Steven Walters: Wisconsin candidates dance around questionnaires on issues
The state Assembly candidate grimaced when asked the number of questionnaires he had received from special-interest groups demanding to know his positions on issues they will push next year.
He estimated getting up to 30 questionnaires—some of which he ignored because they fell into the stop-beating-your-wife category.
The candidate's name isn't important because he makes this larger point:
“Candidates hate questionnaires—and I don't blame them,” said Joe Murray, chief lobbyist for the Wisconsin Realtors Association.
If you run for the Legislature, you get swamped with questionnaires, surveys, requests for endorsement interviews and other attempts to lock you into a yes/no commitment months—or even years—before a specific bill is up for a vote.
Candidates walk a fine line when they get these requests.
They must answer questions about major public policy issues: Would you raise taxes to maintain highway construction and maintenance, since there is a projected $650 million Transportation Department deficit by mid-2017? Do you support Gov. Scott Walker's call to repeal Common Core educational standards?
Special-interest groups use candidates' answers to publish pre-election “voters' guides,” decide whether to contribute to specific candidates and, in some cases, make endorsements.
But candidates also know that a specific answer today may come back and bite them later. Also, a one-sentence answer to a complex policy question can be misrepresented.
To avoid questionnaires, lobbyist Murray shared how the Realtors group vets candidates.
“We interview in all 'open' seats”—elections with no incumbents, Murray said.
Murray added: The interviews include WRA members from the candidate's district. Leaders of the statewide association draft questions. “Endorsed candidates get money, letters of endorsement to all members in the district [and] included in the official WRA Voter Guide.”
Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the nonprofit League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, said her group never endorses candidates but questions them this way:
“The state League of Women Voters sends a link for an online questionnaire to all candidates for statewide offices, legislative and congressional seats. Candidates enter their own answers, which are published verbatim online. …
“In addition, some local leagues include the information in print voter guides. … Some local leagues do individual candidate interviews, usually in connection with local cable TV stations, which play and replay them. Local leagues also sponsor live candidate forums.”
But two former legislators say it all causes more harm than good.
“Questionnaires are especially a problem for first-time candidates, said former Assembly assistant Democratic leader Tony Staskunas, now a Milwaukee County supervisor. “Over time you learn which are the more important questionnaires to answer.”
He added: “For example, as a Democrat, most members were encouraged to always answer surveys from labor organizations. … Members tended to answer the surveys in which they knew that they agreed with the position of the organization asking the questions and tended to ignore and not answer the surveys from organizations which they disagreed with.”
Staskunas said interest groups sometimes ask legislators to change their answers.
“We were asked by interest groups to re-do a survey and change an answer so that it would fit their agenda. In this fashion, the interest group could then endorse a candidate. They were only interested in a 100 percent pure answer.”
Overall, Staskunas said: “This proliferation of surveys and questionnaires is the cause of some of the hyper-partisanship now rampant in the Legislature.”
Why? Because candidates pledging to vote a certain way, for example, are “locked into a position before they have even taken office, which greatly reduces the opportunity to negotiate or work with the opposing party on a compromise.”
Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee professor and former Democratic legislator, said special-interest groups send out questionnaires “to lock up your vote long before you know precisely what you're voting on.”
“Politicians like ambiguity, and special-interest groups like specificity,” Lee added. “There's a saying amongst politicians: 'You can't get in trouble for what you don't say.'”
Overall, Lee said, “The real loser here is the public at-large who want to elect politicians who will vote for the public interest and stand up to special-interest groups.”
Special-interest groups care about “one tiny subject” that escapes public notice, Lee added. “It's the fatal flaw of American politics: Pleasing special interests rarely (has) electoral repercussions.”
Steven Walters is a producer for the nonprofit WisconsinEye public affairs network. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.