Monday, January 5, 2015

A wake up call for incumbents

By Bill Kraus

Reform is something to talk about not do in the halls of government, which are for the most part bastions of the status quo.

There are a couple of possible exceptions however.

Not surprisingly these reforms (a) protect and/or (b) enhance the permanence and power of the incumbents whose hands are on the levers of power.

The first is called “disclosure.” When the Supreme Court opened what seemed at the time to be the floodgates to spending by outsiders on political campaigns, but has turned out to be more of a garden hose, the court said that the freedom to spend did not include the right to hide. The court said they would look favorably upon any legislation that disclosed who was doing the spending.

This, surprisingly, did not evoke a wave of disclosure proposals. The incumbents who were given this power and encouragement were told by the newly unregulated potential spenders that they didn't like disclosure and their contributors really didn't like it and would go away rather than tell the wider world who they were.

Incumbents almost everywhere opted for money instead of transparency.

But recently the organizations using their secret donors money have come up with a tactic that one could categorize as sneak attack campaigning.

What they do is wait until the last days of the campaigns when most candidates have done their best, spent all their money, and are sitting back waiting for the results. They launch personal attack ads on the spent, in all senses of that word, candidates without disclosing who they are or where they got their money.

This is unseemly, but legal. Even kind of clever. Except to the victims of these attacks. Even if they were rich enough or smart enough to have enough money to counterattack this political Battle of the Bulge, without disclosure rules in place, they don’t know who is doing this to them.

The organization that did this to one candidate is funded by and espouses school choice. Their attack ads are all about the candidates moral or other deficiencies and say nothing about school choice or what the candidate under attack has done to offend their tender sensibilities.

Patton’s Third Army is not coming to the rescue.

A strong disclosure bill would tell the victims who and how to counterattack. This along with some unspent money is the only hope of neutralizing this weapon.

The other reform could be classified as restoring the gubernatorial candidates’ “Bully Pulpit” to its full size and influence.

As anyone who has served in an executive office knows, the banes of the governors’ [or presidents’] existence is their friends who have the safe seats created in too many cases by artful gerrymandering. The occupants of these seats are beholden to their constituents to the detriment often of their leader in the executive office. They are a lot more worried about stirring up resistance at home than they are about enacting the governor’s or president’s priorities.

Governor Walker’s “friends” cut his request for money to invest in creating jobs by 75%. They are now in the process of putting toxic proposals such as a “right to work” on his desk despite his expressed lack of interest in having to deal with them.

As long as we cluster the way we do—-ethnically, economically, and increasingly politically—-there are going to be safe districts with incumbents occupying them who are only as malleable as they want to be. What gerrymandering does is exacerbate an already troublesome problem.

It can be “reformed” by taking districting out of the hands of the legislators who like the serial killer in the movies writes on the bathroom mirror “Stop me from killing again.” Redistricting reform is the executives only hope of “Stopping them from gerrymandering.”

Will people in power overcome their antipathy to reform to save their own bacon?

They might.

Bill Kraus lives in Madison, is the former press secretary for Governor Lee Dreyfus, and is the Chair of the State Governing Board of Common Cause of Wisconsin.

Follow Bill Kraus on:

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