Wisconsin established nonpartisan elections for judicial, educational and municipal posts in order to insulate these contests from the divisive politics practiced by the two major parties. It worked for generations, but recent decades have witnessed a blurring of the lines between partisan and nonpartisan elections, as the same special-interest groups that warp national and state races are messing with judicial and local races.
That was all too evident in the run-up to the April 2 election.
Wealthy and powerful interests waded into every competition that interested them, bringing outside money to bear on contests that would have been better without the conflicted cash. These so-called “independent expenditures” diminish and often dumb down the honest discourse that could distinguish spring elections from the more intense partisan contests of the fall. And every evidence from the run-up to Tuesday’s election is that things are getting worse.
In the race for the state Supreme Court seat being vacated by former Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, liberal and conservative interests from outside Wisconsin poured money into trying to help favored contenders. For the most part, the money was spent to attack rather than support candidates. And much of the spending was absurdly irresponsible, dishonest and, at times, weird.
Case in point: A week before the election, the Washington-based Republican State Leadership Committee announced that it would spend more than a million dollars on a last-minute push to shore up the embattled campaign of Judge Brian Hagedorn, a political appointee of former Gov. Scott Walker who has been plagued by criticism of his extreme views on social issues. The ads actually compared Hagedorn with scandal-plagued U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. And they attacked Appeals Court Chief Judge Lisa Neubauer as a liberal supported by “radical, out-of-state special interest groups.” The crudely cynical ads featured images of President Trump in an effort to rally Republicans to vote for Hagedorn — throwing aside any caution about politicizing a nonpartisan contest.
Outside money also flowed into the Madison mayoral race.
Case in point: Isthmus reported a week before the election: “Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele — a millionaire — contributed $40,000 to the Leadership WI political action committee that bought $47,000 worth of mailers for Rhodes-Conway.” The uninspired mailing — with vapid chatter about it being “time for a fresh perspective” and a picture of a dog wearing glasses — was a classic example of what happens when political players have too much money.
These are just two examples of political interventions that had no place in the April 2 election. There were others. Our gripe is not with a particular “independent expenditure” by outside groups and individuals. It is with the whole mess. The Capital Times endorsed Neubauer and Satya Rhodes-Conway. We don’t like the outside money that attacked Neubauer and we don’t like the outside money that championed Rhodes-Conway.
What we hope for going forward is that our elected officials, partisans and nonpartisans, will examine every option for countering the influence of outside money, whether it takes the form of independent expenditures or large contributions given directly to campaigns.
To counter outside money, Wisconsin officials should consider an outside idea. In New York this spring, a broad-based coalition of labor, environmental, racial justice and social justice groups, organized as Fair Elections for New York, has been pushing for doable campaign finance reforms that counter the influence of money in politics.
“Following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, small-donor matching funds remains the most powerful way to counter the unlimited, secret money flowing into our elections,” explained the coalition, which has borrowed from a system that’s already working in New York City and sought to take it statewide with a plan to “implement a small-donor matching system for state elections, including district attorneys.” The point is to “give everyday people the means to run for office and represent their communities while relying on small donations instead of large checks.”
Under that Fair Elections plan, small-dollar donations would be matched with public funding at a rate of $6 for every $1 raised. Thus, if grass-roots contenders raised $10,000 from local supporters, they would get $60,000 in public funding. That would not necessarily counter all the big money, but it would provide a counterbalance against special-interest spending and last-minute independent expenditures by outside groups. In addition, the group said, a plan of this sort “can amplify the voices of women; of people of color; of the working and middle classes; and of any and all underrepresented New Yorkers in the political process.”
Wisconsin has seen efforts in the past to get public funding for judicial elections, including the 2009 Impartial Justice Bill, which sought to significantly increase public financing for Wisconsin Supreme Court campaigns. But during Scott Walker’s tenure as governor, Republicans in the Legislature and their allies on the Supreme Court trashed the state’s campaign finance and ethics laws. It is time to begin restoring them. There has to be a place of beginning. We recommend taking every step that can be taken to make nonpartisan elections for judicial, education and municipal posts as fair and functional as they were intended to be.
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