Get-money-out-of-politics movement comes to towns near you

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Frank Schultz
Friday, August 30, 2013

ELKHORN—It might seem like a mission impossible: Get Congress to start a process both rare and historic to amend the Constitution.

The goal is to get big money out of politics, and that's also a monumental task, considering how money has come to dominate politics since the 2010 Supreme Court decision called Citizens United.

The latest battlegrounds are Delavan, Elkhorn and Lake Geneva, where activists will be going door to door in the coming months to get signatures on petitions to force local advisory referendums.

The effort starts this weekend at the Walworth County Fair in Elkhorn, said Lisa Subeck of United Wisconsin, one of two groups backing the effort in Walworth County.

The other group is Kenosha Area Progressives, according to a news release, but the people knocking on doors will be local activists talking to their neighbors, Subeck said.

The effort has been successful in other Wisconsin cities, including Whitewater and Fort Atkinson, which passed the referendum last April.

Whitewater's vote was 909 to 177, a margin of 83 percent in favor.

To place a referendum on a ballot, state law requires petitions with signatures equaling 15 percent of the vote in the last gubernatorial election. That threshold is 339 in Delavan, 459 in Elkhorn and 333 in Lake Geneva, Subeck said.

The nationwide strategy is to show such broad-based popular support that Congress will start the process to amend the Constitution. Two local congressmen have differing views on the topic.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-2nd District, sponsored move-to-amend legislation when he was a Wisconsin Assemblyman, and he announced his support again last February, soon after he became a member of the House of Representatives.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-1st District, one of the most successful money-raisers in Congress, apparently has not decided where he stands.

A Ryan spokesman responded to a Gazette request Friday with a statement saying Ryan “doesn't have a position on the referendum at this time” and that if legislation comes before the House, Ryan “will give it the consideration it merits at that time.”

Advocates say money corrupts the elections and the rest of the political process. They also decry the high court's ruling that corporations have free-speech rights, and that those rights include the right to donate unlimited amounts of money.

The Move to Amend movement nationwide has taken its message to local governments. It seeks to pass advisory referendums or get local councils and boards to endorse a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United.

Rock County could soon be hearing about the effort. Activists are preparing for a petition drive in Edgerton, said Dan Fary of the Jefferson County town of Oakland.

The tactics in rural areas focus on resolutions from boards, not petition drives, because of the difficulties of going door to door, Fary said.

Fary said the Jefferson County Board and four Jefferson County town boards have passed resolutions this year.

The Edgerton group could not be reached for comment Friday, but Fary said the effort also includes the Fulton Town Board.

Wherever the petition has been on the ballot in Wisconsin, it has passed by at least 70 percent, Subeck said.

Those margins of victory argue that this is not just a cause of liberals or Democrats, Subeck said, because rarely do Democrats win by such large margins.

And the issue is not just about big corporations. The money that unions spend on elections is also a target, Subeck noted.

“This really is an issue that transcends party lines. Nobody who doesn't have a lot of money likes big money in politics,” Subeck said, and the only ones who oppose it are “those who are buying the politicians.”

That theory will be put to the test in the three Walworth County cities, where Republicans traditionally hold sway.

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