Democracy in Name Only

Remarks by WDC Executive Director Mike McCabe
at Fighting Bob Fest 2005

September 23, 2005

Forty years ago, progressive citizens and lawmakers gave us a great gift – the Voting Rights Act.

Never in the last four decades have these rights been more at risk than they are today. Never has the underlying philosophy of the Voting Rights Act been more under assault than it is right now.

I say this because in the last two national elections American citizens have been illegally removed from voter rolls because of the color of their skin or their likely party preference.

But that’s not my only reason….

I say our voting rights are more at risk than ever because new voting machines can be programmed to eat ballots without counting them, change vote tallies and fix election results. It can be done and it has happened.

But the problem runs even deeper than that….

States like Wisconsin have handed over our voter registration system to a private corporation. And not just any corporation. Accenture. This outfit used to be called Andersen Consulting, part of Arthur Andersen of Enron fame. Its parent company is based in Bermuda to avoid paying U.S. taxes. This is a company that had a hand in the purge of African Americans from voter lists in Florida before the 2004 election. This is a company that has come under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for bribing foreign officials.

This is the gang Wisconsin has hired to develop the most precious list that can ever be compiled in a democratic society – our voter registration list.

With the help of Ed Garvey, who knows how to pick good fights with bad people, we sued the state to try to get the Accenture contract nullified. We didn’t get it cancelled, but at least we forced changes in the contract allowing state officials to inspect the computer source code that programs the computers used to register voters. Under the original contract, this computer programming was considered a trade secret and Accenture’s private property.

Believe it or not, as frightening as all this is, these are not the biggest reasons why I say our voting rights are more imperiled today than at any time in memory.

The greatest threat to our voting rights is not found in a black box or on a scrub list. Today’s ruling elites don’t need to engage in flagrant attempts to deny people the right to vote in order to keep them in their place. That’s not to say they don’t try. It’s just to say they don’t need anything as crass as poll taxes or literacy tests. They don’t need to plant a bug in the voting equipment.

They can just as effectively keep people down by allowing them to freely vote in elections…whose results are predetermined.

It is this – velvet discrimination, you can call it – that represents the most sinister threat to our voting rights. The evil genius of this threat is that it does not attack the right to vote, it makes your vote meaningless.

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.

All across Wisconsin and America, voters are forced to hold their noses and choose between the lesser of evils. Often times, there’s no choice. Evil has no opponent.

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 of Wisconsin’s most powerful politicians charged with over four dozen felonies. 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.

The scandal is not the doing of six politicians who lost their way. It is the product of a system that is rotten to the core. A week and a half ago, the Democracy Campaign blew the whistle on a state travel contract given to a travel agency whose president made the maximum allowable campaign contributions to the governor – most of it within six days of when the contract took effect. None of the other bidders made any campaign donations. We said it looked like government was for sale.

A spokeswoman for the governor called our concerns “absolutely ridiculous.” There was no connection between the donations and the state business. It was a coincidence.

A few weeks earlier, we shined light in some dark places and found that legislators raised $1.4 million in campaign donations while the state budget was being shaped. We unearthed dozens of special interest favors for the contributors in the budget bill.

The director of the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate insisted: “There are no strings that are ever attached. There is no such thing as pay to play in this Legislature.”

So glad he cleared that up. Whew! Just another coincidence.

We teamed up with a University of Michigan researcher to look at road building and prison construction contracts handed out by the state Department of Transportation and Department of Corrections. Contracts awarded to campaign contributors averaged $20 million while the average value of contracts awarded to non-contributors was $870,000.

Coincidence.

We reviewed more than 5,100 state Commerce Department grants, low-interest loans and tax credits and found that campaign donors got aid averaging over $1 million while non-contributors got assistance averaging just under $130,000.

Coincidence.

Let me tell you what’s not a coincidence. It’s no coincidence that we have people in power at the Capitol who have blind faith in decisions made in corporate board rooms but don’t trust decisions people make in the privacy of their own bedrooms or doctor’s office or on their own death beds.

It’s no coincidence that the Capitol is full of people who were born on third base and have lived their lives thinking they hit a triple.

These are people who figuratively believe in a flat earth and chastity belts…and literally believe in the end times.

Their vision for Wisconsin is Wal-Mart supercenters and giant casinos and huge prisons – all connected by extremely wide roads.

They’re keen on exporting democracy because they have no use for it here.

It’s no coincidence.

It is the utterly predictable product of a corrupt political process.

It’s no coincidence that well over 40 million Americans and more than 600,000 people right here in Wisconsin have no health insurance. And it’s no coincidence that there is no serious debate on health care reform in Congress or our state Legislature.

Fifty-nine percent of African American men in Milwaukee can’t find work. Seventy-five 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 in the lobbyists’ Legislature. That’s no coincidence.

It’s no coincidence that Wisconsin is merrily paying for failure while stubbornly refusing to invest in success. Prison spending is way up, state support for our university system is way down. College tuition has increased by more than 50% in just four years, pricing so many people out of the higher education marketplace that the average income of parents of UW students has doubled just in the last 10 years, yet there is no debate on access to higher education in the lobbyists’ Legislature.

They pay more and more for failure, and invest less and less in success. Wisconsin now subsidizes Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer with profits in the neighborhood of $10 billion a year, to the tune of millions of dollars every year to do what this corporate behemoth surely would do anyway – put mom-and-pop shops out of business and rob community after community of what distinguishes them from any other town in America. Yet they put our public schools in a financial vise and squeeze them so hard that one school district has declared bankruptcy and voted to close down. Florence County won’t be the last place this happens.

Every lake in Wisconsin in contaminated with mercury, yet those who run our state aren’t cutting mercury emissions. They’re pushing more environmental deregulation. That’s no coincidence.

It’s no coincidence that we are not weaning our nation’s economy from fossil fuels. Or that the poorest residents of New Orleans were abandoned by their own government.

All that we are currently enduring is the natural byproduct of our society’s tolerance for political corruption. It is exactly what we should expect when we as citizens are satisfied with having the right to vote even if that vote serves no purpose.

We gather at a moment of crisis. We gather at a moment of great peril. But we can celebrate this undeniable truth: This is not where the story ends. Not in America. Not in Wisconsin. Not here in Baraboo.

I have no reason to be anything but optimistic about our political future. I am a Chicago Cubs fan. If I can stick with that God-forsaken team year in and year out, the rot at the top of our government ain’t going to break my faith. And I am the son of a farmer. There’s no greater act of faith than putting seeds in the ground every spring and putting yourself at the mercy of Mother Nature.

My dad worked every day, from before sunup to after sundown. In the first half of my life, I only saw him take one day off – to see one of my sisters get married. He made me stay home and miss her wedding because he wouldn’t trust a stranger to milk our cows. Other than that one day off, he worked seven days a week, 365 days a year. Year after year.

He never made much. We didn’t have health insurance. I have a big ol’ scar on my leg from the time I sliced it open on a barbed-wire fence. Mom and dad couldn’t afford to take me to a doctor to get it stitched up. Mom just wrapped it in a bandage laced with Epson salt. I made my first visit to a dentist at age 22. Dad had no choice but to leave my teeth crooked, but he made sure my heart and soul were straight.

Dad passed away a couple of years ago. If he was alive today, I know he’d want to kick George Bush’s ass. And John Gard’s. And Jim Doyle’s.

He landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. But I know he’d say it’s beneath America to launch an unprovoked attack on a people because we don’t share their religion and we want to help ourselves to their oil. If he was alive today and some twerp sitting on his brains preaching hate on shout radio had the nerve to tell him he hates America for thinking that, he’d want to go down to that station and kick that guy’s hind quarters too.

And he’d surely kick mine if I didn’t fight the bastards.

So, you see, I have no choice. I fight.

The fight will be a long one. But we face nothing today that those who came before us didn’t face. We can take comfort in Fighting Bob La Follette’s legacy. We can draw inspiration from our history. 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. Maybe more so. 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 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.

They threw the money changers out of the people’s temple. They created a foundation upon which squeaky clean Wisconsin was built.

They did it then. We can do it now.

We do it by building a movement. That’s what we’re starting with Fighting Bob Fest and this thing called the People’s Legislature. When we held the first citizen assembly back on January 4, I can’t tell you how many people told me we wouldn’t get 100 people to show up. More than 1,100 came.

We took it on the road and hundreds more joined everywhere we went. People of every political stripe are joining because they’re politically homeless. But they’re also joining because they’re politically hopeful. Now we’re here in Baraboo at this homecoming for the People’s Legislature. Today we’ll plan the next phase of this movement.

One of the things we’re going to ask you to do is sign up to descend on the Capitol on October 25, 26 and 27. Then go find a friend, a neighbor, a brother, a sister and get them signed up too. It’s time to storm the barricades. It’s time to throw the money changers out of the people’s temple.

I ask you to join us. I ask you to sign up. When I go to the Capitol to advocate for political reform, the gang that runs the place tells me that nobody cares about campaign finance reform. Nobody cares about ethics reform. Nobody cares about political corruption.

When thousands of you come to Madison that last week in October, I want you all to wear one of those stickers that says “Hello, My Name Is....” And I want you to write “nobody” on it because I want them to see how many nobodies care about political corruption and campaign finance reform and ethics reform.

Today we celebrate Fighting Bob’s memory and we celebrate the great victory that produced the Voting Rights Act. But tomorrow we go back to fighting to make those voting rights authentic and we go back to work to make Fighting Bob’s legacy a living reality in Wisconsin once again.

It is time to storm the barricades. It is time to throw the money changers out of the people’s temple. It is time to take back our government and it is time to create a real democracy.

It is about damn time.

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

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