Special Interest Spending on State School Chief Race to Smash Old Record

Party ‘Issue Ads’ Establish Disturbing New Trend

March 29, 2001

Madison - Spending by outside interests in the state school superintendent race will easily surpass the previous record and includes a new campaign finance abuse in the form of phony "issue ads" run by a state political party, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported today.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council has already reported spending $230,660 in support of Elizabeth Burmaster in the race pitting Burmaster against Linda Cross. By the time the April 3 election rolls around, the state teachers union’s spending alone will approach or perhaps even exceed the previous record of $251,278 in overall special interest spending in a state superintendent race set in 1993.

In addition to WEAC’s spending, the state Republican Party is airing what it describes as "issue ads" attacking Burmaster. The anti-abortion group Wisconsin Right to Life also is reported to be sponsoring issue ads in support of Cross.

The GOP ads disparage Burmaster, but stop short of telling voters to vote against Burmaster or for Cross. Instead, the audience is urged to call Burmaster’s campaign headquarters to complain. The party ads exploit a loophole in Wisconsin’s campaign finance law that until now has been used only by special interest groups to escape the law’s disclosure requirements. As a result, no reports have been filed by the state GOP about the amount spent on the ads or the source of money used to pay for them.

"Having the political parties themselves sponsoring issue ads breaks new ground in the assault on our state’s once proud tradition of clean campaigning and full disclosure," WDC executive director Mike McCabe said. "The state Republican Party is thumbing its nose at the citizens’ right to know by evading honest reporting of its electioneering activities. For the party to claim it is merely discussing issues is ridiculous. Getting people elected is what political parties exist for."

Aside from setting a precedent that will undoubtedly intensify efforts within the political establishment to dodge reporting obligations and thwart effective disclosure, the state Republican Party’s entrance into the state superintendent contest also marks the further politicization of the supposedly nonpartisan race.

"The people of Wisconsin decided many years ago that we should separate elections for offices like state school superintendent from the elections for partisan offices. The direct involvement of a political party in this race makes a total farce of that idea. This may well be the final nail in the coffin of nonpartisan elections," McCabe said.