The more I see those nasty television attack ads that are paid for by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the more I wonder how the many leaders of the state's business community, most of them dues-paying members of WMC, are able in good conscience to stomach them.
WMC's latest one, an attack ad on Supreme Court candidate Rebecca Dallet, generated an outcry from the parents of a little Milwaukee girl who was the victim of abuse by her grandfather. The parents are horrified that the girl's identity may have been revealed all to make a sleazy attack on a court candidate for allegedly being "soft" on child abusers.
It was a classic Willy Horton-style ad that twisted the real story behind the sentencing to play hardball in this era of take-no-prisoners politics. What's appalling is that the state's main voice for all those proper business leaders out there would stoop to this level. A lot of those business people ought to be questioning this kind of behavior.
As most people who watch Wisconsin's elections know, WMC is a key supporter of Republican candidates, and for obvious reasons. GOP legislators, especially today's variety, typically vote big business' way.
In recent years, though, the state's chamber of commerce has thrown its considerable financial weight into state Supreme Court races. That's where they've discovered they can get the most bang for their buck if they are able to get the right justices elected. A court with conservative majorities that has the final say on most judicial issues can easily block legislation that organizations like WMC don't like.
The big business lobby isn't taking chances in these court races, witnessed by its ad attacking Judge Dallet.
We've watched variations of this dynamic occur in Wisconsin for the past decade. The big spending began in 2007 to help conservative Annette Ziegler win a seat on the court. Buoyed by its success, WMC pulled out all stops in 2008 to defeat the court's first African-American justice, Louis Butler. A relatively unknown small county judge named Michael Gableman beat him with the full-throated help of WMC. (It's somewhat of an irony that 10 years later, tomorrow's contest between Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock and Milwaukee County Judge Rebecca Dallet will determine who takes Gableman's place on the court.)
Gableman, whose 10 years have been marked by controversy over conflicts of interest and recusal rules, decided one term was enough for him and now the WMC is putting its power behind Screnock, a Gableman clone. No justice has been more in lockstep with the Republican governor and Legislature than Gableman, nor ruled so consistently in favor of corporate interests.
In fact, the court's conservative majority, all bankrolled by WMC, has decided many issues in WMC's favor, including adopting recusal rules that WMC itself wrote so that the justices can hear cases involving WMC despite being in the organization's financial pocket.
And when WMC was under investigation for violating Wisconsin's campaign finance rules by colluding with Scott Walker's campaign during the 2012 recall election, the state Supreme Court quickly ruled that the John Doe was illegal, letting WMC off the hook.
It should be noted, though, that most of WMC's money doesn't go directly to the candidates. There are limits on that. Instead it has spent roughly $8 million in the last 10 years to buy over-the-top issue ads. WMC, which in 2008 described Butler as "Loophole Louie," was accused by many observers of emulating the infamous Willy Horton ads that George H.W. Bush employed to dispatch his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis.
And so it goes with political campaigns today. While attack ads are normally associated with sleazy and shadowy groups, they seem out of character when an organization of prominent Wisconsin business leaders becomes their chief sponsor.
There was a time when Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce took the high road in expressing their support for candidates. Obviously, no more.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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