STEVENS POINT – Halloween is around the corner, but that’s nowhere near as scary as the dark money flowing into Wisconsin once more. Since by all estimates Gov. Scott Walker has a lot more outsider money than his opponent, Tony Evers, it’s no surprise that Walker has pulled closer in recent polling. If Evers hangs on and wins, it will be despite dark money fueling smear campaigns with TV ads, mailers and other tools.
Wisconsin is the darkest of dark states, thanks in no small part to Walker, his Republican pals in the Legislature, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
You could see this coming in January 2010. “We’re screwed,” said my friend Ed Garvey as we nursed a couple beers in a Madison bar on the day after the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision that year. Citizens United infamously equated corporations with people and granted them First Amendment rights of free speech. Of course, your speech is a lot freer if you have lots of money, as Garvey said that day. Garvey died in 2017, or he’d still be saying that.
Career politician Walker quickly used Citizens United to his advantage to coordinate the flow of out-of-state dark money into Wisconsin in his 2011 recall election. That was illegal at the time, but in 2015 the Wisconsin Supreme Court squashed a John Doe investigation into the coordination. The four conservative members of the court who ordered an end to the investigation had, as noted by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, themselves pocketed about $8 million in outside spending from the same groups that were under scrutiny in the Walker investigation.
That same year, as the center noted, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a law allowing corporations to donate to political parties and legislative campaign committees, overturning a ban that had been in place since 1905.
How bad is it in Wisconsin? Bad enough that it was cited as the darkest example in the U.S. in the documentary “Dark Money,” which aired recently on the Public Broadcasting Service. “Dark Money” follows journalist John S. Adams as he doggedly researches dark money coordination in Montana. Adams, by the way, is a University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate.
Filmmaker Kimberly Reed might well have been sitting next to Garvey in that bar, based on her reaction to Citizens United. “Like many Americans, I found the concepts that corporations are people and money is speech ludicrous,” Reed said in her filmmaker statement for PBS. “But worse than that was the easily foreseeable consequence that political power would soon be controlled by fewer and fewer, richer and richer people.”
As the film documents, politicians of both stripes eventually had enough in Montana, a state with a deep streak of Western independence. Some of the loudest voices calling for change are Republicans. Debra Bonogofsky, a small-business owner who unsuccessfully ran as a Republican for the state House of Representatives, earned rulings that said her primary opponent illegally coordinated smears against her with a Virginia-based group called American Tradition Partnership.
Montana state Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, says that group is taking down Main Street Republicans even as it claims to be pro-business. "It has long been suspected that ATP colluded with selected candidates in Republican primaries," Cook told the Associated Press. "Not only have they presented a false face to the public, they have also preyed on their own donors. ATP has a history of taking money generated by business activities and supporting candidates who, when elected, oppose business."
Montana isn’t alone in fighting back. A group called Wisconsin United to Amend is working to convince Wisconsin local governments to vote on resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. More than 130 local governments are in. Nationally, 19 state legislatures have passed similar resolutions.
But you have to wonder whether we’ll ever reach the tipping point as long as those who benefit most from dark money are in power. Nothing less than democracy is at stake.
Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org
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