Janine Jackson interviewed Brendan Fischer of the Center for Media and Democracy about Scott Walker’s campaign finance case for the July 24 CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Listeners will remember 2011 efforts to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in the wake of his frontal assault on labor rights. In 2012, an investigation was launched into illicit coordination between Walker’s recall-fighting campaign and a number of wealthy conservative groups. The investigation closed this week, but elite media are much more keen to tell us what that means for Walker than what it means for Wisconsin–not to mention constitutionally incapable, it would seem, of seeing past the balance of power between Republicans and Democrats to consider that between the political machinery and the people. Here to help us sort through the court’s ruling and its potential effects is Brendan Fischer. He’s general counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy; they are based in Wisconsin. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC.
Welcome to CounterSpin, Brendan Fischer.
BF: Thanks for having me.
JJ: Well, it sounds as though the charge was that Walker actively sought to skirt finance laws and that the ruling is: Yes, he did, but it’s OK? I mean, help us to understand exactly what happened here.
BF: That’s about right. Walker was accused of coordinating with outside groups, namely Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. And these are groups that, after the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, can accept unlimited secret donations, and Walker’s campaign is still bound by campaign finance limits that the US Supreme Court has consistently upheld.
And the reason that coordination matters so much is because if a candidate can coordinate directly with a group that takes secret unlimited donations, then the campaign contribution limits that still apply to candidates go out the window, and it basically means that there is really effectively no limits on money in politics any longer. And the Wisconsin Supreme Court threw out the rule that limited coordination between candidates and outside groups and they said that the mere omission of words like “vote for” or “vote against” in a coordinated ad put them beyond the reach of Wisconsin campaign finance law.
JJ: It’s important to underscore that money can come from organizations to the candidate. The candidate will know exactly who sent him that big check; the people who won’t know are the public.
BF: Yeah, that’s exactly right; and the evidence that prosecutors gathered in this investigation and that has been made public is very troubling. There is a mining company CEO that secretly donated $700,000 to a group working with the Walker campaign. After the election, Walker prioritized the mining bill that the company wanted. But at the time that the bill was being debated in the Wisconsin legislature, the public had no idea that the company had donated $700,000 to a group working directly with the Walker campaign.
There was also an example of a chain hardware store owner who gave $1.5 million to this group working with the Walker campaign and in turn, he received $1.8 million in tax credit from the jobs agency that Walker chairs; as well as a significant drop-off in enforcement by the Department of Natural Resources, which enforces environmental laws. These are just two examples among many, of secret contributions to a group working directly with the Walker campaign, that the public had no idea was happening, but Walker had full knowledge of.
JJ: Just want to bring you back for a second, to what is ostensibly the First Amendment point here. Because the whole thing hinges on the fact that these dark money groups are not making ads that say “vote for Scott Walker,” they’re making so-called “issue ads.”
This is what the court said was the important distinction. They are making ads that don’t point towards a particular candidate. Is it your sense that that’s just not a meaningful distinction in theory? It certainly seems not to have been meaningful in practice.
BF: It’s not meaningful at all; and it goes well beyond what any state or federal court has ever held. Up to this point, no court has ever held that the mere omission of words like “vote for” or “vote against” means that coordination is perfectly acceptable. The critical element of the court’s holding in Citizens United was independence. They claimed–I would say questionably–that independent spending poses little risk of corruption because, by definition, it is not coordinated. Once coordination is present, it’s no longer independent. But the Wisconsin Supreme Court ignored that fact and they went well beyond what any court has ever held in opening the floodgates to secret money in politics.
JJ: Well, a big part of this story, and what makes it all feel so kind of claustrophobic, is the fact that the Wisconsin Supreme Court justices, who decided the case, are themselves elected, and their elections are bankrolled by the same groups, some of them, like Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, that coordinated with Walker and that challenged the law. I mean, it really kinda hurts your brain.
BF: Yeah, that is certainly the most distressing thing about this decision. The court never should’ve heard this case at all. So Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the two groups that Walker is accused of coordinating with and that were parties to this case, are also the dominant spenders on Wisconsin Supreme Court elections. By our accounting, they’ve spent together over $10 million electing the court’s four-justice conservative majority; and that raises serious questions of conflicts of interest.
Particularly because two of the justices, Justice David Prosser and Justice Michael Gableman, were elected by very slim margins. So it’s fair to say that but for the $3.6 million that Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce spent supporting David Prosser in the 2011 race, Prosser would not be on the bench. And we can say something similar about Gableman: He won his race by only 20,000 votes, and if WMC hadn’t spent around $2.75 million on Gableman’s race, he also wouldn’t be on the bench. So these justices would not be on the bench were it not for the spending by the exact same groups that were sitting in front of them in court.
JJ: Yes, well, finally I’m going to refer folks to your piece at PRWatch.org that talks about the role of the right-wing echo chamber, the right-wing media machine, in all of this, which was significant. But I would like to ask you about what many folks think of the mainstream or centrist media and the way they approach these issues. Because, you know–you’d hope that, if nothing else, journalists would be compelled by this use of the First Amendment as actually a weapon of secrecy; but what we get instead is the Washington Post, for example, on July 17 describing these groups that don’t have to disclose their donors, and they say, “These groups are not supposed to directly coordinate with political campaigns, but many have found workarounds.”
Workarounds? I mean, “I’m supposed to pay my taxes but I found a workaround.” You know? I can’t help but feel that mainstream media play some role in normalizing this kind of behavior.
BF: Yeah. I think that the groups involved in this case have gotten away with a lot. If you read the mainstream media, you may not know that this entire investigation was actually led by a Republican. So even as Walker and his allies described this as a partisan witch hunt or some sort of political payback, they conveniently ignore the fact that the investigation has been overseen by a Republican, involved the participation of both Republican and Democratic district attorneys across the state. And you might not know that this was not really a questionable area of law. Back in 1999, another Wisconsin Supreme Court justice named Jon Wilcox, who’s no longer on the bench, was fined $60,000 for engaging in basically the same type of issue-ad coordination as Walker. So, this was not a workaround; this was just a broad assertion by groups that thought they could get away with it.
Janine Jackson is the program director of FAIR and the host of CounterSpin.
Hear the interview with Brendan Fischer on SoundCloud: