Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

In Defense of Goo Goos

Why we need the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Wisconsin Taxpayer’s Alliance.

By - May 29th, 2013 10:00 am
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Christian Schneider. Photo from WPRI website.

Christian Schneider. Photo from WPRI website.

It was legendary columnist Mike Royko who popularized the term “goo goos,” a term of derision for zealous good government advocates that goes back to the 1890s. Royko, in fact, once devoted an entire column to ridiculing the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council.

Longtime Democratic consultant Bill Christofferson used to rail against groups like Wisconsin Common Cause and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC), who typically criticized big campaign spending by either party. Christofferson preferred winning elections to moral purity, and loved deriding these groups as self-righteous goo goos.

But leave it to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s conservative columnist Christian Schneider to scorch the earth with his manifestly misleading column on the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Schneider contends the nonpartisan group is actually a liberal Democratic organization, but mostly offers half-truths and untruths to make his point.

Schneider, for instance, notes that WDC leader Mike McCabe once ran and lost in a Democratic primary for the state assembly. He leaves out the fact that McCabe worked as a staffer for three different Assembly Republicans and also worked for the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, which advocates for low taxes and has been accused of being a pro-Republican group.

Schneider claims the WDC criticizes organizations who advocate for legislation without revealing their donors while failing to disclose its own donors. As he surely knows, the WDC regularly reports its donors in its annual reports; the list includes the Brico Fund, Evjue Foundation, Foundation to Promote Open Society, Joyce Foundation and Proteus Fund.

Indeed, the fact that the group recently lost funding from the Joyce Foundation has been reported by the Journal Sentinel.  Schneider, of course, knows this, because he later referenced a JS column by Dan Bice which notes the loss of funding. Nothing very secretive about that.

Schneider claims the WDC has taken stands in favor of a single-payer health care system, a board appointed Department of Natural Resources secretary and the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. He offers no proof of this, but I suspect he is referring to groups that support the WDC, not the group itself.

The WDC’s mission statement is quite clear. It “tracks the money in state politics, fights government corruption and works for campaign finance reform, fair elections, judicial integrity, media democracy, open and transparent government, and democracy reform in areas such as state legislative and congressional redistricting, ethics, and lobbying.” That’s as goo goo as it gets, but it’s not partisan. Indeed, as a 501(c)(3), the group is strictly limited as to how much politicking it can do.

Schneider assails the WDC for “highly misleading” research about spending by independent groups. He claims McCabe “mostly relies on press accounts to come up with his third party estimates.” But the WDC also checks ad invoices by all groups that spend on TV ads. And while their tallies aren’t exact (no estimate could be, as Schneider notes, because these groups by law needn’t disclose spending), no group in Wisconsin does a better job tracking campaign spending. And that serves all citizens.

Indeed, the WDC report Scheider is so eager to criticize documents spending by both Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. Schneider doesn’t mention this because it would undercut his theory that the WDC is secretly a Democratic group.

Finally, Schneider links to a column by Dan Bice that purports to show that McCabe was in cahoots with a Democratic group that raised some money for the WDC. I’m a big fan of Bice, but I think he jumped to conclusions on this one. McCabe says he had no involvement in the fundraiser: “The sum total of my involvement in this was to accept their invitation to come and speak. I told them we did not want and would not accept any contributions from the county party. I did not charge a speaker’s fee.” McCabe said he made clear he would not accept any contributions from the party but would accept them from individuals who felt his group deserved support. And as he told Bice, he’d gladly accept similar invitations from Republican groups.

This was the gotcha moment Schneider and Republicans were waiting for to paint the WDC as a Democratic rather than democratic group.

Democrats have made the same claims about the non-profit Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, claiming it is actually a partisan group that serves the Republican Party. The liberal group One Wisconsin Now did research showing 92 percent of campaign donations by board members of WisTax have gone to Republicans. Similarly, you could probably show the board of WDC has more ties to liberals and Democrats.

Yes, WisTax has a bias. It is a watchdog of government spending and taxing and favors as little spending as possible. And its executive director Todd Berry worked in the administration of Republican Gov. Lee Dreyfus (though he’d be considered a liberal compared to today’s GOP) and its research is often unhelpful to the cause of big government liberals. But the group has freely criticized policy decisions by Republican governors like Tommy Thompson and yes, Scott Walker.

Similarly, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has a bias. It favors less campaign spending, more transparency in spending and a lot of other democratic reforms that Democrats are more likely to favor (though more so when they are out of power). But the WDC tracks all campaign spending by both parties and has been free with criticism of both Democrats and Republicans, which is why someone like Christofferson would often pick on the group.

I don’t agree with everything either group publishes, but both are clearly non-partisan. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau does great work, but it serves the legislature and that creates limits on what it researches. WisTax is more independent and does a lot of good research and reports.

As for the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, until it came along reporters were stuck wading through huge piles of handwritten campaign donation reports. The WDC’s computerized data base, created in 1998, transformed Wisconsin politics, allowing you to quickly check all donations to candidates.

This innovation probably did more to make campaigns transparent – by all parties and all candidates – than any public or private sector reform in the last 15 years.  If Schneider had spent any time as a journalist, he would understand the inestimable value of that database. But prior to becoming a columnist, he spent nine years as an aide to Republican legislators, who were never happy when its spotlight shined on the GOP. Schneider’s column reads like a series of pot shots from that Republican foxhole.

Short Takes

-In the old days the Journal Sentinel would never have had a columnist who wasn’t a former journalist. Nor would its editors have signed off on a column like Schneider’s without fixing the misstatements of facts. The paper seems willing to pay any price to show its friendliness to conservative activists.

-My last column noted that in eight years of reporting on the declining water level of Lake Michigan, the Journal Sentinel has avoided any discussion of the possible impact of global warming, and speculated that this might because of the outrage it would have encountered from conservatives.  The comments in response to my column (including some on our Facebook page) offered a small taste of that, with some readers decrying global warming as “voodoo science,” or “a figment of the imagination of the left” or akin to believing in the Easter Bunny. I wasn’t, by the way, claiming global warming was a cause of a lower water level, but questioning how you could do 39 stories without at least examining whether it had any impact.

Categories: Murphy's Law

18 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: In Defense of Goo Goos”

  1. David Ciepluch says:

    Christian Schneider is just another political hack that writes ads that could just as well been provided by Tea Party or RNC bullet item materials. He has claims of being a researcher but you will rarely find any facts in his columns to back up his material. Politifact has shown that greater than 1/2 of RNC Tea Party statements are outright fabrication and merely noxious vapors from someone’s anal cavity.

  2. chris byhre says:

    Bruce-David, you guys are so right. Where are those pillars of truth and accuracy like Joel McNally and Eugene Kane? Those guys were non biased and non partisan. Why do you libs despise a dissenting opinion so much? I suspect it is based upon a lack of strenth in your own core beliefs and principles. You still have Bice, Stingl, the editorial board, Kaiser et all to carry water for your leftist agenda.

  3. Erik Granum says:

    I had not read anything by Christian Schneider until this morning – “Let the Parking Wars Begin.” (link: http://bit.ly/11wtwQV) Seeing as how that was barely coherent rambling, I don’t think I’ll be bothering to read any more.

  4. David Ciepluch says:

    I value dissenting opinions based on facts and actual credible research. Many liberals like me, share fiscal conservative monetary values and spending funds wisely, fairness, freedom, justice, and equality, and responsibility to help make it a better society that benefits the majority of citizens. The so-called conservatives in the current day Republican Party are nothing but tools for the benefit of corporations and wealth and do not work for the shared common interests and benefits of most of us. All the laws Walker and his cronies have passed and continue to put forth are handed to them from ALEC that were funded and written by corporations like Wal-Mart and the Koch Brothers.

    As I stated before, Schneider, is nothing more than a cheap ad man spouting off the same Tea Party RNC lies and distortions that have been proven wrong more than 50% of the time. The lies can be repeated often enough and there are enough dim-wits that believe it.

    The proof is in Wisconsin’s ranking as a worst in class state.

  5. Chris Byhre says:

    All I can tell from your posts is that you value gross generalizations and hyberbole. Sprinkle in a fact or two in your writing and it will make for something we could debate. For instance, I would say that the Wisconsin Democrat party was beholden entirely to the cartel that was the Wisconsin Teachers Union. When the fleeing 14 Senators abdicated their responsibilities and ran to IL they actually met with 3 Teachers Union officials to plan their strategy (on Feb 26, 2011). Also, the Teachers Union, WEA Trust and other unions like SEIU have dumped tens of millions of dollars into Democrat politicians here in Wisconsin and into the spectacular failure that was the Walker recall.

  6. David Ciepluch says:

    Unions have become a minor role player. Corporate and wealthy can spend billions on political contributions compared to unions. Only about 10% of the working population is represented by a union compared to about 35% decades ago. I am all for union representation for workers that need it. They fight for the common worker rights and conditions, and that is what this country should be about. Eight of the ten largest donors in the last national election were from corporate wealth and most to Republicans to do their bidding. Follow the money there.

    The Senators that left the state, provided time to draw local attention to the corrupt Walker regime. Walker showed in the taped telephone conversation that he is in the hands of Kochs and big business.

    All union and corporate funding should be removed from political contributions and individual contributions limited to $1,000. Republicans will always have more funding from corporations and the likes of the Kochs since that is who they report and work for, until the law is changed for the better and fairness of all citizens. Their interest is in crushing unions and the working class and setting us back to the 19th century working standards.

  7. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    McCabe is just another Left wing hack. WE need all these hacks watching each other and pointing out the crap on the other side. he is probably funded by George Soros and Bruce Murphy.
    I wish Koch and soros would build a bunch of factories here and then we can kiss them both.

  8. Steven Blackwood says:

    I must say that your “short take” on your previous column on the falling lake levels was a striking example of milquetoast commentary. You did a good attempt at appeasing the Climate Change deniers. Bravo

  9. Graeme Zielinski is a former journalist, Should they give him a regular column? What did newspapers do for content before journalism schools?

    What an interesting standard (as one blogger to another).

  10. bruce murphy says:

    James, in the not-so-old days the columnist position was highly coveted and typically went to a veteran reporter who had covered many beats and therefore had a wealth of knowledge to draw on, and also by virtue of having covered many controversies and he said/she said disputes, might be able to view things with a dispassionate, maybe even literary eye. A J School degree wasn’t the issue; many (including me) lacked it. The idea of simply looking for a partisan to write a column is yet another symptom of a world now divided into red and blue camps. The problem with agenda-driven journalism is that it yields few surprises and journalists have always been in the surprise business.

  11. tim haering says:

    WISTAX is the no-spin-zone, not a goo-goo, a conservative [not GOP] non-profit. WDC, the real goo-goo, is a Democratic non-profit – they have never supported a GOP campaign reform. And GAB has electronic donor records, so how useful is WDC anymore? And why didn’t you mention CC/WI? Heck is a CFR boogeyman too. Citizen Action, another goo-goo? COWS? IWF? Why limit your thesis to WISTAX and WDC?

  12. Mike Bark says:

    Bruce,

    You inadvertently answered your own question. The Journal realized at some point they needed to offer a local conservative perspective and there’s an audience for that. The best they could do was find the guy on the copy desk to write these editorials. The reason, all the seasoned columnists would have been coming in from the left. Schneider has this job because they don’t have anyone else who can do it on staff.

  13. Bruce Fetter says:

    The Journal-Sentinel leadership seems to have an uncertain grasp on the meaning of conflict of interest. Beyond Schneider, Tom Still has a weekly column in the Sunday business section.

  14. Bill Sweeney says:

    This brings to mind the oft quoted statement of Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” We desperately need to have non partisan groups that earn the trust and respect of a wide section of the public. As Bruce points out, these groups may have a bias in one direction or another, but still operate with a set of standards based on identifying the facts, following the evidence, and then positing some conclusions. We may disagree with the conclusions, but we should have some faith that the group came by them honestly. Because that is a big part of the problem today, it is difficult to have an honest and civil conversation. People with differing political outlooks really need to be able to read commentators with opposite outlooks whose basic integrity they trust. I wonder if readers of this column can name opinion writers with opposing political viewpoints who they read because they challenge their own viewpoints, but still believe in the writer’s basic integrity. Conservative columnists who I read occasionally, not religiously, include Michael Gerson, Avik Roy, Peggy Noonan, and Thomas Sowell. Mr Schneider does not meet the test, but I still read him just to see what is being put out there. To his credit, he does try to leaven his remarks with some humor. The humor does not always work, but it is a worth goal. Along with responsible non partisan groups, we desperately need more humor in our political discourse.

  15. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Amen, more humor, but then I consider everything that Bruce Murphy writes as humorous as is most Left wing thought, sometimes pithy.

  16. Bruce Fetter says:

    Why dohnal, don’t you respect the rest of us to use your given name?

  17. Stacy Moss says:

    Isn’t Schneider a rather small fish to fry with this fusion logic blow torch?

    These guys (and women too) are just talking to themselves, a shrinking group according to recent polling.

  18. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Bruce, I am like Barbra or Prince or Obama, just one name to you.

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