July 28, 2011

Lawmaker puts positive spin on campaign cash

Robin Vos is a smart, likable guy who happens to hold one of the state’s most powerful positions — co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. The Republican Assemblyman from Rochester has vast license to shape the state’s priorities, as when his committee made dozens of tweaks to the recently passed biennial budget.

Some say it’s also a position that makes Vos especially susceptible to special interests seeking to influence the process through campaign contributions. But Vos insists that’s not happening.

“With limited exceptions, people do not give me money and ask me for things in return,” Vos says. “I’ve never had somebody say, ‘I gave you $500, this is what I expect you to do.’ ”

What are the limited exceptions?

Vos tells of a classic car enthusiast who asked about letting vehicles in Wisconsin display only rear license plates, as in some other states. “He said to me, ‘I’m a good supporter of yours, and I’ve never asked for anything, and this is something I would like to see happen.’ ”

But law enforcement officials told Vos they like being able to see plates from the front, so the idea never went anywhere.

“Does he still give me money today?” asks Vos. “He does. He hasn’t given any less.”

Vos takes this train of thought further down the track: “Have people given me money and then I’ve met with them later and listened to their issues and agreed sometimes and not agreed other times? Yes, that’s true.”

Vos, whose campaign committee is called Friends & Neighbors of Robin Vos, was elected without opposition in 2004, defeated opponents in 2006 and 2008, and ran unopposed again last year. (“I don’t think I’ll be unchallenged next time,” he says with a smile.)

In 2010 he raised $67,123 and spent $57,747, one-third in distributions to other candidates, campaign finance reports show. This year through June 30 he raised just $1,815, reflecting in part an Assembly ban on donations while the budget is in play.

Vos says he sends out a few fundraising letters each year and holds one or two events. (He’s planning a fundraiser in Madison on Aug. 17, with recommended donation levels ranging from $100 to $500 per person.) He thinks the role of money in elections is overblown by people who “assume the worst about politicians, politics and the world that we’re in.”

As Vos sees it, money does not drive politicians; it follows them.

“I do not think that the reason Democrats are in favor of unions is because unions give them money,” he says. “I don’t think the reason Republicans have always been champions of business is because business people give them money.”

Vos, the owner of several small businesses, including a popcorn company and car wash, says politicians come to their beliefs sincerely, drawing support from individuals and interest groups who happen to agree.

“I know that every single member of the Democratic Assembly believes in unionization,” he says. “They believe the world is a better place because unions are around to protect the middle class and stand up to corporations. Because they believe that, unions give them money and help them get elected.”

Rep. Mark Pocan, a Madison Democrat who preceded Vos as co-chair of Joint Finance — the two men are friends — finds this view too rosy.

“Sounds like a great fairy tale story to read to a budding Republican child,” cracks Pocan. “Money in elections has enormous influence. Anyone who says contrary is not facing reality.”

Pocan agrees there are people who write checks because they generally share a candidate’s political philosophy. “But there are many more givers who expect something in return.” While donors would rarely demand favors in exchange for dollars, Pocan calls it “an implied understanding.” (Curiously, he can’t identify times when it’s happened to him.)

Vos has similarly dispiriting things to say about the influence of labor unions, which he feels once served an important purpose but have since “morphed … from protecting the weak from the strong to protecting the lazy from doing the job” and “radicalized themselves into a wing of the Democratic Party.”

Those who agree with Vos — be they friends, neighbors or special interests — can show their support by giving to his next campaign.