Rise of the shadow parties

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel                                  March 25, 2008
You were given two votes during the March 18 "American Idol" broadcast. One was for an honest, innocent singer. The other was for a state Supreme Court justice in an insurgent ad produced by a shadowy interest group. Hollywood is more open and transparent than our elections. Welcome to the new American democracy.

There are four interest groups pushing candidates in Wisconsin's April 1 Supreme Court election. Contributions to a candidate must be disclosed and are limited. But businesses and rich individuals can give unlimited, secret amounts to these groups - legally. All men are created more equal if they get into the right bed.

Their negative-leaning ads, an ugly pattern in recent years, appear within 60 days of an election and disappear right after. They show photos of the candidates and name them. The obvious goal is to sway the outcome.

Their trick to avoid crossing the law: operate under the pretext of campaigning on an issue. They slip through loopholes by avoiding the killer words: vote, elect and defeat. But it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which ran the ad during "American Idol" last week through one of its arms, is the state's chamber of commerce and its largest business lobby. It does not reveal its membership or the source of money behind the ads, which may or may not come from its members.

Two of the groups have only voice mail and did not return my calls: Coalition for America's Families and Wisconsin Club for Growth. The latter group is the local arm of one the largest Republican interest groups, Club for Growth.

As judicial elections are nonpartisan, the political parties are not active. But the interest groups are run by former party operatives: Coalition for America's Families by Steve King, former state Republican Party chairman; Club for Growth by R.J. Johnson, former executive director of the Republican Party; Greater Milwaukee Committee by Bill Christofferson, former campaign chair for Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle; and WMC by its president James Haney, an ex-staffer in the administration of two Republican governors.

Three pumped millions into the 2006 races for governor and attorney general.

The solution is to close the loopholes. It won't be easy. "Every side has creative lawyers, and enforcement is usually weak," Stephen Weissman of the Washington-based Campaign Finance Institute told me.

A political black hole appeared after the 2002 McCain-Feingold law chased a lot of soft money out of the parties. The hole widened after the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth knocked John Kerry off his stride. Donor faith has been shifting from the parties to the independent groups, and they are taking their money with them.

Without money, the state parties, far worse than the national parties, are being eviscerated. "We don't have functioning parties, not in the way we used to know them," Mike McCabe of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign told me. "Political parties used to recruit candidates; they used to help fund them; they played an integral role in the electoral process. Political parties don't have a role in recruiting or significantly backing candidates. They've become empty vessels, replaced by shadow parties."

As the parallel parties rise, it is increasingly obvious that every candidate must have their blessing to run and their unrestrained campaigning. And elected politicians will have to play ball in office for support in the next election. The elected will fear their donors more than their voters.

They may count on our vote, but we won't have a vote that counts.








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