For most of my three decades of reporting, I’ve been a generalist, covering everything from state Supreme Court elections to disputes over tree trimming on city streets. But since joining the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism last June, I’ve been tasked with writing on a specific area — the intersection of money and politics.
The other day, I spoke on this topic at the annual convention of Investigative Reporters and Editors in Boston. One of my points: The public and press often take too simplistic a view.
Finding people who believe Republicans slavishly serve corporations and wealthy campaign donors, or that Democrats are the tools of public employee unions, is as easy as falling down. But are these impressions accurate? Here’s some of what the Center has reported, during this past year:
- Interest groups opposed to stripping public employees of collective bargaining rights donated four times as much to state senators and 11 times as much to members of the state Assembly, compared to the bill’s proponents, according to MapLight, a nonpartisan political money tracker. The bill hardly enjoyed what might be call smooth sailing, but it did become law.
- A highly controversial bill to revamp the state’s mining rules failed on a single vote, despite support from business groups including Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, as well as several labor unions. In the end, concerns about diminished public input and environmental protections carried the day.
- Some highly partisan bills are driven not by outside special interests but inside ones — the Legislature itself. Every lobby group that staked out a stance on last year’s redrawing of voter boundaries was opposed. And there’s been a decade of lobby support for redistricting reforms of the sort that the Legislature has, under both Democrats and Republicans, refused to embrace.
- More than a dozen major out-of-state donors to Gov. Scott Walker declined my interview requests. But the one exception, Illinois resident Richard Uihlein, shattered the stereotype of an imperious outsider trying to advance a Tea Party agenda, ably explaining his personal and business connections to Wisconsin and his belief in Walker’s approach.
- Scott Walker raised at least $6 million from people who gave more than the usual $10,000 limit, as Wisconsin law allows. But this was just one component of his $32 million war chest. Even without this loophole, Walker would have dramatically outspent his Democratic rival, Tom Barrett, who raised $4.6 million.
- The Center’s analysis of Walker’s calendars showed a significant correlation between campaign contributions and access to the governor. But it also showed that two-thirds of the CEOs who met with or spoke to Walker over a 13-month period were not donors to his campaign.
So what does this mean? Are money and special interest influence irrelevant?
Of course not. A donor like Dick Uihlein, who together with his wife has given $260,500 to Walker in a just over a year, will likely have an easier time getting the governor’s ear than, for instance, you. But that doesn’t mean that Walker is a puppet on a string. As Joe Heim, a UW-La Crosse political science professor, told the Center, money buys access, not necessarily influence.
Our current system of electoral politics runs on money, and this almost certainly has a corrosive effect on democratic values. But there are other motivating factors — ideology, party loyalty, even principle — and other reasons for electoral outcomes than how much money is raised and spent.
Perhaps Barrett lost because he ran an unconvincing campaign and failed to articulate a clear vision for the future. Even with less money, Barrett and his backers managed to amply air their central themes: unnecessary strife, insufficient job growth, John Doe, etc. It just didn’t move the electorate.
Money and politics are joined at the hip. But the resulting creature deserves to be seen in all its complexity.