School Choice Group Attacked Democrats
The group spent $850,000. Democratic Rep. Wright blames their late, “false” ads for her loss.
You be the judge.
Democratic Rep. Mandy Wright, of Wausau, says she lost her re-election bid because of a late, false ad blitz by the Wisconsin Federation for Children (WFC), which champions the Parents’ Choice program that lets students attend private schools at state expense.
But WFC leaders say the Democrat is just a sore loser. “Mandy Wright lost an election and she thinks that makes her a victim. She’s looking to blame others for her defeat and in the process she’s insulting the very voters she once courted,” says WFC spokesman Brian Fraley.
Here’s what everyone agrees on: The 84-vote defeat of Wright, a former classroom teacher and soccer coach, is an example of how much clout independent special-interest groups can now wield in regional elections.
Retiring Sen. Tim Cullen, a Janesville Democrat and former Senate majority leader, says wealthy third-party groups that don’t have to disclose their sources of cash can now decide elections. WFC “had so much money they didn’t know what to do with it,” so they targeted Wright, Cullen said.
Although first-term legislators like Wright are often vulnerable, she waged a neighbor-to-neighbor campaign in her hometown that didn’t include TV ads. She also raised $100,000, which she thought should be enough.
But Wright said WFC’s late misleading TV ads and glossy mailings ignored her Assembly record and instead attacked her for two things she didn’t do in 2011 – more than a year before she was elected to the Assembly.
Specifically, Wright said these two WFC charges were false:
*She did not abandon her students by calling in sick for work so she could go to an Act 10 protest in Madison. Instead, Wright said her school principal cancelled class, after learning how many teachers planned to call in sick the next day. Wright said she did call in sick, and lost a day of pay, but stayed home to care for her three young daughters.
*She did not organize a protest of a Wausau appearance by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who introduced Act 10 and signed it into law. It made public employees pay more for health care and pensions and all but eliminated their ability to collectively bargain.
“I lost to (Assembly Republican Speaker) Robin Vos and Scott Jensen,” Wright said in an interview. Jensen, the former Republican Assembly Speaker, is considered the top strategist for WFC in Wisconsin.
“This is a different playing field in politics in Wisconsin,” Wright told the board of Common Cause in Wisconsin, which advocates campaign-finance reform.
Wright opposes the Parents’ Choice program. She said she would have welcomed it becoming a central issue in the campaign she lost to Heaton. But, instead of focusing on legitimate campaign issues like Choice, which will again be debated as part of the 2015-17 state budget, Wright said the Wisconsin Federation for Children’s late, unanswered ad blitz cost her the election.
But Fraley said WFC played a legitimate, legal role in the campaign and Wausau-area residents – and not WFC – elected Heaton. “We believe the voters of the 85th (District) made a thoughtful decision.”
Fraley also said polls show that a majority of Wisconsin residents support the Parents’ Choice program. But WFC’s attacks never focused on that issue, Wright said. “If WFC is so confident that their efforts have public support, why did they purposefully fail to once mention their one and only issue?”
What lessons did Wright learn?
She should have focused on local issues exclusively. And, if ways aren’t found to limit – or confront – the clout of wealthy, independent groups, she adds, “There’s really no hope for balance. Ever.”