Velvet Discrimination

There was a time when racial and class discrimination was easy to recognize. Whips, chains, burning crosses and the hangman’s noose are hard to miss. Velvet Discrimination

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

January 28, 2004

There was a time when racial and class discrimination was easy to recognize. Whips, chains, burning crosses and the hangman’s noose are hard to miss.

Then it evolved into poll taxes and literacy tests. No longer violent, but still unmistakably bigoted.

Today, campaign donations are the smart bombs of the race and class wars. Their beauty as a tool of social and economic control is that, in theory at least, anyone can make them so they don’t appear discriminatory. But as organized money understands, the difference between theory and practice in campaign giving is as distinct as the divisions of race and class.

A new Wisconsin Democracy Campaign study shows how elite donors – who are disproportionately white upper-class males – from just a handful of zip codes control the outcome of elections all over the state.

There are well over 900 zip codes in Wisconsin, but more than half of campaign contributions to candidates seeking state office come from less than 4 percent of those zip codes. A single zip code – 53217 in 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.

Of the $47 million given to candidates for the legislature, governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in the last decade, over $10 million came from just six zip codes covering Milwaukee’s affluent “Gold Coast” suburbs and portions of Madison and its wealthy Maple Bluff and Shorewood Hills suburbs.

Money from these elite donors flows to friendly candidates in every corner of the state, deciding elections hundreds of miles from where the donors live, elections in which they are not eligible to vote.

It’s gotten so bad that in the case of seven legislators – Representatives John Gard, Scott Jensen, Mary Williams, Karl Van Roy, Jeff Wood and Becky Weber and Senator Ron Brown – donors from the six top-giving zip codes have contributed more to these lawmakers than voters in their own districts.

Organized money’s insidious power has robbed voters in most parts of the state of their ability to control their own political destiny. Long before voters ever cast a ballot, what amounts to a wealth primary weeds out any meaningful competition and leaves voters with a pale imitation of a democratic election.

Half of state legislative races in Wisconsin are now uncontested, meaning voters are deprived of even the most basic choice between two major party candidates. Most of the rest of the races offer voters a menu of options that is only cosmetically better. Thanks to organized money and partisan gerrymandering of districts, no more than 11 of the Assembly’s 99 districts remain remotely competitive. All the rest are “safe” seats where those in power are essentially guaranteed reelection.

Today’s ruling elites no longer have to dirty their hands with flagrant attempts to deny people their right to vote. They can just as effectively keep people down by allowing them to freely vote in elections whose results are preordained.

The emergence of this velvet discrimination is why campaign finance reform is the most important civil rights issue of our time.

Until we get reforms that create voter-owned elections in Wisconsin, elections will continue to be owned by wealthy elites. The excluded class – made up not only of people of color and the poor but anyone who does not make a habit of giving politicians big campaign donations – might not have to pay a poll tax or suffer the indignity of a literacy test, but will be disenfranchised and underrepresented all the same.

The price average folks pay for today’s kinder, gentler form of racial and class discrimination is not abstract. Our research shows we already are paying over $5 billion a year – or more than $1,300 for each and every Wisconsin taxpayer – for the breaks and perks our state lawmakers give their biggest campaign contributors.

That makes the biggest civil rights issue of our time also one of the most pressing pocketbook issues facing ordinary taxpayers.