Power vs. People:
How did Wisconsin lose its democracy?
(First of a four-part series)
By Rob Zaleski
July 21, 2001
In serene Vernon County, the state Department of Transportation pushes
ahead with a major reconstruction of a 6.9-mile section of Highway 131
in the ecologically fragile Kickapoo River valley - at a cost of $20.5
million - despite an outcry from citizens groups and environmentalists
who say their voices have been virtually ignored.
In Arcadia in Trempealeau County, corporate giant Ashley Furniture -
after first being rebuffed by the Department of Natural Resources - is
granted a special exemption by Gov. Tommy Thompson and the state Legislature
to expand into a 15-acre wetland adjacent to the Trempealeau River. Watchdog
groups later discover that Ashley officials contributed more than $30,000
to Thompson's re-election efforts and also made significant contributions
to key members of the legislative committee that OK'd the budget
In Adams County, just east of Wisconsin Dells, Perrier Group of America
Inc. refuses to abandon its plans for a massive bottling operation even
after two governors, the County Board and voters in two towns make it
clear that the international bottler is not welcome there.
And, amazingly enough, these aren't just a few isolated examples.
Big-money interests are pretty much setting the agenda in many Wisconsin
communities these days.
It's happening so often that many beleaguered citizens are asking,
whatever happened to old-fashioned democracy in Wisconsin? How and when
did state agencies and big corporations gain such clout? And how and when
did the little guys become mere spectators in the democratic process?
More important, is there any getting out of this mess?
"I remember when I was growing up in Marshfield back in the '60s,
there was this attitude that Wisconsin's government was so squeaky
clean it was above corruption. And to a certain degree, we believed the
hype," says Madison activist John Stauber.
Not anymore, says Stauber, author and founder of the Madison-based Center
for Media and Democracy. He says we should all be appalled and embarrassed
by the shenanigans that now routinely take place under the Capitol dome.
Still, while the questions are simple ones, the answers are rather complicated,
political observers say. Even so, it's critical that we find solutions
- and fast - because "we're seriously in danger of going from
one person, one vote in this state to one dollar, one vote," says
Assembly Minority Leader Spencer Black, D-Madison.
"And that's bad news for the average family, because the average
family obviously can't write out checks for $1,000 or $10,000 to
a candidate. The average family can't hire a lobbyist who makes $300
or $500 an hour."
Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign agrees with that gloomy
assessment. He also points out that this is actually the second dark period
in Wisconsin's political history. The first occurred in the late
1800s, when well-heeled banking, timber and railroad interests infiltrated
the system and "there were stories of bags of money literally being
exchanged in the Capitol."
All that changed, he says, when citizens woke up and organized grass-roots
efforts that elevated "Fighting" Bob La Follette and other Progressive
reformers into office. And the measures they enacted - including a ban
on corporate contributions to political campaigns - made Wisconsin a national
model. Then, in 1977, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Wisconsin
distinguished itself further by enacting the first system of public financing
of state election campaigns in the country.
Less than a decade later, however, things began to unravel. Corporations
and others with deep pockets discovered loopholes in the campaign finance
laws and sizable, often untraceable contributions began to flow into the
system - to the point where, in many instances, corporations now dictate
public policy and politicians have become little more than pawns. All
at the expense, of course, of those who can't afford to play the
No question, McCabe says, that Thompson, a Republican who is now secretary
of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services - bears much of the
blame for Wisconsin's current plight. But, he quickly adds, "our
campaign finance laws have been rendered toothless by the political dentistry
of both parties."
Indeed, Stauber maintains that the political climate actually changed
when Tony Earl, Thompson's predecessor, "came into office as
the Democratic populist (in 1983) and immediately turned to big business
and asked, essentially, 'What can I do for you?' "
Still, many of the more than two dozen activists, educators, progressive
politicians and ordinary citizens interviewed for this series agreed that
Thompson's ascension to the gubernatorial throne in 1987 ushered
in a new era of Wisconsin politics, the likes of which this state had
never seen before.
In his zeal to provide a much-needed jolt to Wisconsin's economy,
Thompson - along with his one-time chief aide, former Exxon lobbyist James
Klauser - brokered huge tax cuts for big business and pushed through legislation
that directly benefited many of his biggest campaign contributors, from
banking interests to highway contractors.
What Thompson and Klauser did "was to introduce a different ethic
into the way politics is practiced here," McCabe says. "So what
we now have is a sort of pay-to-play approach. You just hear too many
stories from people in positions to know about how they were expected
to contribute, depending on their issue, $5,000 or $10,000 or $50,000
for their agenda to move."
It was Thompson, activists note, who set the tone for what was to come
by refusing to abide by state spending limits during his 1990 re-election
campaign and spending an astonishing $4 million - or four times what any
previous candidate had spent.
It was Thompson who promoted friends and cronies to positions of authority
and, in the opinion of critics, transformed the Public Service Commission
into a rubber stamp for the utilities. It was Thompson who granted unprecedented
power to the Department of Transportation, which went on a road construction
spree and introduced a new form of public hearing that those who have
attended them say is designed to minimize direct debates.
And it was Thompson who in 1995 convinced the Republican-controlled Legislature
to dismantle the state Public Intervenor's Office, a watchdog - with
the power to sue - that had been created in the '60s by a Republican
governor, Warren Knowles. Thompson's move left small communities
virtually defenseless against corporations and big government projects.
Then, lest there be any doubt about who was running the show, the Elroy
native took away the DNR secretary's independence by making the job
a Cabinet position.
Madison attorney Laura Sutherland, who worked part time in the intervenor's
office, says she didn't appreciate the impact of what Thompson had
orchestrated until she moved into private practice. Now, three years later,
she says she's fully cognizant of the staggering costs that tiny
communities and environmental groups must bear while hiring a law firm
to represent them.
Moreover, litigation in such cases "is becoming more complex all
the time - both in terms of state statutes and regulations and just the
extent to which the corporations are willing to go to pull out all the
stops," she notes.
"We've seen that with the Crandon mine. There is no expense
that the Nicolet Minerals Co. will spare in fighting every step of the
way along the permit process."
But, again, if Thompson and the Republicans were primarily responsible
for opening the floodgates, McCabe and others say, Democrats haven't
exactly turned their backs on the free-for-all.
Case in point: last year's 10th Senate District race in which Democratic
incumbent Alice Clausing and Republican challenger Sheila Harsdorf - the
victor - combined to spend $1.7 million, making it the most costly Senate
race in state history. The candidates themselves spent $712,000, while
special interest groups - led by the Wisconsin Education Association Council,
which supported Clausing - contributed an additional $940,000.
"I mean, just think about that - all that money for a seat in a
small rural district in northwestern Wisconsin that pays just $40,000
a year," McCabe marvels.
Even more disturbing, he says, is that another $1 million was spent "under
the radar" by the conservative Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce
and other special interest groups on controversial issue ads that don't
have to be reported to the state Elections Board.
Black, who fondly remembers spending just $17,000 in his first run for
office in 1984, finds those numbers chilling. "Because that money
does not come free," he says. "People who invest that money
are rational actors and, like any investor, they are investing because
it will result in substantial returns on their investment."
Harsh fact is, "you cannot raise $2 million campaigning the way
I always did, which was a once-a-year ice cream social with my neighbors
- I don't care how many cherries you put on the sundaes."
McCabe believes there were two other factors that contributed to today's
chaos: The state in 1986 stopped adjusting the spending limits for inflation
for legislative campaigns - it's still $34,500 for Senate candidates,
$17,250 for Assembly candidates - a decision he contends was largely influenced
by then Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus, D-Sun Prairie.
And the state never revisited how it funded the public financing system,
which was created with a $1 checkoff on personal income tax returns.
As a result, there's not nearly enough money in the fund to fully
cover the state public financing grants that candidates are promised under
the law. Consequently, there's no incentive for candidates to accept
the spending limits that they have to abide by if they accept a public
"And the combination of those two things led to a wholesale abandonment
of the system," McCabe says. "To the point where nobody in a
competitive race takes public financing or runs a campaign under spending
limits. So what you've got is essentially a lawless environment where
candidates can raise and spend as much as they want."
However, Madison attorney Ed Garvey, who was outspent 11-1 by Thompson
in his unsuccessful 1998 gubernatorial bid, finds McCabe's logic
"Sure, those were factors," says Garvey, whose law firm is
representing several different citizens groups fighting big-money projects
in various parts of the state. "But it's like putting your finger
in the dike. What happened was, this tidal wave of special interest money
was coming from Washington and elsewhere. And the money just overwhelmed
any reforms that were out there.
"And what McCabe's saying is, 'Yeah, but you forgot to
mow the lawn.' "
Question is, where were democracy's watchdogs while all this was
"Asleep, I'm afraid," says Phil Lewis, a local activist
and semi-retired professor of landscape architecture at the University
"When corporations can come in and take control the way they have,
it doesn't just mean our political system's failed, but our
educational system and the media have failed as well," he says.
Stauber agrees, but suggests that ordinary citizens aren't totally
"This might seem a little weird,' he says, " but I think
part of the problem is that the '80s and '90s were an incredibly
self-centered, 'I've got mine, you go away' couple of decades.
It wasn't cool or hip to be civic-minded and responsible."
Whoever's at fault, most of those interviewed agreed that there's
no more glaring example of how the system has broken down than Perrier's
refusal to give up on its proposed $100 million bottling operation in
the town of New Haven in Adams County.
It's all the more galling, opponents say, in that Perrier promised
initially that it wouldn't stick around if it wasn't welcome.
Since then, voters in the towns of New Haven and Newport have overwhelmingly
rejected Perrier's plans in nonbinding referendums and the County
Board voted 14-3 last fall in favor of a resolution opposing any changes
in zoning laws that would accommodate the plant.
Even Thompson - who met with Perrier CEO Kim Jeffery last year but refused
to meet face to face with Perrier opponents - publicly stated upon leaving
the governor's office last January that the citizens of Adams County
had spoken and that it was time for Perrier to seek out other options.
And yet, even after the Swiss-owned Connecticut company announced last
May that it had settled on another location - near Grand Rapids, Mich.
- for its next plant, Jeffery made it clear that Perrier plans to "reconsider
the Adams County site several years into the future, depending on market
"Oh, it's been tough," says Chuck Hill, a gritty 65-year-old
retired carpenter who became chairman of the town of New Haven in a hotly
contested recall election in the fall of 1999.
"We've told Perrier we definitely don't want them here
- I don't know how many times we have to tell them that. We've
filed lawsuits. We've made numerous trips to the State Capitol to
try to persuade the legislators down there that we don't want Perrier.
What else can we do?"
The thing is, "democracy shouldn't be this difficult,"
sighs Joan Byers, a retiree and one of the founders of the anti-Perrier
group Waterkeepers of Wisconsin. "My husband and I have devoted the
last 16 months of our lives to this. And we're not the only ones.
Practically everyone in New Haven has gotten involved.
"We've gone to meetings, talked on the phone, sent thousands
of e-mails and faxes. We've written letters to every important person
we know and some we don't know."
There have been a few encouraging signs, Perrier opponents note. A provision
in the current state budget would make it more difficult for companies
like Perrier to bottle Wisconsin water. What's more, it would apply
retroactively to permits that the DNR granted to Perrier last fall.
More encouraging yet, Gov. Scott McCallum has indicated several times
that he's against the Perrier project, although Hill and others point
out that he hasn't come right out and demanded that the company "take
a hike." (See accompanying article.)
Of course, it's no great mystery why Perrier is sticking around.
"They know our water's as pure as it gets, and they know the
pocketbooks of local citizens are only so deep," says Hill, noting
that Waterkeepers of Wisconsin has already accumulated nearly $90,000
in legal fees.
Still, if Perrier officials actually believe they can win this battle,
Byers says, they're sadly mistaken.
"The longer they stay here, the angrier we get," she says defiantly.
"Sooner or later, they're bound to get the message."