Everyone seems to get it. When people hear I’ve left my job of 25 years to head up an investigative reporting project on money and politics, they say it sounds like a ripe topic for journalistic inquiry.
These two terms – money and politics – go together in people’s minds like burgers and fries. It’s generally assumed that money drives politics, to the detriment of our democracy.
As a newspaper reporter and news editor at Madison’s weekly newspaper Isthmus this past quarter century, I’ve written a fair amount about state politics, including the scandals over aggressive fund-raising and improper use of state resources for partisan ends. One thing I’ve learned: It’s complicated.
Clearly, political players face an ever-escalating need to pull in vast amounts of campaign cash. Last year, the 312 candidates for state Legislature raised $9.9 million and the 19 candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general collectively more than doubled that, pushing the total to nearly $31 million, according to the nonprofit Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Still, I question those who conclude that our public officials and institutions are irredeemably corrupt.
Earlier this month state Rep. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, asked by a constituent why Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP exempted police officers and firefighters from a bill curbing public unions’ collective bargaining rights, emailed this explanation: “Bottom line is the unions have bought out several people and we can not get it put through.” The constituent surmised, “Since Republicans control the Legislature, they must be the ones paid off.”
Kapenga initially stood by his comments, but declined to name names. After the unions and Walker’s office denied his claim, he backpedaled slightly, telling the Associated Press, “I wasn’t referring to anything specific as far as money or any other item.”
Maybe Kapenga knows something the rest of us don’t, about how the unions and his fellow Republicans are in cahoots. Or maybe he just overstated the case, alleging an impropriety that did not occur, something people outside of government do all the time.
My mission is to precisely gauge the relationship between political spending and political outcomes. I am aided in this quest by powerful tools developed by groups like Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Maplight, a nonprofit and nonpartisan political money tracker whose new website, MapLight.org/Wisconsin, correlates campaign giving with individual bills and legislators’ voting records.
The results may not always be what people assume.
Take the bill to gut collective bargaining. The baseline MapLight analysis shows that interest groups opposed to these changes contributed $283,002 between Jan. 1, 2009 and the end of last year to current members of the Wisconsin state Assembly, compared to $39,158 from groups registered in support. (The analysis can be customized to pull in different information.)
That is, the opponents (mostly labor unions) outspent the proponents (mostly business groups) by a margin of more than 7 to 1. And while those opposed to the bill on average gave 4.2 times as much to representatives who voted against it  compared to to those who voted for it, they also gave a considerable amount – $64,905 – to the bill’s backers.
The numbers are similar for the Senate, where interest groups opposed to the bill outspent those in favor $474,762 to $62,335 going back to Jan. 1, 2007 (state senators serve four-year terms). And here, nearly one-third of the contributions from interest groups against the bill – a total of $152,188 – went to senators who voted for it.
Some folks liken our political system to a vending machine: You put money in and get policy out. But in fact many other factors are in play – like ideology and party loyalty. People who pour money into the process don’t always get their way. (In case anyone is wondering, police and firefighter unions accounted for less than 5 percent of the total interest group spending, and almost all of their money went to Democrats who opposed the bill. If any Republicans were bought off, they must have been on the clearance rack.)
As I prepare to dig deep into this topic, let me declare two guiding principles. The first is my belief, based on long experience, that most people in public office are honorable, despite the nasty things they often say about each other in the heat of battle. So are other players in the process. “Lobbyist” is not a dirty word.
The second principle, consistent with my ongoing role as president of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, is that transparency is essential to a functioning democracy. The public has a right to know about the workings of government, including spending by individuals and special interests meant to influence the political process.
I believe openness is the best policy, not just for the governed but for the government. And so I will fight for openness at every turn.
My search for the truth about money and politics is a journey being launched. I invite you along for the ride.