Our Common Interest in Political Reform

Remarks by WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe at the Milwaukee People’s Legislature April 30, 2005

 May 3, 2005

When we cooked up the People’s Legislature, we got the bright idea of holding a statewide citizen assembly on January 4 – the day after the Legislature was sworn in. Our goal was to get 804 people to take part – one more than the number of paid lobbyists working the halls of the Capitol for their special interest clients.

I can’t tell you how many people told me we wouldn’t get 100 people to come on a weekday right after the holidays. Over 1,100 people showed up.

Then we went to La Crosse on January 20, and drew close to 300 people. Then we went on to northwestern Wisconsin in mid-March. Over 100 people came through a 2-foot snowstorm to attend the People’s Legislature in Cable.

We’re on to something.

Everywhere we go, we find a hunger for change. The issues people identify vary from place to place, but there’s a common thread that run through all the concerns. People have lost faith in their elected officials. They don’t believe their representatives are representing them. They feel politically homeless.

A big issue in northwest Wisconsin is the Arrowhead-Weston power line.... Folks up north don’t want this big extension cord running through their back yards.

They have no voice in the lobbyists’ Legislature. Some say you have no reason to care about that here. They say you just want the cheap electricity.

Communities like Monroe and Stoughton are fighting Wal-Mart. They don’t want their communities to be indistinguishable from every other town in America. But they have no voice in the lobbyists’ Legislature. Some say you have no reason to care about that here. They say you just want low prices, no matter the cost.

600,000 people in Wisconsin don’t have health insurance and they have no voice in the lobbyists’ Legislature. There’s no debate on health care reform at the Capitol.

59% of African American men in Milwaukee can’t find work. 75 years ago, 25% unemployment was called the Great Depression. What do you call 59%? Our legislators don’t call it anything. They don’t discuss it.

College tuition will have risen 51% in just four years if lawmakers have their way this year. But there is no debate on access to higher education in the lobbyists’ Legislature.

Every lake in Wisconsin is contaminated with mercury. Yet those who control the Legislature aren't cutting mercury emissions. They're pushing more environmental deregulation.

Maybe you’re not bathing in stray voltage.

Maybe your mom-and-pop shop hasn't been run out of business by a Wal-Mart supercenter.

Maybe you’re not uninsured.

Maybe you’re not an unemployed black man.

Maybe you’re not college age.

Maybe your kid’s IQ hasn't been stunted by poisoned fish. Maybe your kid doesn't have asthma from breathing dirty air.

But let me ask you this.. How many of you made a campaign donation of more than $500 in the last election?

You have something in common with the people in Cable, and the local merchants in Monroe, and all the uninsured families, and the college students, and the jobless black man. None of them make big campaign donations. Neither do you.

They don’t have $200-an-hour lobbyists prowling the halls of the Capitol on their behalf. Neither do you.

Their fight is your fight. And your fight is theirs. Because unless there is a top-to-bottom cleanup at the Capitol, unless we throw the money changers out of the people’s temple, unless we replace the lobbyist’s Legislature with a People’s Legislature, they won’t have a voice. And you won’t either.

It doesn't matter what your number one priority is. Or mine. If we don’t work to take back our government and create a real democracy, none of us will get our top priority.

Clean air and clean water will never come from dirty politics.

Policies that promote health and wellness will never spring from a sick government.

Work for the jobless will never be on the minds of ethically impaired and morally bankrupt professional politicians whose only concern is their own job security. They'll think of the well-to-do every time.

It is not just your voice . . . or your top priority . . . that is at risk. The most precious thing you can possess in a democracy – your vote – is at risk.

Wisconsin has handed a company named Accenture a $14 million contract to develop our state’s voter registration system. This is a company that used to be known as Andersen Consulting, part of Arthur Andersen of Enron fame. This is a company that is based in Bermuda to avoid paying U.S. taxes. This is a company that is under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for bribing foreign officials. One of this company’s top officials is chairman of a South African company that played a major role in propping up the former apartheid government. These are the people we've entrusted with the most important list that will ever be developed in a democratic society – our voter registration list.

This contract is not only a horribly raw deal for the taxpayer, it also is a huge threat to voting rights. But the biggest threat to our voting rights is not black boxes or paperless touch screens or even apartheid-loving, tax-avoiding multinational corporations..

The enemies of democracy have figured out that the best way to disenfranchise people is not poll taxes or literacy tests or any other means of stopping people from voting. The most ingenious and sinister way is to let them freely vote in elections whose results are predetermined.

They've rigged elections by making them auctions. We had a $23 million race for governor in 2002. When elections cost that much, you either have to be independently wealthy or willing to take out a second mortgage on your soul to compete. Many, many people who have much to give to public service have been priced out of the political marketplace. They've been fenced out of the public square.

That’s why we have an epidemic of uncontested races for state Legislature. Almost half of current office holders face no opposition. In 2004, 2.2 million voters in Wisconsin had no say in who represents them in the state Assembly or Senate because there was only one name on the ballot.

Another way the powers-that-be have rigged elections is through partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts. In a democracy, voters are supposed to choose their representatives, not the other way around. In Wisconsin, it’s the other way around. Long before voters get to choose their representatives, their representatives have hand-picked their voters. They've drawn district lines that virtually guarantee their re-election.

In a democracy, elected officials serve us best when the serve in fear. We’re losing that.

This is a recipe for corruption. It should surprise no one that we now have the largest political corruption scandal in our state’s history on our hands. Six top politicians facing four dozen felony charges. Extortion. Money laundering. Kickbacks. Bid rigging. Illegal campaign donations. Criminal misconduct in public office. Ugly stuff for the state formerly known as squeaky clean Wisconsin.

But we can take comfort in history. And draw inspiration from it. Remember, we've been at this crossroads before.

In the 19th Century, Wisconsin was a political cesspool. Our state was every bit as corrupt as it is today. In the mid-1800s, a railroad baron by the name of Byron Kilbourn – who today has a major street in Milwaukee named after him - paid the governor at the time (Coles Bashford) $50,000 to sign legislation giving Kilbourn a land grant to build his Milwaukee and La Crosse railroad. Kilbourn paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to members of the Legislature to pass the legislation. That was an enormous amount of money at a time when most people were earning less than a dollar a day. Only one senator – “Honest” Amasa Cobb – turned down the bribe.

Wisconsin remained corrupt until the turn of the century when Fighting Bob La Follette and his allies were swept into power because of public disgust with the corruption of that era. Corporate campaign contributions were banned in 1906. The first direct primary elections were created, taking the nominating process out of the smoke-filled rooms and giving it to the people.

Those reformers created a foundation upon which squeaky clean Wisconsin was built.

They did it then. We can do it now.

In closing, I want to say a word about the need for bravery in an age of fear.

We’re going through the second period of massive economic dislocation in our nation’s history.

People are afraid our children’s generation will be the first in our nation’s history not to be better off than their parents

When people are afraid, they'll gladly trade freedom for security. Look no further than the Patriot Act for evidence of that. They'll take the comfort of a well-known past over the risk of a yet-to-be-discovered future. Unless someone both brave and optimistic offers a compelling vision of what lays beyond the horizon. Is there anyone in this room who believes today’s Democratic Party is a brave and optimistic party?

That’s what the rewinders know and what they count on. I call the gang in charge rewinders because they only know how to push the rewind button. Their answer to every problem is to turn back the clock.

Now more than ever, we need a second-party movement. We need to build a movement that is both brave and optimistic, a movement that once again makes people unafraid to sail over the horizon.

Just as we can take comfort and inspiration from history as we face the ongoing struggle between honor and corruption. We also can take comfort and inspiration from the experience of those who came before us as we confront our fears and look out over that horizon.

We know what those who sailed before us discovered. There is nothing to fear over the horizon. The earth is round. The rewinders still seem convinced the earth is flat. But the earth is round.

We have it in our power to create an innovative vision of a bright future for the state of Wisconsin. Our best days are not behind us. And we have it in our power to take back our government from the rewinders and create a real democracy. Don’t you ever doubt that.

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

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