Why I Won’t Accept Big Donations
My campaign for governor is about serving the state’s middle class, not the fat cats.
This is a dangerous moment for our state, our country and the world. People sense it . . . and are unnerved by it. Hunger for change in our political system is intense.
I know because I have traveled well over 83,000 miles since becoming a candidate for governor last September. That’s more than three times around the world without leaving Wisconsin. Logging that many miles in a state that’s only 400 miles long and 200 miles wide means going everywhere. Every nook and cranny of Wisconsin. The journey has been exhausting. And energizing at the same time.
Everywhere I go I encounter what I can only describe as forgotten people living in forgotten places. Some are in the inner city. Some live way out in the country like where I’m from. They feel ignored, written off, looked down upon. And they are seething with frustration and resentment.
Everywhere I go I talk about making Wisconsin a place where if you work you belong in the middle class. About how it should be our goal to erase the words “working poor” from our vocabulary. About how our state should settle for nothing less than a living wage for every worker, health care for all, debt-free education and job training for everyone, and high-speed Internet everywhere.
Whether I am in a church or a tavern, I make the case for fully legalizing marijuana to stop one of the driving forces behind the mass incarceration that has Wisconsin spending more of its state budget on prisons than on our entire university system.
Everywhere I go I tell people we won’t get any of these things unless we cut out the cancer that is growing in the body of democracy. We won’t get clean air and clean water from dirty politics. We won’t get living wages out of a dying democracy. We won’t get good health care from a sick political system. We won’t get anything but thoughts and prayers from elected officials after each new mass shooting when elected officials are paid to do nothing more.
Everywhere I go the response is remarkable. There is tremendous hunger out there for a very different kind of leadership. But every once in a while, someone tells me they think it’s a mistake for me to refuse to take donations over $200 as I’ve done. They tell me they love what I stand for but still tell me I’ll need big money and wish I would take it from anyone, anywhere, in any amount.
I can’t do that. I won’t. State law allows candidates for governor in Wisconsin to take $20,000 checks from individuals and $86,000 donations from political action committees. But here’s the thing. Those huge donations that flow so freely in our elections come with strings attached. They are accompanied by expectations. Favors are expected. Favors end up being granted. Those huge donations are legal bribes.
I’ve spent much of my adult life as an independent watchdog shining light on the influence of big money in politics and exposing the corruption that results from the transactions between elected officials and wealthy donors. My life’s work has made me aware of the fact that a mere one-half of 1 percent of the American population supplies more than two-thirds of all the political money. And my work has shown me another reality: What those rich donors want our government to do is vastly different from what you want our government to do. And their wishes are granted on every issue we care about. At your expense.
If government is going to work for all of us and not just those at the very top, we desperately need to end legal bribery. Ending it starts with refusing to play along with the money game that is at the heart of the old politics that is failing us so badly and breaking the mold to fashion a new politics.
This is a trap, and if we are to overcome the forces that are poisoning our political culture, corrupting our government and suffocating our democracy, we have to break free of the trap. That’s why I am relying on small donations from regular people and spending 10, 11, 12 hours a day raising a citizen army. More than 2,500 people from all over the state have come out of the woodwork to volunteer for our campaign and are taking matters into their own hands to bring about real change. It is thrilling to watch.
Every once in a while, I’m told I am going to have to get down in the gutter. Trash the opposition. Scare people. Fear is the most powerful force in politics, they say. I can’t do it. I can’t peddle fear when there’s such a shortage of hope. I want to offer a way out of the dismal political conditions we currently face. I want to give voters reasons to feel really good about casting a ballot for a change. Heaven knows too many are feeling doomed to hold their noses and choose the lesser of evils. There’s no way I’m settling for being the lesser of evils.
Our campaign’s success – and our state’s future – hinges on a whole lot of people being willing to take a leap of faith and trust in themselves and each other. Franklin Roosevelt once said “the only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today.” To me, that sums up perfectly the biggest challenge we face in this campaign. Just getting enough people to believe it’s possible to refuse to play along with the corrupt old politics and win an election for governor. Getting enough people to believe it’s not necessary to sell out to big money interests and it’s possible for a truly grassroots and people-powered campaign to succeed.
The insiders in the political establishment are certain it can’t be done. I aim to prove them wrong. So do thousands of volunteers. They believe our campaign will inspire enough people to believe it’s possible to invent a new politics and make the political system work for all of us and not just those at the very top. The future of our democracy depends on this. Wisconsin’s ability to become what our state has the potential to be depends on it.
Mike McCabe is a candidate for governor. He got his start in life on the farm working the land and milking cows with his family. He went on to become an independent watchdog, helping to start the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and leading the nonpartisan clean government group for 15 years as its director. He then established the grassroots citizen group Blue Jean Nation, which aims to challenge the political establishment to change its ways and get regular people in the driver’s seat of our government. His campaign website is www.governorbluejeans.com.