Fighting Bob La Follette's campaign reforms are dead, and those he reformed against have risen again.
The ghost of Byron Kilbourn
Not too many people know that until 1931, Wisconsin Dells was known as Kilbourn City. Few probably care. Such indifference to history, as the old saying goes, leaves us destined to repeat it.
What is now one of the state’s leading tourist destinations was originally named in honor of railroad baron Byron Kilbourn. When Kilbourn built a railroad from Milwaukee to La Crosse, his tracks crossed the Wisconsin River in 1857 at a place French explorers had dubbed the “Dalles” in the 1700s.
Even more faded is the memory of how Kilbourn came by the land he built his railroad on. The man who also has a major thoroughfare in downtown Milwaukee named after him paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to members of the Wisconsin Legislature in exchange for their approval of a land grant Kilbourn sought. Only one legislator Kilbourn sought to bribe – a senator named “Honest” Amasa Cobb – turned down the money. The bill authorizing the land grant to Kilbourn sailed through the Legislature.
Then Kilbourn paid the governor at the time, Coles Bashford, $50,000 to sign the legislation – a staggering amount at a time when the average worker was earning less than a dollar a day. Bashford took the money, signed the bill and Kilbourn had his free land courtesy of the people of Wisconsin.
It was that kind of corruption in the mid- to late-1800s that eventually provoked rebellion. The people rose up, threw the bums out of office and brought Fighting Bob La Follette and his allies to power. Fighting Bob ushered in a wave of reforms that served as the foundation upon which our state’s reputation for clean, open and progressive government was built. Wisconsin became a beacon of squeaky clean politics and remained so for the better part of a century.
One of La Follette’s crowning reform achievements was the 1906 prohibition of corporate campaign contributions. From that point forward, the will of the people – not simply the will of a few mighty corporations – would rule the land.
For 90 years, Fighting Bob’s corporate contribution ban served as the answer to cynics who claim political reform is futile. For 90 years, the prohibition prevented corporations from using their vast treasuries to influence state elections.
The grifters and money changers eventually found a way around Fighting Bob’s ban. They took a cue from an obscure footnote in a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling listing examples of words that should be present in political advertisement to qualify them as “express advocacy” and therefore subject them to regulation. Words like “vote for” and “vote against” or “elect” and “defeat.”
Some smart lawyers working for corrupt people figured out if you avoid using these magic words you avoid regulation. A dodge alternatively known as the “soft money” or “issue ad” loophole was born. These illicit special interest ads started running in Wisconsin with a vengeance in 1996. At that moment, Fighting Bob La Follette’s ban on corporate campaign contributions was rendered functionally meaningless.
Front groups were set up by both sides to exploit the loophole. One right-wing group, All Children Matter, spent well over $500,000 in 2004 to influence state legislative elections in Wisconsin. The group belongs to Michigan multimillionaire Dick DeVos, whose family founded Amway Corporation
Before he was convicted of felony political corruption, former Senate Democratic leader Chuck Chvala ran his own front group, Independent Citizens for Democracy, and secretly solicited corporate contributions from Alliant Energy, Madison Gas & Electric and over 30 other Wisconsin corporations.
The latest incarnation of this money laundering scheme is the use of so-called “527” groups, unregulated political outfits known by the section of the Internal Revenue Service code they are organized under. Nearly $23 million was spent electing a governor in Wisconsin in 2002, and the 2006 campaign is sure to cost more than $30 million. Much of the cash will be supplied by corporations.
Two national 527s, the Democratic and Republican governors associations, are the receptacles of choice for corporate donations earmarked for the governor’s race. The list of donors reads like a who’s who of multinationals with Wisconsin ties. Old guard companies like Miller Brewing and Kohl’s Corporation. New economy giants like Monster.com.
Johnson Controls already has ponied up more than $170,000 to the Republican Governors Association to help bankroll the effort to get Mark Green elected governor. The company is carefully hedging its bets, however, sending $90,000 so far to the Democratic Governors Association to help finance a shadow campaign – mostly waged by a front group called the Greater Wisconsin Committee – on behalf of Jim Doyle.
That muffled laughter you hear is coming from Byron Kilbourn’s grave. That tortured moan is coming from Bob La Follette’s.
April 27, 2006
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Mike McCabe is executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and a FightingBob.com contributing editor.