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McCabe: Political system shows 'money matters more than people'

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Frank Schultz
March 5, 2013

— Wisconsin was already seeing an unprecedented escalation of campaign contributions before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Citizens United opinion in 2010.

But after Citizens United, campaign contributions more than tripled, said Mike McCabe, executive director of the government watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

McCabe spoke at the UW-Whitewater campus on Monday night to about 30 people.

“We are seeing a system where money matters more than people in politics,” McCabe said.

Citizens United was the decision that equated money with the right to free speech and said corporations had the same political rights as people, McCabe said.

The decision allowed the creation of super PACs, which funneled enormous amounts of money into elections, including those in Wisconsin.

McCabe said election spending in Wisconsin grew from $122 million in the 2006-08 election cycles to at least $394 million from 2010 through 2012.

McCabe drew connections from the money to the politicians to what he sees as a political system in peril.

The highest-spending candidate wins nine times out of 10 in Wisconsin, McCabe said. And once elected, the money controls the agenda.

Why is the Legislature intent on passing mining legislation while polls show a majority opposes easing environmental protections to make mining easier? McCabe asked.

McCabe’s answer: Pro-mining interests have given nearly $16 million to the governor and legislators, while anti-mining groups have given politicians $25,000.

And why don’t politicians ever debate the rising tide of poverty? McCabe asked. Because poor people don’t contribute to their campaigns.

McCabe sees the same problem with rural issues. McCabe’s organization found that the majority of Wisconsin campaign contributions come from 32 urban or suburban ZIP codes. Rural issues are not discussed, he said, because politicians don’t hear the rural money.

Activists with an organization called Move to Amend have succeeded in getting a referendum on the subject on the April 2 ballots in Whitewater and Fort Atkinson.

The referendums, similar to those passed by 11 states and hundreds of municipalities nationwide, call for lawmakers to work for a constitutional amendment that would allow campaign spending to be regulated once again, overturning Citizens United.

More such local ballots are to come, said Erik Kirkstein of United Wisconsin, who also spoke Monday.

Kirkstein said he didn’t know of any other ballot initiatives in Rock or Walworth counties, but a statewide petition drive seeks to push lawmakers to put the question on a statewide ballot in 2014.

United Wisconsin is no stranger to petitions. It was a driving force in the petition drive that forced the failed recall election of Gov. Scott Walker last June.

McCabe said the ruling Republicans in Madison are in favor of the Citizens United decision, and unlike at the local level, a petition can’t force their hand.

But the idea is to confront lawmakers with the petition and ask why they would be afraid to hear what voters have to say, McCabe said.



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