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Special-interest ads create traffic jam on the low road

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Mike McCabe
October 19, 2008

Voters statewide are enduring smear campaigns waged by cloaked special-interest groups intent on controlling the Legislature. Little is known about the groups responsible because they’re operating outside the law, exploiting a gaping loophole to get around disclosure requirements and skirt campaign contribution limits.


Swiss banks are known the world over as the place to stash ill-gotten gains, keep questionable finances one step ahead of the law or stockpile riches with no questions asked. So-called “issue ad” groups are their political equivalent.


The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign maintains a section of our Web site (www.wisdc.org) that we call Hijacking Election 2008 (available at www.wisdc.org/ind08issueads.php). We’re updating it several times a day as we learn of new under-the-radar hatchet jobs in legislative races by groups such as All Children Matter and Building a Stronger Wisconsin.


These shadowy front groups are creating a traffic jam on the low road, stuffing mailboxes and in some cases filling the airwaves in key battleground districts with paint-by-numbers attacks. All Children Matter assails Democratic candidates, claiming they all support health care benefits for illegal aliens. Building a Stronger Wisconsin attacks Republicans on the grounds that they don’t care about school kids and rape victims.


All Children Matter is based in Michigan and is the brainchild of the DeVos family that founded Amway Corp. Dick DeVos spent $40 million of his own money trying to become Michigan’s governor and his wife, Betsy, has been Michigan’s Republican Party chief. Her brother, Erik Prince, is head of Blackwater Security, which supplies mercenaries in Iraq and elsewhere.


Even less is known about Building a Stronger Wisconsin. It has a Web site (buildingastrongerwi.com) and a Waunakee post office box. Its treasurer is listed as Randy Nash, a Milwaukee area attorney and unsuccessful Democratic Senate candidate in 1996.


What’s clear is that the money raised to fund their smears isn’t disclosed to the public. Voters have been kept in the dark about who’s paying for this gutter campaigning.


Four groups—Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Greater Wisconsin Committee, Club for Growth and the Coalition for America’s Families—raised and spent two out of every three dollars in the last two state Supreme Court elections and accounted for nearly 90 percent of TV advertising in this year’s race.


Voters have gotten no clue about where the money came from to pay for all those ads.


Electioneering by trade associations, lobbying organizations and party front groups abounds in state elections, and who pays the bills is a secret.


It’s secret because of the loophole mentioned earlier. Not only does it allow them to operate like Swiss banks, it allows them to effectively take the “r” out of free speech.


This loophole can and should be closed. At its last meeting, the state Government Accountability Board voted unanimously to assert it has authority to rewrite rules governing electioneering by special-interest groups. The board has signaled it intends to act.


Let’s hope and pray it does. The sooner the better. The board’s next meeting is Nov. 11.


Mike McCabe is executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan government watchdog group; e-mail mccabe@wisdc.org. WDC’s Web site is www.wisdc.org.

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