Coming to Terms with Our Times

In this update: 1. WDC study of outsider money to legislators catches attention of media 2. Coming to terms with the new Gilded Age 3. Congress bends to interest group pressure on right-to-know legislation 4. Felony conviction no deterrent to lobbying career 5. Legislator sheds party label Coming to Terms with Our Times

Email date: 6/23/10

In this update:
1. WDC study of outsider money to legislators catches attention of media
2. Coming to terms with the new Gilded Age
3. Congress bends to interest group pressure on right-to-know legislation
4. Felony conviction no deterrent to lobbying career
5. Legislator sheds party label

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WDC study of outsider money to legislators catches attention of media
The report the Democracy Campaign issued a week ago showing how heavily state legislators rely on campaign donations from people living outside their districts inspired editorials in the La Crosse Tribune and Oshkosh Northwestern, and also was the subject of radio coverage aired across the state on the Wisconsin Radio Network and the Public News Service. If you missed the Democracy Campaign's director talking about the findings on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Ideas Network, you can listen to the conversation here.

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Coming to terms with the new Gilded Age
To put an even finer point on where state lawmakers are getting the money to fuel their election campaigns, 76% of the money raised by legislators in 2009 came from a pool of donors who amount to less than 1% of the state’s population. To find a period in American history with a concentration of political power, corporate influence and political corruption comparable to today’s, you have to go back to the late 1800s. Back then, it was the robber barons, Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. Mark Twain coined the term “Gilded Age” to describe that corrupt era.

In our latest Big Money Blog, WDC's director wonders aloud what the times we are living in now will end up being called, offers a couple of suggestions, and invites readers to play the name game.

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Congress bends to interest group pressure on right-to-know legislation
Even when trying to fashion a response to special interest power and expose corporate election spending to the light of day, members of Congress seem to easily fall prey to the lobbyists and put interest group concerns ahead of the public interest. Quite a few national reform groups are swallowing hard and still urging support for the federal DISCLOSE Act despite the amendment that’s been attached to appease powerful interests and most notably the National Rifle Association, but there's no denying that Washington is nowhere near being able to act for the common good on any issue that really matters.

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Felony conviction no deterrent to lobbying career
Getting convicted of a felony costs you the right to vote, but it doesn’t stop you from working the halls of the Capitol as a lobbyist for special interest clients. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel plunged into this topic with an outstanding investigative report accompanied by a sidebar story focusing on a former legislator and an ex-staffer who were driven from the Capitol for their roles in the caucus scandal only to return as lobbyists.

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Legislator sheds party label
In announcing that he plans to run for reelection to the Assembly as an independent, Manitowoc State Representative Bob Ziegelbauer said “everybody knows that the party system is broken” and “dominated by the special interests on both sides.” He went on to say the people of Wisconsin “need so badly to turn this state around, that just following the old broken system’s pattern of special interest group against special interest group, and payoffs for campaign contributors, that won’t work.”

All true and very well said.

The only question is whether Ziegelbauer’s decision to shun a party label in the name of escaping a broken system will be accompanied by a newfound interest in reforming that system. Ziegelbauer has been a consistent opponent of campaign reform. In the recently completed legislative session, he voted against the Impartial Justice Act reforming state Supreme Court elections. In the previous session, he voted against an effort to pull Supreme Court election reform legislation from committee and bring it to a vote in the full Assembly, effectively killing it. Ziegelbauer also voted to block a vote on legislation requiring full disclosure of campaign money and election spending, dooming that reform effort as well.