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Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce’s Epic Blunder

State businesses reject its right-wing agenda

Jul. 11, 2008
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Epic Systems is a giant success story not only in Wisconsin but across the country. In an uncertain and changing economy, Epic should serve as a shining example of how ingenuity and forward thinking can propel a business to great things during challenging times. The Verona-based electronic medical records company sits on a 400-acre campus and employs some 3,000 people in the Madison area. Epic Systems is arguably the most important employer in Dane County and one of the most important businesses in the state.

When executives from such a business titan are moved to speak on an issue, many important people pay attention. Late last month Epic Systems announced that it would try to avoid working with vendors that support the leadership of the state business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC). Epic Systems contractor J.P. Cullen & Sons promptly dropped its membership with WMC and the company’s CEO left his position on the WMC board.

Earlier this year, another WMC board member, TDS Telecom CEO David A. Wittwer, stepped down from the position. Although Wittwer didn’t cite a specific reason for leaving, his resignation occurred on the cusp of WMC’s political attack on Wisconsin’s first African-American Supreme Court justice, Louis Butler.

It is increasingly clear that many WMC members and even some on its own board are becoming uneasy with the highly partisan and nasty direction that its legislative lobbyists have taken under the current leadership.

The Butler Attacks

In its announcement, Epic Systems very clearly stated that it did not approve of the role that WMC played in the most recent Supreme Court election—between Butler and Burnett County Judge Michael Gableman—and the damage it did to the high court and the concept of justice in Wisconsin.

The race was marred by some of the most contemptible campaign advertising in recent memory. WMC was right at the center of the problem. WMC’s anti-Butler advertising was described by the nonpartisan Judicial Campaign Integrity Committee as “deceptive” and as an “attack upon Wisconsin’s tradition of fair and impartial courts.” Not only did the WMC ads attempt to reduce complex matters of law to bumper-sticker slogans, but more tragically it tried to reduce constitutional rights to nothing more than mere “technicalities” that should be avoided.

The fact that WMC has several lawyers on staff, who clearly should have known better, makes the ads’ deceptions all the more tragic.

The last race for state Supreme Court was perhaps WMC’s worst manifestation of partisanship, but it certainly wasn’t the first. Under its current leadership, WMC has transformed from a legitimate business lobby to a highly partisan machine that has practically become the funding arm for Republican candidates and causes. WMC not only spent record amounts on former Republican official and current Justice elect Gableman, but it also spent millions to elect ethically challenged Justice Annette Ziegler. The cash that it pumped into J.B. Van Hollen’s race for attorney general probably tipped the balance in what was a very close election.

The online resource WMCWatch.org— created by the Institute for One Wisconsin—shows that WMC has given almost exclusively to Republican candidates in the state Legislature dating back to at least 2002. Further, when WMC produced its 2005-2006 legislative session “scorecard,” only Republicans earned its stamp of approval. Additionally, several key staffers at WMC come straight out of Republican politics. Given all of these facts, it is laughable to suggest that WMC has not effectively become a major tool of partisan politics for the Republican Party.

WMC’s Dangerous Agenda

After the recent denunciation by Epic Systems and the loss of another business and board member—a backlash that you haven’t read about in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel—WMC’s chief lobbyist James Buchen sent out a statement trying to paint the political behemoth as some sort of victim. Apparently Buchen believes that his organization should be able to help turn elections with its corporate cash and not be questioned or held accountable for its misdeeds.

Apparently he feels that the public should just butt out when WMC exercises its ownership rights over too many of our public officials. For all of his whining, it seems that it is actually Buchen and his organization that want to silence the public and avoid shining the light of day on their activities.

When one takes even a moment to look at the kind of legislative agenda that WMC promotes, one can quickly see why WMC would like to escape public criticism. Quite simply, WMC repeatedly acts against the common good for very narrow special interests. WMCWatch.org has a compete list of legislation that WMC has opposed and supported. The group has opposed efforts to eliminate wage disparities and discrimination in employment, and has fought against real health care reform, protections for pregnant employees, the minimum wage and even the regulations that protect us from having too much mercury in our water. No wonder that WMC would like to shield its activities from public view. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce could actually learn many lessons from business giants like Epic Systems and others that don’t belong to its organization.

Many of them are on the cutting edge of their respective fields and are succeeding without compromising the public good. Companies like Epic Systems have done quite well in this challenging economy and they have proven that there is another way for doing great business that does not come at the expense of everything and everyone else. WMC’s rejection of such a shining example reflects both a failure to the public and to the very businesses that it claims to represent. In many ways it could prove to be an epic blunder.

Liebmann is the research director and blog editor at One Wisconsin Now (www.onewisconsinnow.org).

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


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