The John Doe inquiry into alleged illegal campaigning on behalf of Gov. Scott Walker has been shut down by a Wisconsin Supreme Court majority that has since 2011 regularly aligned itself with the governor's political and policy ambitions. In so doing, the court has effectively gutted the state’s campaign finance system in a manner that will — no surprise here — benefit Walker and his political allies.
The governor’s more ardent advocates have declared this a win for Walker.
But it seems rather a hollow victory, coming from a court majority that has so frequently ridden to the governor’s rescue.
And then there is the matter of the timing.
Does it really help a contender for the presidency to announce his candidacy on Monday and then on Thursday be met with headlines about a controversy-plagued court shutting down an inquiry into the political operations surrounding and supporting that candidate? Or does it remind a national media that is just beginning to examine Walker that the newest entry into the 2016 presidential race has had a particularly troubled, and troublesome, tenure?
Walker would like the story of his governorship to be summed up by a line he delivered when he announced his candidacy to a friendly crowd in Waukesha and to an intrigued Republican base nationally.
“If our reforms can work in a blue state like Wisconsin, they can work anywhere in America,” goes the line.
The premise, of course, is that the reforms Walker initiated in Wisconsin were to the good. As he says: “Our big, bold reforms in Wisconsin took the power from the big government special interests and put it firmly into the hands of the hardworking taxpayers.”
But that’s an absurd claim.
Wisconsin’s fiscal challenges have not been resolved by Walker’s cuts to public education and public services, and his assault on public employees. Indeed, his austerity agenda has left Wisconsin trailing neighboring states and the nation in measures of job creation and economic vitality. Wisconsin is still a reasonably high-tax state; it’s just that “the hardworking taxpayers” are getting less in return. And things are not likely to improve because, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (a newspaper that has given the governor critical support over the years) now notes, “Walker is the most divisive Wisconsin politician in living memory.”
So what did Walker’s “reforms” do? Precisely the opposite of what the governor suggests.
They moved power to the special interests that benefit most from big government: wealthy elites with the economic and political connections to influence politics and policies.
Walker and his allies gerrymandered state legislative districts so that elections would be less competitive. Thus, even when Democrats win solid majorities in statewide races for president and the U.S. Senate, as they did in 2012, they cannot make progress in retaking the state Assembly and Senate.
Walker and his allies engineered sweeping changes in elections laws and practices: enacting restrictive voter ID requirements, limiting early voting, changing the dates for primaries elections from September (when colleges and universities are in session and families are back from vacation) to August (when turnout is virtually guaranteed to be lower).
Walker and his allies have disempowered state constitutional offices (those of the secretary of state and the state treasurer) that once had significant oversight and administrative authority — and that even in recent years had maintained at least minimal authority to check and balance the power concentrated in the governor’s office.
Walker and his allies have pre-empted local laws and attacked the ability of local government to respond to the needs and demands of citizens. They have even overturned referendum results that they did not like by “pre-empting” the authority of citizens to weigh in on policy matters.
Walker and his allies have battled, constantly and aggressively, to weaken restrictions on money in politics and to undermine watchdogs and prosecutors who seek to enforce existing laws. To this end, Walker’s allies have poured money into state Supreme Court races with an eye toward ensuring that the court is reliably on their side — spending millions to elect justices whose positions are so well established that their rulings on Walker-related cases are foregone conclusions. Those justices laugh off suggestions that they might want to recuse themselves from cases involving groups that supported them. Referring to the latest court decision, Matt Menendez, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, said: “This ruling raises grave concerns about the fairness and impartiality of the court in this case. Based on publicly available information, it is extraordinary that the Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to explain how several justices could, ethically and constitutionally, even rule on this case.”
So thorough has the assault on the court been that, this spring, Walker’s allies spent heavily enough to secure the narrow approval of a state constitutional amendment designed to remove the sitting chief justice — a respected senior jurist who championed judicial independence.
The targeted chief justice is no longer the chief justice. But she is still on the court, and the dissent of Justice Shirley Abrahamson is the most powerful statement with regard to the “reforms” Walker has brought to Wisconsin. "The majority opinion adopts an unprecedented and faulty interpretation of Wisconsin's campaign finance law and of the First Amendment," wrote the senior member of the high court. "In doing so, the majority opinion delivers a significant blow to Wisconsin's campaign finance law and to its paramount objectives of 'stimulating vigorous campaigns on a fair and equal basis' and providing for 'a better informed electorate.'"
Abrahamson explained that “the majority opinion's theme is 'Anything Goes.'"
To be precise, it’s “Anything Goes” for the wealthy and powerful interests with which Walker is so closely aligned, and which have so benefited from his governance.
For the great mass of Wisconsinites, it’s not “Anything Goes.” Quite the opposite. The great mass of Wisconsinites are losing their ability to have a meaningful say in the politics and governance of their state. Their legislative districts have been gerrymandered. Their elections have been constrained.
Their watchdogs have being muzzled. And their campaign finance laws, developed to ensure that elections are fair fights, have been eviscerated.
Scott Walker’s big, bold reforms in Wisconsin have taken power away from citizens and put that power firmly in the hands of the special interests.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. email@example.com and @NicholsUprising
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