September 22, 2011

Legislative aides help out with campaign cash

One neat thing about MapLight.org Wisconsin, a website launched earlier this year (followed shortly thereafter by this column), is that it lets users spot trends in the financing of state political campaigns. You can find, for instance, that political donations to state legislators by the people who work for them are up, way up.

State legislative aides gave more than $47,000 to legislative campaigns in the 2009-2010 election cycle that culminated last year, according to MapLight. A separate analysis shows that giving by legislative aides that cycle was higher than any time since at least 1993-94.

To find this data, go to the MapLight.org Wisconsin home page and click the “Contributions” tab. Under the Interest Group field, select “Political/ideological,” then “Civil Servants / Public Employee” beneath that, and finally “Legislative aides” in the third box.

In 2009-10, the top recipient of money from legislative aides was state Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, who got $8,780. Lehman was ousted by Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, who got zero dollars from this category but was able to nearly match his rival in overall spending, at around $260,000.

Also high on this list are defeated senators Pat Kreitlow, D-Chippewa Falls, with $6,015, and Jim Sullivan, D-Wauwatosa, with $4,801.

Why are legislative aides significant donors to legislative campaigns? One answer is obvious: Their jobs depend on their bosses being reelected.

Also the party in the majority gets to hire more legislative staff, because its members chair more committees. That explains in part why aides would give to lawmakers other than the ones for whom they work.

Also, being in the majority is a lot more fun.

But why was 2010 a banner year for donations in this category? For that we turn to state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, who received $4,914 from state legislative aides, more than any other successful candidate.

“We had a massive amount of Democrats who lost in 2010,” notes Vinehout, who narrowly prevailed over Republican challenger Ed Thompson of Tomah. Legislative aides, like others, knew she was vulnerable and pitched in to help.

“I have a very good relationship with staff,” says Vinehout, first elected in 2006. “A lot of staff who aren’t my own wanted to see me re-elected.”

Vinehout got contributions from two current staffers totaling $1,975. This includes aide Linda Kleinschmidt, who gave her boss the maximum $1,000 contribution on Aug. 29, 2010.

“Obviously it’s job preservation,” admits Kleinschmidt. “But more than that, I look at Kathleen as an incredibly effective and intelligent legislator. Even if I didn’t work for her, I would still give her money.”

Michael Tierney, an aide to state Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, has given regularly to lawmakers through the years, including $700 to Vinehout on Oct. 20, 2010. “I think keeping a Democratic majority in the Senate is important,” says Tierney, who also gave money last year to Lehman and Sullivan.

A decade ago, amid a brewing scandal over the use of legislative employees on political campaigns, some legislative staffers reported being pressured to make donations.

“When that scandal broke and a lot of staffers were implicated, I think it sent shock waves through the system,” says Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group. But even absent any pressure, “They still have every incentive to help their bosses.”