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John Doe

Gov. Scott Walker speaks to reporters last year about then newly released emails from a secret John Doe probe into his former aides and associates while he was Milwaukee County executive.

The self-righteous whining in right-wing Wisconsin political circles has only gotten louder in the wake of a story by the right-wing National Review that pillories the secret John Doe investigations into Gov. Scott Walker by painting law enforcement as that popular right-wing bugaboo, the jack-booted government thug.

If the overwrought descriptions in National Review are true, police should have used a lighter touch. But let’s not pretend that what the targets of the raids are suspected of doing is significantly less wrong than, say, drug-dealing, gang-banging or other crimes worthy of a police raid.

In fact, in some ways, it’s worse.

The first secret John Doe investigation was mostly about government workers doing campaign work while on the taxpayer’s dime — theft, in other words — and resulted in two convictions for the same.

John Doe II is pending and (nominally) secret but appears to focus on efforts to skirt campaign finance laws aimed at lessening — or at least rendering transparent — the effect of money in politics.

Many conservatives, of course, prefer a Citizens United-style definition of campaign contributions that equates money with free speech.

But however you define it, it’s become just as much or more a key part of American democracy as voting.

That’s largely why, for instance:

  • More than a year before the 2016 presidential election, the contest among the dozen or so GOP presidential hopefuls is as much about wooing big donors like the Koch brothers as it is about wooing primary voters.
  • A rich guy with no political experience named Ross Perot could buy himself onto the presidential ballot two elections in a row, and another rich guy with no political experience named Ron Johnson could buy himself a U.S. Senate campaign to knock off a three-term incumbent in 2010.
  • The Wisconsin Democratic establishment lined up behind a millionaire candidate, Mary Burke, willing to spend her millions in an unsuccessful attempt last year to knock off Walker — who doesn’t need his own millions when he’s got plenty of political allies with their own.
  • Burke was able to win a seat on the usually teachers union-controlled Madison School Board in 2012 despite getting labeled a “one-percenter” by teachers union president John Matthews.

Laws to limit and disclose campaign contributions just acknowledge the outsized effect money has on democracy, and breaking them is just as harmful to democracy as voter fraud or corrupt elected officials.

Besides, the John Doe police raids were at least thoroughly vetted, which is more than you can say about some other law enforcement actions in the news lately.

The searchers and seizures were sanctioned by a court in responses to a bipartisan investigation of politically connected people suspected of breaking campaign laws.

Hopefully, those who register the same level of outrage over John Doe as others have over recent killings by police won’t be able to raise enough money — legally or otherwise — to buy many votes.

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.


Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.