Campaign donations come from elite sliver of society, pack discriminatory wallop rivaling poll taxes, literacy tests

January 26, 2004

Madison - Over half of campaign contributions to candidates seeking state office come from less than 4 percent of Wisconsin’s more than 900 zip codes, a new Wisconsin Democracy Campaign study shows.

A single zip code - 53217, which covers portions of Milwaukee’s wealthiest suburbs - produced nearly $1 million more in campaign contributions than the state’s 61 poorest zip codes combined and almost four times as much as the 15 zip codes with the highest non-white populations.

The report, Class War Chests, compares campaign contributions and demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau and illustrates how contributors - who are disproportionately white upper-class males - from just a handful of zip codes unduly influence the outcome of elections all over the state.

"Campaign donations are the smart bombs of the class war," WDC executive director Mike McCabe said. "Contributions are not as transparently discriminatory but are every bit as effective as poll taxes and literacy tests."

The report’s findings show why campaign finance reform is a civil rights issue, McCabe added.

Of the $47.4 million in campaign contributions since 1993 to candidates for the legislature, governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, over $10.1 million came from just six zip codes. These zip codes account for 4 percent of the adult state population and include portions of Madison and its affluent Shorewood Hills and Maple Bluff suburbs as well as sections of Milwaukee and its wealthy "Gold Coast" suburbs such as Bayside, Fox Point, River Hills, Glendale, Mequon and Whitefish Bay.

"What the numbers unmistakably show is that the color of political money in Wisconsin is white," McCabe said. "The way campaigns are currently financed leaves us with a pale imitation of democracy."

Seven legislators - Representatives John Gard, Scott Jensen, Mary Williams, Karl Van Roy, Jeff Wood and Becky Weber and Senator Ron Brown - collected more campaign donations from the six top-giving Milwaukee- and Madison-area zip codes than they received from voters in their districts.

"Until we get reforms that create voter-owned elections in Wisconsin, elections will continue to be owned by wealthy elites," McCabe said. "And ordinary folks will continue to pay for the political favors elected officials supply their biggest campaign contributors."

A series of WDC reports last year identified over $5 billion worth of breaks and perks wealthy special interests have been given, all but $1 million of which was safeguarded as the state sought to close a $3 billion budget deficit.

Senate Bill 12 authored by Neenah Republican Mike Ellis and Middleton Democrat Jon Erpenbach would be a major step toward voter-owned elections that would break the grip special interests have on the Capitol, McCabe said.

Class War Chests