In the brave new world of Ameri© a, where oodles of moolah donated by the rich to political candidates is as much a right of free speech as these very words you are presently reading (penned by an impecunious scrivener, such that I am), thanks to the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court last year – wherein corporations are rendered the equal of actual people – it’s perfectly consistent, and all too legal, that the effective for-profit privatization of electoral campaigns is seen as a freedom of expression, unlike that socialist gulag of public financing where candidates are forced to limit their hungry bellies to the trough of thoughtful spending, heavens forfend.
It’s the same kind of logical but heartless argument that discredits affirmative action policies on the grounds of being “unfair.” And this is even sort of true – in a literal and superficial, naively Pollyannaish way. But we live in an ideological society, not an idealistic one, where systemic, historical flaws pock the body politic like an outbreak of hives. Were we utopian angels living in a love both neighborly and brotherly, we would need no interference by “big” government apparatchiks or its bureaucratic apparatuses. There would be no racism, so there would be no reason to grant favor to a so-called minority (hell, there would be no minorities); you would be offered a job or loan or whatever based purely on the merits of your own aptitude and indeed the content of your character. But we are not creatures of considerable consideration; we are fallible, effed up human beings living in a work-in-progress nation whose own preamble guides us to a more perfect union. That’s the key right there: more perfect; we’re on a path. A trip you might say. To which we could answer the annoying Republican kids in the back seat: No, we’re not there yet.
And now we’re taking one hell of a detour backwards.
There’s No Public in Republican
On Tuesday during yet another executive session of the Joint Finance Committee (JFC), the majority Republican members voted to eliminate public financing of political campaigns for good and forever. They called it “reform,” but it’s really eradication – they’d have done better to call it extinction actually. In doing so, they went even further than what Gov. Walker himself wanted – to make those funds ineligible for the gubernatorial, legislative, and judicial elections, but still allow Jill and Jim taxpayer to check off on their state income tax that their own three bucks go to the Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund (though why anyone would now that no one may receive public financing would be a tail-wagging-the-dog mystery).
The rationale for this is convincingly slick, I must say, imitated by a wide swath of conservatives with that persuasive pluck of red state rhetoric that on the face of it sounds sensibly populist, even though at its soul it is deceptively anti-people. If you listen to Rep. Robin Vos – Republican co-chair of the JFC – describe it, public campaign financing is all of the following:
(a) the equivalent of welfare;
(b) anti-democratic; and
(c) the cause of outside interests flooding campaigns with money.
Indeed, said he with spotlighted drama, “It’s a lot easier if you just belly up to the taxpayer trough and say ‘I want my check from the government.’ That is definitely easier for politicians. But it is not better for democracy.” In a testy exchange with Democratic state senator Bob Jauch, Vos donned the airs of populist appeal with thespian aplomb:
“You’re telling me that somehow the Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund, where we saw millions of dollars of outside money – from both sides – and the candidates, who couldn’t raise their own contributions, that somehow giving the candidates no voice in their own election is a better process for democracy, so that outside corporations can donate in secret, as opposed to people in my district giving me $50. So you’re telling me that that is better for democracy? We have just got a different view of the world.”
Did you catch that heartfelt pluck in the Guthrie-esque folk guitar of his argument? Listen for it here, as Vos continued:
“All it [public financing] does is create a system where outside special interests have even more influence. I want the money to all flow to candidates. I want that you have to go out there and actually ask your friends and neighbors for $5, for $10, for maybe even $100 to support your campaign, so you have to go and sell your own ideas.”
Two, three, four: “This land is your land, this land is my land…”
This was in reaction to Jauch’s typically consummate articulation of the situation, stripping it from its symbolic pretences and false appearances. Said he:
“This is selling the Wisconsin election process. Supreme Court had Citizens United; this is ‘citizens diminished.’ Wisconsin for years has had an election trust fund; it’s being replaced by a corporate buyout. This flies in the face of public hope that we would have a certain set of standards that removes special interests’ influence peddling from buying our elections. And granted Wisconsin’s public financing needs a little additional help, but it shouldn’t go in the direction where the only place money can come from are those with the deepest pockets, those that don’t have to divulge who they are, those that don’t live in Wisconsin but pretend they’re your neighbor: the special interests that want to buy government, that want to influence the elections so that they can buy government, even when they don’t live here. This is a disgusting motion. Disgusting, disgusting.”
So let’s just rename the party “Re******ans,” since striking the thing they so loathe from their name has more panache than “Reprivatans,” which seems a little weird.
Forward in the Past
Since 1978 Wisconsin has provided taxpayer dollars for public campaigns as a way to help curb the influence of special interests in its elections – one of the first in the nation to do so. In November 2009, then under Democratic control (literally and figuratively), the State Legislature voted for the Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund under The Impartial Justice Bill. Amongst other things, it would limit funding for candidates in the election for state Supreme Court races to $300,000. Two years before that even, all seven justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court – including David Prosser – expressed their support in a letter to then governor Jim Doyle for “realistic, meaningful public financing” in the elections for positions on the high court. “The risk inherent in any non-publicly funded judicial election for this court,” they wrote, “is that the public may inaccurately perceive a justice as beholden to individuals or groups that contribute to his or her campaign. Judges must not only be fair, neutral, impartial and non-partisan but also should be so perceived by the public.”
Said former Justice Janine Geske (now a professor at the Marquette University Law School), “The citizens of Wisconsin deserve a judiciary that provides fair and impartial decision-making. Trust in the court system has eroded by virtue of the incredible amounts of money invested into recent Supreme Court races, often on behalf of both candidates. The Impartial Justice Bill will play a major role in restoring peoples’ trust that Wisconsin cases will be decided solely on the merits without influence from any particular special interest group.” The State Bar felt similarly, arguing on behalf of public financing since “even the perception of bias destroys public trust and confidence in the justice system.” (See here for additional info.)
Ah, nostalgia… Fast forward three years later to April 2011.
The contentious and controversial supreme court election between incumbent David Prosser and challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg – both of whom agreed to the terms of public campaign financing – was awash in a swarm of outside interest money (so-called third parties) that compromised profoundly the intended neutrality of a race that is supposed to be non-partisan. Portending such an inauspicious outcome, Prosser opposed the new law back in November 2009, wary that the funding cap ($300,000) was inadequate for a candidate to run an effective campaign and that it would do nothing to prevent third parties from spending appalling amounts on issue ads. There were not irrelevant misgivings or the expression of false modesty; Prosser knew he would be the “guinea pig” by being the first justice whose re-election would be beholden to the new rules.
And what a Pandora’s box of outside interest money was opened up. It’s been reported that third party special interest groups spent – invested is probably a better word – $4.5 million on this one race, in stark contrast to the $900,000 total in public funding. It is on account of this discrepancy that the law passed in 2009 is seen as a failure. Said Vos, still on his faux-volk soapbox, “The idea of saying that the taxpayers have to be the ones to fund a couple hundred thousand dollars to compete in a process that has obviously been flawed. We tried your way. We tried it this last spring. Luckily, my candidate won…in spite of the fact that millions of dollars were spent by outside special interests, and his opportunity was to raise contributions of $5.”
It’s worth noting that, as obscene as 4.5 million dollars of gobs of filthy lucre is, it is lower than the past two Supreme Court elections in 2007 and 2008, wherein $5.7 million and just shy of $6 million were spent, respectively – and no such public campaign funding was in effect. And this is why the term “reform” is both fatuous and farcical – and wholly inaccurate: nothing is being reformed, nothing addressed; we’re getting rid of the whole shebang. It is as reprehensibly disingenuous to discredit a humble but honorable effort to limit the effects of outside money because it was not a cure-all as it is to blame a modest dam that failed to keep the river from flooding. You fix the damn dam; you don’t just say, well it didn’t work, so let’s have no prevention whatsoever.
(What is it with these Republicans and prevention. Planned Parenthood, public financing, it’s all gotta go. Flush it down the river!)
“We tried your way.” What a platitude! At best the spring election was a dress rehearsal. Yes, it didn’t work out as planned. But do you just scrap the entire production and cancel everything? What director would do this? What actors would agree to so draconian a reaction? You learn from the mistakes and then apply those lessons the next time around. That’s what reform is. Conservatives have been making a field day of this failure in order to scrap it outright and usher in more opportunity to dismantle transparency and sell all elections to the highest bidder. Wisconsin’s open for business after all. In Jauch’s own words, “this is checkbook diplomacy.”
Robin “Hood” Vos to the Rescue
In yet another shameless demonstration of Robin Hood in reverse, $1.8 million is being taken from the Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund in order to fund the new changes in the Voter ID Bill signed into law by Governor Walker the very same day. Nice one-two punch. In other words, we will be taking money out of a modest effort to maintain free and fair elections to fund a program that actively disenfranchises sectors of the electorate from voting. It’s a win-win for Republicans but a double loss for a disgraced state fleeced of its former beliefs that helped set Wisconsin apart from the nation for being different, better, more democratic.
(Interestingly enough, back in November ’09, when Vos was a member of the JFC but not the co-chair, since his party was not in power, he described The Impartial Justice Bill as “despicable” and “disgusting” and criticized the Democrats for prioritizing campaigns at the expense of job creation. Eerily ironic, is it not? “Your priority is all about politics over people,” he stated What a difference an election cycle makes. Precisely! And such too is the difference between stating “check mate!” and requesting “check, mate.”)
Talk about priorities. Democratic Rep. Tamara Grigsby questioned the prioritization and timetable of these changes. “We have [recall] elections on July 12. How would it be possible for the $1.8 million GPR and five project positions to be in place prior to those elections? How would that money be able – I mean, I’m wondering if anyone has that answer, because we are expecting to have, we’re going to have people in election booths who don’t know what they’re doing. People are not going to know what to tell people, they’re not going to have guidance, they’re not going to have access – we’re going to have utter chaos. There’s no way unless, you know, the plan gets to us by…July 1st, and…after that point we throw together, there’s some quick training program, and we get the money together and we run out throughout the state and do these trainings real quick. This is not even reasonable. This is not real. This is smoke and mirrors, this is not even real, it’s not even, it’s not doable. So I mean, I’m not understanding that. And if we’re serious about responsibly implementing the voter disenfranchisement bill, then we should put the money behind it and make sure people get the money and the access and the training and the education and the outreach that they need, so the people know how to vote.”
Not one Republican responded to this concerned question. Of course they didn’t; four of them sitting on the JFC are the ones who will be facing recall challenges in that July election. Such deployed confusion at the polls, while it does nothing to ensure the integrity of the election process, will serve them well by disenfranchising the very voters who have the most incentive to vote them out. These are the nefarious shenanigans that disabuse otherwise well-intentioned citizens from giving a shit in the first place, which in turn helps ensure that Republicans will remain in power.
The motion, #306, passed 12-4, a straight party-line vote – again, on the same day that Walker signed into law the Voter ID bill. It reminds me of the song “Mighty Trucks of Midnight” by Bruce Cockburn, who sings,
“Used to have a country but they sold it down the river
Like a repossessed farm auctioned off to the highest bidder”
Where “country” is state and “repossessed farm” is the electoral process.
Russ, where the hell are you, man?!