of a fortified bunker. The doors must be blastproof because they are so heavy you have to plant your feet and pull with both hands to open them. No kind of vehicle can get close to the place thanks to the pop-up barricades that block every passageway. Armed guards dot the grounds outside, and a substantially larger security force form an imposing gauntlet inside the visitor center.

    Once we got through the scanners and then the additional screening done by uniformed officers, we were herded to an information desk to get our tickets for the guided tour. After waiting in line under the watchful eye of still more Capitol personnel, we were ushered into a small theater for a short movie. It was a standard-issue tour film, but one thing I remember. The narrator said Congress is the place "where common ground is found" in our nation. I tried muffling my laughter, with limited success.

    Then we filed out into a lobby where we were met by a tour guide, who introduced herself before emphasizing that we should not stray from the group. She took us to the rotunda and told a few stories about the artwork on the ceiling and the statues on the floor before leading us to Statuary Hall which was the original House chamber in the Capitol's early days. It later housed a farmer's market, which is unimaginable today. Now it's just an empty room lined with more statues.

    Our guide pointed to the doors to the current House chamber. She noted that's where the president – after the House sergeant at arms bellows "Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States" – enters on his way to deliver his annual State of the Union address. We weren't allowed to take the walk the president makes, though. Or even approach the doors to peek through the crack.

    Moments after it began, our tour was over. No visit to the Senate or House chambers. I'd seen them in years past, but my son's experience would be quite different. Not even a look at the ornately decorated Old Senate Chamber, which used to be a staple of the Capitol tours of yesteryear.

    We were led back through the rotunda and returned to the visitor center. I could not get Ben Franklin's famous quote out of my mind. You know, the one about those who sacrifice essential liberty for temporary safety deserving neither liberty nor safety.

    From the airport to many of its most recognizable sites, Washington is armed to the teeth as it greets visitors. The greeting conveys the impression of a police state. The U.S. Capitol, of all places, is a symbol of our nation. Security there proved to be tighter than at the Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving, where the nation's currency is printed for crying out loud. That's some symbolism.

    I left the visitor center, moved nearly to tears. Not out of inspiration or gratitude. Out of sadness for what we've allowed our Capitol to become. A fortress.

    How did we become so hated around the world that it's come to this? Or how did we get so scared of the world around us that we started acting like this?

    I hope my son lives to see the day when our nation's capital and our Capitol building are once again symbols befitting a free society. I'm not sure I will.