Dance with the one what brung ya Does contributing millions to Wisconsin Supreme Court judges work in your favor?

Justices Recusal HeadLn bwToday the 4 conservative members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, who benefited from millions in contributions and campaign spending by the Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, paid that generous investment favor back!

Nine months ago, Dee J. Hall (in our opinion the State Journal’s best reporter, now working elsewhere) delivered a front-page story documenting just where the money to elect these judges had come from — Justices face questions of recusal. It poses a simple question:

Should the four-member conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court decide a case involving groups that spent more than $8 million to get them elected?

This was great work at the State Journal.

And from 900 miles away, the New York Times editorialized

If the toxic effects of outsize spending in judicial elections were not already evident, the fiasco playing out in the Wisconsin Supreme Court should erase any doubt….

…A 2013 poll by the Brennan Center for Justice found that more than 9 in 10 people believed that a judge should step aside if a party to a case had spent significant amounts to help him or her get elected. Surely, that sensible principle is something an elected judiciary should embrace.

We waited for the Wisconsin State Journal‘s editorial. It never happened. To the best of our knowledge the editorial page never said peep. During these 9 months they produced 3 editorials in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, about which they could literally know nothing, since it was secret.

This local news organization is literally in a fight for its life. And the state of Wisconsin is experiencing its darkest days since the railroad barons of the 1800’s . The State Journal editorial page weighs in on behalf of theoretical free trade? Milfred needs to do better….

Newspaper is opposed to corruption Well, maybe that train left the station, but still... let's talk about it

train gone by

The most recent Sunday editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal earns several compliments and one brickbat. Where should we start? Compliments?

First of all, it’s about something important – corruption in the Wisconsin legislature. There’s little doubt that the State Journal has a theoretical belief in “good government” as we saw last year with their campaign against Wisconsin’s gerrymandered voting districts. Today they warn about the danger of legislators moving seamlessly, indeed instantly, overnight, into lobbying jobs.

…Wisconsin places no time restriction, which risks corruption.

That needs to change.

When the revolving door at the state Capitol spins too fast, public and private interests mix in a potentially today relationship. A lawmaker might be influenced in public duties by the promise of a lucrative lobbying job. The result could be politics that serve a private interest, rather than the public good.

That’s true. Wrong tense though.

It’s not as if there’s a danger of corruption oozing its way in at some future time. The corruption is quite fully here, and has been. That’s really our only quibble with what the State Journal is saying in this editorial. They need to pipe up. They need to say it.

When an out-of-state mining company can march in, flash its money around, and then rewrite the state’s environmental laws — in private sessions with legislators, no less — oh, then the corruption is here, baby. It’s not “on the way.” It’s here.  When much of our legislation is drafted off-site at ALEC conventions where Republicans meet directly with corporate liaisons to draft “model legislation” far from the prying eyes of the public (and the press, too), then the corruption has arrived. It’s not one of those things we better worry about “if we don’t act soon”.

That train has already left the station.

If the opinion writers of the State Journal need a good example of how to write about corruption in Wisconsin politics, they should take a look at Blue Jeans in High Places, the new book from Mike McCabe, former director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.  McCabe doesn’t hesitate to say that corruption is now fully re-established in Wisconsin politics. And he’s careful to say that neither D’s nor R’s are doing right by the people of Wisconsin – not that they’re both the same, they’re not – but neither is doing right for the people at large. This latter bit is probably a style book requirement for the State Journal editorial page where a rigid oath of both-sides-do-it is rarely violated, even when it’s all-too predictable and dilutes whatever editorial point they’re trying to make.

But let’s be generous today. This editorial included a couple of things that we really did like. It managed to refer to some actual academic research, which is always nice when so much punditry flows

…straight from the gut. That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Did you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than in your head? Now I know somebody will say I looked it up and that’s not true. That’s because you looked it up in a book. Next time look it up in your gut.  — Stephen Colbert

And also commendable, somebody at the State Journal remembered the words of Jack Abramoff, master crooked lobbyist and convicted felon. We haven’t always been impressed with the ability of State Journal editorials to remember the past. In fact, if we remember correctly (and we do), we may have used some deliberately insulting language about memory-impaired opinion writers at the State Journal. But today we actually respect the ability of the State Journal to remember Jack Abramoff. Here’s a slightly longer version of  what Abramoff said, talking to CBS 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl:

Stahl: …But the “best way” to get a congressional office to do his bidding – he says – was to offer a staffer a job that could triple his salary.

Abramoff: … I would say, “You know, when you’re done working on the Hill, we’d very much like you to consider coming to work for us.” Now the moment I said that to them…, that was it. We owned them. And what does that mean? Every request from our office, every request of our clients, everything that we want, they’re gonna do. And not only that, they’re gonna think of things we can’t think of to do.

This, of course, was entirely legal. And remains so. Political corruption is frequently — usually — perfectly legal. This is precisely what the Sunday State Journal editorial was about. See how normal and easy it can be? Imagine yourself working either side of this human interaction:

“You know, when you’re done working on the Hill, we’d very much like you to consider coming to work for us.” Now the moment I said that to them…, that was it. We owned them.


The moral universe of ALEC and the Wisconsin State Journal

Today, the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board, after a long silence, dipped a teensy-weeny toe into the discussion of ALEC:

The American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, is either a scandalous, deceptive, dark force in state politics or a helpful, efficient, font of ideas and information for state legislators across the country.

Depending, of course, on one’s point of view.

Really? ALEC might be a “helpful, efficient, font of ideas and information for state legislators across the country”?   Seriously?

Here the State Journal is famously, in the words of James Thurber, “turning cartwheels in the house, kicking over the umbrella stand, knocking down the bridge lamps, and ramming elbows through the windows”, trying to pose neutral.

It doesn’t work.

Like the teetotalling bear in the Thurber story, they’re bending over way too far backwards.

They do want one small obvious thing. They want the Government Accountability Board to review the legality of free trips, prepaid hotels, and lavish entertainment provided to legislators (and families). Is this not corrupt, on its very face? A simple call?

But then, critically, that’s the end of the editorial board’s ethical thinking.

They do have a moral universe, but its measuring stick is very small. If it’s not strictly speaking illegal, then, well, hell….

We have recently seen a candidate for governor conceal his agenda from voters during the campaign. Not a problem for the State Journal. It was, after all, not “illegal”.

Once elected, he moved to defund the political opposition. That might be an assault on fair play, a betrayal of people he’s actually supposed to represent, and a perversion of democracy. But it’s not, strictly speaking, illegal.

A party can move against the broad right of citizens to vote. Again, helpful to them, damaging to the opposition, and not necessarily illegal.

With the necessary votes finally there in the U.S. Supreme Court, we can all enjoy overnight rivers of money washing over our elections, and it’s suddenly, literally, all completely legal, all strictly yes-sir, no-sir, officially legal.

This, as best we can tell, is the blinkered moral universe of the State Journal editorial board — “Not convicted? Not a problem.”

Remember their “rules for recall”? If the elected official hasn’t been convicted of a crime…. what’s all the fuss?

There is then — in their particular moral universe — nothing wrong with the world’s most powerful corporations gathering together and meeting in private to draft legislation with a bunch of over-awed, small town Republican state legislators. It’s not, after all, illegal to do this.

Sure, it’s the very essence of everyday “normal” political corruption, and there are always those who earn a living being paid not to notice.