There’s been an orgy of coverage on Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain in the last two weeks, and it all began with the rather odd online ad featuring, not the candidate, but Cain’s campaign manager, Wisconsin’s Mark Block. In reaction, there have been countless stories written about Block, including two recent articles in the Milwaukee Journal […]

There’s been an orgy of coverage on Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain in the last two weeks, and it all began with the rather odd online ad featuring, not the candidate, but Cain’s campaign manager, Wisconsin’s Mark Block. In reaction, there have been countless stories written about Block, including two recent articles in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, but much of Block’s life story wasn’t touched on.

Block has repeatedly gotten into trouble for his method of campaigning. In the late 1970s he was a rising star in the Republican Party. He was just 18 when he won election to the Winnebago County Board, and after two terms in office, he became a staff assistant to Republican Congressman William Steiger. Then he worked on the failed campaign of Susan Engeleiter in the Republican primary for the 9th Congressional District in 1978, against eventual winner F. James Sensenbrenner.

As one Republican remembers it, Block was caught stealing Sensenbrenner campaign signs. Pulling a trick like that on a fellow Republican was not appreciated.  “Block was a fallen angel in the early 1980s,” the source says. “No one in the party wanted to get close to him.”

Block took a job with the National Cash Register Company and looked for his political opportunities.  In 1988, he got a second chance, becoming the volunteer statewide director of the Republican presidential primary campaign of George H.W. Bush.  Bush’s success here opened the door to a paid job for Block. He took a paid job as campaign manager for Gov. Tommy Thompson’s re-election in 1990. He went on to run Janine Geske’s successful race for State Supreme Court Justice, conservative Linda Cross’ failed campaign for state Superintendent of Education, two congressional campaigns and two circuit court campaigns, all within a span of a few years.

But in 1997, Block got involved with the effort to reelect conservative state Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox. Block helped create a third-party group, the Wisconsin Coalition for Voter Participation, which illegally worked in concert with the Wilcox campaign to skirt the campaign finance law and raise huge donations from school choice supporters for Wilcox. Block now says he did nothing wrong, but he was investigated by the State Elections Board (now part of the Government Accountability Board) and agreed to a plea agreement and the payment of a $15,000 fine. (Wilcox was fined $10,000.)

This slippery style of moving money from one pot to another may have been used more recently by Block to help bankroll the Cain campaign, as an excellent story by Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice documents.

“Block means well,” says the Republican politico. “But there are people like this – sometimes they want the end so badly they just don’t notice the means that are used.”

In national media accounts, Block says he was financially devastated as a result of the Wilcox affair, and worked for a while stocking shelves for a Target store. Once again, he had fallen from grace.

But a few years ago, he rehabilitated himself again, becoming the state director of the Americans for Prosperity, the organizational group for the Wisconsin Tea Party.  AFP was a national group financed by the Koch Brothers, and Block was on their payroll as a lobbyist in Wisconsin, billing them $56,967, according to a story Michael Horne did for our former news site, Milwaukee News Buzz.

Among the issues the AFP supported nationally were efforts to defeat both smoke-free workplace laws and cigarette excise tax increases. Coincidentally, Herman Cain was also a friend to the tobacco industry: After his years as head of Godfather’s Pizza, Cain was executive director of the National Restaurant Association and created a close association with the tobacco corporations. As a story in The New York Times found, Cain’s group got funding from tobacco companies and, in turn, opposed smoking bans in restaurants, higher taxes on cigarettes and the use of federal money to prosecute cigarette makers for fraud. 

It was while working for AFP that Block met Herman Cain, and they eventually began to talk about the possibility of Cain running for president. And last week, they created an ad that went viral, all because  Block, after praising Cain, blew cigarette smoke at the camera. Block is apparently a heavy smoker, but both he and Cain have a history of coziness with the tobacco industry.  Defending the ad, Cain told the press that his campaign’s philosophy was to “let Mark be Mark.” Given Block’s history – and increasing questions about how Cain’s campaign is being run – that could be a risky approach.

Will Republican Lawmakers Go Dark?

A rumor flying around the state Capitol is that Republican lawmakers will only do a skeleton legislative session in 2012, and will largely avoid any major bills.

“It bothers Republicans that they are getting so much criticism, so they’re thinking of going dark, being far less active next year,” says one lobbyist. 

The loss of the GOP’s five-vote margin in the Senate (it’s now down to just one vote) and the continuing drum roll of recalls have surely rattled some Republicans. Most recently, an effort led by state Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) to protect Republicans from recall by moving up the date of redistricting their districts was delayed because fellow Republican Sen. Dale Schultz of Richland Center announced his opposition to the plan.

If Democrats succeed in getting enough signatures both to recall Gov.  Scott Walker and a couple more senators, that could be a huge distraction, and might interfere greatly with normal operations in the legislature. If not, well, Capitol rumors have been wrong before. 

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