In Defense of Goo Goos
Why we need the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Wisconsin Taxpayer’s Alliance.
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.
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.
-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.