In what two states can two words be worth twenty million dollars? Florida is one, Wisconsin the other — and in both, simply by avoiding the phrases “vote for,” or “vote against,” anonymous donors can wash their hands of any limits or accountability from pouring their fortunes into politics. These donors freely cooperate with candidates’ political campaigns because their donations do not have to be reported to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission.
With what the non-partisan Wisconsin Center for Representative Democracy calls “unprecedented outside spending” looming on the horizon of the 2018 midterm elections, those of us with the privilege of living in one of the nation’s few remaining swing states have a responsibility.
Not only must we understand what happens, but we must take action to preserve our state’s character of competition and dialogue, of leaders who earn their place rather than purchase it, and to end this mockery of dignity and democracy.
The start of Wisconsin’s ethical decay was the same big bang that created the political universe we currently occupy: Act 10, which barred public sector collective bargaining over conditions, overtime pay and benefits, among other limits. The ensuing controversy included lengthy protests and a failed attempt to oust Gov. Scott Walker via a recall election, the source of our twenty million figure. During the years of the defeated recall, conservative nonprofit Wisconsin Club for Growth saw an explosive increase in revenue and expenditure, $12 million in 2011 and $8 million in 2012.
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Following these events, a process unique to Wisconsin known as a John Doe Investigation, where witnesses and targets are barred from speaking publicly about their participation in the investigation, was undertaken to probe for violations of campaign finance law by the incumbent governor and his associates.
Acting within his mandate, Special Prosecutor Francis Schmitz worked to unearth evidence of what he called in one court filing “the criminal scheme… to utilize and direct [nonprofit organizations] as well as other political committees” by the governor. One particularly damning document the prosecution turned up, later leaked to The Guardian in 2016, was a $10,000 check made out to Wisconsin Club for Growth with “Because Scott Walker asked,” written on the “for” line — as clear and to brazen an admission of illicit cooperation as a lawyer could hope for.
However, before the investigation could be completed, it was litigated up the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and Pandora’s Box was opened. The ruling, citing the now-infamous FEC v. Citizens United case and supported by the court’s conservative wing, held the state’s current laws regarding campaign finance as “unconstitutionally overbroad and vague.” The governor granted a tainted innocence based on the supposition that the laws which were broken had never been valid to begin with. For the citizenry, this was the beginning of a nightmare.
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Since then, we have lived in an unacceptable situation. Our right, not even to know who our leaders are financially beholden to, but to politicians free from corrupt fiscal ties, is denied. Constituents, who should hold ownership over their district and its interests, instead see the voices of those who deserve fair representation drowned out by tides of endless money. That this is done while following the letter of the law is meaningless — corruption, when legalized, is still corruption.
Sometimes, the Bill of Rights is held up as justification for this abdication of government ethics. The First Amendment of the donor class, where money is a form of speech, is at the very best nothing short of abuse of language. The same Constitution that gave the government the power to levy taxes and regulate commerce — compelled speech and censorship in the twisted world of bribery’s enablers — was amended to protect the voices of the downtrodden, not the purse strings of the powerful.
That this legal travesty has attached itself to Wisconsin and Florida is no coincidence. Two swing states temporarily under Republican control have seen open season declared by the party most favored by wealthy contributors. With the nation’s eyes opening to the true nature of the political syndicate’s contempt for rural and urban constituencies alike, no battlefield is more dangerous than the one where no organization can take its power for granted — where no politician can remain without justifying to their constituents their position.
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For all the bought lawmakers have done, though, the people are left with all they need to break free. They are witness to the amorality playing out daily in front of them. Their feet, to march to the polls. Their vote — the vote paid for with the blood of soldiers and protestors alike over more than two centuries of broadening and hard-fought democracy — to throw the people who betrayed them out of office. Come November, we must remind those occupying our capital the Badger State is not for sale.
Ethan Carpenter ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in political science.