Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, if you feel like taking a long, hot, soapy bath after the April 3 Supreme Court justice race in Wisconsin, it’s completely understandable. From any vantage point, it was a dirty, dirty deal.
In theory, Supreme Court races in this state are supposed to be nonpartisan. Fat chance.
For the record, Washington County Judge Annette Ziegler beat Madison attorney Linda Clifford in the election.
Mike McCabe, executive director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign election watchdog agency, testified about the race this week before the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Campaign Finance Reform, Rural Issues and Information Technology.
McCabe is a busy guy. He’s still counting up all of the record cash that was spent in the race.
“With two weeks worth of candidate fundraising and a couple of late interest group ad buys still to count, we could account for about $5.3 million worth of activity in this race |(so far),” McCabe told SBT.
So, who spent the most money in the race? Candidate A? Candidate B? Labor unions? Casino interests? Trial lawyers?
Nope. The Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) is the correct answer. And it wasn’t even close.
“We've estimated WMC's spending (for Ziegler) at $2.2 million. None of this has been disclosed to the public, but we can make very accurate estimates by reviewing ad buy records as well as relying on reports from the field about the extent of a group's direct mail advertising, radio buys and robocalling,” McCabe said. “WEAC didn't spend anything detectable on this race.
The big group on the Democratic side was Greater Wisconsin Committee, which spent about $400,000. That spending in support of Clifford was roughly matched by the Club for Growth, which spent close to $400,000 on Ziegler's behalf.
According to McCabe, several “left-leaning” political action committees (Planned Parenthood, Fair Wisconsin PAC, Madison Teachers Inc., UW-Madison Teaching Assistants and the Human Rights League) also spent small amounts, ranging from a few hundred dollars to roughly $35,000.
All told, special interest groups spent just over $3 million, as counted so far.
Think about that. Special interest groups spent more than the candidates.
In this troubling new form of government that used to be a democracy, special interests are in control. Not the public. Not even the candidates.
“We just endured the ugliest Supreme Court race our state has ever seen. Not to mention the most partisan and most expensive by far. A cash-soaked, special interest-contaminated smearfest that came on the heels of a $32 million race for governor and a contest for attorney general where over $8 million was spent -- five times more than ever before for that office -- mostly on ads filled with half-truths and outright lies about who's softest on sex crimes,” McCabe said. “We've seen what the current campaign finance system gets us. You need look no further than what we just experienced these past several weeks to see the need for reform.”
According to McCabe, the WMC was responsible for 40 percent of the money spent in the Supreme Court race.
At this pace, the Supreme Court will be the best court that money can buy.
“What we are left with is a cloud that now hangs over our state's highest court and indeed our entire state court system. Judges are supposed to be accountable only to the law and the Constitution. Because of the pathologies that were so evident in this race, the public is now left to wonder whether judges are beholden only to the law or whether they are beholden to the interest groups and party bosses that got them elected. This puts the fairness and impartiality of our courts in question, and puts the integrity of our highest court in particular at great risk,” McCabe said.
This isn’t about red or blue politics, conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats. It’s about the essence of democracy.
McCabe is urging state legislators to adopt publicly funded election systems that are working successfully in states such as North Carolina, Maine, Arizona and Minnesota and are now being embraced by Connecticut.
However, he’s playing a losing hand. Good luck trying to persuade legislators who were elected by our current corrupt system to change the way this filthy game is played.
Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes in Milwaukee and is past president of the Milwaukee Press Club. BizTimes provides news and operational insight for the owners and managers of privately held companies throughout southeastern Wisconsin.
Steve has won several journalism awards as a reporter, a columnist and an editor. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
When he is not pursuing the news, Steve enjoys spending time with his wife, Kristi, and their two sons, Justin and James. Steve can be reached at email@example.com.