How to Kill a Democracy
Glenn Grothman’s proposal would shield 96% of all political donations, ending transparency in campaigns.
I first met state Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) in 1997 after I’d done a rating of state legislators for Milwaukee Magazine and he was picked by many as the “Most Conservative” legislator. Then an assemblyman, Grothman was nicknamed “spooky” by some women legislators of both parties, I wrote, because of his “aberrant” views.
After the story was published, Grothman boldly stopped by the magazine office and introduced himself. He didn’t seem spooky at all, and I enjoyed our chat. Over the years I got to like him, though we probably disagree on 90 percent of the issues. For reporters, he’s helpful because he’s bluntly outspoken and provides good copy. He also offers a frank, unvarnished view of the capitol that can be informative. Finally, he stands out as someone who is philosophically consistent, which is not that common. He’s suspicious of all government subsidies, including for business and was something of a hero in opposing the grossly wasteful CAPCO program, allegedly a venture capital program that in reality handed out huge subsidies to select insiders who created few jobs.
Grothman was a proponent of payday loan reform and supported Democratic legislation that capped interest rates on these short-term lenders, arguing they gouged poor people. He also was the rare Republican who opposed ending the residency requirement, arguing it could “devastating” to some of Milwaukee’s best neighborhoods.
So I wanted to get his take on his proposed legislation that would make campaign donations less transparent: Under current law, donors must disclose their principal employer if they donate more than $100 to candidates in any one year. His proposal would raise that threshold to $500.
The legislation seems drastic. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the non-profit that tracks all campaign donations, estimates that since 1996, 96 percent of all donations have been for $500 or less, meaning those contributors would not have to disclose their occupation. But this is the only way to determine their financial interest, revealing ties to a business or union or lobbying group that may want some bill passed or contract awarded.
Grothman also says the law is burdensome. “If you have a volunteer (campaign) treasurer, it’s a pain in the butt to list every person’s occupation. Sometimes my treasurer looks forever to find some occupations.”
But those aren’t really his main arguments. Grothman admits he was never bothered by the disclosure requirement until the recall controversy arose and a boycott was organized by firefighters, police and teachers unions against businesses, such as M&I Bank, whose employees had contributed to Walker’s campaign. These kind of boycotts, he says, basically put businesses “at risk” for participating in a democracy.
“What those unions did ought to be highlighted. It was horrible.” Grothman says he introduced the bill “hoping the conservative press — which is basically talk radio — would pick up on it and remind people what went on.”
Yet he adds that he is not just trying to dramatize the issue, but hopes to get the legislation passed.
His only concession: he’d consider cutting the threshold to $250. In fact, he previously proposed such a threshold and the bill didn’t pass. “I first introduced this years ago, but it was implied (by Republican legislative leaders) that this could be passed later, after the recall.”
Grothman points to the impact of having every teacher boycott a business, but now that unions have been crushed by Act 10, the state teachers union is a shadow of itself and unlikely to have the resources to launch such a campaign. Even if it could, Grothman’s “cure” seems drastically worse than the alleged disease.
For starters, the $500 threshold would exclude all Assembly contributions and all aldermanic contributions in the state since the maximum donations to those offices are $500 or less. It would also exclude the vast majority of contributions to Milwaukee County Supervisors, since the threshold for that is $543.
For Milwaukee, it would mean almost all contributors would be shielded from disclosure of their possible financial interests in governmental policies. Both Mayor Tom Barrett and County Executive Chris Abele oppose the measure.
Says Abele: “It’s unclear what the problem is that this would fix. My bias, especially in elections, is transparency. The public deserves to know more, not less information about where campaign funding is coming from.”
Says Barrett: “Wisconsin has a solid tradition of making information available that voters might find useful. It’s not a significant hardship to share basic information – such as the company a donor works for – when campaigns are likely to have it readily available in their files.”
Conservative blogger and Brookfield Republican Cindy Kilkenny told the Journal Sentinel the bill would make it impossible to check whether a developer is trying to influence a local election. “I live on those databases,” she said.
Even at the $250 threshold, this would mean 84 percent of all donors to state campaigns would not have to disclose their employer, notes Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. This would make it far harder to trace the financial connections of those supporting particular bills, and to show how that influences particular legislators.
It would also make it harder to prosecute political corruption, McCabe contends. He points to the cases against Wisconsin and Southern Railroad CEO William Gardner and Kenosha businessman Dennis Troha, who were both convicted of money laundering donations. “In both cases,” McCabe says, “law enforcement authorities contacted us to ask for our assistance in identifying employees of their respective companies who had made donations to Wisconsin candidates for office.” That would have been far more difficult if every donation below the $500 threshold was shielded from disclosure.
Similarly, Kevin Kennedy, head of the Government Accountability Board, told the Journal Sentinel that the GAB has used the employer information from donors to successfully investigate wealthy contributors who were violating state campaign donation limits by funneling contributions through their employees
Grothman says his goal is to protect businesses, but when you consider the huge growth in campaign donations in the last 20 years, there’s little evidence that businesses are dissuaded from giving to candidates.
Even Grothman seems to concede the so-called “dark money” spent anonymously by third party groups is a problem. “I’d like to know where the independent expenditures are coming from,” he says.
So why move in the direction of turning direct campaign contributions into dark money? We don’t need less transparency of campaign donations, we need more. To use Grothman’s phrase, this proposal he’s concocted is just horrible.