Five special interest groups spent close to $8 million in the last two state Supreme Court races on what most of the groups insist on calling "issue advocacy." To you and me, that means a truckload of money was spent on loads of TV ads smearing the candidates.
The advertising was trashy and demeaning. It was highly misleading, repeatedly took liberties with the facts and sometimes was downright untruthful. (To see what I mean, check out FactCheck.org’s "Court Watch" series.)
The ads were deceiving in two other very important ways. They focused almost exclusively on a single issue – crime and public safety. But fighting crime is not the Supreme Court’s job. That’s what the police and prosecutors and trial courts do. Voters were repeatedly told a good Supreme Court justice will lock ’em up and throw away the key when, in truth, the Supreme Court doesn’t conduct criminal trials or sentence convicts.
Not only did virtually all the ads have very little to do with the actual work of the Supreme Court, but they also had next to nothing to do with the groups’ own policy agendas.
In preparing the new report "Justice for Just Us," the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign compared the five groups’ lobbying reports, legislative agendas, public statements and activities on the issues they are working on to the agendas of eight groups representing police, sheriffs, state troopers and criminal prosecutors. We found 77 legislative proposals relating to crime fighting or public safety the eight law enforcement groups were working on. And we found that the five groups that spent millions preaching about crime in the 2007 and 2008 Supreme Court races had virtually no interest in any of the 77 bills.
Three of the electioneering groups – the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee and the conservative Club for Growth Wisconsin and Coalition for America’s Families – did not weigh in on any of the crime-related proposals.
They did not even bother to register as lobbying groups which would have allowed them to actively work to persuade lawmakers to take action. The Club for Growth and the Coalition for America’s Families also did not use their web sites or any other public means to identify or take credit for work on any crime or safety issues. Greater Wisconsin Committee does not even have a web site to determine what – if any – issues it is interested in other than electing Democratic candidates.
The other two groups – Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) and the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) – lobbied on more than 240 business, union, tax and education measures in the 2007-2008 legislative session but took positions on only three proposals that could be remotely considered related to crime and public safety. And WMC opposed a measure to protect the jobs of first responders.
Simply put, WMC and WEAC didn’t put their lobbying muscle where their TV ads were. And it’s obvious that phony front groups like the Greater Wisconsin Committee, Club for Growth and Coalition for America’s Families exist for the sole purpose of doing election advertising. They don’t work on issues at all, they just exploit them for electoral gain.
They call it "issue advocacy" and claim with a poker face that they are not seeking to influence the outcome of the election but are merely educating voters. They live this lie because it allows them to get around campaign finance disclosure laws and contribution limits. Wisconsin once had some of the strongest such laws in the nation. They now aren’t worth much more than the paper they’re written on, thanks to the issue ad loophole.
I don’t know which is worse, those who are hijacking elections by gaming the system or the public officials who’ve let them get away with it. What I do know for sure is that the politicians and their wealthy special interest patrons are winning this game, and ordinary taxpaying citizens are the losers.
Mike McCabe is executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks the money in state politics and works for campaign finance reform and other pro-democracy reforms. WDC’s web site is www.wisdc.org.