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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast
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Time for reform?
After years of spun wheels and upended deals, proponents see chance of progress on ethics and campaign finance
Mike McCabe: 'It's time for the newly elected state Legislature and governor to get down to business.'
Mike McCabe: 'It's time for the newly elected state Legislature and governor to get down to business.'

On Nov. 7, by an unexpectedly large margin, Wisconsin reelected Gov. Jim Doyle ' despite Republican efforts to paint him as an outright crook in moral hock to his campaign donors. State voters also whittled down the Republican majority in the state Assembly and flipped the Senate to the Democrats. And they narrowly picked a conservative Republican as the state's new attorney general.

Anyone searching for a message in the balloting may have been justifiably confused. But for Mike McCabe, there was no ambiguity. The executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, citing national exit-poll data, declared political corruption a pivotal problem, and ethics and campaign finance reform the only solution.

'It's time for the newly elected state Legislature and governor to get down to business and meaningfully address the electorate's top concerns,' McCabe wrote on his blog.

It could happen. After years of shouting and finger-pointing from the sidelines, reformers like McCabe and his sometime ally, Jay Heck at Common Cause in Wisconsin, are seeing hopeful signs that the tide has turned.

Already, Doyle has joined with legislative leaders from both houses in proposing to advance an ethics overhaul package that the Assembly's GOP leadership bottled up last year. But for longtime advocates of more fundamental reform, that's only the first step.

'While this is an important part of reform, it is a smaller part,' says state Rep. Spencer Black (D-Madison), the former Assembly minority leader. 'By far the most important thing we can do is get the special-interest money out of elections.'

Black supports legislation to boost public financing of campaigns, restrain outside groups from spending big pots of unregulated money for or against candidates, and curb the skyrocketing cost of running for state office.

Legislation to achieve this, coauthored by maverick Republican Sen. Mike Ellis and Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, is once again rising like a phoenix from the ashes. The Ellis-Erpenbach bill has been around in one form or another since the turn of the century. But now, the reformers say, it has a real chance of passing.

'Everything's going to fall in place,' predicts Bill Kraus, a former Republican political operative with ties to both Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Common Cause in Wisconsin. He pauses. 'We hope. There's a lot of hope in here.'

Reformers at work

In 1994, Tommy Thompson won his third term as governor, once again turning down public financing and spending record amounts to keep his seat against a lackluster challenge from Democratic Sen. Chuck Chvala.

Among interest groups, from the state chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons to the Citizens Utility Board, there was a growing unease. As money became king, their voices were being shut out of the political debates over legislation and policy.

'Their ability to advocate for their interests in the Legislature was just being drowned out,' recalls Gail Shea, who in 1995 became Wisconsin Democracy Campaign's first executive director. 'Big money was just dominating everything.'

For years, Shea had worked as campaign finance and elections administrator at the State Elections Board, where she grew 'enormously frustrated with the unwillingness of the Elections Board to enforce the law.' The board's partisan members, appointed by Democratic and Republican leaders, were, she says, 'colluding to thwart enforcement.'

So she quit, joining instead a fledgling coalition of groups seeking fundamental reform. With a grant from the Joyce Foundation in Chicago, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign launched a comprehensive database of campaign donations of $100 or more to all candidates for state office. It also mounted an ongoing effort to revive and expand public financing of state campaigns.

Mike McCabe, a lobbyist/spokesman for the Madison School District, served on the group's board before joining its staff in 1999 and succeeding Shea as executive director the following year. (Shea stayed on as an analyst but left in mid-2001 after drawing internal flak for remarks that suggested favoritism toward Democrats, undercutting the group's carefully cultivated bipartisan image.)

McCabe grew up on a dairy farm in Curtis, Wis., earning a degree in journalism from the UW-Madison in 1982. He worked briefly as a correspondent for several Dane County weeklies before becoming an Assembly aide. Joining the Democracy Campaign helped him realize career ambitions.

'I always wanted to do investigative work related to state politics,' he says. 'A lot of what we do as a watchdog group is investigative journalism.'

Today the group occupies part of a modest office building at West Johnson and North Bassett streets in downtown Madison. The carpeted second-floor suite is stuffed with computers and buzzes with a half-dozen employees who feed campaign data into spreadsheet programs and post information online. The organization's $330,000 annual budget comes from a mix of grants; Joyce is the largest, but money comes also from the Evjue Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts, along with financial support from individual donors and member groups like the League of Women Voters, National Farmers Union and AARP.

A few blocks away, just off of State Street, Jay Heck runs Common Cause in Wisconsin out of a cluttered and cramped walk-up office festooned with campaign buttons and yard signs. His $120,000 annual budget is barely one-third that of McCabe's group and, aside from some occasional part-time clerical help, he's essentially a one-man show.

Common Cause has more than two decades' seniority on Wisconsin Democracy Campaign; the self-styled citizens lobby launched its state chapter in 1974. But by the mid-1990s, despite a popular annual bike-tour fund-raiser, the group was essentially moribund. In 1996, former Gov. Tony Earl and others, including Kraus, set out to revive it.

'We decided we should go find someone who could make it work,' says Kraus, who had been an aide to former GOP Gov. Lee Dreyfus. And so Heck was hired.

Heck, who will mark his 11th year with the group in February, grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, 800 miles from Madison. Politically, he journeyed even farther, from a Goldwater Republican in his youth to a staff aide for Democratic legislators: first a Pennsylvania congressman and later Wisconsin state Sen. Joe Strohl. In between, in 1980, he worked for Republican-turned-independent presidential candidate John Anderson.

His experience in the Capitol gave Heck an insider's perspective. In 2002, when the scandal broke over legislative caucus workers doing campaign work on the taxpayer's dime ' which led to criminal convictions for key legislative leaders in both parties ' Heck understood the issue better than most.

'I worked in one of the caucuses,' he says. 'I knew what they were about, and I saw they were getting worse.'

Different strokes

Although they have similar priorities, Heck and McCabe and their respective organizations cast contrasting shadows.

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign is known for its database and its work cross-tabulating campaign data to show how donors manipulate the political system. This makes the group a bit like a newspaper investigative unit, always on a mission to find and expose corruption.

Common Cause, meanwhile, relies more on lobbying. It marshals its 4,000 members to call on their legislators and cultivates alliances with key legislators, especially Ellis. 'Mike Ellis has been the guy since 1998 who, day in and day out, cares about these issues,' says Heck.

'Jay's more of an inside operator, trying to work with the Legislature and see what's possible,' says Shea, who worked as a volunteer lobbyist for Common Cause before her stint with the Elections Board. 'Mike McCabe is more of an outsider. His role is challenging the system and making it difficult for [those in it] to continue to act the way they are.'

Kraus agrees: 'Mike McCabe is more of a bomb thrower and a more intense critic, and Jay is more of a dealer. Jay works more diligently and probably more effectively on process. He can get into any office of the Capitol, on both sides of the aisle.'

Both groups have tried to rise above the partisan fray, working with Republicans, Democrats and Greens. But that hasn't stopped partisan critics from sniping. Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, especially, has been accused by Doyle partisans of holding an impossibly high standard for political purity. And when the group successfully petitioned the state Elections Board to block Mark Green from using out-of-state political action committee funds in his campaign against Doyle, some Republicans accused it of being a Democratic Party front.

McCabe has struck up a partnership of sorts with iconoclastic Democrat Ed Garvey, organizing the so-called People's Legislature, a loose collection of progressive activists, along with some moderate Republicans and former Libertarian candidate Ed Thompson. The citizen group's goal is to create a groundswell for political reform. McCabe has also championed media reform, seeking to mandate free airtime for political campaigners.

Under McCabe, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has opposed two state constitutional amendments: one to limit how much local governments can raise taxes and the other to ban gay marriage and civil unions. McCabe sees these as efforts to misuse the state's constitution to make laws, rather than as a framework for lawmaking, as intended.

'We believe both seriously undermine the very fundamental basis of our democracy,' he says. 'In both cases, this was an end-run around the democratic process.'

Meanwhile, McCabe has made a conscious decision not to pursue grants from the Open Society Institute, which has funded campaign-reform efforts in other states. The institute is founded by billionaire George Soros, a prominent backer of Democratic candidates.

Working together

On many issues, Common Cause and Wisconsin Democracy Campaign have made, well, common cause.

Both opposed using tax dollars to pay the legal fees of legislators accused in the caucus scandal. Both have pushed to replace the state Ethics Board and Elections Board with an independent Government Accountability Board. (A bill to achieve this easily passed the Senate last year but was blocked from an Assembly vote by GOP Speaker John Gard and others.) And both have long sought to ban political fund-raising during the budget-writing process.

But no issue has captured the devotion of reformers more than the Ellis-Erpenbach campaign finance reform bill. Although details have evolved over time, the bill's basic thrust is to provide partial public financing of political campaigns while stanching the flood of cash spent for or against candidates by outside groups.

Outside spending takes two basic forms. One is independent expenditures, through which groups like the Wisconsin Education Association Council buy their own ads for or against candidates. Independent expenditures are regulated as campaign spending; groups that make them must file regular reports on where their money comes from and how it is spent.

The other form is issue advertising. Groups placing these ads ' typically highlighting such hot-button issues as taxes or abortion or school choice ' don't have to make financial disclosures, so long as the ads don't expressly urge voters to vote for or against candidates.

Starting about a decade ago, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce ramped up spending on issue ads that aired at election time. And while these and other ads don't tell voters to 'Throw out Senator Jones,' reformers contend that ads urging people to 'Call Senator Jones and tell him to stop raising our taxes!' come pretty close, especially when they air within weeks of an election.

The Ellis-Erpenbach bill would put ads that name specific candidates within 60 days of an election under the same rules as other campaign spending. They would be subject to disclosure, and to the state's ban against corporate spending on political campaigns.

But the true genius of this bill is that it provides a powerful incentive for candidates to abide by spending limits. A candidate who accepts public financing and sticks to state spending limits could get an additional public contribution if his or her opponent exceeds these limits, either directly or as the result of outside spending.

The differences in style between McCabe and Heck were never more vivid than in early 2005, when the two bickered noisily over that year's Ellis-Erpenbach bill. Hoping to win support from the Assembly's then-commanding GOP majority, Ellis and Common Cause agreed to remove the disclosure requirement from election-season issue ads. Erpenbach walked, and so did Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. McCabe blasted the weakened bill as being worse than nothing, while Heck sneered at 'purists' unwilling to accept the real world.

The bill still did not pass. 'As it turns out, even that was too much for John Gard,' Heck observes. Since then, he and McCabe have 'kissed and made up.' So have Ellis and Erpenbach. 'We all went to group therapy,' Erpenbach says dryly, 'and we're feeling so much better.'

The main event

Last month Doyle, Republican Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch, and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Judy Robson announced they had agreed to an ethics reform package. This brought cautious cheers from editorial writers around the state as well as from McCabe, Heck and their allies. But passage is far from certain.

Already, Huebsch has suggested amending it to require that voters present a picture ID. This controversial measure, long sought by GOP leaders and opposed by Democrats as a thinly attempt at voter suppression, would likely doom the bill's chances of passage.

Beyond that, McCabe joins Rep. Black in cautioning that ethics reform is only part of the solution. He calls it 'just a sideshow,' in an arena where 'money is the main event.'

This year's version of the Ellis-Erpenbach bill should pass the Senate, but its fate in the GOP-controlled Assembly is less certain.

For one thing, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) and other groups that use issue ads are likely to mount a full-throated campaign against the provisions requiring them to disclose donors.

'Under the First Amendment, corporations have free-speech rights,' asserts Jim Pugh of WMC. He says issue-ad restriction treats corporate speech as 'political electioneering' and thus 'suppresses constitutional rights for businesses, for unions, for tribal gambling interests, for everyone in the state of Wisconsin.'

Erpenbach rejects such claims. 'They're just being cute,' he says of the business lobby. 'It's illegal to use corporate contributions in any campaign in the state of Wisconsin. The only reason why WMC would fight it is they are using corporate money and they know it's illegal.'

Another hurdle will be the bill's public financing provisions. Huebsch and other Republicans are on record as opposing public financing, and the electorate is likely to be divided.

'I would expect it's going nowhere,' says Pugh of campaign financing legislation. 'It's a media phenomenon driven by so-called reformers inside the Legislature and outside the Legislature, but in the grand scheme of things it's not a major priority for people in the state of Wisconsin.'

But optimists point to the success of Democratic challengers who beat lawmakers perceived as obstructing the ethics bill. The most ironic victim: Republican Steve Freese, whom the reformers long considered one of the Republican good guys. Freese lost in large part because his Democratic challenger, Steve Hilgenberg, hammered him over having joined other Republicans in a procedural vote to block an ethics bill that Freese himself supported.

'I've got to believe the Assembly Republicans are feeling some pressure these days,' McCabe says. Heck adds that Huebsch has already met with Common Cause leaders ' in contrast to his predecessors' pointed snubs of the group in the past. 'On paper,' he says, 'the prospects for reform look better than they have in years.'

Moreover, while Doyle emerged victorious, he did so spattered with mud from allegations that he rewarded big campaign donors with fat contracts and other forms of state largesse. 'I think he probably is looking at his legacy to some extent,' Heck says of the governor.

McCabe argues that voters who reelected Doyle weren't giving the governor a pass: 'The one place Doyle was vulnerable was ethics.' Indeed, that probably cut into Doyle's margin of victory. But Green, with his own PAC money problems and otherwise fuzzy campaign, 'was an imperfect messenger to exploit that vulnerability.'

Just after Thanksgiving, the governor's powerful chief of staff, Susan Goodwin, met separately with Heck and McCabe. 'It's clear the governor wants to invest energy in this issue,' reflects McCabe. 'He wasn't involved in this issue last session. He clearly sounds like he wants to be involved now. And that's critical.'

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