Sunday, December 19, 2010

Transitions and tribulations

By Bill Kraus

The Walker administration is in the midst of the ultimate political torture test. It's called the transition. It translates into 59 days in which the new administration must staff a governor's office, hire a cabinet, and put together a budget for this huge, complex, multi-billion dollar state enterprise. Madness.

The first priority is the urgent (as contrasted with important) one of dealing with the high profile issues and promises--the train, the state employees contracts, etc.--that come out of the campaign or are on the top of the pile on the governor's desk.

These will be pushed aside as the need to fund the really expensive stuff--medicaid, prisons, education, local governments--takes its rightful place on the top of the to-do agenda along with the ideas needed to deal with the gorilla in the room: jobs.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Campaign finance follies

By Bill Kraus

Let’s assume that there are no election statutes or rules. Let’s further assume that a bill is introduced which:

1. Requires candidates to reveal any and all contributions to their campaigns.

2. Limits the amount of money any contributor can give candidates, but not the total amount that can be collected and spent.

3. Authorizes Political Action Committees for people with common interests which can contribute up to a specified amount to candidates.

4. Allows candidates to contribute an unlimited amount to their own campaigns.

5. Allows corporations, unions, and other organizations to mount parallel campaigns for or against candidates.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Elect v. Appoint: making the case

By Bill Kraus

Arguments for appointing judges:

1. Most judges are appointed at first anyway to fill seats that open up due to death or resignation.

2. The panel of experts which is a part of the appointment process and whose role is to recommend a list of candidates the governor must choose from screens out the un- and under-qualified who might slip by a lightly informed electorate.

3. Judicial elections are not immune from the misleading, superficial, special interest-financed campaigns that are the current bane of partisan campaigns.

4. If an unworthy appointee does slip through the rigid nominating, screening, pre-appointment process, there is a retention election in the system which will correct any appointment mistakes.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

In 2010 as in 1910 - Reform is on the Line in Wisconsin

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
September 23, 2010

By Jay Heck

One hundred years ago in 1910, Wisconsin was able to stake its claim as the most progressive state in the nation. The election for Governor and for the State Legislature that year -- following the Governorship and election to the U.S. Senate in 1906 of Robert Marion La Follette, Sr. -- would usher in a period in which state political and social reform would reach its zenith and flower in its full glory. And it would be accomplished with a purpose and speed that would amaze all who observed it.

Today in 2010, a century later, Wisconsin stands at another critical junction and the path that the next Governor and State Legislature takes during and after the upcoming elections will help to determine whether our great state -- which U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called the nation’s “laboratory of democracy”-- will steer toward an new era of urgently needed political reform. Or, will we revert back to another “Robber Baron Age” that characterized Wisconsin in the 1890’s when corporations (then, chiefly railroads) and the political bosses they funded, bankrolled state elections and controlled the Governorship and the Wisconsin Legislature while the voices of ordinary Wisconsin citizens were shut out and ignored.

Today, reformers in Wisconsin are fighting to protect many of the reforms that date back to the state’s “Progressive Era” of a century ago as well as political reforms won and enacted recently. such as the “Impartial Justice” Law of 2009 that will provide full public financing to candidates for the Wisconsin Supreme Court who agree to limit their campaign spending to $400,000. This was the most significant political reform enacted into law in Wisconsin since the 1970’s. Now, powerful corporate and out-of-state special interest groups are trying to scale back and even block this reform from becoming effective next year when the next State Supreme Court election will occur. Reform is under assault now, as it was in 1910.

By 1910, Wisconsin had already undergone a period of political reform under Governor Fighting Bob” La Follette (1901-1906) and his successor, Progressive Republican James Ole Davidson (1906-1911) as they ignited an era of progress and reform in the state that served as an inspiration for the nation. During that first decade of the 20th Century, the Progressive Republicans established primary elections in the state to break the control of political bosses who hand-picked candidates. They brought the all-powerful railroads under some state regulation as well as the public utilities, telegraph, telephone, electricity, water companies, and the insurance industry. Corporations were prohibited from using their general treasury funds to influence state elections, a monumental reform that stood and protected the citizens of Wisconsin until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the prohibition at the federal – and by extension, the state level earlier this year.

Bob La Follette’s sometimes cantankerous and self-righteous personality, as well as his proposals, made him many political enemies and much of the Progressive reform agenda was blocked in the Legislature and elsewhere during his tenure and during that that of Governor Davidson’s. The election of campaign of 1910 would determine in what direction Wisconsin would go. The anti-reform conservative or “stalwart” Republicans united behind State Senator Edward T. Fairchild of Milwaukee as their candidate for Governor, determined to stop and rollback the progressive reforms and regulations of the previous decade. The Stalwarts amassed a campaign war chest of $114,000 – an enormous amount of money for political campaigns in those days. The Progressive Republican mantle was bestowed upon Francis E. McGovern, a former Milwaukee County District Attorney and failed candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1908.

The Republican Primary in 1910 would, in effect, decide the Governorship of Wisconsin because the Democratic Party was very weak back then. Wisconsin was essentially a one-party state and the “real” election was between the Progressives and the Stalwarts. In a hard fought campaign and despite the monetary advantage of the anti-reform conservatives, McGovern emerged triumphant in the Republican Primary and easily prevailed in the General Election. 

On January 12, 1911 Governor McGovern delivered one of the most memorable inaugural addresses ever made to an American Legislature. The theme of his address was the need for strong government action as the only counterweight against the power and influence of corporations and other special interests. He said corporations all too frequently “put arbitrary power in the hands of a few who have used this power to oppress the people and debauch their government.” To counteract this, McGovern said state government “must be made representative of all the people, and economic forces must be so regulated as to secure a fair chance for all in every walk of life.”

Governor McGovern then went on to lead the Wisconsin Legislature in enacting sweeping reforms beginning in 1911 and compiled a record of achievement greater than that of the great La Follette. During his first term, much of the Progressive program was finally realized, including stronger railroad regulation, legislation to establish a state income tax program, worker's compensation, regulation of child and women's labor, the encouragement of co-operatives, and the curtailment of corrupt political practices.

Francis McGovern deserves a more prominent place in Wisconsin’s history as the reformer who got real results. La Follette was the reform visionary but McGovern was the achiever.

And what will happen one hundred years later? In what direction will Wisconsin go? Already, darks clouds have formed overhead in the wake of the misguided and hypocritical U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. F.E.C. this past January. Reversing century-old federal and state prohibitions on corporate treasury money influencing elections will result in a flood of special interest dollars attempting to influence voters this Fall. Reformers are fighting to preserve new disclosure requirements for corporate and union campaign spending that were recently put into effect by the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.

And in 2011, Wisconsin’s next Governor (who will emerge in a nasty negative election we project may reach a record $50 million in spending) and the new Wisconsin Legislature will continue to incessantly hear the call for public financing of all state elections, strong special interest spending disclosure, reform of the currently disgraceful and secretive process in which the Wisconsin Legislature redraws the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts following the Census every ten years, reforming the long-drawn out and secretive and special interest money soaked state budget process and other needed political reforms. We need better open meetings laws and we need to make the next Governor and the next Legislature more accountable and responsive to the citizens of Wisconsin and less influenced and beholden to powerful, well-funded special interest groups.

At this critical point in Wisconsin’s history, citizens need to demand protection for the reforms that have been enacted in Wisconsin in recent years as well as those that Governors La Follette, Davidson and McGovern engineered a century ago. Let’s keep Wisconsin moving “forward” as our state motto encourages us to do. Moving forward means protecting and preserving the political reforms of the last 100 years so that we can progress even more in the century ahead.

Jay Heck is the executive of Common Cause in Wisconsin, the state’s largest non-partisan citizens reform advocacy organization.  Their website is and his e-mail address is For more information call 608/256-2686.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Judging history

By Bill Kraus

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is stumping the country urging those states that elect judges to switch to an appointed judiciary with a merit nomination process that limits the elected executives‘ choices to names provided by a dispassionate group of outside experts.

What we have in Wisconsin is a cobbled together judicial election system where, even though over half of the judges get their first jobs by appointment, the election process itself is shaped (or twisted) to favor candidates who are or aspire to be non-partisan at best and bi-partisan at the very least including those who got their jobs originally by partisan appointment.

Federal Judge Barbara Crabb has unfortunately made a ruling in favor of outright partisanization of the process which both former Justice O’Connor and the Wisconsin system are trying to minimize.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Not seen and not heard

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
July 6, 2010

By Bill Kraus

As far as the mass media knows--or says--there are three candidates for governor of Wisconsin this year.

There are actually many more of them. All are invisible. This is due in part to the diminished press corps. There is a kind of coverage triage in journalism these days. There are many more stories than there are reporters to cover them. Some of them might have been about the invisibles. Since none are, the invisibles stay invisible.

A longtime observer of politics once said about a government hearing, about any political event for that matter, that “if the press isn’t there, it didn’t happen.”

It did, of course, but only those few who were there knew about it.

The invisible gubernatorial candidates do exist of course, but they are not “happening” because nobody is watching them and reporting what they are doing or saying.

At least one of the invisibles who I know about, has made a strenuous effort to become visible by calling on newspapers, offering himself up to TV and radio station interviewers. He is giving speeches to groups where there might be a reporter in the room. No dice.

Another thing the invisibles have in common is that they are unpolitical. This seems to be a virtue this year. The GOP candidate for the US Senate is spending a lot of money to tell voters what he is not. Other “un” candidates are springing up in hopes that elections this year will turn on something as incongruous as “no experience.”

They could.

Another one of the invisibles says that his greatest virtue is that he is not a demonizing partisan. He reports that people can’t sign his nomination papers fast enough once they learn that he is not “one of them.”

The three invisables I know, and who I have chosen not to name, are not capable of or interested in stooping to the meanness, to politics by character assassination, that is in favor these days.

Good for him and for them. It is high time those who have been trashing everyone who doesn’t agree wholeheartedly with them get trashed themselves.

Another invisible has a well thought out way to pay for K-12 education. He believes that education is the central responsibility of the state government and points out that the state constitution writers said so. Can a one-trick pony campaign prevail in these complex times even when the pony is as consequential as providing and paying for this essential service and responsibility? Could be.

The third invisible I know about is still on the fence. His campaign, if there is one, would be built around the idea that it is high time for the state government to quit playing games and dissembling and come clean with the people. He wants the governor and the government to grow up, to tell the truth and to face up to the things it can and should be doing and isn’t. If he does take the plunge, he would be a latter day Adlai Stevenson whose admirable 1952 blunt truth campaign did this. Unfortunately Adlai was up against the iconic and worthy Ike. No chance. So this idea was not widely copied.

None of the invisibles may go anywhere, which is too bad. That seems to be the conclusion of a feature article in the State Journal which lumps all 18 of them as fringe candidates.

What is worse is that there is a shortcut to visibility to notoriety to legitimacy. All they would have to do is make it clear to what remains of the political media that they have a way to fund a multi-million dollar campaign.

Bought and paid for notoriety might not convert into votes, but we would know who they are and why they think we should elect them.

Is this what selecting our political leaders has come to?

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Preview of coming distractions

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
June 22, 2010

By Bill Kraus

A recent WisPolitics luncheon featuring the chairs of the state’s two main political parties quickly sank into yet another juvenile, schoolyard shouting contest:

“My candidates are better.”

“Are not.”

“Are too.”

Your candidates are liars.”

“Are not.”

“Are too.”

After an hour or more of this, the audience was most likely to conclude that these candidates should not be running for important political offices; they should be run out of town on a rail instead.

I was probably the only one in the room who came hoping to learn about the state of the parties. How many members? How much money? What affect is the Tea Party movement having on either of the above? Are they worried that California’s anti-party proposition could spread to Wisconsin?

None of these subjects came up.

It’s possible that some members of this politically sophisticated, browbeaten audience were inspired or pleased by this exercise in mutual self destruction, but the comments that I overheard were more along the lines of, “If this is what we get in June, what will be hearing in October?”

The audience was, in a word, mostly disgusted.

Is there any hope that these campaigns will turn away from personality attacks, from demonization, and toward new ideas and positive proposals to save our sinking ship of state?

Not if party leaders Mike Tate and Reince Prebius have anything to say about them.

For shame.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Another kind of spill

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
June 13, 2010

By Bill Kraus

Before BP came along I used to refer to our campaign system as a train wreck. The analogy to the oil spill is imperfect but more current and more dramatic as well.

What BP is doing to the Gulf of Mexico and the planet our flawed campaign system is doing to our democracy.

And like the BP disaster, the fixes for the campaign system are not available or not working very well.

The reading I get from the reform pros and that small segment of our population that attends presentations by the reform pros is that there are seven things that are screwing up campaigning in this country.

Campaigns are too long. Actually they are more like endless. What we seem to want is the British system. Unfortunately the British system only works when no one knows when the next election will be.

Campaigns are too costly. Millions of dollars are poured into short, often superficial appeals for votes through whatever are the media of the moment. This is probably per se bad. Worse yet it adds a new criterion for candidacy. “How much money have you got?” is the first question asked by the mercenaries who run campaigns and the reporters who cover them. Attempts to limit campaign spending are routinely overturned by the free-market minded Supreme Court.

Campaigns are rigged. Because the need for campaign money is so great even in a state like Wisconsin, the legislative leaders have gerrymandered the legislative districts to reduce the number of places where races are competitive and expensive. The result is that candidates pick their voters rather than vice versa in an overwhelming number of legislative races.

Campaigns are too easily hijacked. In the few districts where there are competitive races and where those races determine which party will have a legislative majority, the flow of money from rich outsiders will usually overwhelm the campaign treasuries of the candidates themselves. Too often the campaign for a legislative seat turns out to be a battle between the business organization and the teachers’ union at which the candidates’ spending and agendas are only a sideshow.

Campaigns are too negative. The reigning wisdom is that a soporific public can only be motivated to get out and vote if they are given reasons to vote against instead of for candidates. The money backs up the reigning wisdom. The voters too often confirm it.

Campaigns offer too few ideas. Outside money from interest groups mostly goes to keep the status quo intact. Attack campaigns are about personality shortcomings and dirt. Ideas get pushed aside or belittled at best, attacked at worst. Campaigns are weighted toward bland generalities which sound good and are attack proof. Specific ideas are too dangerous.

Campaigns are unfair. Candidates must make regular filings which tell the public who, specifically, is supporting their campaigns with contributions. The outside interest groups that are active in campaigns are not required to make these kinds of disclosures.

And in the end... The prospects of BP cleaning up the Gulf don’t look very good at this writing. The prospects of cleaning up the election system look worse.

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

The roads ahead for campaign reform

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
May 23, 2010

By Bill Kraus

It turns out that most people think our campaign system is broken, and suspect our system of representative government is no better than seriously flawed.

The reformers have been hammering away for so long that most people also know what is wrong and why.

They are ready to move on to solutions, and they wonder why none are forthcoming.

It is not for lack of proposals and ideas.

The main thrust of reform initiatives has historically been a search for constitutional ways to impose spending limits and regulations on participation.

The Supreme Court, in its questionable wisdom, has pretty much closed down all the good ideas in those areas.

There are still some things that can and could be done, however.

I am not sure they are reforms or nostalgia masquerading as reforms, but I do know that they resonate with a pretty thoroughly disgusted electorate.

Term limits come immediately to mind. They would be an attack on the careerism that has crept into legislatures and is well established in local governments.

Redistricting seems to be too esoteric to get the kind of support that term limits draws. The case that dispassionate, disinterested redistricting has greatly increased the number of competitive races where it has been put in place has been made but not heard. How many Wisconsin voters know that incumbents in only 10 percent of the state’s legislative districts are worth challenging, that legislators are picking them instead of vice versa? Not many, if the low level of enthusiasm for this simple, cost-free idea is any measure.

The idea of part-time legislators and county boards and city councils is another attack on careerism and invincible incumbencies that is not as draconian as term limits, but has considerable support.

There are some interesting if tricky ways to redirect the flow of campaign contributions which would decrease the power of the aforementioned invincible incumbents and their legislative leaders, but let’s stick to the big three for the moment.

All would be popular. None are likely to be enacted.

The incumbents who would have to vote for them regard all three as an attack on a system that got them where they are and is most likely to keep them there.

There are two ways to overcome this resistance to reform. The most radical is something called initiative and referendum. If we had this process in Wisconsin, the unhappy voters would have a way to vote for the three proposals without going through the recalcitrant legislators.

The trouble with this is that Wisconsin would have to adopt a system that is currently destroying the governability of California for sure and other states that have turned legislation into popularity contests which make hired guns and TV stations rich and a make mess of representative government.

Another route to enactment would be a grassroots uprising that goes beyond parades and protests and has enough followers to get legislators elected who will vote for these ideas.

This is more effective. Also harder. A few interests have enough clout to pretty much get their way on narrower issues (gun control comes immediately to mind). So it can be done.

Will it? I don’t hear the drumbeat yet. Neither do any candidates for high and low office in Wisconsin.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Heavy losses

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
May 18, 2010

By Bill Kraus

The state lost two political stalwarts this month. Paul Hassett died. Dave Obey retired.

Some people may think that they had nothing in common. Paul was a lifelong Republican. Dave a Democrat. That is how they differed. Despite the fact that they were adversaries; they were not enemies. They respected the trade and its participants.

The quintessential Paul Hassett story is about his 1960 encounter with Jack and Jackie Kennedy. The Hassett family's recollections of that day in the winter of that election year differ in some details, but all agree that Paul, who was the Dunn County chair of the Republican Party stepped in to help Jack campaign in this Hubert Humphrey-friendly territory when he made a campaign stop in Menominee. Kennedy was snubbed by the area Democrats, and Paul volunteered to show him around the area and to introduce him to the movers and shakers there. Neither of them cared that there was a Nixon bumper sticker on Paul’s car, which was their main means of transportation.

Would Dave Obey have done the same for a forlorn Republican in his hometown? I don’t discount the possibility.

Obey's memoir of 40 years in Congress includes his choice for the best president he served under during that time: Gerald Ford.

There is, or was, something I call the Arena Effect operating in politics most of the time these two standard bearers were active. The comparison is to athletic competitors. At the end of fiercely contested battles on the field, the combatants, who had in the most physical games been trying to take each other’s heads off, come together in the middle of the field in a show of mutual respect for the game itself and all of the participants.

Competitive camaraderie.

They do not disdain the spectators who support them, but their real admiration is for their peers who have gone through what they have gone through to get into the arena and have paid the price of competing at a high level in a demanding contest.

The fact that Dave Obey was, is, and always will be much more irascible than Paul ever was is irrelevant to my main point. They had different personalities, different styles, we all do. The important things about them both is they were honest with their friends and foes and they both knew that the other was taking a different route, perhaps, but was trying to do what he believed to be the right thing for the country and its inhabitants. They wanted their ideas to prevail but they were not afraid to talk to each other.

They represented the best in politics.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Taking advice

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
May 10, 2010

By Bill Kraus

The main message that former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor delivered to the attendees at the recent annual meeting of the Wisconsin State Bar Association was that judicial independence is under attack.

One of the principal reasons for this, she believes, is judicial elections.

Her recommended antidote to this corruption of the judicial system is to replace judicial elections with judicial appointments.

It should be pointed out that she was not recommending the federal appointment system which is partisan-tilted and patronage-driven, but one that is designed to reward merit.

This, however, as the justice’s fellow panelists all pointed out, is Wisconsin. Wisconsin does not just favor elections as a way of choosing public servants. Wisconsin is addicted to elections as a way of choosing public servants. In Wisconsin we elect coroners. We elect people to two constitutional offices that have no function.

This preference is not likely to change.

But we have, kind of quietly and serendipitously, stumbled into modifications of the elective system that may not guarantee that judicial independence will be protected, but comes pretty close.

We start with the Wisconsin tradition of de-toxifying partisanship. With a couple of notable exceptions, which one hopes were evanescent, candidates in judicial races have chosen to put a well known Republican and a well known Democrat in prominent positions in their campaign organizations.

This has two desirable effects. It shows the electorate that the candidate aspires to the independence and open mindedness that we want from the judiciary, and it tempers the campaigns themselves. The attack/demonization tactics that are so evident in partisan politics are pretty much defanged by the mere presence of bi-partisans in the campaign organization.

This is a tradition not a mandate, of course, but it has come to be expected, and because of recent excesses it may become mandated by popular acclaim once again.

Additionally, the last legislative session produced an Impartial Justice Bill which fully funds the campaigns of Supreme Court justices on the condition that the candidates accept spending limits. The funding is not overly generous, but it need not be because of the third thing we do in Wisconsin.

We hold our judicial elections in the winter and spring and separate them from the partisan, big-spending free-for-alls in the fall. The turnouts are abysmally low. Bad. This makes a word-of-mouth shoe leather campaign winnable. Good. Enough media to lay out the beauty contest credentials and then a heavy city-to-city, lawyer-to-lawyer, conscientious-voter-to-voter campaign becomes workable because the turnout is low.

Justice O’Connor may or may not have been convinced that our way is the best way, but I do think we have made the elected part of our process a how-to example of preserving judicial independence while preserving the citizens’ right to elect.

As we know, most judges get the job initially by appointment not election. Justice O’Connor’s ideas on how to get the best and the brightest via appointment can and should be adopted in Wisconsin as well. I have already weighed in on how we can do this here. We should. The remarkable former justice would be pleased. As would I.

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Keeping track of your money

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
May 2, 2010

By Bill Kraus

A largely unnoticed and unremarked upon drift of power has been taking place within our democratic system for more than 30 years.

It is mostly a result of the unintended consequences of the Watergate reforms. These reforms were meant to punish the political parties for multiple abuses of the powers that had accrued to them over time.

The punishment exceeded the crime by largely destroying the parties’ longstanding ability to recruit and slate candidates and to fund and manage their campaigns.

The reform took away the parties' near monopoly on funding campaigns, and all the other roles that attended that one went away as well.

The money got loose.

This meant that the people and organizations who had been funding candidacies indirectly could now fund them directly.

An era of entrepreneurial candidacies began and was quickly squelched by the legislative leaders whose ability to control their caucuses was eroded by the candidates’ new freedoms.

The leaders set up legislative campaign committees and re-funneled the money flow so it got to the candidates through them because they controlled these organizations instead of getting to the candidates directly. They became what the parties had been before they went too far. They became the rainmakers.

This restored and enhanced their power. Once they got their hands on the money they took over the responsibility to recruit and slate, fund and manage from the displaced and weakened parties.

Like most people and organizations who are given too much power they overplayed their hands. Toll booths were set up. State employees’ jobs were expanded to include campaign work. And jail sentences followed. But, oddly enough, the power which had fallen into the laps of the legislative leaders pretty much stayed there. The parties did not resurrect. The crucial flow of the serious campaign money was not redirected away from the leadership offices.

So now we have a new set of legislative leaders who have pretty much the same power those they replaced had and misused.

Proof of malfeasance is not offered, but a weakened and understaffed print press corps has raised questions about why some legislation disappeared into wastebaskets in the leadership offices and other less or equally worthy proposals got what can only be described as favorable treatment in the chaotic last days of the legislative session.

These stories are a valuable reminder that the most desirable side effect of having a vigorous free press is that its practitioners provide the great public service of seeing that those with power are turning square corners.

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Dying by the numbers

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
April 26, 2010

By Bill Kraus

Senate Bill 43 died quietly last week. If an important newspaper ran a news story about its demise, it didn’t come to my attention.

The bill was known by those familiar with it as “the disclosure bill.” What it says in essence is that if you want to participate in political campaigns with advertisements for or against a candidate, you must tell everyone where you got the money to pay for these advertisements.

The state Senate passed it with a substantial bi-partisan majority. It didn’t survive a trip to the Assembly. It died in the Speaker’s office.

A lot of important political players showed up for the funeral. Some came to mourn the passing and others came to make sure it was really dead.

The mourners were:

1. The Supreme Court, which urged disclosure as the real and really constitutional reform when it issued the decision on the Citizens United case which allowed corporations and unions to do the kind of campaign advertising heretofore prohibited.

2. The GOP stalwarts who have always been leery of spending limits, public funding, and other regulatory palliatives and whose war cry was, is, and always will be Disclosure is the Answer. The death of disclosure means they lose the chance to prove their assertion that this is the ideal and only required campaign reform.

3. Candidates who come under attack from single-issue (usually) zealots with money who have become eminent to dominant participants in political campaigns recently.

4. The press, which supports political openness on its own behalf and, with the notable exception of many editorial-page editors, pretty much ignored this companion political openness effort which would have shown who the participants in campaigns really are.

5. Fairness advocates, who pointed out that candidates must reveal where they get the money they spend to promote their candidacies, but their non-candidate enemies and opponents are under no such obligation.

The “Were glad you’re dead crowd” included:

1. Free-market fanatics, including our current governor, who kind of like the high-spending, raucous, media-driven, corruption inducing system.

2. Free-speech protectors who consider anonymity a necessary part of that guarantee. They do not think free speech is really free unless it can be done without attribution, so it is free from backlash by those who are offended by it.

3. Organizations whose members’ commercial interests are protected from the consequences of their spending on their political interests.

4. Anyone who wants to put their money where their mouth isn’t. Strange bedfellows of all kinds. Right-To-Life organizations must have a lot of them judging from their vehemence about keeping the identity of their funders secret. Collateral partisan groups like Club for Growth and The Greater Wisconsin Committee also fall into this category.

5. Candidates who expect to be rewarded for letting the foregoing beneficiaries of non-disclosure maintain their anonymity in the expectation that those who they protect from this unwanted publicity will lavish praise and money on them.

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

The next governor's dilemmas

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
April 18, 2010

By Bill Kraus

Dilemma #1

When the state needs more revenues, the Democrats turn to the income tax for either a straight increase in the tax rate or a temporary surtax if the need looks like it is going to be temporary. The Republicans favor increases in the sales tax rate.

Since the onset of the taxophobia epidemic, this stalemate has been resolved by doing little or nothing about the big two revenue sources and sort of letting the property tax take the fall.

The reasoning(s) are: the sales tax is regressive, and the income tax is a deterrent to business executives and rich people who want to move here or stay here.

The flaw of letting nature take its course is that property taxes are regressive deterrents as well. The appeal to legislators and governors is that local governments assess them; they are somebody else’s problem.

Dilemma #2

Property tax dependency is really driven by the fact that it is used to fund K12 and technical college education. Education is constitutionally a state responsibility.

The most effective route to more tolerable property taxes is by expanding and increasing the sales tax and/or raising the income tax to pick up this state responsibility.

Dilemma #3

The biggest reason the state needs more revenues is we can’t cut our way to retaining our reputation as an education state without a new economy to buttress the traditional sources of jobs and money which are stagnating or faltering or both.

There are things that governments can do to build a new economy, but they are limited by resources and skills. What governments know how to do is welfare and infrastructure. Both can be used to create jobs, but both mostly require more tax revenues to do so. And, worse yet, the jobs they create are old economy jobs not new economy jobs.

There are, however, things governments can do to support and inspire and even help people in the private sector who do know how to create new economy jobs. The trouble is that this is high-risk stuff. A baseball analogy is apt. Even the best job creators bat something like .300, and that .300 is composed mostly of singles. Home runs are scarce.

Candidates are more likely to prefer other solutions. Lower taxes are said to be helpful in creating this new economy, and a friendly regulatory climate also has its adherents. Less spending without getting too specific about “on what?” gets a lot of lip service as well. The real stimulus, though, is something a revenue-short government doesn’t have much of: capital investment money.

Dilemma #4

The members of the Legislature who will have to approve whatever proposals the governor suggests to deal with these dilemmas are risk averse and occupy safe seats. This reduces appetites for anything adventuresome that might not work, disturb the status quo inordinately, or feed the anti-incumbent forces already in motion.

Dispassionate redistricting, anyone? It may be a necessary precursor to dilemma dismemberment.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mine Tragedy Should Prompt Call for Public Financing of Campaigns

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
April 15, 2010

By Roger Utnehmer

The West Virginia mine tragedy that recently claimed 25 lives is prompting calls for new safety rules and a review of our country’s dependence on coal. What the explosion absolutely should prompt is a call for campaign finance reform.

The CEO of Massey Energy, owner of the mine in which the fatalities occurred, has bribed and bought his way around West Virginia politics for years. Don Blankenship donated $3 million to a candidate for the state supreme court who then provided the one-vote margin to over-rule a $50 million judgment against Massey Energy. The contribution was so offensive the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that it created an appearance of bias.

In 2006 Blankenship spent millions of dollars of his own money attempting to defeat legislators who supported worker safety and environmental regulations he opposed. Last year a subsidiary of Massey Energy spend $5.8 million trying to influence regulation of the coal industry.

Campaign contributions on the scale typical of Ron Blankenship are nothing but sanitized corruption. When a single candidate for a seat on the court takes $3 million from one individual and then votes to save him $50 million in damages public confidence is severely sacrificed.

Don Blankenship has engaged in a pattern of legalized bribery. Unfortunately, that same corruption is common in judicial and legislative races throughout America. The only solution is to crowd out the special interest money and replace the bribery and corruption with public financing of campaigns.

That’s my opinion. I’d like to hear yours. I’m Roger Utnehmer.

Roger Utnehmer is President and CEO of, and a member of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Order in the court

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
April 14, 2010

By Bill Kraus

After an interlude of unseemliness, high-level judicial elections in Wisconsin seem to have come home to our longstanding tradition of civility and non-partisanship. To at least some extent this is a reaction to the revulsion at the slide into the partisan election mode which features mass media attacks, big money campaigns, and advertising that is designed to deceive more than to inform.

Although the coat holders in the press decry it, judicial elections are largely beauty contests where the voters get to choose the most qualified and fairest candidates. They are not and should not be slugfests on issues and wildly exaggerated promises.

Candidates usually come to the contest with some partisan baggage. So the first thing they do is put names at the top of their campaign letterheads of prominent partisans from both parties. The ideal is to be regarded as “non-partisan.” The reality is in most cases to achieve the reputation of being or aspiring to being “bi-partisan.”

The campaigns seek endorsements from prominent members of the community like judges, lawyers, and law enforcement officials who are chosen to represent as many partisan sectors as possible and establish bi-partisanship as well. This is probably impossible, but worth trying.

The stump speeches and campaign ads talk about credentials and readiness to perform the job without making any pre-judging promises of any kind on any subject or issue or person that may appear before them if elected. Partisan elections seek people with common interests. Judicial elections seek people who will make disinterested rulings on the facts and the law, who will come to the job with an open mind.

A popular objection to judicial elections is when they are held and the numbers of voters they attract. They are held in the spring (which means campaigning in the winter) and they don’t attract flies. The commonly recommended remedy is to move them to the fall when the turnout is higher. This would mix two disparate kinds of elections, and it overlooks the desirable side effects of low-turnout elections.

Low-turnout elections can be shoe leather and word-of-mouth based, where media is used for name identification and resume presentation not for scorched-earth attacks on opponents and implied promises to be strong on crime (does anybody ever claim to be weak on crime?) and to construe the law “strictly,” whatever that means. This kind of person-to-person campaigning tends to be polite and appeals to the intellect instead of the emotions.

Another heartwarming development is that the recent winners have not been tempted to follow Judge Barbara Crabb’s wrongheaded suggestion that it is acceptable to become overtly partisan. This is good. Overt partisans are offering the kind of bias that attracts partisans and that is unwanted and unwarranted from the judiciary.

Overt partisan candidates also do a dumb electoral thing. The non-partisan elections do not appeal to the yellow dogs of either persuasion perhaps, but to ignore the partisan tendencies of the more independent voters who make up this limited turnout is to limit your appeal. Half the voters lean one way or the other. So any candidate who makes an appeal to a Democrat or Republican constituency turns off at least half of the potential voters.

I, for one, accept the fact that an elected judiciary is in the genes of Wisconsin voters, like an elected judiciary for other reasons as well, and applaud the fact that those who have sought judicial office recently have done so in the judicial equivalent of going door to door, one-vote-at-a-time personal campaigning.

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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Where have all the candidates gone?

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
April 4, 2010

By Bill Kraus

In 2010 there is an open seat in the governor’s office.

In the state Legislature there are 132 incumbent office holders, none of whom are candidates for governor.

The Legislature a generation ago was a virtual spawning ground, a stepping stone, for politicians ambitious for higher office.

If there was a complaint about the make up of those long-ago bodies, it was that the members were climbing over each other in search of shots at the few higher offices that were available for which they could run.

A fast count reveals that this generation-ago group of state legislators produced eight members of the U.S. Congress, one U.S. Senator, three governors, two Supreme Court justices, one ambassador, and uncounted mayors and county executives.

The current crop, if 2010 is an indication, will produce none of the above.

For lack of ambition if nothing else.

What happened?

For one thing, the recruiting, slating, and electing of the talent pool that produced large numbers of the restlessly ambitious was taken over from the diminished-role-parties by the enhanced-role legislative leaders. The party leaders wanted the best and the brightest with the most promising prospects for higher office.

What the legislative leaders wanted were people who could win legislative elections and, once that was accomplished, would obey orders.

The jobs themselves changed as well. A generation ago most of the members of the Legislature had other lives, other jobs. The legislative pay scale was set on the assumption that the members would be part-timers. Most were. For most, it was not a career destination. It was a temporary trip into public service for some, a first or second step up the ladder of political power for the rest.

Many state legislators came from service on county boards, city councils, and school boards where they got their first appetizer-sized taste of political power and developed an appetite for a larger entree-sized serving. One interesting exception to this progression was the several members of the Milwaukee caucus whose ambition was to use the Legislature as a stepping stone to more lucrative and long-term careers on that area’s county board or city council.

When it became economically possible to live well as a full-time legislator and when self-serving redistricting made perpetual re-election almost a certainty, more and more members of this latter-day crop of legislators decided to career out in Madison.

Those are the real reasons the 132 are staying put except for the few who are opting out altogether for reasons of their own.

The popular explanation that the candidate shortage from this traditional source is that the next governor is going to face an impossible challenge is an excuse not a reason.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Unfriendly rivals

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
March 15, 2010

By Bill Kraus

The occasional column that Sally Quinn (Ben Bradlee’s wife) wrote for the Washington Post was mostly about politicians socializing after hours.

The column has been discontinued.

Politicians don’t do that anymore. This is due in part because most of them are commuters who go back to the state or district on weekends and probably spend whatever remains of their leisure time dialing for campaign dollars.

What has really happened though is that camaraderie has disappeared.

The days when the adversaries fought in public and socialized in private ended when adversaries became enemies, and what I have described as the “Arena Effect” no longer existed in politics the way it used to and still does in sports. The effect is based on the respect and empathy the participants in contests have for the effort they have gone through to get into the game.

They may have different philosophies, goals, objectives, but they could disagree without being disagreeable.

The decline of civility and sociability can be traced in Wisconsin to the time when two of the state’s most accomplished and smartest legislative leaders were ascendant.

Chuck Chvala was Senate Majority Leader and Scott Jensen was the reigning Speaker of the Assembly.

They preached and practiced a kind of disassociation.

Early in their ruling tenures a freshman representative and his fellow neophytes from both parties convened regular breakfasts with cabinet members and leaders of the administration to learn more about the way this government worked.

When he learned of this, Jensen told his members not to participate. Chvala did not object.

The theory, if there was one, seemed to be that it’s better not to get to know, or to be friendly with the people on the other side. This might somehow weaken your resolve to enact your agenda. From the outside though it looked less like agenda advancement than a pursuit of advantage pure and simple.

The collateral damage was that compromise which at one time was regarded as the real art of politics became a dirty word. Worse yet, the law of unintended (at least I hope it was unintended) consequences took hold, and disassociation became demonization.

It is hardly surprising that the rise of the “my way or no way” ideologues, the immutability of the status quo, a “when the solution is proposed, the problem goes away, and the solution becomes the problem” world where true believers, extremists, and yellow dogs prevail, became the political norm.

In a remarkable 1908 book titled The Process of Government, Arthur Bentley declared that there is no general interest, that politics is about special interests. Maybe it is. But the interests he saw at work clearly were not the kind of tribal Hatfield v. McCoy interests that are bringing our democracy to a screeching halt.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Be more like NRA

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
March 9, 2010

By Bill Kraus

This should be the reformers year. At long last large numbers of people seem to be noticing that our legislatures do not seem to be working. They also seem to be coalescing and organizing to let it be known that some of them do not like what legislators are doing, more of them don’t like what the legislators are not doing, and all of them have noticed and really don’t like the fact that the legislators are not listening to them.

This latter has been the reformers lament ever since I got into this Sisyphean business 20 years ago. Reform measures are somewhere around 13th place on almost everyone’s priority list. Reformers are not marching on capitols. Reformers are mostly old lefties. Nice. Well intended. Hardly threatening.

Reformers want to be is as threatening as, say, the National Rifle Association. They aren’t.

Until this year.

Except the latter-day protesters who have noticed that the people who are representing them are a lot more interested in preserving the status quo, in paying attention to people and organizations who will raise and contribute the money they need to be re-elected to the jobs that they want to career out in, and, worse yet, that the people who represent them in most cases have picked them as constituents instead of vice versa.

The system is not working as the reformers have been telling them for all of my time in the reform business.

So why don’t the newly alerted and aware protesters simply join forces with the reformers, adopt the reform agendas, get the attention and action they deserve and want?

Why isn’t Common Cause more like the NRA?

Because the reformers operate in the ethereal precincts of policy not politics.

Step on the toes of the NRA and your mailbox fills up and your contributions box doesn’t.

So the rascals' movement is looking for more than the reform organizations offer.

Putting the tea parties aside for the moment, the recent action against the system and its incumbents comes in two main forms.

One is mostly positive. The Wisconsin Way coalition of diverse interest groups in Wisconsin that Jim Wood collected proposed changes in the way taxes are collected and spent. They want the legislators to quit posing for holy pictures and do something.

What Ed Koch, the 85-year-old former mayor of New York City, had in mind for the collection of interests he is putting together was a place for the “throw the rascals out” advocates to gather and target the miscreants in Albany.

Surely California’s discontent will breed variations on both of these change-agent ideas.

What occurs to me is that this might be the year that the long standing, long suffering reform groups finally get some respect. But only if they step up ther firepower.

The Common Causes, Leagues of Women Voters, Wisconsin Democracy Campaigns, and all their clones are reform and change agents who have members and programs which the protesters have got to love: dispassionate redistricting, election reform, contributor disclosure, even such ideas as term limits, part-time legislators are not off the table.

None of the newly awakened are going to ally with either party. They want bi-partisan action.

Why reinvent the wheel? Why not make the reformers as scary as the shooters already are?

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Playing it where it lays

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
March 1, 2010

By Bill Kraus

All the wailing by almost all the campaign reformers over the Supreme Court’s decision to remove all the bans on campaign spending by almost anyone has obscured a few realities, an objective of campaign finance reform, and a significant opportunity.

Instead of starting the endless and probably fruitless process of overturning the decision by amending the Constitution (does anyone remember the many-year failed attempt to add the relatively harmless ERA to the Constitution sone decades ago?), I suggest a reality check, a rededication to the real objective of all those campaign finance reform ideas that have mostly gone nowhere, and an aggressive exploitation of the very large opportunity that was part and parcel of the FEC v. Citizens United decision.

The reality is that the possibility that this court and probably its successors are going to welcome any kind of regulation of this kind of free speech is dim to non-existent.

This court expanded the freedom of speech to places it’s doubtful the founding fathers ever imagined. But to think that even justices who are more cognizant of the collateral damage that might ensue from this decision will turn against free speech run amok is to believe in fantasies.

A more reasonable idea is to restate the objectives of campaign finance reform. As much as we’d like to get the money and the hired guns out of campaigns, what we really should be focused on is something that is more achievable.


What we now have is an election system where the candidates have to abide by contribution limits and also must disclose the names of people who gave them money. All the non-candidate organizations that get to bash or support those candidates can spend as much as they want without revealing where they get their money. Millionaires who spend their own money are also unrestricted and, incongruously, if Herb Kohl is an example, kind of admired for doing so.

Not fair.

The free-market types will probably opt for taking the limits off for the candidates themselves to level the playing field inasmuch as it’s going to be pretty tough to convince a court that for over a century has said corporations are people and more recently that money is speech, that all the players have to abide by the candidates’ rules. This is a chance the reformers have to take.

My own priority would be to stay out of that thicket and go full speed ahead in the one direction that the Supreme Court has not only permitted but encouraged: disclosure.

No candidate can match a large corporation (or a tribe or a well-heeled union), but all candidates can and should be able to identify and counter-attack whoever is spending money against them.

What we need is a bill that names the funders of any and all campaign activity not just those who contribute to the candidates.

What we also need is an up-front disclosure that matches the candidates’, “My name is John Doe and I approve of this message,” with something like, “The following message was authorized and paid for by XYZ corporation.”

These are the cards that have been dealt. Let’s play them. There isn’t going to be a re-deal.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

A place for us

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
February 22, 2010

By Bill Kraus

Public broadcasting has been the only statewide medium in Wisconsin since the Journal Communications Company quit distributing and reporting beyond mostly Milwaukee.

The Madison papers never ranged much beyond Dane and adjacent counties. All the other local papers everywhere in Wisconsin are, of course, local.

Radio and TV are now, always have been, always will be regional, parochial media. They are in the business of delivering viewers to advertisers, and all of their advertisers are local.

So all that’s left is the two Wisconsin Public Broadcasting networks. A thin reed. It appears that the people in charge there regard what I see as an opportunity more like a problem. An expensive one.

The programming on public TV is revealing. In a given week a viewer can get a half hour every weekday of the British Broadcasting Corporation, an hour a day of national news from the Lehrer Report, and one-half hour a week of Wisconsin news from Frederica Freyberg.

This is Wisconsin Public Broadcasting?

Obviously the system has nowhere near enough money to put on a Wisconsin version of say the Lehrer Report every weekday.

Or does it?

What if WPB set itself up as sort of an Associated Press for all the private broadcasters in the state? The network could set aside the necessary airtime--a half hour or an hour every weekday--accept feeds from any and every TV station (commercial as well as public) and put together a daily report of the top stories in and about Wisconsin?

The technology makes this possible.

Would the feeding stations feed? Why not? They would gain in prestige and reach and still be able to deliver their daily dose of local news, sports, and weather for their local advertisers.

The big winner would be the state, the public as it were.

Ideas, candidates, events would have a statewide stage again.

It’s not the same as getting the Journal company to cover and distribute everywhere again, but it does bring TV’s version of journalism to a statewide audience. Common ground can be plowed again. Common causes could be surfaced and tested.

Getting a daily look at our diversity could be the route to bringing the things that unite us into focus. What we have lost sight of is the ways and reasons we are interdependent.

The Milwaukee papers did this for us once. Public TV can do it again.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Leading nowhere

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
February 15, 2010

By Bill Kraus

Bipartisanship is something that occurs between peers, among peer groups.

The chief executive, whether the president or governor, has no peer or peer group. The executive proposes, the legislature disposes. It is in the process of disposition that multiple voices are heard and compromise is both possible and necessary.

To accuse Obama of not being bi-partisan is misguided.

If we aren’t getting enough input from all sectors, more compromise from any sectors, if we are gridlocked, we should be looking to the legislative leaders not the executive branch.

It’s a nice bit of showmanship for Obama to talk to the Congressional Republicans. But if it’s action or movement that’s wanted, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are the ones who should be talking to the Congressional Republicans in general and the Republican leaders specifically. All the time.

At a less partisan time in our state and our history, this was common, normal behavior.

What legislative leaders know, or should know, is that when a solution is proposed, the problem is forgotten, and the solution becomes the problem.

It is the legislative leaders’ job to keep the problem in the forefront and search for a solution that is not a problem. The late, great Bill Kellett referred to this as "keeping your eye on the squirrel."

The legislative leaders in Washington clearly are not doing that.

Until and unless they start doing their jobs, the majority is going to impose its will and ride roughshod, to the extent that’s possible, over the minority, and the minority is going to oppose everything in hopes that all that is proposed will fail and they will become the majority again.

Legislative governance has become a search for advantage not resolution, and assuredly not progress.

And the winner is? The status quo in most cases.

This in a country that is crying out for change, for action, for thinking anew.

The president, the governors have bully pulpits.

The legislative leaders have the power to give the country what it wants and needs.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

Out of circulation

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
February 1, 2010

By Bill Kraus

In a 1978 column in the New York Times, Bill Safire said the country’s inability to think anew, to change, to welcome new ideas, and to deal with new challenges was a sure sign of hardening of the political arteries.

He predicted this affliction would worsen.

He was right.

There are multiple reasons why we cannot seem to cope.

The rise of the influence of the interests. The interests are a permanent part of our democracy. They have been around since the beginning but were never so well armed or financed.

The fear of change.

The power of the status quo.

The reluctance to compromise because this might lead to the loss of the increasingly important majority in an increasingly partisan political universe.

For these reasons and more the status quo was always a three-touchdown favorite. On difficult, complicated, contentious questions it has gotten to the point that it is even more entrenched.

In Washington and in Madison, several agenda items that have achieved a third-rail, too-hot-to-handle status.

In Washington:
  • Immigration
  • Social security funding as the baby boomers become eligible
  • A health care system that costs too much, delivers too little, and affects the competitiveness of the businesses which provide and pay for it.
  • Medicare solvency
In Madison:
  • A tax system overly reliant on property taxes
  • Funding the public schools
  • The Milwaukee public schools
  • Structural deficits everywhere that won’t go away

What is not made clear to those to whom the voters have given the power to deal with the problems that we are not facing is that by not voting for action, they are voting to preserve what almost everyone regards as a failed status quo.

Hardening of the arteries is almost always fatal in humans. In governments as well? There is no reason to think otherwise.

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Campaign reform magi

By Bill Kraus

Not under anyone’s Christmas tree, but a welcome gift to all of us is something called the impartial justice law. It came from the governor, the Legislature, a motley collection of reformers, and mostly from the current justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

What the law does is provide enough public money to fully fund campaigns for the Supreme Court to candidates who agree to abide by the adequate but far from obscene spending limits mandated by the statute.

The desirable side effects are that taking advantage of the law’s provisions shields candidates for the court from the onerous business of fund raising which has the additional desirable side effect of simultaneously getting rid of any suspicion that the funders they no longer have to solicit may be buying something more with their contributions than a talented judiciary.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The bright sides of the Supreme Court's dark ruling

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
January 24, 2010

By Bill Kraus

Most of the do-good organizations are railing against the recent Supreme Court decision on election participation and decrying what this will do to an already-broken, outrageously expensive election system. The need for money is what is driving political behavior, and this decision exacerbates that. But it isn’t going to be reversed; at least not soon. So let’s look at what can be salvaged from the wreckage of the regulation solution.

I think there are three very positive things in this decision to exploit.

The first, of course, is disclosure. Twenty years ago, one-time Wisconsin GOP chair George Parker told me what the Supreme Court is telling us: The answer is disclosure. The majority opinion encourages legislation that will reveal the name of everyone who is putting money into advertising in every campaign. A deterrent. No more KKK politics for the currently anonymous funders of issue ads who are hiding behind front organizations to do their political propagandizing. It also suggests upfront and prominent disclaimers on every ad run by corporations and unions and everyone else who is a beneficiary of this ruling. The viewers can know where and who these ads are coming from before they watch them. The theory is, “When the people have all the facts, they will respond appropriately.”

This kind of disclosure also arms candidates who come under attack from these advertisers. They will know who their enemies are, very specifically. Next to a weak opponent a candidate’s next best blessing is a vulnerable enemy. Disclosure will offer up a treasure trove.

Since the Supremes said nothing about public financing, it survives. This means that spending-limit legislation (like that which recently passed for Wisconsin Supreme Court races) can be expanded to include matching funds for those who accept public funding beyond that already authorized. This offsets money being spent beyond the spending limit by millionaire candidates and parallel campaigners to include corporate advertisers that oppose them.

The unintended consequence of the decision may be that it gives a boost to campaign finance reform legislation--without repressing free speech. Suddenly candidates who are in the sights of this kind of spending by outsiders may reconsider their opposition to forward-looking proposals like those contained in the Ellis-Erpenbach bill.

And, finally, this may be a prayer that the presumed winners may not have wanted answered. The political leaders who must raise the money for our current system are not stupid. This is the gang that set up multiple toll booths on the legislative highway to raise money. They can’t do that anymore. The free-speech decision offers up another opportunity to extort contributions from a new set of deep pockets.

The newly liberated and well endowed supplicants can expect to be dragooned into campaign activity in favor of whichever side is most likely to do their bidding. Pre-election extortion instead of the post-election variety? Don’t bet against it.

If the dire predictions from the hand-wringing set prove to be true, we might even get an “enough already” from the beleaguered voters who can be convinced to vote against money instead of for the slick ads the big money can now buy to advance its interests and clutter up what used to be a pastime: watching TV.

It would be a circuitous route to reform, but the direct regularity route which few were taking wasn’t crowded anyway. This decision could put reform on everyone's short agenda.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Fixing the fix

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
January 18, 2010

By Bill Kraus

All the talk about the 2010 elections is about the referendum on the Obama/Democrats response to the great recession, about the length of the coattail on the Obama popularity if any (coattail or popularity), and how these things will play out in legislative elections everywhere.

No one is talking about the fact that the legislatures elected in 2010 will be responsible for the mandated legislative redistricting that will follow the 2010 census.

Don’t kid yourself. There is a great deal of talk about this. But it is among the insiders who nest in the D.C. beltway and the Madison capitol square.

The alleged purpose of redistricting is to even out the size of the Assembly, Senate and House districts, and achieve some kind of popular homogeneity within them while getting as many competitive races as possible.

What the legislative leaders are trying to get is redistricting that protects the electoral majorities of the current incumbents (who will, not so incidentally, get to vote on whatever districting plan is proposed) and to save campaign expenses by reducing the number of districts that have competitive races for which they will have to raise the money to run.

I was unhappily in the middle of the redistricting process that followed the 1980 census. There were some very important issues on the public agenda at that time because a post-Carter recession was closing in on those in power. My recollection is that the actual agenda revolved around a state senator whose father-in-law would no longer live in his district if a particular plan was enacted, and an assembly representative whose finance chair was being moved to another district, and more turf battles in more places. The recession could wait.

Since then, Wisconsin’s elections have been Kohl-ized, and large amounts of money are thought to be necessary to win seats in areas that are really up for grabs.

The legislative leaders’ top objective now is to keep the campaign costs manageable by reducing the number of those elections.

If there was an anti-trust law that applied to the conspiracies hatched by the likes of Dave Obey and Jim Sensenbrenner for the congressional districts, and for their counterparts in Madison who carve up the state into legislative districts, all of them would have violated it.

There wasn’t. There still isn’t. Until and unless there is we will have a situation where the candidates are picking their constituents rather than vice versa.

The post-2000 redistricting has resulted in about a third of the state legislative elections being settled in July when nomination papers are filed and one out of three candidates drawing no opponent. Another third are settled in September primaries where the winning candidate for one party or the other will be virtually guaranteed a victory in a partisan-loaded area in November. That leaves about a third where both parties think they have a shot at a November victory while in reality only about a third of that third do.

My question is why aren’t all those tea party protesters who are painting signs, holding rallies, and marching in the streets to express their unhappiness with the people who represent them focusing on this? Screaming slogans and insults will do nothing to dismantle the districting system that denies them a chance to elect someone who might be more responsive to their grievances.

Until and unless there is a revolutionary change in how we carve up the legislative districts, the status quo is pretty much safe from any party, including any tea party.

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