Op Ed

Wisconsin’s “Fall From Grace”

Insider article by Judge Lynn Adelman reveals how key decision transformed state.

By - Feb 16th, 2018 12:20 pm
Lynn Adelman. Photo from U.S. District Courts.

Lynn Adelman. Photo from U.S. District Courts.

“Wisconsin fell from grace.” That’s how Judge Lynn Adelman describes the destruction of our state’s once-cherished legacy of clean government in a scholarly article in the Cleveland State Law Review. Probably few will read a lengthy article chock full of legal citations in an obscure journal, but the subject of Adelman’s commentary should concern all who love Wisconsin and mourn the shredding of our once-proud civic culture.

Adelman was for many years a highly respected state senator representing suburban Milwaukee. For the past two decades, he has been a federal judge. From his long history of keenly observing Wisconsin politics, both as reformist politician and a judge, Adelman examines in detail how Wisconsin has, in his words, gone from “a model good government state” to “a state where special interest money, most of which is undisclosed, dominates politics.”

Adelman starts his analysis recounting how campaign finance reform legislation passed in the wake of the 1974 Watergate scandal succeeded for many years in both keeping the costs of elections within bounds and limiting the role of special interest money. Indeed, when I first ran for the Wisconsin Legislature in 1984, even though I had eight worthy opponents in the primary and a tough opponent in the general election, I spent a total of only $17,000 for both contests, an amount dictated by the campaign finance laws. Contrast that with some recent elections for a legislative seat in which millions have been spent.

Adelman concludes that the campaign finance reform law worked well for about a dozen years. Campaign spending remained in check in Wisconsin, even as it was skyrocketing in other states. The role of lobby groups and special interests in bankrolling campaigns was relatively minimal. Contributions were disclosed and subject to public scrutiny. As Adelman succinctly puts it, “The first lesson learned from Wisconsin’s experience is that campaign finance reform legislation can work and accomplish its intended purposes.”

Unfortunately, special interests eager to buy influence undermined the law. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a giant lobbying group representing corporations and the wealthy, began to use its millions to sway elections by purchasing what Adelman terms “sham issue ads.” These are ads that defame a candidate in the weeks immediately before the election, but don’t explicitly use the words “vote against” or “don’t elect.” WMC claimed these ads were not subject to the campaign finance law despite their obvious purpose of defeating candidates who did not support WMC’s agenda of tax breaks for the rich and weakened environmental safeguards. Therefore, WMC contended that it could spend unlimited amounts of cash on campaigns and keep the identity of those funding the ads secret.

This obvious effort to evade the law came before the state Supreme Court but, tragically, the court refused to act. Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley issued a dissenting opinion (sound familiar?) to the court’s inaction, saying the “issue” ads were obviously campaign ads subject to regulation. “These advertisements mention issues only as a vehicle of propping up or tearing down a particular candidate,” the two justices wrote.

That decision to allow this gaping loophole in campaign finance opened the floodgates and was the beginning of the end for Wisconsin’s once-sterling legacy of clean government. As Adelman puts it, “The campaign finance reform legislation that Wisconsin pioneered in the 1970s had, for the most part, been rendered irrelevant.”

Adelman traces how this and subsequent court rulings as well as legislative inaction has led to an outsized role for special interests in shaping state policy and scandals in all three branches of state government.

Indeed a tragic “fall from grace.”

This column was originally published by Madison’s Cap Times.

Spencer Black represented the 77th Assembly District for 26 years and was chair of the Natural Resources Committee. He currently serves as the vice president of the national Sierra Club and is an adjunct professor of urban and regional planning at UW-Madison.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

25 thoughts on “Op Ed: Wisconsin’s “Fall From Grace””

  1. Tim says:

    Here’s a draft of the paper, available for free:


  2. John Casper says:

    Tim, thank you.

  3. Rita says:

    Read Judge Adelman’s entire article. Download links at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3086693

  4. will says:

    Wisconsin GOP has corrupted our once clean government. We are being ruled instead of governed. Hope people start to understand this.

  5. Troll says:

    When will the left demand clean government on the federal level. I guess as long as the FBI is not spying on socialist s it’s okay. If what happened to the Trump campaign happened to Obama in 2008 . There would be blood in the streets.

  6. John Casper says:


    Black Lives Matters appreciates your support. I’ll leave a link below. They’re not fond of the FBI.

    Since Republicans control both houses of Congress and the presidency, why won’t they “demand clean government?”

    Did you mean, “I guess as long as the FBI is not spying on” the elites, “it’s ok.”

    So you wouldn’t have had problems if in 2012 the Obama campaign accepted donations from Russians.

    Is it wise to use, “blood in the streets,” so soon after Parkland?

  7. John Casper says:


    Here’s a link to my comment in #6.

    “We say black lives matter. The FBI says that makes us a security threat.”


  8. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    Troll- We do demand clean government from everyone. Put down the Pom-Poms and realize most people aren’t as dead-end or vapid as you, and some people actually have core values beyond self-interest.

    If Obama did 1/10 of Walker’s or Trump’s pay-for-play corruption, you dimwits would have filed impeachment charges the next day. DEAL WITH IT, KID.

  9. TransitRider says:

    Troll, when will Trump “drain the swamp”??

  10. Troll says:

    You can’t expect much from the left they allowed Bernie to not be president.

  11. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    That’s not what was asked, Jason. Stop being a whiny, weak Troll, man up and ANSWER THE QUESTION.

    GOPs ARE “The Swamp”, both in Madison, and in DC.

  12. John Casper says:

    @ Troll #10

    When did you register as a Democrat?

  13. John Casper says:

    @ Troll #10

    When will conservatives and Republicans take responsibility for decades of “…weak growth and financial instability, declining investment and financialisation, the stagnation of living standards and rising inequality, dangerous environmental risk…?”

    Rethinking Capitalism: Economics and Policy for Sustainable and Inclusive Growth (Political Quarterly Monograph Series) (Kindle Locations 788-790). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

  14. PMD says:

    Trying to engage with Troll and get him to genuinely respond to a question is like trying to punch the wind. He’s a Troll.

  15. John Casper says:


    He and WCD are spammers pushing what’s known as the Overton Window–window of discourse–as deep into right wing crazy as they can.


    Their goal is to create space for the GOP to appear less crazy.

  16. PMD says:

    What vexes me is knowing that and vowing to ignore them only to engage them anyway sooner or later. I can’t stop even though this place would improve immediately if everyone ignored those two and washcorepub.

  17. John Casper says:

    I’m not sure ignoring them is the best route, but reasonable people can disagree.

    They put some value on their handles, although it’s easy enough to take on a new one. I think there’s some value–and humor–in briefly identifying the contradictions and factual errors in their spam. They don’t put effort into it.

  18. PMD says:

    Good points John. It is fun to highlight their hypocrisy and aversion to truth/facts. It’s all one can do really since they never directly engage or respond to specific questions.

  19. John Casper says:


    It’s not clear to me that WCD and Troll are compensated.

    John Donahue probably was.

    WCD and Troll, however, might be given–or have access to–talking points.

    IIRC, they use to hammer more exclusively on Democrats. That appears to be shifting. Now their emphasis seems more on “the left,” liberals, and “progressives.”

    WCD use to hammer abortion, but I haven’t seen it recently. IMHO GOP really fears making abortion illegal. Without that issue, their base could focus on the income inequality that Democrats have noticed. Another problem for the GOP is that it’s tough to explain to their base how abortion is still legal when they control the three branches of gov’t. If my speculation is correct, that’s why WCD doesn’t mention it so much anymore.

    2A problems have forced GOP to admit that mental health is a contributing cause. Can that be a double win for Dems, universal background checks,….. and Medicare for All?

  20. Troll says:

    I think I have daddy issue. My father was a union man and always stated by union and union first. Of course who was not in the union. A lot of colored people. Don’t use that carpenter or plumber. You don’t no their quality or where there from. I can see why this is the most segregated city in the country. Generations a white men excusing people of color.

  21. John Casper says:

    @ Troll #20

    In future threads, do you mind if I mention that you have a “daddy issue?”

    I’ll include a link to this.

  22. Troll says:

    I wore a pink onzie. I will send you pictures. Grew up with two sisters.

  23. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    Troll is one lonely, needy fool, isn’t he?

    Get some help, kid. The 9 hours of hate radio BS every day don’t seem to be helping you. Maybe you’ll find some core values beyond selfishness and whining.

  24. TransitRider says:

    Troll, you seem to believe that unions discriminate by race. Maybe some do, but many don’t. My father was a union man, too (at A O Smith), and its union (local 19806) had many, many African-American members.

  25. Terry says:

    @Troll, First off, “colored people” is really not the prefered nomenclature anymore, African Americans please… Somebody has got to send all these racist White Nationalist, Neo-Nazi and Confederate Republicans that have slithered out of the woodwork after Trump slimed his way into power the memo.
    Secondly, Stay on subject. Wasserman Schultz nor the FBI, nor Obama nor Bernie, nor Hillary nor “socialists” nor anyone or anything else you want to blame has anything to do with Career Politician Scott Walker and his gaggle of slimebag thugs, rubes and miscreants selling out Wisconsin and destroying our once clean government. Got it?! That was done by Scott Walker and Republicans. Got it!? No more blaming anyone or anything else.
    If Democrats gerrymandered the state and STOLE your voting rights I for one would be standing up for you, even if I disagreed politically because you have the right to your vote, even if it’s the right to.be wrong in.my.opinion. You are bot doing the same. Career Politician Scott Walker is NOT doing the same. In fact, NO republicans in Wisconsin are doing the same. So until you get that, take your lies and trolling and take a hike.

    Dump Walker 2018
    Dump ALL Republicans 2018!!

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