Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why GOP's Rich-Poor Alliance Is Fragile

As duly noted, the Democrats find themselves impaled on the horns of a dilemma. They still see themselves as working-class champions, but they've lost the rural working poor who now faithfully vote Republican. If they do more than pay lip service to these workers' plight, they alienate their donors (who, truth be told, look an awful lot like Republican donors). But if they don't take concrete steps to once again become the party of the poor, it's darn hard to see how they cobble together a governing majority.

For years unions were the backbone of the Democratic Party. But private-sector unions have been decimated, and now public-sector unions are under assault. In a state of 5 million people, there are only something like 130,000 unionized public employees in Wisconsin and the ability of their unions to be a political force has been seriously undermined. Public workers aren't politically monolithic, but even if they were there are not enough of them to carry the Democrats. Not even close. And besides, the Democrats' loyalty to the public employee unions has more than a little to do with the Republicans being able to steal away the rural working poor.

In short, the Democrats are screwed. Until they can figure out a way out of the trap they are in, about the only thing they have going for them is the Republicans. Here is a party that believes corporations are people but a woman's body is the state's property. Good luck closing that gender gap. At a time when the face of America is growing steadily browner, here is a party that is hostile to immigrants and openly fans the flames of white fears with everything from race-baiting rhetoric and English-only rules to Jim Crow-style voter suppression laws and relentless attacks on affirmative action. Good luck appealing to the fastest growing parts of American society.

To maintain their appeal to the rural working poor, Republicans have no choice but to keep bashing gays, keep worshipping guns and keep cynically exploiting worship, knowing what Napoleon Bonaparte said about religion being the only thing that keeps the poor from murdering the rich. They have no choice because they are one-trick ponies when it comes to the economy, and their one trick doesn't work. Isn't working in Wisconsin. Hasn't worked anywhere.

Call it what you will . . . trickle down economics, supply side theory, Robin Hood in reverse. It's been tried and tried again and again for the past 30 years. All it's done is make the rich a lot richer, the poor even poorer, and the middle class an endangered species. The country grew together in the 30 years after World War II, with every income class growing in real terms (adjusting income for inflation). Then we grew apart in the three decades that followed, with every income class but the top 10% either treading water or sinking, a phenomenon that coincided with trickle down becoming the economic law of the land.

A wrecked economy marked by vanishing jobs and growing income disparity has been met with even more of what caused the wreckage in the first place. More tax cuts for the wealthy. More deregulation. Predictably the economy continues to sputter, worse here in Wisconsin than anywhere. And predictably we continue to grow apart, with 93% of income growth going to the wealthiest 1% of Americans in 2010.

Until the Republicans can rediscover sanity (economically, socially and politically), the only thing they have going for them is the Democrats.

In short, we are all screwed until at least one party that is worth a damn reemerges.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why Unions And Democrats Have Lost Ground

Let me start by saying that joining a union in the workplace is a basic human right. That's not just my opinion, it is a statement of fact. That right is found in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948 with the United States voting yes.

Unions have fallen on hard times in recent years in America, and their declining fortunes have been a significant factor in the Democratic Party's struggles. Some of organized labor's wounds were the doing of powerful and vengeful enemies; others were self inflicted.

Unions have had a tendency to be insular, often not talking to and working with each other much less communities of likeminded non-union people. That's curious, considering the value organized labor places on solidarity and brotherhood.

I grew up on a dairy farm in Clark County. My dad had an 8th-grade education. In his view of the political world, as he told me more times than I can count, the Democrats were the party of the poor and the Republicans were the party of the rich.

If he were alive today, he would not be able to make heads or tails of the tea party movement. He would be confounded by the fact that some of the poorest Americans are among the Republican Party's most faithful supporters. That's not conjecture, it is fact. In the 2010 election for governor, Scott Walker carried eight of the 10 counties with the lowest per capita income. He lost in Menominee County, where only 752 votes were cast on the Indian reservation. And he narrowly lost Crawford County. But overall Walker won by a 13-percentage-point, 8,400-vote margin out of just over 66,500 votes in Wisconsin's 10 poorest counties.

In Clark County, one of the state's five poorest, Walker got 61% of the vote. For years Clark County was represented by Frank Nikolay, one of the truest progressives ever to serve in Wisconsin's legislature. Nikolay was followed by Tom Harnisch, a moderate Democrat. Today, Clark County is represented by a rabid right winger  tea partier and ALEC co-chair Scott Suder.

A few years ago, Tom Frank wrote the book What's the Matter with Kansas? It could just as well have been called What's the Matter with Clark County? As with Frank's bestseller, Clark County is full of stories that help explain its journey from a hotbed of progressive politics to a mainstay of turn-back-the-clock conservatism.

When I was a teenager, the farm economy was bottoming out and one of our neighbors was facing foreclosure. Just before the family was thrown off their land, the farmer was found hanging from a rafter in a shed. His wife and an adult son were left to pick up the pieces of their shattered life. There was no union standing in solidarity with that family as their way of life – and husband and father – was taken from them.

Today, Clark County is full of people who've never known the brotherhood of a union. They've only grown full of resentment for having to pay for others to have things they don't have themselves. And they have turned their county red. They've drunk the tea.

All of which leaves the Democratic Party trapped. The party of the poor no longer has the poorest in our society with them. The unions that supplied them with a power base have been under siege, first in the private sector and now in the public. With union power dwindling, and union money drying up, Democrats now get way more of their campaign money from business interests than from labor unions. The combination of their reliance on the 1% for donations and their allegiance to what's left of the unions is alienating them from the poor in places like Clark County. Democrats will never win in the rich counties like Ozaukee, Waukesha and Washington. Rock, meet hard place.

Republicans have built a rich-poor governing coalition. And not just in Wisconsin. In Kansas. And all across the country. For Democrats to mount a counteroffensive that has any kind of lasting impact, they can't just focus on what – or who – they want to stop. They'll have to think long and hard about where they want to start.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Biz PAC Fined For Excessive Contributions; Walker Returns Money

A political action committee was fined by the state for collecting $170,000 in excessive donations that were used to finance contributions to Governor Scott Walker’s recall campaign, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has learned.

The Government Accountability Board fined the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce PAC $500 in February and ordered it to get back $170,000 of the $175,000 in contributions it gave the Walker campaign in December. The board also required the PAC to return the excessive contributions to the donors. Individual contributions to a PAC are limited by a $10,000 per year overall cap that an individual may contribute to all state and local candidates and political committees.

But three of the PAC’s donors contributed a total of $200,000. Topping the list was Ted Kellner, Mequon, founder of Fiduciary Management who gave $100,000; Patrick English of Wauwatosa, chief executive officer of Fiduciary Management, at $50,000; and William J. Nasgovitz, Shorewood, a Heartland Advisors executive who also contributed $50,000.

The PAC collected a total of $219,250 from 12 donors who gave between $200 and $100,000 between November 29 and December 15, 2011. Nine of the 12 contributors worked for Fiduciary Management and a tenth donor was the spouse of an employee at the Milwaukee firm. Those 10 donors collectively contributed $159,250 to the PAC. The remaining contributors to the PAC were Nasgovitz, and David Uihlein Jr. of Milwaukee who contributed $10,000.

In turn, the PAC contributed $175,000 to Walker in two contributions of $150,000 December 14 and $25,000 December 29. The PAC also made three $10,000 contributions December 29 to three of the four Republican state senators who were targeted for recall this year – Van Wanggaard of Racine, Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau and Pam Galloway of Wausau. Galloway later resigned from office but a June 5 election will be held with the others for her seat.

In addition to the $100,000 he gave to the Milwaukee chamber PAC, Kellner contributed an additional $32,750 in 2011 to Walker, three GOP senators targeted in the 2011 recall elections and an Assembly representative. Kellner exceeded the $10,000 annual limit on individual campaign contributions in 2001 and 2006.

English personally contributed $6,000 to Walker campaign in 2011 in addition to his $50,000 contribution to the chamber of commerce PAC. Nasgovitz did not contribute to candidates for statewide office or the legislature in 2011.