Dark Day for Wisconsin, But It Won’t Last

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

December 17, 2015

December 16, 2015, will go down in the books as one of the darkest days in Wisconsin’s political history. That was the day that Gov. Scott Walker signed two bills that strike at the heart of our democracy.

The first bill tore apart the Government Accountability Board and replaced it with an Ethics Commission and an Elections Commission, populated with partisans. This is a recipe, at best, for paralysis, and at worst, for more corruption and criminality. We used to have two boards like this, and they did nothing to prevent the Legislative Caucus Scandal of 2001 and 2002, which led to the convictions of the leaders of the State Assembly and the State Senate. The past is prologue.

The second bill was a complete rewrite of our campaign finance statute, which will give the wealthiest individuals more power than ever to throw their weight around. It doubles the limits on direct contributions to candidates, and it allows unlimited donations from individuals to political parties. It also allows corporations, for the first time in more than 100 years in Wisconsin, to give directly to political parties. And it allows candidates, contrary to U.S. Supreme Court doctrine, to coordinate with outside “issue ad” groups. This destroys any meaningful limits on donations to candidates and any meaningful requirements for disclosure, since candidates can now tell their richest supporters to give millions of dollars to some “issue ad” group, and then the candidate can tell that group what ads to run with the money, and the kicker is that we’ll never find out about it because the “issue ad” group doesn’t need to disclose its donors.

The rewrite also hides additional information from the public. Individuals who give directly to candidates no longer have to say who their employer is, so it’ll be harder for the public to figure out which companies are getting sweetheart deals in exchange for the donations their senior executives made.

No wonder Governor Walker signed these bills in private. They were for the benefit of private interests, not the public.

But even as we bemoan these assaults on clean and open and equitable government in Wisconsin, we can’t despair.

So here’s to hoping that local district attorneys step up to bat and prosecute criminality in government. The DAs in Dane, Iowa, and Milwaukee Counties can start right now by joining the John Doe II case and appealing it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Here’s to hoping that local experiments in small-donor empowerment take hold in Wisconsin. Several groups, including the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and WisPIRG, are examining the prospects for this.

We’re looking at the example of New York City, where people who contribute up to $175 get their donation multiplied six-fold by the city. So, if you give $100 to your candidate for mayor, the city ponies up $600 and your gift amounts to $700. This allows people of modest means to have more of an impact.

We’re also looking at the example of Seattle, where, just this November, voters passed a referendum that gives local citizens four $25 vouchers that they can donate to municipal candidates of their choice.

Another interesting experiment at the local level is going on in Dane County, which is studying how to do redistricting in a nonpartisan manner.

And speaking of redistricting, there’s a compelling lawsuit in federal court right now challenging Wisconsin’s gerrymandering. If it wins, it would not only overturn the rigged maps that Walker’s wrecking crew wrote. It would establish an objective yardstick whereby other states, whether dominated by Republicans or Democrats, could be held to account if they play partisan games with legislative maps.

There’s one more big hope to hang your hat on: That’s the effort to amend the U.S. Constitution to say, once and for all, that corporations aren’t persons and money isn’t speech. Sixteen states have already called for this amendment. And in Wisconsin, 61 communities have voted, by overwhelming margins, that they’d like to see this amendment, too. These votes have occurred not just in places like Madison and Dane County, but even in Appleton, where the referendum passed with 74 percent approval and even in red Waukesha, where the referendum passed with 69 percent of the vote.

With this much pro-democracy energy in the air, the December 16 assault cannot stand forever—and maybe not even for long.

Walker and his clique are like Ozymandias, with their “sneer of cold command.” But they will be swept away, too.