Caucuses Have Go to Go

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

July 13, 2001

A lot’s been written and said about how the legislative caucuses are using your money to break the law.

Thanks to outstanding investigative journalism by the Wisconsin State Journal, it’s now public knowledge that the caucuses are using taxpayers’ money to campaign for state legislative candidates in obvious violation of state ethics and campaign laws.

But not nearly as much has been said about how these incubators of political corruption are using your money to steal your democracy. This is every bit as scandalous as the flagrant misuse of taxpayer money and the lawbreaking, and might have the most damaging long-term consequences.

Because of the caucuses, you get fewer choices at the ballot box. In 1970, before the caucuses were turned into the taxpayer-funded campaign headquarters they are today, there were no uncontested legislative races in Wisconsin. Every incumbent had at least a major party opponent. In the 2000 elections, 40% of incumbent legislators were unopposed.

That’s because these leadership-controlled machines have supplanted local political party organizations. Local parties have an interest in having someone on the ballot in every community to carry the party’s banner. The legislative leaders only care about a handful of battleground districts that will decide which party controls the legislature. So they funnel caucus resources only to those races that matter to them.

Because of the caucuses, you get less responsive representation. Twenty years ago, Wisconsin had one of the most decentralized legislatures in the country - a legislature full of maverick spirit. Today, we have one of the nation’s most centrally controlled legislatures. You'd think in a state as diverse as Wisconsin, newly elected legislators would come to Madison with agendas as unique as the communities they were elected to serve. But if you look at the candidates' campaign literature and watch their ads, you see mind-numbing uniformity.

That’s because the caucuses give the legislative leaders control over the campaign machinery as well as the purse strings, giving them the ability to hand-pick politicians of their choosing to serve with them – actually, under them – in the legislature.

The caucuses are anti-democratic in the extreme. This system has turned the legislature into a gated community. Only favored insiders can get in, and once they're in, the system keeps them there. The leaders don’t anoint independent-minded candidates, they recruit and groom loyal followers who'll remain acutely aware of who’s buttering their bread. The result is that we get legislators who are more responsive to the powers-that-be in the Capitol than to the people in the communities they are elected to represent.

The legislative leaders will hold on to the caucuses for dear life because they are indispensable to them – these offices are the engine of the corrupt political machine that put them in power and keeps them in power.

So far, not many rank-and-file lawmakers are breaking ranks with leadership. Out of 132 members of the legislature, only 12 – state senator Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) and state representatives Marty Reynolds (D-Ladysmith), Mike Powers (R-Albany), Frank Boyle (D-Superior), Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee), John Lehman (D-Racine), Tony Staskunas (D-West Allis), Sheldon Wasserman (D-Milwaukee), Bob Ziegelbauer (D-Manitowoc), John Ryba (D-Green Bay), Barbara Gronemus (D-Whitehall) and Tom Hebl (D-Sun Prairie) – have been willing to put their names on legislation to abolish the caucuses. Three – state senator Jim Baumgart (D-Sheboygan), Lehman and Staskunas – are sponsoring legislation to reform the caucuses by turning them into nonpartisan offices.

The taxpayer-funded caucuses are being fiercely defended even by those legislators who oppose the use of any tax dollars for public financing of state election campaigns. Campaign reforms proposed by both Republicans and Democrats that offer public grants to candidates who agree to limit campaign spending would cost about the same to implement as the caucuses cost to perpetuate. But anti-reform legislators ridicule these bills as "welfare for politicians" or "socialized campaigning." Those same politicians have no problem being on the public dole and illegally spending the taxpayers’ money on the caucuses that get them re-elected.

You have every reason to be angry with the hypocrisy, angry with the waste of your tax dollars, angry with the lawbreaking, angry with the destruction of our democracy. Keep a close eye on what happens in the weeks and months to come. Accept no whitewashes. If the enforcement agents do their job, those responsible for the scandal will be prosecuted. Some of the offenses are felonies. If justice is served, there should be people doing jail time over this.

But it can’t end there. The people of this state need to demand that their elected state representatives develop some sense of shame and do the right and honorable thing in the face of overwhelming evidence of corrupt activity on their watch. Democracy is a living organism, and ours has a cancer growing in it. It needs to be rooted out once and for all. The caucuses have to go.

WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
Mike McCabe
WDC Executive Director
2000-2014

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