Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s 2004 Nero Awards
October 19, 2004
Six of the state’s most powerful political leaders have been criminally charged - and one convicted so far - in what qualifies as the biggest political corruption scandal in Wisconsin’s history. The criminal indictments include nearly four dozen felony charges ranging from extortion and money laundering to kickbacks and bid rigging.
The common thread running through almost all of the criminal charges is the chase for campaign money. Spending on state election campaigns reached record levels in 2002 - including $23 million spent on the governor’s race, nearly three times the previous record set four years earlier - yet campaign fundraising increased another 55 percent as state office holders filled campaign war chests in the first half of this year in preparation for the 2004 elections. Heading into the stretch drive of the 2004 campaign, incumbents had raised $9 for every dollar challengers had.
Helping to fuel this campaign arms race is a gaping loophole in the state’s campaign finance disclosure laws permitting electioneering under the guise of "issue advocacy" and allowing special interest groups to skirt disclosure requirements and campaign contribution limits. Millions of dollars in unlimited and anonymous donations are being made to influence state elections. Wisconsin’s disclosure laws, limitations on campaign donations and the century-old prohibition of corporate campaign contributions all have been rendered functionally meaningless by the "issue ad" loophole.
This corruption of the state’s campaign finance system has produced an epidemic of uncontested state legislative races. In 1970, there were no uncontested races for the Assembly or Senate. As recently as the mid-1980s, only one in seven legislative races was uncontested. In 2004, more than 2 million voters will have no choice of who represents them in the Senate or Assembly because there is only one name on the November ballot.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin voters - 90 percent of whom supported campaign finance reform in a 2000 referendum - continue to wait for state officials to deliver on long-promised reforms.
All state officials who are supposed to be working on behalf of these voters bear some responsibility and share some of the blame for the degradation of the ethical climate in Wisconsin government and for the failure to enact political reforms an overwhelming majority of voters clearly want. But five partisan appointees of the state Elections Board - Martha Love, John Schober, Patrick Hodan, John Savage and Kirby Brant - and four elected officials - Assembly Speaker John Gard, Governor Jim Doyle, Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Freese and former Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer - were in positions giving them unique control over the fate of political reforms. These nine failed the people of Wisconsin. Because of their roles in stonewalling reform measures that could lift the cloud of corruption shrouding the Capitol, they have earned the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s 2004 Nero Award.
The award is named for the self-indulgent and corrupt 1st Century Roman emperor. One of the most famous events of Nero’s reign was the fire of Rome in 64 AD. While the fire spread and raged furiously for nine days, destroying much of the empire’s greatest city, the musically inclined Nero is famously said to have "fiddled while Rome burned."
With consideration of political reforms preempted by debates over the definition of marriage, designation of a state fruit and shopping cart theft at the same time the Capitol is engulfed in a political scandal serious enough to produce state and federal criminal charges, the symbolic parallels to Nero’s reign are obvious.
After voting three times in early 2003 to move forward with a proposed truth-in-campaigning rule requiring full disclosure of special interest campaign ads and the unlimited, anonymous "soft money" donations that pay for them, the state Elections Board reversed course in May and defeated the rule. The rule’s supporters brought the rule up for another vote in September and the board again rejected it on a 5-4 vote.
Voting to kill the disclosure rule were Democrat Martha Love, Republicans John Schober, John Savage and Patrick Hodan, and Libertarian Kirby Brant. While Schober, Savage, Hodan and Brant opposed the rule all along, it would have been approved if not for Love’s flip-flop on the issue. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s appointee voted in favor of the rule three times - once in January and twice more in March - before reversing course and casting the deciding vote to kill the disclosure measure.
The Elections Board’s inaction enables special interest groups to continue skirting Wisconsin’s campaign finance disclosure laws and keep using sources of money to pay for campaign ads - such as corporate donations - that would be illegal under state law if disclosed. An example of how political sunshine laws have been subverted is one of the state’s special interest giants, business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which disclosed a grand total of $450 in election-related giving and spending in 2002, an election year that featured a $23 million race for governor. A Wisconsin Democracy Campaign review of Internal Revenue Service records and campaign advertising buys indicates that at least $4 million in special interest donations escaped detection by the state’s campaign finance disclosure system that year.
A Nero Award recipient for the third consecutive year, Speaker Gard did not allow a vote on a single campaign finance reform bill during the 2003-2004 legislative session. Despite saying that campaign finance reform legislation would be debated after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the federal McCain-Feingold campaign reform law, Gard continued to block consideration of state reform legislation in the Assembly after the nation’s highest court upheld the constitutionality of the federal law. And the speaker’s appointee on the state Elections Board, Patrick Hodan, worked to defeat proposed state regulations mirroring the federal law and requiring full disclosure of special interest campaign ads.
While stonewalling state campaign reforms, Gard became the Assembly’s leading campaign fundraiser in 2004.More on Speaker Gard’s obstruction of reform legislation.
In his 2002 campaign for governor and in his inaugural address in January 2003, Governor Doyle pledged to clean up the Capitol and promised public financing of state elections and other campaign finance reforms. In 2004, he did nothing to deliver on his promises.
A repeat winner of the Nero Award, the governor did not offer a single campaign finance reform proposal during the 2003-2004 legislative session. The governor has the authority to call the Legislature into special session and set the agenda for that session. He ignored repeated requests to do so.
Doyle was attentive to campaign fundraising in 2004, however, collecting more than twice as much in campaign donations as former Governor Tommy Thompson did at comparable stages during his tenure as governor.
Representative Freese joins his Assmbly Republican colleague John Gard as the only three-time recipients of the Nero Award. As chairman of the Assembly Campaigns and Elections Committee, Freese did not hold so much as a public hearing let alone a vote on any campaign finance reform legislation during the 2003-2004 legislative session. He also took no steps to develop his own campaign finance reform proposal.
Mary Panzer’s second Nero is awarded - in a political sense - posthumously. The Senate Republican leader was ousted from her seat in the Legislature in a primary election challenge in the wake of her bungled handling of a proposed constitutional amendment known as the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR).
But Panzer’s clumsy about-face on TABOR was not her only notable flip-flop in 2004. At the beginning of the 2003-2004 legislative session, Panzer promised Senate Democratic Leader Jon Erpenbach that the Senate would debate and vote on campaign finance reform legislation. Then Panzer said Senate action should wait until after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the federal McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. After the court handed down its decision in December 2003 upholding the constitutionality of the new federal law, Panzer went mute on the subject. No vote on campaign finance reform legislation was ever scheduled. While Panzer was breaking the promise she made to Senator Erpenbach, her appointee on the state Elections Board, former legislative colleague John Schober, was voting to defeat proposed campaign finance disclosure rules that Panzer herself had voted to support in a doomed campaign reform package advanced by the Legislature in the 2001-2002 session.