Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


The politics of perception

As citizens, we have the perception that many of our state’s
most powerful politicians do not care about our interests. After
all, they cut our university system deeper than it has ever been
cut before, effectively raising tuition, cutting class sizes and
ignoring the vital investment higher education can play in the
state’s economic future. We have neither the political muscle nor
the financial influence to have a real say with the decision-makers
at the other end of State Street.

But a new bill could rescue us from our ever-waning confidence
in the state’s political system. Oddly mirroring the
McCain-Feingold legislation, a campaign finance reform bill
introduced by an independent Republican and a liberal Democrat from
Middleton might receive real debate in the State Capitol soon. S.B.
12, sponsored by State Senators Michael Ellis (R-Neenah) and Jon
Erpenbach (D-Middleton), may finally see the light of day.

In a previous column, I discussed Wisconsin Manufacturers and
Commerce (WMC) and their considerable influence over the Republican
jobs legislation. And, to a lesser extent, the influence the
Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) has over the
Governor and the Democratic Party of Wisconsin is also
powerful.Republicans will certainly point at Democratic opposition
to the property-tax freeze, a position benefiting WEAC members,
during the next election. They will also point to the hundreds of
thousands of dollars WEAC has poured into state elections so as to
support, directly and indirectly, Democratic candidates for several
years — not to mention the fact that the property-tax freeze is
hugely popular.


Personally, I believe the freeze is a terrible idea. But therein
lies the point, right? Democrats oppose it, regardless of who gives
them money.

So in fairness to both the Democrats and the Republicans in the
State Capitol, it may be the case that money does not change votes
— it simply follows votes. After all, one would be hard-pressed to
find a liberal against increasing funding to primary education or a
conservative against tax cuts, regardless of who contributes to
their campaigns. And I’m certainly not about to give $1,500 to
Assembly Speaker John Gard (R-Peshtigo) with the belief that it
will get him to come out against the conceal-and-carry legislation.
(Though if that were a possibility, I’d be the first to sign a

So what is the problem? Isn’t this all perception?

Probably not. But even if it is a knee-jerk reaction, we should
pass campaign-finance-reform legislation anyway.

This comes down to one word: Access.

It has become regretfully clear to me that no matter what your
political inclinations, money will get you “face time” with a
politician. I once worked as a fund-raiser on political campaigns,
as well as for the interest groups that give them money. I devoted
considerable hours — paid and unpaid — to working for causes with
which I continue to strongly agree. But when a hot-button issue
comes up, the guys who gave “representatives” a few thousand
dollars get phone calls and dinners, while volunteers and voters
get form letters — or worse, the shaft.

Take, for example, the experience of Greg Kubiak. He worked as a
legislative assistant in a Senate office in Washington, D.C. In his
book, the “Gilded Dome,” he speaks of senators only accepting phone
calls and appointment requests from a Rolodex of contributors.
Everyone else, including the “average” voters and constituents
within that Senator’s district, were sent form letters developed by
assistants and signed with an auto-pen.

And in the most recent drafting of the Republican-backed jobs
bill, top lobbyists and contributors played a major role in writing
the legislation. Some watchdog groups even have evidence that many
lobbyists actually write their own legislation, regardless of which
party happens to back it.

It comes as no surprise that this institutionalized
access-buying is at least as bad as, if not worse than, the
widespread perception that votes can be bought. Voters don’t feel
withdrawn and abandoned by their legislators because they lack the
financial muscle of major interest groups like WMC or WEAC. They
feel withdrawn because most members of both parties will listen to
those interest groups every day of the week and twice on Sunday
before taking time out for an “average constituent.”

I may have doubts about the soundness of an argument claiming
that legislators’ votes are for sale. In fact, empirical studies in
political science show that these blanket claims are almost
impossible to prove. But there can be absolutely no doubt that
something equally important to representative government —
substantive time with an elected official — is for sale.

Politics is about perception, real or imagined. But the
consequences of those perceptions for our democracy and the future
of our state government are absolutely clear. Money buys access. As
a result, too many of us no longer care, feel left out and fail to
exercise our greatest power: The vote. Ellis and Erpenbach are
fighting to change that perception. They deserve all the support we
can give them, regardless of which party we support.

Paul Temple ([email protected]) is a senior
majoring in political science and philosophy.

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