My roots are in the small towns and countryside of southwest Wisconsin. My dad’s people settled 190 years ago in Mineral Point and eventually moved on to Linden and Platteville. On my mom’s side, it’s Wyoming Valley, the town of Clyde, Lone Rock and Blue River.
My ancestors were farmers, cheesemakers and teachers in the one-room schools. My understanding of Wisconsin was shaped by people who believed that rural communities are the beating heart of this state. I have always valued the groups that proudly, and boldly, champion rural life — especially the Wisconsin Farmers Union. Though it is not the largest farm group in the state or the nation, the Farmers Union has for decades been among the most earnest and independent of the major organizations that speak up for the countryside.
The WFU has fought to keep family farmers on the land in tough times and to help young people forge careers in agriculture. It has defended rural schools and post offices. It has taken on the agribusiness conglomerates that seek to monopolize markets and impose a one-size-fits-all ethic on the countryside. “There are times that the Wisconsin Farmers Union politely disagrees with politicians of both parties,” explains Kara O’Connor, who serves as government relations director for the WFU. “At the end of the day, our loyalties lie with our members and rural communities, not with any party or politician.”
Because the WFU is so deeply rooted in the communities and in the values of rural Wisconsin, I never imagined I would hear election season attacks on the group or its members. But in this new age of winner-take-all politics, a dark-money group that has been linked to Republican politicians is attacking state Senate candidate Kriss Marion because she’s been active with the Farmers Union in Lafayette County.
Marion, a farmer and small-business owner from the Blanchardville area who serves on the Lafayette County Board, is challenging Republican state Sen. Howard Marklein in the Nov. 6 election. She’s gained a good deal of traction in the race with Marklein, an all-too-steady ally of Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican legislative leaders who have so frequently tipped the balance against rural Wisconsin.
The powerful interests that benefit from the policies that Marklein and his allies support are pouring a fortune into all sorts of attacks on Marion’s candidacy.
Most of the attacks repeat the standard talking points of the out-of-state special interests that fund negative campaigns across the country. But the so-called “Wisconsin Alliance for Reform” has mounted a particularly ugly campaign that, as part of an unwarranted and intellectually dishonest attack on Marion, smears the Farmers Union and the farm families that have long sustained this vital group.
The Wisconsin Alliance for Reform is engaging in the sort of win-at-any-cost campaigning that divides rural voters and rural regions, and that drives a wedge between rural Wisconsin and urban Wisconsin.
There is little evidence to suggest that the group is interested in farmers or the people who live in rural communities. On the other hand, there is every evidence to suggest that this group is interested in advancing the agendas of the corporate interests that are so well served by politicians like Walker and Marklein.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign explains in its assessment of the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform: “This is a Madison-based conservative issue ad group formed in April 2015. Like other conservative groups, the alliance touts itself as a pro-economic growth, anti-tax organization. The group’s leaders include Luke Fuller, a former aide to state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, and Chris Martin, former communications director for the state Republican Party. The alliance’s decision to sponsor issue ads means that it can secretly raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on its outside electioneering activities. The organization claims its members are individuals and community leaders, but it does not identify any of its members.”
In other words, a secretive group organized by political insiders is spending huge sums of special-interest money attacking candidates who might be more interested in representing rural Wisconsin than in doing the bidding of the corporate CEOs who operate out of high-rise offices in distant cities.
The WFU’s O’Connor has argued that these efforts to portray the Farmers Union in a negative light “have gone from false and sarcastic to downright bizarre — attacking state Senate candidate Kriss Marion for positions that Wisconsin Farmers Union took before she was even a member, or positions that WFU has never taken at all.”
O’Connor is right to assert: “These attacks diminish the dignity of democracy and are out of step with Wisconsin values like honesty and civility. They are also not in keeping with the collaboration that we aspire to in our rural communities.”
That collaboration is essential. Farmers and rural communities have been neglected for too long. This is why Marion is running for the Legislature. Her campaign is all about investing in rural schools and roads, supporting agricultural innovation, and keeping health care costs down for small farmers and small-business owners. Marion’s campaign is a serious one that places appropriate emphasis on addressing the opioid crisis and suicide among farmers, as well as the outmigration of our young people.
Kriss Marion argues for leadership that will “invest taxpayer dollars back into our communities — rather than expensive and risky ventures that give breaks to billionaire developers of stadiums and factories in other parts of the state.”
That kind of talk scares the special interests who prefer pliant politicians like Howard Marklein.
But the special interests do not know or respect the farmers and farm groups that fight for the future of small towns and the countryside. Their attack ads confirm their disregard for rural Wisconsin.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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