Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Castrated By Money's Grip

Yesterday I argued that Democrats had better grow a pair before even thinking about beating Scott Walker. Today let's turn our attention to why so many Democrats have no balls to begin with.

Despite a steadily growing gap between the rich and the rest of us, Democrats have been unwilling or unable to make the case for ending corporate welfare and other disastrous trickle-down economic policies. At best they have been unreliable champions of working-class causes; at worst they aid and abet those devoted to feeding the rich and paying ransom to the multinationals.

You can see why this is when you pull back the curtain and look at who is pulling the levers and pushing the buttons. Even before Act 10 kneecapped most public sector unions, Wisconsin Democrats were getting $6 from business interests for every dollar they were getting from labor unions.

Democrats in our state used to compete quite successfully for rural votes. Today they are getting hammered in farm country. That should come as no surprise. Democrats have no rural agenda. They rarely talk about rural issues and even more rarely seek to solve rural problems. There is a reason for that, too. We've done the zip code analyses. There are more than 900 zip codes in Wisconsin. Most of the political money comes from just 32 of them. They are all urban or suburban. Rural people don't make campaign contributions. Politicians can't raise money addressing the challenges facing rural communities.

Neither major party is acting in a way that reflects the will of the people. They are serving their masters. They cater to those who butter their bread. This strangles voices on both sides who would speak to how government can work in the public interest and promote the common good. But it hurts Democrats the most.

The Democratic Party is seen as the party of government. That's a curse these days when most people do not believe the government is working for them. Most do not believe elected officials are hearing their voices or doing their will. They are convinced the politicians are doing the bidding of their big donors. And they are right. Good luck winning elections as the party of government at a time when government is almost universally considered corrupt.

In the face of all this, Democratic operatives and campaign consultants keep painting by numbers, pretending to be politically savvy above all else, putting on airs about knowing how the game is played. These insiders keep lecturing candidates about how winning is all about raising money and watching polls and doing TV and raising more money.

I suspect they know this is a path to ruin for their side, but they are too risk averse and not creative enough to innovate. Their savvy pose is a mask. It covers intellectual and strategic bankruptcy. They don't know how to escape the trap they are in. They can't win the money game, but they don't know how to win without money.

The proverbial 800-pound gorilla on the Democratic side has been the state teachers union. Thanks to Act 10, that gorilla just lost over half its weight. WEAC sunk more than $2.3 million into the 2010 elections, but just over $946,000 into 2012 races.

Yet the savvy political players on the Democratic side keep droning on about how the path to political power is paved with money. Never mind that Tom Barrett ceaselessly dialed for dollars and pulled in an impressive $6.6 million, only to be hopelessly outgunned by Scott Walker, who had more than $36 million. Never mind that Democrats took the consultants' mantra to heart and focused like a laser beam on fundraising, hauling in another $6.6 million for last year's state legislative contests, only to have their Republican opponents spend $9.9 million against them.

Never mind that Democrats can't speak their minds and can't act with the courage of their convictions for fear of alienating the donor class. Never mind that this segment of society won't give Democrats nearly as much as they give Republicans even if Democrats do cower before them.

Never mind all that. Wisconsin Democrats, your party's establishment continues to send an unmistakable message about where your focus needs to be and where your energy must be expended. In the nearly two decades the Democracy Campaign has been operating, the Democrats' state party chair has reached out to us one time. That was to ask if we would support legislation he was discussing with his Republican counterpart to increase the limits on campaign contributions to candidates and parties.

As politely as I could, I told him he was out of his cotton picking mind.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Democrats Won't Find Answers Without Asking The Right Questions

Anywhere you go in Wisconsin, if you run into someone from the Democratic Party's rank and file, you get the same question: Who's going to run against Walker?

Sorry Democrats, but that's the wrong question.

It's not who or what you are against that matters. It's what you are for that will count. If your party just runs against Walker, the governor will be reelected.

In this age of growing income inequality and economic injustice, Democrats have been unable to trademark an effective alternative to Republican supply-side theory, better known as "trickle-down economics." Come on, how hard is it? Hell, any farmer knows that if you've got cows and pigs and chickens, you can't just feed the cows and hope some nourishment trickles down  splatters is more like it  to the pigs and chickens. All of the animals need to be fed. Call it "farmer economics" for Christ's sake and get busy putting some common sense policies behind the brand.

Oh, and when you challenge trickle-down insanity, you will be called socialists. Instead of indulging your party's impulse to duck and cover, grow a pair and stand your ground for a change. America  which has never been socialist  had economic policies under which the country grew together for the three decades after World War II. Every income class got ahead. Since trickle-down became the economic law of the land a little over three decades ago, America's rich got vastly richer, the poor got poorer and the middle class has been slowly but surely disappearing.

Farm country used to be fertile territory for Democrats, but they have been getting their heads handed to them in rural Wisconsin for quite some time now, including in almost all of the state's poorest counties. Used to be the Democrats were known as the party of the poor. But it's hard to be the party of the rural poor when you don't have a rural agenda. Name me a signature modern-day Democratic program or policy addressing the challenges facing rural communities. It's not that Democrats don't have a compelling or even coherent rural agenda. They don't have rural agenda, period.

Nothing shapes today's politics more than the widely shared fear that the American Dream is being downsized, especially for our kids and grandkids. All across our state and nation, mom and dads are anguishing over how this generation of young people might wind up being the first in our country's history not to be better off than their parents. It's increasingly difficult to see how kids will have any shot at a middle-class existence without education or training beyond high school, but equally hard to see how paying for college is affordable.

Walker is outflanking the Democrats on access to higher education, calling for a two-year freeze on UW tuition. Despite the growing anxiety over the increasingly uncertain pathway to the middle class, Democrats haven't offered much of anything to allay the fears that will define our politics for years to come. A high school diploma clearly doesn't cut it anymore. Where are the voices saying it's time to extend the promise of free public education beyond high school?

Democrats don't ask that question because they fear the question that follows: How could we possibly afford that? Well, how did people without any formal schooling and with far more limited financial means than we have today manage to build a first-rate public school system in the first place? And the nation's first kindergartens? And America's first system of vocational, technical and adult education? And a world-class university system? They afforded these things because they knew their kids and grandkids would need them. Same goes today.

Democrats need to search their souls before searching for candidates. They need to find some nerve before they can find someone who can beat Scott Walker.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Choice Decision For Big Donors

A legislative committee has decided to ignore advice from one of its nonpartisan policy experts and keep Republican Governor Scott Walker's plan to create up to nine school voucher programs in the proposed 2013-15 state budget.

The voucher expansion plan was among 58 items the Legislative Fiscal Bureau says have more to do with state policy than state spending.  The bureau traditionally prepares a list of non-spending items before the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee makes changes to the state's two-year master spending plan so it can decide whether the items should be pulled and introduced as separate legislation.

But the GOP-controlled legislature's decision to keep a policy issue like expanded school choice in the budget shouldn't be too much of a surprise.  The program has wealthy and generous friends who have spent nearly $10 million mostly to help elect Walker and other Republican candidates for statewide office and the legislature, a recent Democracy Campaign report shows.

In addition to the $2.35 million in campaign contributions and outside election spending Walker has received from school choice backers, Republican Senator Alberta Darling of River Hills who co-chairs the Joint Finance Committee has accepted nearly $58,000 in contributions from school choice supporters.  And the American Federation of Children, a group that fights to preserve and expand school choice, spent an estimated $1.3 million to help Darling and other incumbent Republican senators win their 2011 recall elections.

The state budget is the only proposal the legislature must approve every two years while stand-alone bills fail or die by the hundreds.  Though controversial, Walker's plan to expand school vouchers is tucked among hundreds of spending initiatives and pet programs favored by most legislators and they have to approve the state budget one way or the other. 


Monday, April 22, 2013

NRA Campaign Support Shoots Down Expanded Background Checks

Governor Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature say they will block efforts to enhance background checks on gun sales in Wisconsin because it's unnecessary, burdensome and doesn't have enough legislative support.

But outside the Capitol a number of polls - here and here - show eight of 10 Wisconsin voters support requiring background checks on gun sales between individuals and at firearm shows - something state law does not require.

The conflict between the political support and public support for more background checks is likely the nearly $2 million in outside election spending and campaign contributions spent since 2002 on Wisconsin candidates for statewide office and the legislature by the National Rifle Association which opposes nearly all forms of firearm regulation.

The NRA spent nearly $1 million to help Walker win his 2010 general and 2012 recall election.  The group spent $964,422 on outside electioneering activities to support Walker and contributed $10,000 to his campaign from its political action committee.  Walker says state policymakers should approve his budget proposal to increase funding to treat mental illness to reduce gun violence rather than expand gun sale background checks.

The group spent about $107,000 on campaign contributions and outside electioneering activities in legislative races from 2002 through 2012, and all but $1,000 went to support Republican legislative candidates.

The rest of the NRA's expenditures during the 10-year period - about $861,000 - was spent on outside electioneering activities and campaign contributions to support GOP candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in the 2006 and 2002 elections and two conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates in the 2008 and 2011 spring elections.


Friday, April 19, 2013

Dale Schultz, Endangered Species

The Wisconsin Legislature used to be full of Dale Schultzes. Now he is a rare bird, hunted by a mob of his political genus if not his species. If he seeks reelection, he will face a primary challenge. His sin? Being what almost all Wisconsin Republicans were in the not-so-distant past.

I first encountered Dale Schultz in the early 1980s when he and another senator-to-be, Brian Rude, were aides to Senator Dan Theno, a Lake Superior-area Republican. I got to know Theno and his staff because the state assembly district of my boss, Representative June Jaronitzky, was nested in Theno's senate district. Our offices were in regular contact because of the overlap of constituencies.

I had not seen or heard of Theno in years, before noticing a letter to the editor he wrote last month expressing opposition to the expansion of Wisconsin's private school voucher program on the grounds that handing out the public's money to help a few families pay private school tuition is an inappropriate government entitlement that also will inevitably lead to state interference in the operation of private schools. A classically Republican take on the issue; at least it was a Republican take until unthinking support for vouchers became a GOP litmus test.

When I was an assembly aide for two legislative sessions, staffing at the Capitol was considerably thinner than it is today. State representatives shared aides. I worked not only for Jaronitzky, but also Bob Larson, a moderate from Medford, and Earl Schmidt, an old-school conservative from Birnamwood who went on to become a circuit court judge.

Because Jaronitzky represented northwoods communities blessed with scenic beauty and not much else and thus heavily reliant on the tourism industry, she worked on legislation curbing acid rain and backed a statewide phosphate ban. Most notably, she became the first Republican lawmaker to join Madison's Mary Lou Munts in pushing for marital property reform. In the weeks leading up to passage of that landmark legislation, I was June's emissary at daily strategy sessions with Munts and women's rights advocates.

Several years after I left the Capitol staff corps, it occurred to me that I was Jaronitzky's only aide and worked for her for two legislative sessions and I never knew her position on abortion. She didn't wear it on her sleeve, and it wasn't a litmus test the way it is today. There were pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats. Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!

Perhaps Larson's proudest achievement was teaming with fellow Norwegian and then-Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus to carve out an exemption for lutefisk in a bill creating tougher regulation of toxic substances including lye, which is instrumental in the making of the Norwegian delicacy. Larson's real passion was daily card games with fellow legislators like Dave Paulson and Brownie Byers.

Schmidt was less gregarious than his officemate Larson. He was studious, serious, with an eye for the fine print in laws. A judge in training.

None of them liked Democrats much, but they all could work with them. Like Dale Schultz can. The Capitol was full of Dale Schultzes back then, and it is a much worse place today now that he sticks out like a sore thumb.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The 23-Year-Long School Day

Some years ago, sunset clauses were all the rage. Politicians on the prowl for waste, fraud and abuse in government wanted every law and every program to have one, to guard against laws that outlive their usefulness and get rid of government programs that do not work.

The sun rose 23 years ago on Wisconsin's private school voucher program. Those pushing it at the time made bold claims about how it would transform our education system. They said it would not only boost the achievement of students benefiting from the public vouchers paying for them to attend a private or religious school, but would also lift all boats by creating competition among schools and thereby stimulating innovation benefiting students regardless of where they studied.

Hasn't happened. Twenty-three years after the school choice program was established, students in voucher schools aren’t doing noticeably better than public school students. By some measures, they are doing worse. In addition to failing to budge test scores, the voucher program has been plagued over the years by story after story after story of poor performance, safety code violations, mismanagement and fraud.

The promised system transformation hasn't materialized either. All boats haven't been lifted. The competition that begets innovation that begets system-wide school improvement hasn't worked. Yet the sun hasn't set on this failed experiment after two decades and then some. It remains high in the sky.

Peddlers of this particular brand of school "reform" do a lot of yammering about the 3 R's and getting back to basics. But they have failed to deliver the all-important fourth R: results.

After 23 years, you’d think that if a state program failed to deliver the promised results and had a checkered management history to boot, lawmakers would be talking about ending it. Instead, they are debating its expansion.

If you want to know why the voucher program has nine lives, you might want to start by following the money. Nearly $10 million in 10 years from voucher advocates to help politicians who are friendly to the program certainly helps explain why lackluster test scores and even voucher school administrators being sent to jail haven't done it in. And that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Multi-issue groups whose agendas include lobbying for school vouchers made another $63 million in campaign contributions over the last decade, and spent an additional $24 million on their own campaign advertising to elect pro-voucher politicians and defeat those who question the program's effectiveness.

That's close to $100 million pumped into Wisconsin elections by interests with a stake in making sure the sun doesn't go down on vouchers. Goes to show that political money and lots of it can ensure that results don't matter. Waste, fraud and abuse don't matter.

Here is a government program whose fate is not determined by results. All that really matters is how many campaign donations are generated by propping up the program, even if it doesn't work.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Ron Johnson Ain't Gun Shy, And Here's Why

Republican Senator Ron Johnson's unsuccessful threat to prevent gun regulation legislation from being considered in the U.S. Senate this week shouldn't be much of a surprise.

The National Rifle Association despises gun regulation of any kind and Johnson had over a million reasons to side with the group to kill the gun registration bill, which ended up receiving overwhelming bipartisan approval from his colleagues.

Turns out the NRA reported spending more than any other outside special interest group to support Johnson's 2010 election victory over incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold.

Four dozen SuperPACs and nonprofit groups representing the Democratic and Republican parties and an array of powerful special interests reported spending $4.7 million in the Johnson-Feingold contest.  The NRA was Johnson's biggest benefactor and also spent more than any other outside group on the list - $1.18 million - or 25 percent of the total.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Last Stage Of Corruption

It's said there are stages of grief. Could be five. Or seven. Or 10. The point being, in any case, that there are identifiable phases of the grieving process. Experts more or less agree it's some variation on the following theme: Denial. Anger. Guilt or blame. (This stage is full of "what ifs" and "if onlys" and some call it "bargaining," as in "I'll never do such and such ever again if I'm spared this miserable fate.) Then comes depression. Followed by acceptance.

Having lost both of my parents and two siblings in the past 10 years, I have become well acquainted with these stages. I imagine everyone goes through them in their own way and at their own pace. As a matter of fact, I experienced them differently each time I lost a loved one. But experience them I did.

There are phases of political corruption, too, and they mirror the grieving process. That's because corruption does prompt grieving. It involves a loss of innocence and, especially in Wisconsin's case, the death of good-government traditions.

At the time of the Democracy Campaign's birth in the mid-1990s and for the several years that followed, we frequently encountered denial. A great many people were taken aback by our suggestions that the increasingly large sums of money changing hands at the Capitol amounted to graft or legal bribery. If there was anger in those days, it was just as often directed at us as at the people involved in the transactions we sought to expose. We were accused of blowing things out of proportion and recklessly smearing good people. It isn't as bad as you say. Can't be. This is Wisconsin.

In due course, denial was replaced by recognition. Our characterizations of the money game stopped producing the kind of blowback we received in our early years. Increasingly anger and blame were directed at the politicians, not the whistle blowers. The remaining few with their heads buried in the sand were jarred out of their complacency when scandal visited our state. Top political leaders were paraded into court, and then briefly into jail cells.

Today I'd say we are somewhere between depression and acceptance. Many are despairing over the extent to which political corruption has taken root in our land. A growing number are starting to see it as standard operating procedure. The new normal.

So many have become so accepting of the new normal that the latest state Supreme Court election was widely viewed as a low-cost affair largely free of special interest influence. Never mind that spending on television advertising alone reached seven figures, with one side outspending the other by five to one, and with interest groups substantially outspending the candidates.

Three groups  Club for Growth, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Wisconsin Realtors  did most of the talking in the race. All of them backed the incumbent justice, the same justice who supplied the deciding vote to approve amendments to the state judicial ethics code allowing judges to rule on cases involving their biggest campaign supporters, amendments written by WMC and the Realtors.

Apologists for the new normal insisted the election was as pure as the driven snow, a classic expression of the will of the people. Nope, nothing corrupt here.

There is a school at UW-Madison named for perhaps our state's greatest political legend who famously said "the will of the people is the law of the land." Today that school is teaching students the ways of Machiavelli in a course called "Exercising Political Leadership." According to the course syllabus, the class focuses on government executives like presidents, governors and mayors and how they "accumulate and spend political capital." Confuses exercising political power with leadership. Common mistake, and one particularly in keeping with the times.

Leadership has to be the most overused and abused word in politics. No class of people boasts about leadership more than politicians do. And perhaps no class of people does less actual leading.

Lyndon Johnson wasn't leading when he signed civil rights legislation. He was following. The civil rights movement made him do it. Masses of people marched, and endured beatings, and had high-powered fire hoses turned on them, and were jailed, and in some cases gave their lives for the cause. They weren't accumulating or spending political capital, at least not consciously. They were leading. And they changed America.

Just a few short years ago, Wisconsin had an assembly speaker who stood for amending the state constitution to forever ban gay marriage and whose voice dripped with hate as he mocked "a lot of people out there who think that people should be able to marry whoever they want, or whatever they want." More than a few of his contemporaries cracked wise about how the Bible speaks of "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."

Today politicians of that same stripe are scurrying for cover, dissembling here and waffling there, frantically trying to figure out a way to reposition themselves on gay rights and same-sex marriage. Are they leading? Of course not. They are reading polls. The American people are leading.

Therein lies the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to corruption. With the public's resignation comes the full embrace of corrupt practices by the political class. Corruption in this final stage produces a system so rank, so putrid, that it falls under its own weight. It has happened before. It will happen again. Don't look for the politicians to lead the way, though. They never do. They won't volunteer to leave the cesspool. They will be forced out by the people once enough of us have passed all the way through the grieving process and are finally ready to move on.