Friday, November 22, 2013

Secret right-wing money steps hard into Wisconsin legislature

By Dominique Paul Noth

National news media have caught on that secretive right-wing funding networks are focused not just on the presidential race and major gubernatorial and senate contests but most effectively in the normally sleepy hollows of state politics. From Iowa to Ohio to Colorado to Wisconsin, from school boards to city halls and other local run-offs, under the guise of ALEC, Koch funded groups such as Americans for Prosperity and the innocent sounding State PolicyNetwork, outside wealth from the Citizens United case and other decisions have upset the homegrown apple cart.

Races that used to about local concerns and which candidate could make the best case and do the most doors have been turned into a sophisticated expensive blitz of mailers, radio ads and half-truth generalities.

Special legislative elections in Wisconsin are driving the point home.  In Milwaukee County’s Assembly District 21 (suburban communities Oak Creek, South Milwaukee and an inserted slice of Franklin), the state GOP  passed up the local Republican’s best choice (popular Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi quit after being told how to run by Madison powers and has now announced his support for the Democrat in the contest next door, John Hermes in District 82).
Jessie Rodriguez (left) had far more
 outside money than Elizabeth Coppola in District 21.

After turning down the preferred local choice,  the state GOP was forced to rely not on groundswell but on outside right-wing funders to push Jessie Rodriguez into the legislature (much to the anger of her four GOP primary opponents, equally right-wing but more reliant on community campaign support).

The money used to elect her as well as the deceptive motives proved staggering – and insurmountable Nov. 19.    It apparently works out to about $40 for every vote Jessie got.

Rodriguez drew a mere 4,546 votes to win a district of some 60,000 people. This was less than a third of the usual turnout in such assembly races, but not unexpectedly low given the week before Thanksgiving timing.  Here’s the first reality --- passivity. Only about a tenth of those of voting age in the district determined their representative, and it wasn’t even with their own money or sweat. Or their own issues, since voucher schools don’t yet exist in a district where public schools are much admired.

While the tale of the tape is in the math, deeper arithmetic is elusive since much of the money for Rodriguez came in unreported “issue advocacy” ads – you know, those misleading radio commercials that concoct a position for a candidate and then urge listeners to “call Elizabeth Coppola and tell her to oppose increasing property taxes” though the Democrat never mentioned increasing taxes in her campaign talks or literature. But under the current bizarre rules, this is not advocacy for Rodriguez because she was not named.

In Wisconsin in particular such issue ads played into the politics of divisiveness, with progressives and unions clearly still  upset over forced policies rammed through the legislature and believers in Gov. Scott Walker convinced that  landing hard on workers was the only way to cut tax costs.  The facts reveal that taxes are going up, as are state deficits, and that it is needed public services not fat that has been cut, but the dominant ads are more persuasive than the nuanced realities.

Smart guessers say an additional $60,000 was “spent for Jessie” in such undisclosed advocacy buys and in multiple home mailers from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, not subject to the same reporting rules as conduits and contributions directly to a candidate.  What is known is that as a lobbying group, WMC is in third biggest spender in the state.

The $24,000 portion of radio buys by the Jobs First Political Coalition is reportable as is the initial $45,647 from the American Federation for Children, a national school voucher advocacy collection agency for the rich based in D.C. that intrudes on many local elections and usually disguises its actual voucher agenda. (It is No. 9 on the state lobbying list.) In a report now deleted from its website, AFC boasted of spending more in Wisconsin on elections than any other state, nearly $2.5 million. Its leader, Betsy DeVos, is the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party while her brother, Eric Prince, founded Blackwater, the private military contractor.

AFC was effective in District 21 by hiding its core mission.  It talked only vaguely about choice (obviously educational choice and definitely not choice for women’s reproductive rights) but quickly turned its mailers into attacking Elizabeth Coppola as the outsider – she had moved into the district from the southern edge of that foreign land known as Milwaukee -- and mainly defending Gov. Walker’s “rescue” of local property tax expenses (despite the reality they are actually increasing).

If you combine the known outside money, the unknown outside money and the direct campaign contributions to Rodriguez of $48,000 by individuals and such groups as the realtors – it’s clear that whatever doors Rodriguez  visited did not drive her appeal . It was the radically high advertising money, following the food coupon formula that a mere one-hundredth of one percent return justifies the investment.

In contrast, the third-party funding for Coppola of $30,815 and her own campaign gathering of $25,000 translated into a more normal $15 for every one of the 3,520 votes she got – and obviously she thought this reasonable expenditure on supportive literature and contacts would carry greater weight. Comparing how the campaigns operate could be interpreted as sour grapes, but it certainly pinpoints the reality of why relying on outside money and issues not central to the community can indeed work, particularly in local contests.

There are wheels within wheels of this funding game that clarify why the GOP paid so enormous a price to secure a temporary seat.  The campaign is likely to be repeated in bipartisan funding fashion in November of 2014, less than a year away. The Democrats wanted to run on issues and what’s best for the community, but now they may decide that it’s all about how much money is employed no matter the source or the motives.

Incumbency gives every candidate an edge, but a year also gives voters time to decide on issues not blandishments, which has to worry Rodriguez supporters when they look at how shallow her reach proved – a pretty pitiful 4,546 votes.

Some progressive wags openly suggest she is a mere stalking horse for a politician barred by law from running. That may be too insulting since by reflective mirror Jessie Rodriguez has national voucher funding status from her role with Hispanics for School Choice, headed by her brother-in-law, Zeus Rodriguez, and her marriage to right-wing blogger Aaron Rodriguez, who wields strong GOP contacts.  

But there is a banned name haunting her campaign ---
Scott Jensen
Scott Jensen, the once powerful GOP Assembly leader forced out of office for misconduct and then convicted and sentence reversed on jurisdictional issues involving felony campaign fraud.  In 2010 he finally reached a deal to avoid felony sentencing by paying a fine and agreeing never to run for any public office in the future.

Immediately Jensen became a behind the scenes funding source, aided by the secretive nature of third-source money. He is closely allied with Jobs First (which parrots Walker’s take on business stats) and the American Federation for Children that poured such enormous money into the Rodriguez election.

You can dismiss as left-wing bile these open suggestions that Jensen has now bought a political office he can run as a puppet master in his old assembly home turf. But you can’t escape the reality of “follow the money” and wonder why so much was invested by his groups in this election.

And here’s another game to ponder with.  The Waukesha DA who made the deal to keep Jensen out of prison is Brad Schimel, who is now the lone Republican announced to run for Wisconsin attorney general now that J.B. Van Hollen says he is abandoning the seat.  It will be interesting to read between the lines of the secretive money that backs Schimel in this bid.  Any bets?

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