Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:45 pm
For 101 years now, it has been illegal in Wisconsin for incorporated organizations and companies to make contributions or otherwise spend their general treasury funds for political purposes.
The 1906 ban on corporate electioneering is a signature achievement of the Progressive Era, a kissing cousin of 19th Century trust busting and one of the longest-lasting byproducts of citizen revolts against politically corrupt railroad and timber barons that brought reformers like Fighting Bob La Follette to power.
La Follette’s law was aimed at preventing corporate ownership of our democracy. It worked for 90 years. It was not until 1996 that special interest groups in Wisconsin started doing corporate-sponsored campaign advertising that escaped the reach of the law. In fact, it rendered the law functionally meaningless.
To do this type of advertising – so-called "issue advocacy" – and to pay for the ads with corporate treasury funds, the sponsoring interest groups have to lie. They have to claim that the advertising is not done for political purposes.
Judge for yourself.
One such "issue ad" last fall that was paid for by a Michigan-based front group called All Children Matter told voters in southeastern Wisconsin’s 21st Senate District "there are more than $12 BILLION reasons to vote against John Lehman."
Another All Children Matter ad showed a picture of state purchasing officer Georgia Thompson and said, "this Doyle aide is going to prison for rigging a state contract for a Doyle contributor…" Ending with a photo of Gov. Doyle, the ad’s narrator said, "The worst of scandals right under the governor’s nose. Extremely disappointing."
The funny thing about the All Children Matter ads is that this group’s stated purpose is "the enactment of meaningful reforms to ensure that all children have equal access to a quality education." The group’s issue advocacy in Wisconsin had nothing to do with its issue.
A shadowy outfit calling itself the Greater Wisconsin Committee had this to say to voters: "While prescription drug prices are skyrocketing … Whose side is Mark Green on? Green opposes importing safe, affordable medicine from Canada. Green’s deciding vote gave drug companies $139 billion in extra profit at taxpayer expense – and even banned the government from negotiating lower drug prices. No wonder the big drug interests have given Green more than $30,000. Tell Mark Green to start helping Wisconsin families, not the special interests."
Another ad last fall by the Building Industry Council said, "Wisconsin was once the envy of our nation, but not today. Wisconsin was once the home of ground breaking ideas, like welfare reform, school choice and BadgerCare. But not today … Mark Green wants to change that with a return to great ideas … Call Mark Green … tell him you support his public policy agenda to make Wisconsin the envy of our nation."
More recently, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce spent more than $2 million on undisclosed "issue advocacy" in this spring’s state Supreme Court race. A typical WMC ad said, "Judge Annette Ziegler has earned the highest praise from 41 district attorneys and sheriffs and police unions. Why? Because Judge Ziegler is tough on crime, period … Judge Annette Ziegler is an experienced judge who’s tough on crime."
For any of these ads to be legitimate issue advocacy, they can’t be aimed at electing or defeating any candidate for state office. They can serve no political purpose.
Interest group-sponsored issue ads are a sham, a dishonest sleight of hand special interests engage in to evade disclosure requirements and legal limitations on campaign contributions. Under the false pretense of merely discussing issues, the ads unmistakably are intended to decide elections. The groups sponsoring them are living a lie. And weak-kneed state regulators and self-interested state lawmakers are letting them get away with it.
They are giving comfort to wealthy special interests that wrap themselves in the First Amendment as they keep the public in the dark about who is paying for their electioneering in order to sidestep the law prohibiting the use of corporate treasury funds for political purposes.
By continuing to bless this phony game, state officials are embracing the repugnant notions that money is speech and secrecy is freedom. These underlying principles of sham issue advocacy demean and desecrate the First Amendment and its sacred protection of every citizen’s right to free speech. Ordinary citizens are left an empty right to speak with no realistic hope of being heard in a money-saturated, corruption-stained, special interest-dominated political arena.
Mike McCabe is executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks the money in state politics, fights government corruption and works for campaign finance reform and other pro-democracy reforms. The group’s web site is www.wisdc.org.