Wednesday, July 30, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

Playful on Facebook, Janet Prostasiewicz
shared her shopping trip for judicial robes.
It will be a quiet swearing in August 1 when Janet Prostasiewicz starts work, mostly behind the scenes for the first months, as newest judge for Milwaukee County Circuit Court, elected last April to Branch 24.

The grander induction and festivities will wait until October for a larger venue than a courthouse chamber. There are too many across the ideological spectrum who wants to celebrate the elevation of a veteran prosecutor, anticipating that her credentials, integrity and reputation for balance signal the arrival of an important addition to the judicial profession.

Such universal accord is quite a surprise. It should remind citizens how, in an age of sound-bite fury, financial passion caused by politics can evaporate quickly as events change on the ground.  In 2013 the Wisconsin Club for Growth pushed $167,000 against Prostasiewicz in another judicial race.  This year they were encouraged by the governor to go quiet.

Why? It’s time to look again at a Golden Oldie, a column last January largely ignored by Wisconsin media. But in discussing why that April judicial race wound up unsullied by politics, the column revealed a lot about all those hidden confabs and secret decisions about money maneuvering that are growing in consequence every day as elections crowd in. The public needs to become more aware of how these games deserve scrutiny since they are influencing and even crippling their choices. 

Whatever you think of Gov. Scott Walker, he is a shrewdie at husbanding his own connections and protecting his money sources even as his overall policies are fading.  Coverage of his failures as an administrator are now rampant -- huge holes between what he says and what his actions have  actually done to Wisconsin.  But he has deftly been able to combine glib rhetoric, partial facts and a reputation as a right-wing darling to deflect detailed scrutiny.

Now things have changed.  He is neck and neck with the largely unknown Mary Burke, whose ideas and pragmatic style are gaining favor even in polls the Republicans respectThat is forcing him to change his extremist stripes for more populist fantasies.

Give him some credit for seeing early the need for political self-protection in the use of campaign expenditures. It’s more obvious to the public today. Where once he never hesitated to speak against gay marriage as a personal dislike, now he dodges, recognizing frank speaking could be a political deficit.  He now supports the Democratic position against companies getting tax credits for sending Wisconsin jobs overseas, though his own commerce concoction (he’s chair of the WEDC) has long been doing just that

But even a year ago he realized the growing clouds on the horizon. It was the political self-preservation creature within Walker that gave Prostasiewicz a clear path to her election – and pushed for conservative money groups like Club for Growth to focus instead on his own election.  His decision “has more to do with fear of stirring the electorate pot negatively before his own November election – because honestly, when has the governor avoided stepping into Milwaukee politics?”  I wrote eight months ago.   Ironically, in the wake of John Doe and other embarrassments, it is clear that the Club for Growth doesn’t have Walker’s re-election on their brain as much as he does. They are more concerned with retaining their Tea Party credentials.

There is a widespread belief -- in both parties – that which side has the most money determines the outcome. Big elections and small. Money is the power even more than policies. And since the GOP has more money, some people just throw up their hands and give up.  Compromise is good, but crawling is often the secret meaning of candidates who cry for accommodation.

On one level that is mystification to thinking voters. Can the amount of money and fabrications put behind a candidate or a position be more important to Americans than what the candidate is or the public actually believes in? Whether on the left or the right?  On another level, it certainly squares with the importance of salesmanship and advertising in a free market society. 

 stepped into it July 28 seeking a photo op
 to appear friendly to education. He chose
 an ITT Tech campus. The for-profit is under national
 investigations for tuition gouging and
 “deceptive and abusive” practices against students.
The “who has more money fever” is creating some strange doppelgangers. The Club for Growth, for instance, is now in the same boat as unions, who supported Democratic candidates even when not that happy about it because they had no place else to go.  Now the Club for Growth has no place else but Walker and his minions to go and they don’t seem very happy about it.

The excess of unrestrained money is far more visible in national politics, where we are talking about millions of dollars not a few thousands.  But a few thousand is all it takes in a district race to shift the balance.  This year that power of money has been peeking its head out of some strange holes in a series of local contests.

There are races like the spring judicial ones that are supposed to be nonpartisan, but the money tells us that is laughable naiveté on the voter’s part.  It was hardly principles that caused WMC to fight so hard for a conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court (and how interesting this July that a federal appeals panel nine years later has cited those WMC related efforts as unconstitutional.)

So it was rare that a Prostasiewicz escaped into a politically free zone for what could have been a competitive court race. But at least we’ve explained why – and were correct last January in anticipating that “The race that never was winds up telling us a lot about the governor’s race that will be.” 

Some contests are distinctively partisan (the D vs. R thing) but on August 12 most of the vital ones are Ds against other Ds and Rs against other Rs.  These contests were supposed to be about ideas and values, not who has the most money for slick mailers, two-faced social media campaigns, outside hidden money forces, blunt or subtle personal attacks and radio and TV solicitations at the last minute – in other words, the sort of behavior that relies on money.  It's a campaign style that can force sensible voters to pause in doubt and casual voters to think that a barrage of this size must contain some truth.

Citizens are not aware how political insiders can take advantage of campaign financing rules to stack the deck. The consultants can bring in money from outside the state to pretend there is keen local interest in a candidate. The public won’t know the full weight of outside campaign financing until after the election.

We already know a little bit. There is a requirement in campaign reporting for state offices that expenditures in the June cycle must be reported by July 21.   Those figures can be confounding. You have to wonder as you peruse them:  Why is a Coca Cola attorney in Atlanta or why is a PR lobbyist in D.C. suddenly so interested in who will represent Shorewood or Milwaukee’s East Side in a Madison lower chamber? Who knows who to cause this? Just what do they expect from such generosity?

The state’s Government Accountability Board, run responsibly by retired judges picked for ideological balance and staffed by closed-mouth experts, must follow rules imposed by a GOP dominated legislature (which is still attacking the GAB and threatening to withhold funds should they make any sensible decision regarded as injurious to pet causes).

Of course, much bigger money is spent in July and early August for an Aug. 12 primary, and those figures will not be seen by the public until after the election in news reports.  This is a bizarre situation that politicians take full advantage of despite journalistic fuming. It’s that “inside politics” thing -- so dull, so hard to follow, so important.

The current GAB-2 reports do provide clues.  It is common to pursue campaign finance (with specific dollar limits) from a candidate’s fans and territory and from groups such as unions and PACs made up of members with similar interests. These campaign donations are transparent on the surface but  can still be hard to decipher, since a reader can’t tell what family support or professional colleagues are contributing from a distance. Or who runs the firms receiving campaign largesse. 

But when candidates primarily rely on top donations from California, New York, Michigan and Virginia, and not Wisconsin and not even voters in their district, a light goes on in the heads of veteran journalists.  They start cross-referencing those names with known conduits, such as the voucher school conduit, the Americans for Prosperity machine (individual members may be secret but many have active tongues), the professional lobbyist groups looking for an edge in future legislation, or the strangely named groups that sound like average citizens arising in anger but are actually made up of a few very rich.

Interesting patterns can emerge.  The candidates openly backed by wealthy Chris Abele, the Milwaukee county executive whose family earned $1.5 billion and established Argosy foundation with the proceeds of medical device developer and investor Boston Scientific (whom many professionals had good connections with), can comand a widespread national network to raise funds far broader than actual voter interest if you examine the GAB-2 filings of Dan Adams in District 19 and Tia Torhorst in District 10. 

Such financing from outside of the state is usually more common for GOP candidates. That’s certainly true for some 75% of Walker’s support, perhaps a reward for his nonstop national speaking tour as a potential presidential candidate.  But while 
he continues to tout his local support among “the little people,” news media is closing in on the truth.

Reporters are taking apart his campaign funding, revealing how few of Wisconsin’s citizens are involved and how the size of the donations disguise the actual sources.  While both Walker and Burke may lean on loans and well-heeled backers, the journalistic analysis concludes: 

“One area in which Burke clearly triumphed over Walker was in the share of her money coming from inside Wisconsin. While the majority of Walker’s funds came from donors in other states, more than 70 percent of Burke’s campaign dollars were given by Wisconsinites.”

Another prime example is the Milwaukee County race for sheriff. No intelligent citizen looking at how David Clarke mishandles budget and services could be blind to his foolish ways. 

Certainly they couldn’t be taken in by his deliberately outrageous macho law and order statements or his strutting before local media and national conservative audiences. Or could they?

Christopher Moews
This time it is clear that Clarke is behind with the Democratic voters in Milwaukee County – so behind that he ran out of money with his final three-fold full-color home mailer wearing both his blues and his whites – but clean-shaven rather than the grizzled look he has comported of late. He promotes law enforcement cooperative efforts without revealing how his peers have removed him from being in charge.  Not exactly truth in advertising.
But that was his last local-funded gasp financially, campaign insiders say, and the main reason he called in the national NRA to launch an email fund-raising pitch with its members, pretending this was an attack on their gun rights and disguising this was a Democratic primary Aug. 12.

Sympathetic talk radio on the right chimed in with open suggestions of a GOP crossover, knowing how few urban Democrats support the NRA’s political positions even when they believe in the Second Amendment.  Usually such tactics are so obviously crass that they fail.  Republicans actually don’t like the deception. But Clarke’s campaign doesn’t think he can survive without crossovers given the high reputation for competent law enforcement of opponent Christopher Moews.

No wonder money emerges more important in a nonpresidential year election where the voting public hates to interrupt its  summer fun to vote. If the hired guns can count on that low turnout, if they can combine the indifference with right-wing media chatter and the power of money, maybe you can bring out a few extremists.  Maybe a few hundred slavish NRA voters can turn the tide if turnout stays low. Historically this reliance on crossover is ridiculous – even if you throw money at the plan and are convinced the voters are sheep. It is more likely to arouse the real voters. But money allows you to try.

These are the sort of petty financial schemings that voters scoot around rather than try to understand -- and that journalists may well be too fascinated by.  But it’s sure better being aware of them now. Rather than waking up Aug. 13 (or November 5 for that matter) asking yourself: “What the hell just happened?”

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 famous entertainment 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 its still operative archives at  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

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