Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Voter Said It's Really Not My Habit To Intrude

With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, there must be 50 ways to rig an election.

I hope my meaning won't be lost or misconstrued. But I'll repeat myself at the risk of being crude. There must be 50 ways.

Slip us cash and we've got your back, Jack.

Make a new redistricting plan, Stan.

No need to be coy, Roy.

Just listen to me.

Hop on the Americans for Prosperity bus, Gus.

No need to discuss much.

Just make 'em show ID, Lee.

And you'll be home free.

Republicans came into the 2012 state legislative elections holding the most seats in the Legislature, and money flowed to the party in power. Incumbent lawmakers raised and spent twice as much as challengers did. Winning candidates spent 85% more than their opponents. Special interest groups favoring the Republicans doubled the spending of Democratic groups. Overall, candidates and interest groups on the Republican side spent over $3 million more than the Democrats.

Total spending in last fall's legislative races was down somewhat from 2010 levels. One obvious reason is that big donors and interest groups that would normally have been funneling money to Assembly and Senate hopefuls in late 2011 and the first half of 2012 were instead busy bankrolling recall elections. They dumped more than $93 million into the 2012 recalls.

A less obvious reason that "only" $16.5 million was raised and spent in 2012 legislative contests is redistricting. The new legislative district maps left us with precious few competitive seats. Majority Republicans who controlled the redistricting process packed Democratic voters into a small number of districts, concentrating Democratic voting power in a few areas and diluting it across the rest of the state. Making ultra-Democratic districts here and there allowed them to make many more safe Republican seats elsewhere. Almost no seats are truly up for grabs. The parties and their campaign donors had little reason to duke it out in the vast majority of districts because the outcome of those elections was a foregone conclusion.

Election results in 2012 congressional and state legislative races in Wisconsin provided a vivid illustration of the power of partisan gerrymandering in redistricting. Collectively, Democratic candidates for U.S. House, state Assembly and state Senate got the most votes across the state. But Republicans won the most seats in all three legislative bodies.

To this day, the words of Wisconsin political icon Fighting Bob La Follette are inscribed on the ceiling of the governor's conference room in the State Capitol: "The will of the people is the law of the land."

With a money game that gives those in power grotesque financial advantages over those who seek to challenge them, and with one-party districts from one end of the state to the other, the act of expressing popular will at the ballot box is mocked and thwarted because voters have little practical ability to impose their will on the legislative branch of government.

Friday, February 15, 2013

You Would Know Us Well, Pump Carpenter

Although Wisconsin was known from coast to coast for a century or more as a bastion of clean, open and honest government, our state was no stranger to political corruption before that. In the 1850s a crusading newspaperman named Stephen Decatur Carpenter exposed and condemned the open bribery of legislators by lobbyists seeking favors for a railroad company.

Nicknamed "Pump" after inventing a device used to drain water from lead mines, Carpenter aimed his choicest words at William Barstow, who was secretary of state and later governor. Carpenter dubbed him and his crooked cohorts "Barstow and the 40 Thieves" and relentlessly editorialized against their backroom maneuvers to secure favorable railroad legislation.

Pump Carpenter won, taking down Barstow and the 40 Thieves. By the time Carpenter died several decades later, Wisconsin had enacted some of the nation's strongest anti-corruption laws, giving birth to our state's reputation for squeaky clean politics.

We have come full circle. We now face threats to democracy not seen since the robber barons reigned supreme at the Capitol in the 19th Century's Gilded Age. Wisconsin used to pride itself on our high voter turnout. Now barriers to voting are being steadily erected. Political boundaries were drawn in a way that allowed one party to win the most seats in Congress and the state Legislature this past November even though the other party got the most votes.

Two years ago the Supreme Court wiped out Wisconsin's century-old law banning corporate electioneering with its Citizens United decision and legalized unlimited election spending throughout the land. A year later Governor Walker and his allies in the Legislature repealed Wisconsin's public financing system for state elections that had been around for 34 years and erased the Impartial Justice Act cleaning up state Supreme Court races after just one election.

Assisting the governor in rolling back campaign finance reforms, making voting more difficult and rigging election outcomes through partisan gerrymandering are 58 legislators in particular who have been the most reliable special interest tools . . . voting to stymie campaign finance, ethics and good government reform measures the vast majority of the time over the last decade.

If money is speech, as the Supreme Court insists it is, then never before have so few spoken at such a deafening volume. Donations as large as a half million dollars from a single individual to a single official look conspicuously like the bribes Pump Carpenter spilled so much ink over.

What we are left with is the best governing money can buy. Mining interests say dig, and officials marinated in pro-mining money dutifully say "how deep?" and get cracking on legislation to loosen mining regulations.

Road builders bellyache about others making claims on the taxpayer funds they want to pour ever more concrete, then proceed to throw around some serious cash, and lawmakers snap to attention and promptly work on rewriting the state constitution to create special protection for the road budget that no other state program or service enjoys.

Year after year, wealthy school privatization backers shower campaign support on Wisconsin officials, and darned if public school budgets don't get shaved and more and more public money gets steered to expanded private school voucher programs.

The subjects of Pump Carpenter's ire  namely Barstow and the 40 Thieves  are long gone. But the behavior Carpenter railed against has come back to haunt Wisconsin in this day and age, embodied presently in the actions of Walker and the 58 Tools.