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Front Groups Already Release Sleazy Ads

A new rule could require disclosing donors —but not yet

Oct. 15, 2008
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It wouldn’t be an election in Wisconsin without sleazy campaign ads and fliers from phony front groups that aren’t required to disclose where they get their money from or what their true agenda is. Take All Children Matter, which in theory is a Michigan-based pro-school-voucher group headed by Dick DeVos, the brother-in-law of rightwing Blackwater founder Erik Prince.

All Children Matter is currently under investigation for its mailers targeting Sen. John Lehman (D- Racine) in a close 2006 race. It’s estimated to have spent upward of $1 million on Wisconsin races in 2006, but it’s impossible to know exactly how much the group spent, and who its donors are. That’s because Wisconsin doesn’t require groups that release “issue ads”—that don’t expressly favor one candidate over another—to disclose their financial details.

Mike McCabe, executive director of the watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said that “these shadowy front groups…only exist to do this kind of covert electioneering.”

Their benign-sounding names mask their true agendas: pushing voters’ buttons to make them vote against targeted candidates, often by using false or distorted statements about the candidate’s record and stand on the issues.

“These groups are subject to no regulation at all,” McCabe said. “They don’t have to disclose their income or expenses. They don’t have to abide by contribution limits. They operate outside of the law.”

Last week, the state Government Accountability Board (GAB) voted that it has the ability to rewrite the rule that applies to these groups so that they could be forced to register and disclose their financial statements with the state. Lobbying groups and political action committees (PACs)—as well as candidates for office—are required to provide full disclosure to the state.

But the new rule won’t be in place for this fall’s election, and there’s no guarantee that it will be written in time for next April’s election, when state Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson will be up for re-election.

McCabe said that these issue ad groups spent at least $8 million on the April 2008 Supreme Court race—far outspending the candidates and PACs in that election.

The Usual Suspects
The GAB doesn’t monitor these groups right now, so it’s left to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign to build a database of issue ads and estimate the cost of dirty campaigning. The group has even set up a “Hijack Hotline” (at www.wisdc.org or 608-255- 4260) so voters can send in examples of ads from these front groups.

This year, All Children Matter has sent out mailers in at least five Assembly races, blasting Democratic candidates for supporting “higher taxes” and free health care for “illegal aliens.”

One of the targeted candidates is Penny Bernard Schaber, who’s running for the 57th Assembly District in Appleton against right-wing blogger Jo Egelhoff.

Curious voters have called Schaber to discuss the mailers, and she said that after a short conversation they usually end up taking her side. “Their ads seem not to be doing what they seem to want to do,” Schaber said.

All Children Matter did not return calls seeking comment for this article.

Wisconsin Family Action Inc.—the folks who backed the same-sex marriage amendment in 2006— has targeted three Democratic candidates for accepting donations from out-of-state donors who allegedly are connected to equality advocate Tim Gill, founder of the software company Quark.

The group’s radio ads contain candidates’ home phone numbers. Democrat Dale Klemme, running for an Assembly seat in Crawford and Vernon counties, said that he’s fielded a few calls, half of which were from constituents who were disgusted with the group’s allegations and tactics.

Klemme said he found it ironic that the ad criticized him for accepting out-of-state money when Wisconsin Family Action doesn’t have to disclose its own donors. “Some people might get annoyed that all of the money [for Klemme’s campaign] might not come from within the district or the state, but we know where it’s coming from,” Klemme said. “For all I know, the money that’s running these ads against me is probably coming from Al Qaeda. We’ll never know. There’s no way you can find out.”

Wisconsin Family Action did not return a call seeking comment for this article.

Not to be outdone, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) is also releasing issue ads. While it has a PAC and could disclose its donors, McCabe said “they run very little activity through their PAC because they prefer to do undisclosed electioneering” through the WMC Issues Mobilization Council. McCabe said this is funded by corporate contributors that can give unlimited funds for issue ads.

Not surprisingly, WMC argued that the GAB does not have the authority to oversee these issue ads. So far this year, the WMC Issues Mobilization Council has released positive, identical TV and radio ads supporting Republican candidates Dave Hegenbarth, Keith Ripp, Travis Tranel, Jo Egelhoff and Tony Theisen.

In addition to these well-known conservative groups, a Democratic-leaning group, Building a Stronger Wisconsin, was formed in 2007. It’s targeting Republicans who opposed making emergency contraception available to rape victims.

But even when issue ads don’t include any smears or negative distortions, they can still throw a monkey wrench into a campaign.

“[These groups] can run ads that drown out the candidates themselves,” McCabe said. “They can take over races and do all of the advertising. It can be people from Michigan one day and front groups operating out of Washington, D.C., the next. And they can take over legislative races in Wisconsin.”

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


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