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 A year later Governor Walker and his allies in the Legislature repealed Wisconsin's public financing system for state elections that had been around for 34 years and erased the Impartial Justice Act cleaning up state Supreme Court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.