How Money Is Degrading Our Democracy in Wisconsin

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

February 16, 2018

(Lecture delivered to University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism class taught by Dee Hall on February 15.)

It’s a pleasure to be with you today, and I’ve got to say how lucky you are to have Dee Hall as your professor because she’s one of the best investigative reporters in this state, and I’m sure she’s teaching you some of the tricks of the trade.

I want to talk you today about the assault on democracy right here in Wisconsin over the last seven years, and how money is degrading it.

Oligarchs with guns
Let me focus on Wisconsin, and on the question, Who runs Wisconsin?

It’s not Governor Walker.

It’s not Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

It’s not Speaker Robin Vos.

And it’s not Chief Justice Pat Roggensack.

No, they’re all just water boys for the actual folks who run Wisconsin.

And who are those folks, you might ask?

Well, let me tell you.

Diane Hendricks of ABC Supply in Beloit. She’s the richest woman in Wisconsin and she’s given Walker more than $500,000 over the last seven years. She made an infamous cameo appearance in the documentary “As Goes Janesville.” This was right after Walker was elected. She came up to him and asked him, “When are you going to make Wisconsin a red state? When are you going to make Wisconsin a right to work state?” And Walker notoriously responded, “First, we’re going to divide and conquer.”

Another ruler is Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the leading lobbyist in the state and the top spender on elections in our state. It has spent about $16,7 million in the last seven years to keep Walker, Fitzgerald, and Vos in power and to keep conservatives in control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Then there are the Koch Brothers, especially through their group, Americans for Prosperity, which has spent $5.7 million since January 2010 to keep conservatives in power here. The Koch Brothers also support another influential group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is a national group of businesspeople and rightwing pro-business legislators who get together and come up with so-called model bills that they then try to ram through state legislatures. They’ve been doing so here in Wisconsin.

And there’s Betsy DeVos’s group, the American Federation for Children. She’s Trump’s Secretary of Education, and a billionaire, and she’s done more to decimate our public schools than anyone else in the country. Here in Wisconsin, the American Federation for Children has spent more than $5 million dollars in Wisconsin over the past seven years to help elect people who will vote in favor of private voucher schools. And it’s led in this state by none other than Scott Jensen, the former disgraced Speaker of the Assembly, who was caught in the Caucus Scandal of 2001, which exposed in a prize-winning series. Jensen eventually pleaded to a misdemeanor but he’s as powerful today as he was when he was Speaker because he throws Betsy Devos’s money around to defeat candidates who oppose the voucher policy.

There’s also the Wisconsin Club for Growth, which spent millions to help the Republicans fend off the recalls.

There’s the Dairy Business Association, the Wisconsin Association of Realtors, the NRA, and Wisconsin Right to Life.

And there’s Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas. When Walker was facing his recall, one of his aides said the first thing he should do was to fly out to Las Vegas and see Sheldon Adelson. Last weekend, by the way, Walker was back in Las Vegas visiting with Adelson.

These are the groups and individuals that have funded the assault on our democracy in Wisconsin: They have put Walker and Fitzgerald and Vos in power, and they have put the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

There’s a sick symbiosis here: They fund these people, and then once in office, the officials do favors for them, and then the officials get more money for their next election from this same crowd, and around we go. It’s good for all of them, but it’s horrible for democracy.

Let me spell out some of the ways that democracy has taken it on the chin here in Wisconsin:

1. Act 10 and the War on Labor Rights

Unions are a big part of a democracy. We say all the time how much we believe in democracy in this country, but for eight hours every day, most people are living in a dictatorship. Unions give workers a voice and some power, and Walker has systematically gone after that voice and power.

He didn’t campaign, in his first run for governor, on a pledge to go after the unions. But once elected, he told his Cabinet that he was going to “drop a bomb,” and that bomb was called Act 10, which was dishonestly marketed as a “budget repair bill” but was an all-out attack on public sector workers.

Then in 2014, when he ran for reelection, he was asked if he was in favor of another anti-union piece of legislation called “right to work.” He said it wasn’t an issue because it wasn’t going to get to his desk, but as soon as it got to his desk, he signed it right away.

Divide and conquer he did!

2. Political gerrymandering

To make totally good on his promise to Diane Hendricks, Walker and his legislative allies set about making Wisconsin a red state. And the way they did this was to rig the political district maps after the 2010 Census. After every Census, the legislature is required to redraw maps and divide Wisconsin’s 99 Assembly districts evenly among the population. What the Republicans did was to hire a sophisticated expert who helped them figure out how they could redraw the legislative maps to increase the Republican majority in the Assembly. And they drew up a whole series of maps, with each successive one predicting a larger Republican majority in the Assembly by moving a district line here and a district line there, grabbing more Republican voters as they went.

Did they do this work in public, in the State Capitol, since it was the public’s business? No, they did it across the street in the glass bank in the pricy law offices of Michael Best and Friedrich in a locked room that became known as “the map room.” The public wasn’t allowed in. The media wasn’t allowed in. Democrats weren’t allowed in. Even lowly Republican members of the Assembly had to ask to be let in by the Speaker’s staff, and before they could leave the room, they had to sign an oath of secrecy!

That’s not how the affairs of democracy are supposed to be conducted.

This map-rigging, which delivered on its promises of expanding the Republican majority, is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, which should decide in June.

And no matter how it decides the case, we can still demand nonpartisan redistricting, done by career public servants with specific criteria that bans the use of political demographic data. That’s how they’ve been doing it in Iowa for the past four decades, and if it works in Iowa it can work here.

3. Making It Harder for People to Vote

They passed a bill, the so-called Voter ID Bill, that made it harder for people to cast a ballot. No longer would you be allowed to vouch for your friends, neighbors, or even your family members. Instead, everyone is now required to show a government-issued photo ID. For a lot of elderly people who no longer drive, this is an impediment. They don’t have a driver’s license, and they may not have a passport. For students, it’s also become a high hurdle.

UW-Madison students: You should know that your Wiscard is NOT a valid ID for voting. You must get a special ID card for voting (free) at Union South and show proof of current enrollment.

And for some poor people and people of color it’s also become a real burden to get that government-issued ID. They were told they could go to their local DMV and get it, but transportation is one issue. And whether the DMV is open or not is another issue. In Sauk County, for instance, the DMV was open only on the fifth Wednesday of every month in 2016, and in 2016, there were only four months that had five Wednesdays.

When the law was passed, the chief of staff for Republican State Senator Dale Schultz, who you’re going to hear from this afternoon, said that some Republican State Senators were “giddy” that they were disenfranchising black people and young people.

4. Doing away with the Government Accountability Board

In 2015, the GOP-dominated legislature and Scott Walker dismantled the Government Accountability Board, which was renowned around the country as a model for nonpartisan oversight of ethics, lobbying, campaign contributions, and elections. It was run by a panel of retired judges. They replaced it with an Elections Commission and an Ethics Commission run by partisan appointees. Now the legislature is meddling even further, firing the acting administrators of the commissions because they used to work for the GAB. They wouldn’t even grant those administrators a hearing—the first time in Wisconsin history that people nominated for a position were not granted a hearing.

The legislators and Walker destroyed the GAB and are going after anyone ever connected to it because they’re angry that the GAB was doing what it was supposed to do: it had cooperated with the John Doe II prosecutor who was looking into highly credible allegations that Scott Walker had been breaking the law by coordinating with outside electioneering groups. At the time of the recalls, Walker was going around the country, sitting on the laps of millionaires and billionaires, including Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas and a lead manufacturer in Texas. Walker told them to write six-figure and seven-figure checks out to Wisconsin Club for Growth and not the Republican Party of Wisconsin because the most they could give to the Republican Party of Wisconsin was $10,000. And the kicker was, when they gave to the Wisconsin Club for Growth, it wouldn’t even have to disclose their names, whereas the Republican Party of Wisconsin would have to. Walker’s campaign strategist then advised Wisconsin Club for Growth how to use the money that Walker was raising for it.

5. The Corrupt Wisconsin Supreme Court Rides to the Rescue

Walker got off the hook only when the corrupt Wisconsin Supreme Court waved its magic gavel and said that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the State of Wisconsin from banning coordination between candidates and outside “issue advocacy” groups. This was a novel and shabby interpretation of the First Amendment, since the U.S. Supreme Court, which is the final arbiter of what the First Amendment means, has said no such thing. In fact, its rulings over the last 50 years flow in the opposite direction. In the famous Buckley v. Valeo case of 1976, for instance, the Court ruled: Third-party expenditures “coordinated” with a candidate can be “treated as contributions,” because “[t]he ultimate effect is the same as if the [spender] had contributed the dollar amount [of the expenditure] to the candidate.”

I said the court was corrupt, and let me explain why: The John Doe II prosecutor was looking into illegal coordination by Walker with such groups as Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. And the conservative justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court owed their seats to these very groups, which had spent upwards of $8 million on expenditures that helped them get elected. The prosecutor had asked at least two of the justices to recuse themselves because of this blatant conflict of interest, but they refused to do so.

The Court didn’t stop there. It actually fired the John Doe II prosecutor on specious grounds.

6. The Legislature immunizes officials from future John Does

To shield itself from ever having to worry about another John Doe prosecution, the GOP legislators passed a bill, and the governor signed it, that shields a tiny group of people in Wisconsin from facing a John Doe prosecutor ever again: and that tiny group consists of all elected officials.

They gave themselves “Get out of Jail Free” cards.

7. The Horrible Rewriting of our Campaign Finance Law

It’s called Chapter 11 in Wisconsin, and it is morally bankrupt. In November 2015, the GOP-dominated legislature drastically rewrote the campaign finance law, giving much more power to wealthy individuals and corporations.

Here’s some of what it did:

  • For the first time in more than 100 years, it allows corporations and other groups to give directly to political parties and legislative campaign committees. The limit here is $12,000 and they are not supposed to use the money for electioneering purposes, but money is fungible
  • It doubled the limits for direct contributions to candidates. It used to be that the most a rich person could give to a candidate for governor or State Supreme Court was $10,000. Now it’s $20,000. That’s right: In its majestic equality, the Wisconsin law lets rich and poor alike give $20,000 to their favorite candidate. This is way out of whack. I mean, the most a rich person can give to their favorite candidate for President of the United States is $2,700. Is governor of Wisconsin 7.5 times as important as President of the United States?
  • It tore down the limit on individuals’ contributions to political parties. There used to be an aggregate limit of $10,000 in Wisconsin for political donations. If you wanted to give $10,000 to the Democratic Party or Republican Party, you could do that but then you couldn’t give to any other committee or candidate. The U.S. Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision did away with aggregate limits, but the legislature could have easily said that the limit on donations to political parties would be $10,000 or $20,000. Instead, it said the sky is the limit.

With both of these ceilings torn down, a billionaire could now give $10 million to a political party, and that party could then turn around and give that $10 million on the billionaire’s favorite candidate for governor.

This makes a mockery of the limits on direct donations to candidates.

The new election law also codified the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling that coordination with so-called issue advocacy groups is now kosher.

So if you’re running for governor, you can now tell your billionaire friend to write that $10 million check to some bogus issue advocacy group, with a sappy name, like Badgers for Eternal Victory, and BEV can then use that money to run an ad saying your opponent is the biggest scoundrel in the world. It’s just as if your friend gave your campaign the check, except that it’s 500 times the legal limit -- and the kicker is, your friend can do it in secret since the “issue advocacy” group doesn’t have to disclose who its donors are.

  • It also said that political parties could now give unlimited amounts to candidates, when before there was a limit on this, too.
  • Finally, they took the requirement out that campaigns had to disclose the employer of the donors. This makes it much more difficult for the media and the citizenry at large to know if the donor’s business is getting favorable treatment in return. And Walker has turned the state into an ATM for companies whose CEOs put money into his bucket.

Wisconsin’s motto, under Walker, is ostensibly: “Wisconsin Open for Business.”

But in actuality, it’s become: “Wisconsin Open for Bribery.”

So what are the consequences?

1. Politically, we’re not much of a democracy anymore, not here in Wisconsin, and not nationally. We have arrogant one-party rule, with Majority Leader Fitzgerald acting like a playground bully and a wannabe mobster, violating democratic norms just because he has the power to do so.

2. It’s bad for our health here in Wisconsin:

For instance, in 2015 the legislature passed and Walker signed one law that allows greater amounts of lead in paint before the paint is legally considered lead paint. And they passed another law that reduced the inspection and testing requirements for lead paint. Now my wife is pediatric nurse practitioner, and for years she’s told me how hazardous lead is, especially to kids. But the health of the kids of Wisconsin was evidently not as important as the lobbying by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.

Similarly, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce lobbied heavily on a bill, passed by the legislature and signed by Walker, that makes it harder for victims of asbestos-related injuries to get compensation from asbestos companies. Do you know who is most affected by asbestos-related injuries? Our men and women in the Armed Services, and veterans. They are poisoned by asbestos at five times the civilian rate. Walker and the GOP legislators who voted for this bill claim to respect our men and women in uniform, but they respect the election assistance they get from WMC just a little bit more.

3. It’s bad for our environment:

New laws supported by WMC and the Dairy Business Association and the frac sand mining companies are draining the lakes and trout streams of Wisconsin. If your family or your friend’s family had a cottage right on one of the small lakes up north, the pier is no longer any good because the water is now 200 yards away. It’s receded because of the so-called high capacity wells of these factory farms and mines that suck up 100,000 gallons of fresh water every day. They’re also causing our treasured trout streams to dry up; that’s why Trout Unlimited – not exactly a radical group – has opposed these wells. And right now, there’s a bill that would do great damage to our wetlands—and as a birdwatcher, that’s hitting me where it hurts.

4. It’s bad for public education:

More than $1.2 billion of our taxpayer dollars over the last seven years has gone to the private school voucher program. That’s a sweet return on investment for the American Federation for Children, which spent just a little more than $5 million to get Republicans in office during this period. And all this money going to private schools has depleted the money available for bolstering public education, which is itself a cornerstone of democracy.

So that’s how big money is destroying our democracy, our tradition of clean government, our treasured environment, and much of our way of life here in Wisconsin.

There are solutions, like electing people from both parties who are committed to clean government.

Another solution is amending the U.S. Constitution to declare that corporations aren’t persons and money isn’t speech. And 119 communities in Wisconsin have endorsed this amendment idea. Actually, Wisconsin is second only to Massachusetts in the number of communities that have climbed on board this crucial bandwagon.

So all is not lost.

And I urge you to get involved. Vote on Tuesday, and then on April 3, and then again in November.

Because if the past eight years have taught us anything, it’s that local and statewide elections matter.