Something I reported at DomsDomain on July 13 has made mainstream media two days before the Aug. 9 election – the emergence of dark money, though now we start to learn the volume of it. Dan Bice of the now Gannet owned Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on the main money players and rumors of half a million in combined expenditures. He also brought in other supportive groups that may not qualify as dark money. But the fever of the campaign is certainly heating up an already hot August.
|DA John Chisholm now biggest|
target of dark money.
That certainly seems the methods of attack. Republican money has cunningly combined black anger with Republican worries about the John Doe, which is moving into a US Supreme Court determination. Of course, given Chisholm’s national leadership on community healing, his loss would be tragic.
My July 13 story named the other progressive favorites and the reasons to back them in many local races, discussing the outbreak of those mysterious flyers and radio ads.
Then my next story July 17 (picked up by many outlets) discussed the virtues of DA Chisholm and suggested he was the real target of the dark money, describing the motives and the financial fountain – Eric O’Keefe, who worked for Wisconsin Club for Growth and for Gov. Scott Walker simultaneously. He has fumed against the John Doe investigation of illegal coordination.
The other races his money is involved in are mainly camouflage for a virulent attack on Chisholm.
I and other journalists pointed out that these races were between the most progressive and the least progressive candidates. So perhaps it should not be a surprise that the biggest advertisers for the least progressive include the impenetrable Leaders for a Better Community (with WNOV radio host Sherwin Hughes listed as the contact and his program and station receiving the most ads) and the right-wing blitz from Milwaukeeans for Self-Governance, operated by PR man Craig Petersen with money from O’Keefe and (only they know) whoever else.
Their support is heaviest for Verona Swanigan, Chisholm’s opponent, but their devoted subjects are using the vernacular of Queen to describe Swanigan and Lena Taylor, struggling to be re-elected in Senate District 4 against Mandela Barnes. Save Our Queens seems the motto. Wonder what the late Freddie Mercury would say to that.
Ads by the two groups are closely allied – aside from Swanigan they support Thomas Harris, Taylor’s former chief of staff, for Senate District 6 and Jason Fields for Assembly District 11, which Barnes left to take on Taylor (he beat Fields four years ago). Darrol Gibson is the best AD11 candidate, which the ads fail to mention.
|Candidate LaTonya Johnson, slimed in TV ad|
Bice had a lot of fun with the fact that all three candidates for Senate District 6 had once filed for bankruptcy – Harris, Michael Bonds and Johnson. His story -- double entendre headline and all -- looks tame compared to this attack ad that supports Harris without mentioning his bankruptcy but throws everything at Johnson, even dragging in from nowhere a knee-jerk issue she has nothing to do with (bad lead pipes). It should make sensible viewers want to support her more.
All this creates a confusing picture for voters, which may be what the right-wing money machine is counting on. To the uncritical eye, Milwaukeeans for Self-Governance sounds like actual members of the community working to build it up, not tear it apart. In reality any success on election day would be a deliberate rupture of the newly organized and newly effective Milwaukee Democratic delegation to the Madison legislature.
This right-winging has stirred up bile on the other side by the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund, and John Chisholm for one wishes it hadn’t.
Reportedly with less money than O’Keefe commands but still sizable enough to do TV ads and mailers, Greater Wisconsin moved in to attack Swanigan in ways the sitting DA doesn’t like and has disowned.
“Some of the attacks on my opponent are also wrong-headed,” he wrote hours after the ads started appearing. “She's absolutely wrong for the job, and does not have the requisite experience or understanding. However, there's nothing wrong with being a defense attorney. I respect and admire the hard work of my colleagues in the defense bar. No one should attack a lawyer based on who her clients are.”
While Chisholm has distanced himself, Swanigan in contrast has embraced the third parties backing her and even echoes the acid thrown at Chisholm. She has declined several debates but finally agreed to one in friendly territory Aug. 1 – Hughes’ radio show, where she openly suggested her election would be about “retribution.” Knowledgeable listeners could almost hear O’Keefe pulling the puppet strings.
Much of this has been made possible by the US Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. As the JS story rightly pointed out: “Corporations can spend unlimited cash on efforts to influence voters. Unlike candidate and political action committees, these nonprofits — most of which are organized under 501(c)(4) of the tax code — do not have to disclose their donors.”
I would add that labor unions and individuals who know how to bundle were also freed of restraints by Citizens United.
But Bice’s story may confuse some because it lumps all third party groups into the same dark box. Not so. One he mentions under the same headline and connectors is a political party that also supported Bernie Sanders, the Wisconsin Working Families Party. Deep in the story their leaders were allowed to point out that their money comes from liberal community groups and labor unions such as SEIU, so it is traceable.
Donors to the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund may not be known for months. Then they will be known, and may clear up who is behind their campaign – but after the fact, which all journalists dislike. Last spring, with help from County Executive Chris Abele according to news stories, the same group went after Sheriff David Clarke.
Clarke meanwhile is doing robo-calls for Swanigan – bringing to mind the crushing letter about him Chisholm was forced to write two years ago after Clarke went on a media tear.
In contrast I can find no regulation that suggests the names of money-givers to Milwaukeeans for Self-Governance will ever be revealed, unless they do it themselves. So this is the truly dark money trying to sound like community advocates.
In my view, the Milwaukeeans for Self-Governance hopes to fool the black community into voting against Chisholm, dragging in some voucher friendly legislative candidates in the bargain. Of course, there will be some gleeful cross-over Republicans, but there always are.
I have also pointed out something the mainstream media missed – or has found no way to politely say. There is a glitch in state law that, if she were to win and resign, Gov. Scott Walker could appoint a new DA for a full term, with the feelings of residents of Milwaukee County shut out. Swanigan has a history of medical problems.
About the author: Noth has been a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org. In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain. He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com.