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“Wisconsin fell from grace.” That’s how Judge Lynn Adelman describes the destruction of our state’s once-cherished legacy of clean government in a scholarly article in the Cleveland State Law Review. Probably few will read a lengthy article chock full of legal citations in an obscure journal, but the subject of Adelman’s commentary should concern all who love Wisconsin and mourn the shredding of our once-proud civic culture.

Adelman was for many years a highly respected state senator representing suburban Milwaukee. For the past two decades, he has been a federal judge. From his long history of keenly observing Wisconsin politics, both as reformist politician and a judge, Adelman examines in detail how Wisconsin has, in his words, gone from “a model good government state” to “a state where special interest money, most of which is undisclosed, dominates politics.”

Adelman starts his analysis recounting how campaign finance reform legislation passed in the wake of the 1974 Watergate scandal succeeded for many years in both keeping the costs of elections within bounds and limiting the role of special interest money. Indeed, when I first ran for the Wisconsin Legislature in 1984, even though I had eight worthy opponents in the primary and a tough opponent in the general election, I spent a total of only $17,000 for both contests, an amount dictated by the campaign finance laws. Contrast that with some recent elections for a legislative seat in which millions have been spent.

Adelman concludes that the campaign finance reform law worked well for about a dozen years. Campaign spending remained in check in Wisconsin, even as it was skyrocketing in other states. The role of lobby groups and special interests in bankrolling campaigns was relatively minimal. Contributions were disclosed and subject to public scrutiny. As Adelman succinctly puts it, “The first lesson learned from Wisconsin’s experience is that campaign finance reform legislation can work and accomplish its intended purposes.”

Unfortunately, special interests eager to buy influence undermined the law. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a giant lobbying group representing corporations and the wealthy, began to use its millions to sway elections by purchasing what Adelman terms “sham issue ads.” These are ads that defame a candidate in the weeks immediately before the election, but don’t explicitly use the words “vote against” or “don’t elect.” WMC claimed these ads were not subject to the campaign finance law despite their obvious purpose of defeating candidates who did not support WMC’s agenda of tax breaks for the rich and weakened environmental safeguards. Therefore, WMC contended that it could spend unlimited amounts of cash on campaigns and keep the identity of those funding the ads secret.

This obvious effort to evade the law came before the state Supreme Court but, tragically, the court refused to act. Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley issued a dissenting opinion (sound familiar?) to the court’s inaction, saying the “issue” ads were obviously campaign ads subject to regulation. “These advertisements mention issues only as a vehicle of propping up or tearing down a particular candidate,” the two justices wrote.

That decision to allow this gaping loophole in campaign finance opened the floodgates and was the beginning of the end for Wisconsin’s once-sterling legacy of clean government. As Adelman puts it, “The campaign finance reform legislation that Wisconsin pioneered in the 1970s had, for the most part, been rendered irrelevant.”

Adelman traces how this and subsequent court rulings as well as legislative inaction has led to an outsized role for special interests in shaping state policy and scandals in all three branches of state government.

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Indeed a tragic “fall from grace.”

Spencer Black represented the 77th Assembly District for 26 years and was chair of the Natural Resources Committee. He currently serves as a director of the national Sierra Club and is an adjunct professor of urban and regional planning at UW-Madison.

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