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Jul 22 / Elizabeth DiNovella

On the Road to Damascus with Alex Cockburn

I am so saddened to hear of the death of Alexander Cockburn. I’ve been meaning to email him or call him, but now it’s too late.

When Alex would drive through Madison in his huge gas-guzzling car, we would hang out. But the best and last time we hung out was in Syria, of all places. We were on a trip organized by former South Dakota Senator Jim Abouresk.

On the first day of the trip, Alex, Jim, and I went to the great souk in Damascus as the rest of the people on the tour went off to the Golan Heights.

It was an accidental happening but it was a great one. We stopped at Abouresk’s favorite textile place. The shopkeepers treated us kindly. While one waited on Abouresk, another helped Alex and I. “Maybe your father will buy you something?” the shopkeeper asked, assuming that Alex and I were related. I found it hilarious; Alex not so much. “Yeah, Dad, are you going to get me something?” I asked Alex and we both just grinned.

I learned so much from Alex, as did so many other young journalists, I’m sure. Or maybe we aren’t so young anymore. It was really his reporting in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that was so compelling, especially his work on the covert wars in Latin America.

And of course his column, Beat the Devil, was the first thing to read in the Nation.

On the tour bus in Syria, he dictated his column over the phone to someone in the Nation office. The column was all in his head. Then he handed over his fancy international phone to me so I could call my boyfriend who was camping at the time in Wisconsin. “Liz, you don’t really look like the camping type,” he teased.

He could be a flirt, and cantankerous, but I found those traits amusing or at least not a drawback. Cockburn wasn’t for everybody. But that was OK. His wit could be caustic and he would say things no one else wanted to say. In 2000, on the eve of the Presidential election, I was the news director at WORT-FM, Madison’s community radio station. I played an hour-long talk by Cockburn based on his book critical of Al Gore. I received a call from someone who worked at the local Planned Parenthood. She was furious that we aired something that critical of Gore, the pro-choice Dem. Like I said, Cockburn wasn’t for everybody.

The last time we spoke by phone, he was telling me about what now seems very much like a golden age of journalism. He was an editor of the Village Voice in the 1970s, and said the bonhomie of that era isn’t easy to find in newsrooms anymore. Nowadays, he said, so many seem like insurance offices. He also spoke fondly of his big apartment off Central Park that cost $400 a month. “But, Alex,” I said, “tell me about the fashion.” He laughed and said, “Oh yes, Liz, the fashion was pretty great too.”

My favorite moment with Alex took place back in Damascus. We were inside the old city, at the place where St Paul, who was being hunted down, was lowered in a basket and escaped. The basement of this building has several maps outlining the spread of Christianity. Alex looked at one map and said to me “I blame Constantine for the whole damn thing.”

I will leave it to others to remember the details of his writing and to catalog his faults. For now, I remember a dear friend that I truly miss.

Jul 18 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Another Judge Rules Against Wisconsin Voter ID Law

A second judge has ruled Wisconsin’s voter ID law is unconstitutional, all but assuring that the photo ID requirement will not be in place for the November elections.

Dane County Circuit Judge David Flanagan declared that the state’s requirement that all voter show a specific type of government-issued photo identification at the polls creates a “substantial impairment of the right to vote” guaranteed by the state constitution.

This injunction, issued temporarily by Flanagan in March, was made permanent in the twenty-page decision he released Tuesday. The plaintiffs in the suit are Voces de la Frontera and the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP.

This is the second ruling against the law. A different Dane County judge, Richard Niess, permanently blocked the voter ID law in March in a case brought by the League of Women Voters.

Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen has pledged to appeal both rulings.

This latest court victory for voter rights was announced the same day the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University of Law released a report highlighting the ten states with the toughest voter identification laws: Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.

This report is the first comprehensive assessment of the difficulties that eligible voters face in obtaining free photo ID.

“The problem is not requiring voter ID, per se—the problem is requiring ID that many voters simply do not have,” the report states. “Study after study confirms that 1 in 10 eligible voters lack these specific government documents.”

The report notes that 11 percent of eligible voters who lack the required photo ID must travel to a designated government office to obtain one. And it singles out Sauk City, Wisconsin, as an example of the challenges faced by voters: “Many ID-issuing offices maintain limited business hours. For example, the office in Sauk City, Wisconsin, is open only on the fifth Wednesday of any month. But only four months in 2012—February, May, August, and October—have five Wednesdays.”

Advocates for the voter ID law bleet about voter fraud. But here in Wisconsin, there’s been very few allegations of fraud that have been substantiated.

The Brennan report makes clear what’s actually at stake: “This November, restrictive voter ID states will provide 127 electoral votes—nearly half of the 270 needed to win the Presidency.”

Wisconsin voters may be safe this November, but other states won’t be so lucky. Pennsylvania is a big swing state that also recently enacted a tough voter ID law.

Last month, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, a Republican, included the passing of a voter ID law in a list of GOP achievements. He said the new law “is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

You can’t get much more obvious—or duplicitous—than that.

Jul 13 / Elizabeth DiNovella

GOP Picks Millionaire to Run in Wisconsin Senate Race

Remember when Russ Feingold used to brag he was the poorest man in the Senate? Feingold was one of the few non-millionaires there. As we all know, Feingold lost to 1 percenter Ron Johnson in 2010.

Wisconsin’s other Senate seat is currently held by another millionaire, Democrat Herb Kohl, who is retiring from office. His seat will be up for grabs in the November election.

Representative Tammy Baldwin will be the nominee for the Democrats.

The Republicans will decide who their candidate is in the August 14 primary. A handful of conservatives have thrown their hats in, but the race is tightening between two candidates: former governor Tommy Thompson and former D.C. hedge find banker Eric Hovde.

Polls released this week by two different firms paint two scenarios. The Public Policy Polling survey shows Hovde with a slight lead over Thompson. The Marquette Law School poll gives Thompson a twelve-point advantage over Hovde.

Regardless of who leads in the polls, though, the eventual GOP candidate will be far wealthier than most Wisconsinites.

Thompson has done very well for himself after he left the governor’s mansion, and reported $13 million in assets in his latest financial statement. But Thompson’s wealth is no match for Hovde’s.

Hovde is the wealthiest candidate in the race, with at least $50 million in assets, according to his most recent financial statement.

(Baldwin, meanwhile, has averaged an income around $170,000 over the past ten years. Chump change.)

Hovde, like Johnson, will use his massive wealth to fund his campaign. He plans to spend $1.5 million worth of TV ads over the next five weeks leading up to the August 14 primary.

Johnson successfully bought a Senate seat. Can Hovde buy a primary?

Jul 12 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Thomas Frank Interview

Cultural critic Thomas Frank loves a paradox. Why has the worst economic crisis in generations led to a resurrection of free market orthodoxy? How can Budget chairman Paul Ryan, Republican from Wisconsin, rail against “corporate cronyism” and then enjoy $700 worth of wine with hedge fund manager Cliff Asness?

In his provocative new book, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, Frank looks at the conservative arguments for austerity in an economic downturn. In the aftermath of the collapse of Wall Street, the Republican Party morphed anger at big business into anger at big government.

The GOP’s “anti-big-business message catches the bitter national mood,” Frank writes. “What the Right actually does is deliver the same favors to the same people as always.”

Even though deregulation played a major role in creating our economic woes, conservatives have been calling for more deregulation—and winning office on this platform. “The reborn Right has succeeded because of its idealism, not in spite of it,” Frank says. “This idea that we can achieve a laissez-faire utopia, where everything will work perfectly, is very attractive to people.”

And the Democrats? Where are they in this debate over government intervention in the market?

“The liberals could not grab the opportunity that hard times presented to advance their philosophy,” Frank argues, noting their technocratic talk turned people off.

Frank may be best known for his 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. His other books include The Wrecking Crew and One Market Under God. A columnist for Harper’s and a founding editor of The Baffler, he is also a former opinion columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area. I spoke to him by phone.

Q:What are your thoughts on Occupy Wall Street?

Thomas Frank: I wish them success. They’ve brought a lot of ideas into the national debate that were completely outside the debate before, and that’s so important. Speaking from personal experience, I wrote a book twelve years ago where one of the main points began with the concentrations of wealth in this country. And that was regarded as an unacceptable, stigmatized topic back then. It was outside the consensus. Well, it’s inside the consensus today. The President is talking about it; even the Republican candidates are talking about it. We have Occupy Wall Street to thank for that. That is a great thing.

Q: Do you think that there’s a space for a populist alliance between the tea party and Occupy Wall Street?

Frank: No, I don’t think there is. You’re not going to get the tea party leaders to sign up for something that demands we re-regulate Wall Street. That’s just not going to happen. These guys are laissez-faire ideologues at the end of the day. But you can fight for the support of the voters that were swayed by the movement. You can do that, and you should do that.

Q: You covered many tea party rallies and one of the big mantras you heard early on was, “Let the failures fail.”

Frank: “Let the failures fail.” It’s attractive, isn’t it? It sounded good to me when I heard it at the very first tea party rally in Washington, D.C., in February 2009. A protester had that on a sign he was carrying. At that moment, people were infuriated by the bank bailouts.

The bailouts were just an outrage, straight up. An abomination. “Let the failures fail” was a good slogan for that anger. Let all the losers go down. Why prop them up? At a certain gut level, that sounded exactly right to me.

But if you look into it a little bit deeper, that’s actually the philosophy that the United States did not accept in the Great Depression. That’s the opposite of the road that we actually went. That’s what Hoover’s Treasury secretary wanted to do. Just let the Depression take its course. Let everyone get ruined. And then, people will recover and things will be fine on the other side. Hoover rejected that advice, and, of course, Roosevelt did the very opposite of that. But the leading protest movement was urging us to accept that advice.

Q: You write in Pity the Billionaire that the tea party’s actual function was to ensure the economic collapse caused by Wall Street did not result in any unpleasant consequences for Wall Street. We see that happening now. No one’s gone to jail and there’s little new oversight over Wall Street.

Frank: Look at what Republicans are doing. They’ve all sworn to reverse the Dodd-Frank law that set up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. If they can’t overturn the law, they say, they won’t fund the office, they won’t appoint anybody to run it. They’ll disable it somehow. They’ve all sworn to do this.

That’s how conservatives actually run the government here in Washington: They run it by running it into the ground. They sabotage it. Sabotage is the word for their governmental philosophy.

Q: In 2008, the American right was supposedly finished, yet by 2010, the right was in ascendancy all over again. What happened?

Frank: That’s the big question of our times. You have this financial catastrophe that was directly a result of ideology as anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, with the possible exception of the collapse of the Soviet Union. You have this largely deregulated financial sector and these fly-by-night mortgage lenders who are outside anybody’s regulatory purview. You have this shadow banking establishment, and between them, they contrive to completely destroy the global economy.

When that happened, pundits here in Washington assumed this was the end of the road for conservatives, that they’ve had their thirty years and we did what they wanted and it ended in disaster. The pundits said that the Republican Party had to moderate itself or face irrelevance. The Republican Party didn’t do that; they did the opposite. They swung hard to the right, and enjoyed one of the greatest victories of all time in the 2010 elections.

They declared that conservatives had really never gotten a chance. We had never gone all the way with conservative ideology. We’d never completely done away with government, or the liberal state, so conservatism was in no way responsible for what happened, they claimed. Therefore, the only alternative was to double-down on our commitment to the free market ideal. This became a utopian faith on the right. You especially saw this at tea party gatherings.

Q: But the right also depicted itself as an enemy of big business. Can you talk about that?

Frank: This is the secret to conservatism’s success. The right was able to recast itself as a populist movement. Well, they’ve been doing that a lot in the past thirty years, but it was even worse this time around. They became a protest movement for hard times. Sometimes they pretend to be protesting the enemy—big corporations and big banks. If you read their literature, they say things like that all the time.

Congressman Paul Ryan wrote an article in Forbes magazine called “Down with Big Business.” If you read it, it sounds like he’s very critical of capitalism and the big corporations that run this country. But at the end of the day, he thinks the way to bring big business down is by going after big government. Very fascinating, this sort of twist that they always do. You can say all you want about how the banks screwed everybody over, but the culprit is the same as it ever was: government. That’s who you’re supposed to be rising up in anger against.

Q: Meanwhile, Ryan is raking in big money from these big corporations that he’s supposedly denouncing.

Frank: They fund him extravagantly. It’s not really a surprise to find out that these people who are doing all the denouncing are also the favorites of people like the Koch brothers, the oil billionaires in Wichita, Kansas.

One PAC that supported Newt Gingrich made a video attacking Mitt Romney for being a venture capitalist. It really went after him in a very strong, populist way, talking about how many workers’ lives Romney and Bain Capital ruined over the years. It’s very powerful, but what’s funny is that they also claim that this is not real capitalism. What Mitt Romney does is not real capitalism. [Laughing] You know, if we could just get back to real capitalism, the authentic thing, then we wouldn’t have Bain Capital out there buying up steel mills and firing everybody. Which is completely absurd.

Q: Ideology trumps reality.

Frank: That’s right. And all of that stuff is taken from the literature of the 1930s. There are a lot of cultural patterns that are repeating themselves.

One of the stranger ones is this ideological blindness that people would inflict on themselves in the 1930s. I’m specifically talking about the left here, the far left. We’re talking about the Communist Party. Either the Communist Party members or people who sympathized with it would go on trips to the Soviet Union, a famous set-piece of ’30s literature. And they would somehow never manage to notice all the disasters that were going on around them. They were completely conned. They would blow off all the reporting that they had seen when they were back home here in America. They would not believe anything bad about their heroes in the Soviet Union, right up until the day that Stalin went out and signed a treaty with Adolf Hitler. It took them all by surprise.

That ideological blindness is repeating itself. But you see it now on the right, which similarly has a utopian idea, a utopian political solution that we’re supposed to be working toward. Some of these guys deliberately mimic Communist language and Communist strategy from the old days, such as Dick Armey’s group, FreedomWorks, which is funded by the Koch brothers.

Their utopia is a different one. It’s a free market one. If we could just get to that point where government completely drops out of the picture and the business class is completely unshackled from the restraints of the liberal state, then we will finally reach economic utopia.

The idea of my book is that this should not be attractive to people in the middle of a recession that just won’t go away because this is the very philosophy that got us into trouble in the first place. But in some ways, this is exactly what people reach for in hard times: A philosophy that removes doubt and that offers you some reassurance in what is frankly a very frightening time.

Q: So where were the Dems when all of this was happening? The tea party spent the summer of 2009 talking about death panels.

Frank: It’s all well and good to sit around and make fun of the funny things that conservatives say and the hilarious gaffes that they make, but one of the only reasons that it works is that the Democrats let it happen. They never seem to be able to fight back, never seem to be able to figure it out. They really cannot talk about the philosophy that motivates their actions and their legislative deeds.

Look, I’m very liberal. I support a lot of the things that the Democrats have done. I want some kind of national health care. I don’t think they went anywhere close to far enough on that. I liked the stimulus. I’m really glad that the Obama Administration had a big stimulus package.

However, the Democrats, from President Obama on down, have been almost completely unable to tell us why it is that government needs to get involved in these sectors of the economy. They just can’t talk about it. And when they do talk about it, they always defer to the experts. “We need to do this because the economists say we need to do it.” That’s not going to convince anybody.

The politics of it, they think, will take care of themselves. People will naturally want a stimulus package. People will naturally be happy that they bailed out the banks and kept Great Depression II from happening. It never occurs to them that they have to go out there and fight for these things.

Jul 7 / Elizabeth DiNovella

How the Republican Governors Association Framed the Recall

 

Recently, I was asked to speak on a panel about the Wisconsin recall at a technology and politics conference.

Matt Gagnon, the digital director for the Republican Governors Association (RGA), represented the conservative voice on the panel. Gagnon is a hired gun who previously worked for a union, the NFL’s Player Association.

The Republican Governors Association may not be well known, but it should be. As I’ve written previously, the group played a major role in the Republican takeover of seven governorships in 2010 elections—including Wisconsin. And it spent at least $9 million in the recall. Most of the money goes toward ads.

The Republican Governors Association and groups like them are starting to take the place of national political committees. They sometimes spend more money than the candidates. It’s understandable—these groups can raise unlimited amounts of money.

The groups file with the IRS as a nonprofit “527” committee. (The 527 refers to the tax code.) This status gives the group lots of flexibility, as there are no upper limits on contributions, and any type of donor can contribute.

The top donors to the Republican Governors Association are a who’s who of corporations: Amway, AT&T, Blue Cross, Koch Industries, PhRMA, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

527 groups such as the Republican Governors Association are ways to shuffle money around, says Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. The groups act as clearinghouses “to wipe fingerprints off the money,” he says. Thus, voters are unable to see which companies or CEOs are influencing their state elections.

Gagnon’s presentation confirmed what I had suspected: The RGA had a well-thought out plan, and executed it brilliantly.

The RGA didn’t spend money getting conservatives to vote; it spent money on the 4 percent of undecided voters.

“The key was to do it early,” said Gagnon, noting the Democrats were at a disadvantage since they had a primary. The RGA had a chance to define the race before the Dems could define themselves.

In February, the RGA had a “high level strategy meeting.” First, it came up with a message: a recall should happen only if there was criminal behavior or malfeasance.

Second, all mail, TV, and online ad buys were coordinated. It partnered with Facebook and took advantage of exclusion targeting, looking for those people who did not identify as conservative or liberal. “So when we went with ads that were against Barrett or Falk, we had YouTube video ready to go, and a mailing piece, and cookie targeting,” said Gagnon. “We reinforced our message with a tight demographic of people.”

Gagnon argued that Walker’s victory wasn’t just about the money. He said they had a message that resonated with people.

Back in November 2011, polls showed 58 percent of the state wanted to see Walker recalled. But by the time of the election, the numbers had changed and Walker won. No doubt the RGA’s well-organized campaign played a huge role in flipping the race. After Walker’s win, people who supported him told me that recalls should only be used for criminal behavior.

Also on the panel was Ian Murphy, the Koch prank caller. He said that objective reality almost doesn’t matter anymore; it’s about framing and money. I can agree with that. (Murphy has his own hilarious take on the panel.)

Jun 29 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Attack Ads Against Baldwin

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has launched its video ad against Wisconsin Democratic Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin.

The NRSC is the official committee of the Republican Party devoted to electing Republicans to the U.S. Senate. Its biggest funders are Goldman Sachs, Blue Cross/ Blue Shield, Home Depot, Exxon Mobil, and Perry Homes.

The video features Baldwin at the rallies of last year, with lots of grainy, footage of protesters (and police officers) running around the capital. While these incidents made up a small portion of the actual uprising, it doesn’t matter. It’s about framing the debate. And right now, democracy is not a bunch of people running around the capital. To the rightwing and corporate interests behind the NRSC and the Republican Party, democracy looks like Scott Walker’s landslide election.

The video also has Baldwin saying that chilling word: “solidarity.”

To independent voters, this ad could play very well. Many people in the state, especially in areas outside of Madison, have very negative connotations of last year’s rallies. Unless you were there and participated in the peaceful demonstrations, this ad confirms what you probably already believe.

As Jim Cavanaugh, former president of the South Central Federation of Labor of Wisconsin, wrote in one of the best recaps of the recall, “Ordinary Wisconsinites outside of Madison have a very negative view of this city of large government office buildings, a fairly high standard of living, and liberal politics. Walker simply exploited an existing bias.”

If the frame worked once, it can work again. So the NRSC is playing the fear of freaky Madison card again.

In the e-mail announcing the video, the NRSC wrote, “Tammy Baldwin does not want you to see this video. It tells the shocking story of Tammy’s extreme liberalism and leads us to the undeniable conclusion that we must nominate the best candidate to defeat her in November: Tommy Thompson.”

The e-mail continues: “If you haven’t seen it—it’s a viral video waiting to happen. If you have already watched this, I can’t imagine how you’d watch it again and feel anything other than fear of hearing the words ‘Senator’ and ‘Tammy Baldwin’ muttered together.”

The NRSC’s video comes on the heels of the Koch Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity’s $400,000 ad buy against Baldwin. That ad also hypes Baldwin’s record and paints her as a tax and spend liberal.

The saddest part about these negative ads it that they may actually work. Again. The Republicans won’t know who their candidate is till the mid-August primary. But the latest polls show former governor Thompson handily beating Baldwin.

And if Thompson wins in November, the political transformation of Wisconsin will be complete. Within two years, the state may go from having two Democratic Senators, a Democratic governor, and both statehouses controlled by Dems to having two Republican Senators, a Republican governor, and quite possibly both statehouses controlled by Republicans. And not just moderate Republicans, we’re talking very conservative ones.

2010-2012 marks a sea change in Wisconsin politics and Baldwin may not be able to fight the political tides.

Jun 27 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Title IX and Olympic Gold

This summer we can celebrate two milestones in women’s sports.

Saturday marked the fortieth anniversary of Title IX, the groundbreaking legislation signed by President Nixon that banned sex discrimination in educational programs that receive federal funding. Title IX may be best known for transforming women’s athletics, even if that wasn’t the original intent of the legislation.

In 1972, jut one in twenty-seven girls participated in high school varsity sports, reports Women’s Sports Foundation. Today, it’s closer to two out of five girls.

In July, women’s boxing makes its debut at the Olympics. Boxing was the only Olympic sport women could not compete in at the 2008 Beijing Games.

America’s hope for the gold is Marlen Esparza. At five foot three and 112 pounds, she does not look like she could kick your ass, but you’d be wrong. She has been ranked number one in her weight class since she was sixteen.

Esparza, twenty-three, exemplifies how far women’s athletics has gone, and how far there is still to go.

She grew up in Pasadena, Texas, a working-class Hispanic city on the outskirts of Houston, and began training at Houston’s Elite Boxing Gym under coach Rudy Silva.

Silva didn’t want to take on the eleven-year-old Esparza and tried to wear the little girl out with strenuous exercise. Her intensity won him over. He’s coached her to six national amateur titles since and is now preparing her for the Olympics.

Esparza told Vogue magazine that she plans on quitting after the London Games. After the Olympics, there isn’t much more of a career for her. Male fighters can earn millions for a title bout, but women boxers rarely make more than $10,000 for a title, and they have to travel overseas to be in matches.

Acceptance of female fighters will take much longer, said Esparza. “We finally have some momentum, but I don’t think women will be considered the main event, or get paid for boxing, in my generation.” She said. “Maybe in my lifetime. We’re about 10 percent there.”

Esparza signed a contract with Nike after it was announced women’s boxing would be an Olympic sport.

(It’s disappointing that Nike celebrates women’s sports better than anybody, considering all the young women employed worldwide under not so great conditions to make Nike products.)

What’s so compelling about Marlen Esparza’s story is the stuff of sports legend: The scrawny kid from the poor side of town who trained hard and became an Olympian. The middle school punk who mouthed off to teachers till the tough love of her coach helped her develop discipline and drive, eventually becoming class president in high school and a national champion.

This is an old story. But it’s a new story, too, as women’s boxing is now an official Olympic event. Women’s boxing makes audiences squeamish. It challenges notions of feminity.

Esparza, though, has no problems being who she is. In the Vogue interview she admits to dreaming about wearing a Vera Wang dress when she gets married, even though she doesn’t have a boyfriend. She’s too busy training to have much of a social life.

Jun 1 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Wisconsin Buried by an Avalanche of Spending

“We might have had a short winter in Wisconsin this year, but campaign fundraising and spending has been like an avalanche for the past ten months,” says Bruce Speight, WISPIRG Director. “The people of Wisconsin have been buried in campaign ads and literature from unknown sources that exploit loopholes to funnel unlimited campaign dollars into our democracy.”

In the 2012 recalls, gubernatorial candidates have spent more than $30 million, while interest groups sponsoring independent expenditures and issue ads have spent at least another $30 million.

Total spending in the Wisconsin recall elections of 2011 and 2012 combined tops $100 million dollars, says Mike McCabe, executive director of the watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

$100 million dollars is a lot of money for a state like Wisconsin. And so much of the cash comes from people out of state, people who cannot even vote.

At the same time, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to trace the source of these campaign dollars.

Groups such as Americans for Prosperity (AFP) are spending a lot of money in the recalls but due to its 501(c)(4) tax status, it does not have to disclose its donors.

David Koch, of the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, founded AFP and chairs its foundation. But you won’t see his name on the AFP bus traveling around Wisconsin these days.

“When our elections are turned into auctions, someone has to stand up to this nonsense,” says McCabe.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, WISPIRG, the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, Wisconsin Farmers Union, Midwest Environmental Advocates, United Council of UW Students, and a host of public interest advocates are doing just that. They are calling on Tom Barrett and Scott Walker to pledge that they will call a special session of the legislature this summer, if elected, to advance transparency and accountability in elections.

This coalition is calling for four specific policy recommendations:

1. Adopt new disclosure laws to ensure that the public can see where every single penny spent on state elections comes from.

2. Close the loophole in Wisconsin law allowing public officials targeted for recall to engage in unlimited campaign fundraising.

3. Require corporations to notify and get permission from shareholders in order to use their money for election spending.

4. Require that television, radio, and newspaper outlets keep an online public record of advertising purchased for electioneering purposes.

Could campaign finance reform be an issue most Wisconsinites can agree on after these contentious recalls?

Kim Wright of Midwest Environmental Advocates says when people’s wells are contaminated, it doesn’t matter if they are Democrat or Republican. “Money in politics is a barrier to health and safety,” she says.

Matt Guidry of the United Council of UW Students says these policy changes are sorely needed. “Students are seeing the money and the negative campaigning,” he says. “They get cynical and jaded.” These reforms would motivate students to vote, he says.

Kara Slaughter of the Wisconsin Farmers Union also thinks these changes are needed to get young people involved in political life. These reforms would be “a pledge to our young people that they can heed a call to civic duty.”

Noting the average age of a farmer and the average age of a politician are both 58, Slaughter asked how could we ask young people to run for office if they have to “mount a million-dollar campaign?”

It seems unlikely that Barrett or Walker would commit to a special legislative session to enact critical election reforms this summer, though the fact that it was mentioned in the May 31 gubernatorial debate is promising.

If campaign finance does happen, it will be due to citizen pressure. “Politicians don’t want to talk about this,” says McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “Real change comes from citizens first.”

May 25 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Little-Known Republican Group Once Again Spends Big Money in Wisconsin

We’ve heard about all of the out of state money that’s gushing into the Wisconsin’s recall races. One Virginia-based group that is pouring money into Wisconsin but getting little notice is the Republican State Leadership Committee.

The group played a pivotal role in flipping the Wisconsin state senate, assembly, and the governor’s mansion in 2010. The group says it spent $1.1 million in Wisconsin in 2010 election. For the 2012 election cycle, the total is closing in on $1.3 million.

(Click here to read my November 2011 story in The Progressive about the RSLC.)

That’s a big chunk of change for a group that first spent money in Wisconsin in 2006 when it supported J. B. Van Hollen in the attorney general race.

“We felt that if we don’t win here, if we don’t put up a fight, then it will have a ripple effect on Republican reforms around the country,” RSLC president Chris Jankowski told Politico about the group’s recall efforts. (The RSLC did not respond to my requests for comment.)

The brainchild of Republican stalwarts Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, the RSLC spends most of its money on negative ads and that’s exactly what it’s doing in this race. And just like 2010, it’s saturating the public airwaves and sending out lurid direct mail at the tail end of the campaign season.

In 2010, the RSLC spent nearly $500,000 on negative ads against Russ Decker, former Democratic majority leader and state senator. It was the only group to target Decker, who, after losing, pitched a petulant fit and deep-sixed new contract accords with state unions.

Republican Pam Galloway won the race against Decker. Although she has more years left in her term, in March Galloway announced plans to retire early, saying she wanted to spend more time with family. Galloway said her resignation did not have anything to do with the recall election she faced.

These days, RSLC television ads are once again flooding the airwaves of this north central senate district, where Republican Representative Jerry Petrowski is running against Representative Donna Seidel.

The spot, called The RSLC “Donna Seidel’s Wrong Recipe,” goes after Seidel’s record on job creation.

“Donna Seidel measures success differently than others,” the narrator says. It then cuts to video of Seidel saying, ‘In the last session when the Democrats were in charge, when I was in a leadership role, we advanced job growth policies that were very, very successful.’

“Successful?” asks the narrator. There were “mass layoffs, plant closures, rising unemployment rates, all when Seidel was in charge. Her recipe for success costs us jobs and money. Seidel voted no to almost half the job bills voted on last year, even one that would have created thousands of jobs. Donna Seidel? She’s got the wrong recipe.”

Seidel, a former police officer and investigator in Marathon County and former assistant Democratic Assembly leader, was not happy with the negative ad.

“Obviously, I’m very disturbed by the $117,000 the Republican State Leadership Committee spent to attack me,” she says. “It distorted my jobs records, and on top of that, it attached the attack to a recipe card.”

 

“People in my district were shocked by both aspects,” she says. “It’s sexist, offensive and it’s wrong.”

I asked Seidel if she was surprised that the ad used the jobs issue, considering Walker’s record in state.

“Absolutely. With Wisconsin being dead last in jobs across the country, with every other state in the nation gaining jobs, for them to come after me, it’s very disturbing,” she says.

Another disturbing ad is being distributed by the RSLC in the Racine area. In the hotly contested District 21 race, Democrat John Lehman is challenging Republican incumbent Van Wanggaard. The Democrats consider this a winnable race, as Lehman held the senate seat before Wanggaard beat him in 2010.

The RSLC sent out a direct mail package with racial overtones. A young white woman has a terrified look on her face as a man’s hand covers her mouth. “You’re not safe,” the mailer reads. “Thanks to John Lehman.” On the back is a faceless man wearing a hoodie, a la Trayvon Martin.

The accusation is based on Lehman’s support for the 2009-2011 state budget, which included an early release program for prisoners.

The mailing is nearly identical to the ads the RSLC sent out against Kathleen Vinehout in 2010. The hoodie, though, is a new addition.

“We’ve seen that some of the trashiest advertizing done in recent years is done by phony front groups and outside interests,” says Mike McCabe of the watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “They aren’t accountable to voters. They don’t face a backlash at the polls.”

The Republican State Leadership Committee is a stalking horse for corporate America. Top contributors include Altria (formerly Philip Morris), Anheuser-Busch, Citigroup, Comcast Cable, Exxon Mobil, Home Depot, Monsanto, PhRMA, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—its biggest funder—Verizon and WellPoint.

“The dirtiest work is now being done not by candidates, but by outside groups,” says McCabe. “Outside groups that have no real interest in Wisconsin, they can travel the low road, get in the gutter, and no one can hold them accountable.”

Seidel says her constituents are concerned about accountability. “People are concerned that the voices of citizens are being drowned out by Super PACS and millionaire contributors,” she says. “People ask me, ‘If these groups are successful in buying this election, what will Petrowski owe them?’ ”

At this point in the recall races, there are very few undecided voters, and negative ads are generally most effective when candidates are unknown. Regardless, the RSLC and other outside groups are not leaving that to chance. The real unknown in the recalls are not the candidates, but the special interests that fund the negative ads.

“As campaigns get more expensive, and campaigns get dirtier and more lurid, candidates have sort of warmed up to these groups, accepted them as part of landscape,” says McCabe. “We don’t hear people condemning them like they did a few years ago. It’s a sad development.”

 

May 20 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Who Started Wisconsin’s Civil War?

Richard De Broux runs a courier business in Brown County, Wisconsin. I caught up with him at the GOP state convention on May 12. He was casually dressed in a red polo shirt, and jeans, and had gray hair.

“The other side says Scott Walker started a civil war,” says Richard De Broux of the Brown County Republicans. “I disagree—it was started by the Democrats who fled.”

Brown County is the fourth populous county in Wisconsin. It’s a crucial swing district and one of the reasons the Republicans hosted their state convention there. Being in the shadow of Lambeau Field is another. Green Bay is the county seat.

It’s a pretty conservative district. In 2004, the county went for Bush, but in 2008, Obama won.

Brown County had a big turn out for Scott Walker in the May primary. Walker got more votes than all the Democratic candidates combined (31,953 votes for Walker vs. 24,499 total Democratic votes).

“And that was an unsolicited vote,” De Broux told me. “I think the people of Wisconsin, what I call a ‘silent majority,’ not the people who are out with the vuvuzelas and their intimidation tactics, all those anarchists, basically, that were out there. This was the first time that majority of the people who keep quiet, do their jobs every day, had a chance to express their opinion in the way that they do best. They keep their mouths shut, but when it comes to voting, that’s when they showed their strength. And that was a primary that was meaningless for Scott Walker. A million and a half votes for Walker in the June election would not surprise me at all.”

De Broux said the Brown County GOP didn’t do much organizing before the May primary. “It was assumed that Scott Walker had minimal opposition,” De Broux said, referring to Arthur Kohl-Riggs. “So there wasn’t a big get out the vote drive or anything. Keep the powder dry for June 5th.”

I asked him if he was upset by the recall. “The fourteen who fled upsets me more than anything,” he said.