Tolerating Corruption

by Mike McCabe, Executive Director

 April 12, 2005

In the ongoing war between honor and corruption in Wisconsin, corruption is winning.

It is not winning because the corrupt are so powerful. It is winning because we the people are becoming more tolerant of corruption by the day.

Wisconsin has been at this crossroads before. In the mid-1800s, the state was a political cesspool. In 1856, railroad baron Byron Kilbourn wanted a land grant to build his La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad. In return for the legislation, he offered 13 senators $175,000 and 59 members of the Assembly $355,000. Only one senator – "Honest" Amasa Cobb – refused the bribe. Kilbourn paid Governor Coles Bashford $50,000 to sign the legislation. Keep in mind that unskilled laborers were earning well under a dollar a day at the time, and the daily wage of trained craftsmen was less than $2.

Wisconsin politics remained mostly corrupt until the turn of the century. That’s when Fighting Bob La Follette and his allies threw the money changers out of the people’s temple and ushered in reforms that laid the foundation upon which Wisconsin’s now-abandoned traditions of clean, open and progressive government were built.

Of all of La Follette’s sweeping political reforms – among them the nation’s first direct primary elections that took the nominating process out of the smoke-filled rooms and gave it to the people – the most important by far was the 1906 prohibition of campaign contributions by corporations. That single act is more responsible than any other for Wisconsin’s reputation for squeaky clean politics – a reputation that is now wholly undeserved and laughably outdated considering that top state politicians now face nearly four dozen felony corruption charges.

La Follette’s ban on corporate campaign donations worked for 90 years, a lesson to those who believe campaign finance reforms are a waste of time and energy. The law remains on the books today, but the advent of corporate-sponsored campaign ads known as "issue ads" in 1996 rendered the corporate money ban functionally meaningless.

An "issue ad" is virtually indistinguishable from any other campaign ad, except it often is even filthier and more misleading because the ad’s sponsor can remain anonymous. The ad either heaps praise on a candidate the sponsor likes or demonizes one the sponsor doesn't. But it carefully avoids using words like "vote for" or "vote against." Instead, the ad gives a phone number and urges people to call the candidate. This seemingly innocuous feature of the ad is in fact a critically important semantic two-step allowing the ad’s sponsor to dance around Wisconsin’s campaign disclosure laws. No disclosure, no way of knowing who paid for the ad. So the state’s captains of industry are able to dodge Fighting Bob’s corporate donation ban.

A flood of corporate money has washed over state campaigns in Wisconsin thanks to the issue ad loophole. Special interests spent $6.7 million on 2004 legislative elections alone, the lion’s share of it from corporate coffers. Shadow group spending on state races has increased five-fold in just eight years, and now far surpasses what candidates in the most competitive races spend on their own campaigns.

The result is so terribly predictable. A recent Wisconsin Democracy Campaign study shows that millions of dollars a year in aid meant to help low and middle income people are being diverted by the state to corporate welfare, with by far the biggest handouts going to contributors to state election campaigns.

Economic assistance intended for start-up businesses, struggling farmers and those living in poverty instead is being steered to the likes of Wal-Mart, General Motors, Procter & Gamble and Home Depot. Those who made campaign contributions got grants, subsidized loans and tax breaks averaging more than $1 million while non-contributors got awards averaging less than $130,000.

Another Democracy Campaign study put a price tag on the perks special interest contributors receive. It’s over $5 billion a year. Political favors cost every taxpayer in the state more than $1,300 a year.

The bribes of Byron Kilbourn’s day have been gussied up. Now they're called campaign contributions. But the game’s the same.

Instead of summoning the righteous indignation and considerable courage of La Follette and his allies, lawmakers from both political parties have offered up watered-down reform legislation that cements in place the corporate money loophole that has made La Follette’s ban irrelevant. And nearly every newspaper in the state has given the legislation its blessing.

Today’s lawmakers who've grown so tolerant of corporate bribes bring shame to the memory of Fighting Bob La Follette. And newspapers that endorse a minimalist response to today’s corruption bring shame to the memory of crusading journalists like S.D. Carpenter, whose Wisconsin Patriot splashed these headlines across its front page when Alexander Randall (for whom Camp Randall is named) defeated the corrupt Coles Bashford by 118 votes:

TEN MILLION CHEERS! CROW, OLD ROOSTER! CROW!! THE FORTY THIEVES CLEARED OUT! RANDALL ELECTED GOVERNOR! HONESTY TRIUMPHANT! THERE IS A GOD IN ISRAEL!

They say history is prologue. For the sake of Wisconsin’s soul, let’s hope that’s true.

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

Commentary Archive

Bookmark and Share