Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign is, as usual, irate. Earlier this month, in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on the "tarnished" image of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, McCabe said he's fed up with the "nasty" tone of Supreme Court campaigns, labeling the high court races in 2007 and 2008 "meltdowns."
This is a bit like a BP executive complaining that he can't take his family to the beach because his kid might eat a tar ball.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign purports to fight for cleaner elections and a more transparent, fairer process. So clearly, the "tarnished" image of the Supreme Court is good business for McCabe. In fact, he goes to great lengths to personally tarnish it, so he can then cash in by complaining about how little regard the public has for the justices.
It was McCabe who happily passed on a columnist's quote referring to Justice Mike Gableman as a "lowlife" and said Gableman was now free to again "molest" electoral rivals. McCabe has accused the court of engaging in "legalized bribery" and suggested we're living in a state of "fascism." And it was McCabe who was verbally disemboweled in public by Justice David Prosser for smearing Prosser's name in connection with the criminal case against former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen.
But in fact, despite bemoaning the effect of "big money" on the court, McCabe hasn't given evidence of a single case in which the justices have been corrupted in any way. His views on this subject, on which he is constantly being cited by state media, appear driven by politics, despite the fact that the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign is a supposedly nonpartisan operation.
During the first three years that McCabe kept a blog on his website, there are zero references to the supposed "corruption" of the court. While the working liberal majority handed down lucrative decisions that benefited trial lawyers and Indian tribes, McCabe held his tongue. He only began channeling his inner Doug Llewelyn when the court began swinging more conservative in 2007 with the election of Annette Ziegler.
This is the same legal mind that said the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC "will rank right there with the Dred Scott decision as one of the darkest moments in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court." Certainly, African Americans who tried to escape slavery share a kinship with McCabe, since having to watch a few extra campaign commercials seems to be just as oppressive.
Despite the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign's "nonpartisan" claims, McCabe has used his platform to crusade for a host of progressive pet causes, including stands in favor of a single-payer health system and a board-appointed DNR secretary, and against the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
In fact, while McCabe demands openness and transparency from others, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign itself does not disclose its donors, even as it seeks to change state law for its own benefit. And despite his constant criticism of lobbyists for having too much influence, McCabe himself is a registered lobbyist.
Even on the issues he supposedly supports, McCabe can't make up his mind. For years, he complained about special interests spending too much money in legislative and judicial races. Then, in 2009, with Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson blowing away her competitor, Randy Koschnick, in a noncompetitive race, overall spending was down.
So McCabe, needing to say something to keep himself in the news, actually began complaining about the race's low visibility - a consequence of its low spending.
"This has been so under the radar that my fear is that people don't know much about this race, don't know hardly anything about the challenger," he said. "It's not a good thing to have a statewide election and have nobody notice."
Of course, those who follow campaign finance issues know that holding down spending suppresses turnout. Studies by UW-Madison professor Ken Goldstein and others have found that in races where there's more spending, voters are more knowledgeable about the candidates and turn out in higher numbers.
In other words, the drumbeat for lower spending could in the end mean fewer, less knowledgeable voters. This from a group that claims to be the spokesperson for "democracy" in Wisconsin - it's right there in its name.
But as long as voters despise the Legislature and Supreme Court, McCabe gets calls from the press to comment on their distaste for elected officials. Then he can denigrate them even more, which leads to more press calls. It's the "circle of smear."
Christian Schneider lives in Madison, works for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, and blogs at christianschneiderblog.com.