Why we have vile ads, uncontested races, issue-free candidates
and money-laundering front groups
by Mike McCabe, Executive Director
Posted: November 15, 2002
The election was an embarrassment. And we had it coming.
This is what we get for putting the keys to the Capitol in the hands of disreputable people and then looking the other way while they ransacked the joint.
I wouldn’t say this if the only problem with the 2002 election was that it was the nastiest in anyone’s memory. Yes, the ads were trash. The candidates couldn't think of anything good to say about themselves, so they spent their time – and the money they raised by taking out a second mortgage on their souls – trying to convince voters the other guy was a scoundrel. When half-truths didn't do the trick, they resorted to outright lies.
I felt like I needed a shower after every evening newscast. But I could stomach the mudslinging if it was accompanied by even a smidgen of vision. One journalist called this the Seinfeld election. It was about nothing. He was right. It was about nothing but power. Power without purpose.
Wisconsin candidates ran somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 TV ads and managed to say nothing meaningful about how this state ought to be run. They said nothing about how they propose to stop the bleeding in the state budget. They said nothing about how they aim to clean up a Capitol engulfed in scandal. Nothing about a looming health care crisis. Nothing about an exploding prison population.
The 2002 campaign shattered any pretense that we live in a functioning democracy. When all the spending is tallied, the candidates for governor will have sunk something on the order of $20 million to $25 million into their campaigns. Three-quarters of the money raised by the two major party candidates came from three one-hundredths of 1% of the state’s taxpayers.
There was not a single competitive congressional race in Wisconsin, thanks to the enormous campaign war chests amassed by the incumbents and a redistricting process that allowed the representatives to choose their voters long before the voters got to choose their representatives.
Legislative office holders had a 16-to-1 cash advantage over the poor saps challenging them. So the incumbents could shout their message, while their opponents couldn't speak above a whisper. Just as often, no one even stepped forward to contest the election. Half of state legislative races – 57 of the 116 seats up for grabs – featured candidates with no major party opponent. The Soviet Union used to hold elections like that.
The loss of competitive elections is the bitter harvest from a political process rife with extortion, money laundering and criminal misuse of public offices. Elected officials serve the public best when they serve in fear of the next election. When they get a free pass, there is a huge loss of accountability. This is an invitation to mischief and a recipe for corruption.
The lack of options on the ballot is only one way electoral accountability has been lost. Another is the rise of front groups with patriotic names like Citizens for Clean and Responsible Government, Coalition for America’s Families, Coalition to Keep America Working and Working Families of Wisconsin. Two of them are tied to the Democratic Party and the other two are Republican. Any idea which is which?
The "citizens" – actually a handful of political operatives – who run these shadow campaigns change their identity every election to help keep them below the radar. In 2000, there was the Alliance for a Working Wisconsin, People for Wisconsin’s Future, Project Vote Informed and Wisconsin Voter Education Fund.
These groups are supposed to be independent, even to the point of being prohibited by law from coordinating their activity with candidate campaigns. But you don’t have to read the criminal complaints against legislative leaders very long to see what a ruse this claim of "independence" really is. It is patently obvious that the activities of the front groups and the candidates' own campaigns are indeed carefully coordinated, and it’s all being orchestrated by Wisconsin’s all-powerful legislative leaders.
These front groups have become an essential campaign tool for two reasons. First, they do the dirty work, allowing candidates to distance themselves from the most vile attack ads and stay on the proverbial high road. Candidates can claim clean hands even as their opponents are smeared.
Second, these outfits are money-laundering operations that wash money that would be illegal under Wisconsin law if it flowed directly to the candidates. To the eye of your average voter, the ads they run are indistinguishable from any other campaign ad. But these groups claim that because they don’t use magic words like "vote for" or "vote against" they are merely discussing issues and are not subject to campaign disclosure laws.
Never mind that words like "vote for" or "vote against" also don’t appear in the fully disclosed, regulated campaign ads run by the candidates themselves. Those ads don’t say "vote for me." They say "help is on the way" or "it’s time for a change" or "my opponent isn't fit to be dogcatcher." The intent of all the ads is unmistakable – it’s to get candidates elected or defeated.
The phony "issue ads" run by the front groups (and now even by the political parties) are based on a lie, and this election laid the deception bare. Because of a meaningless semantic distinction, they can escape disclosure requirements and solicit corporate donations that were explicitly banned in the early 1900s – one of the state’s great Progressive reforms.
That whirring sound you hear is Fightin' Bob La Follette spinning in his grave. And that retching sound is all of us voters after the ugliest election in memory.
We deserved it. We let it happen.