Asked to describe the connection between money and politics, Kelda Helen Roys (at left) drops one adjective, then another: “Inseparable.” “Insufferable.” As the Democratic state Assembly rep from Madison sees it, money has infiltrated every nook and cranny of politics. It keeps good people from seeking office, and it drives the agenda of those who […]

Asked to describe the connection between money and politics, Kelda Helen Roys (at left) drops one adjective, then another: “Inseparable.” “Insufferable.”

As the Democratic state Assembly rep from Madison sees it, money has infiltrated every nook and cranny of politics. It keeps good people from seeking office, and it drives the agenda of those who are there.

Roys even feels sorry for the donors: “I think everyone who gives money in politics wishes that they didn’t have to.”

But there’s another adjective she could add to her list: Unavoidable.

Roys, who is not seeking reelection to a third term next year in order to pursue the U.S. congressional seat being vacated by Democrat Tammy Baldwin, estimates that she currently spends 25 to 30 hours each week on the phone, talking to potential contributors.

One of three declared contenders in the safely Democratic district, along with state Rep. Mark Pocan of Madison and Dane County Treasurer Dave Worzala, Roys knows she faces a tough challenge in which fundraising will play a critical role.

Yet Roys, 32, says she’s running in part on behalf of those “frustrated with a system that values money and insider connections over people.”

You want a different kind of political system than one driven by dollars? How much can you contribute?

Roys enjoys talking to potential supporters and likes to think that by asking people to “invest” in her campaign, she’s “giving them an opportunity to advance their own values.”

Right now, she believes, the values of corporate America dominate the political process. Besides the vast amounts spent on elections and lobbyists, Roys flags the rise of right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and conservative policy groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council that seek to “reshape the political environment in this country.”

Once, she notes, there was broad political agreement in the United States around the goal of reducing poverty. Now she finds it hard to imagine a president making poverty reduction a signature cause. She attributes this shift to successful conservative efforts to focus resentment on the less fortunate.

Roys, chairwoman of the Assembly Democratic Caucus, believes much of what’s happened in Wisconsin this year under Republican Gov. Scott Walker has been shaped by these outside forces.

“Clearly, Wisconsin was just one part of a national plan” — funded by right-wing corporate interests — “to roll back workers’ rights, consumers’ rights, health care, public education and women’s rights,” she says.

The outside interests that back this agenda, Roys predicts, will also do their part to help Walker survive a recall challenge: “It could be a $100 million gubernatorial race. It’s really mind-blowing.”

Roys is the author of a bill, AB 296, that would remove the ability of candidates in recall elections to raise funds in excess of normal limits for recall-related expenses. She doesn’t know whether the bill will get a hearing. No Republicans have signed on as cosponsors.

Walker’s recent call for a special session on jobs included several bills authored by Democrats. But the recent legislative floor period ended without any of those bills being passed.

Roys suspects the governor’s nod in the direction of bipartisanship was just for show, saying he’s “pretty well gotten everything he’s wanted, everything he’s willing to spend political capital on.”

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie says the governor still supports these Democratic bills. “And if you look at the bills that passed, they had widespread bipartisan support.”

Roys, for her part, gives a nod to bipartisanship in sizing up the problem: “It’s true the Republicans are a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America, but that doesn’t mean Democrats aren’t also tremendously influenced by corporate money.”

Good to know.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.

The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.


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