2008/08/20:Hey, Big Spenders! - Mike McCabe, Mark Pocan

Hey, Big Spenders!: State Teachers Union Is Poised To Pay Millions To Get Dems Elected To Assembly
The Capital Times :: CAP TIMES :: 12
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
By STEVEN ELBOW The Capital Times selbow@madison.com

Special interest spending for the November election is off to a big start. But while conservative groups have been receiving most of the press in the wake of their success in getting a virtual unknown on the Wisconsin Supreme Court last spring, the first big media buy has been made by the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state teachers union, which is hoping to get Democrats elected to the Assembly.

WEAC has recently reserved about $1.5 million in four television markets where there are hotly contested Assembly races.

"Participation in the electoral process is very important both for our members and for public schools," WEAC President Mary Bell said. "So yes, we will be participants for sure."

There is a lot at stake, and the advantages to WEAC of getting Democrats elected to the Assembly are undisputable.

"The margin that the Republican majority has is slim, and it looks like there is the possibility for that house to flip," Bell said. "If it does, we believe we may have people who are more interested in the reform agenda that we believe is important."

WEAC has long sought to revamp state school funding, including eliminating qualified economic offers, which place restrictions on salary arbitration, and revenue caps that have been in place since the early 1990s. The group also is calling for a more progressive school tax policy, stronger collective bargaining rights for its members, more 4-year-old kindergartens, reduced class sizes and universal health care - all issues that are far more likely to be championed by Democrats than Republicans.

Democrats are setting their sights on gaining the three seats they need to take over the Assembly for the first time in 14 years and cushioning their narrow majority in the Senate. With a Democrat in the governor's office, that would give them complete control over the direction of policy in the state.

Under the current Assembly leadership, Bell said, "There has been less than a willingness to look at the kind of reform we believe is necessary."

Bell said WEAC officials would not discuss their strategy for the coming election campaigns. But their spending speaks volumes.

According to the state Republican Party, which tracked WEAC's ad buys through public records, the group has reserved air time in at least four markets - $769,150 in Madison, $364,215 in La Crosse, $244,275 in Green Bay and $195,435 in Wausau - where Assembly races will be tight. That's a total of $1,573,075.

WEAC may be the first, but it surely won't be the only special interest looking to sway the election.

Steven Scadden, national sales manager at WISC-TV in Madison - where WEAC has reserved $344,000 in ad spots for three weeks starting Oct. 14 - said WEAC is so far the only group to place orders for fall political ads. But he expects competition over prime ad spots to increase as the election nears.

"It gets more fierce as it gets closer and other groups weigh in," he said.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported recently that Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business lobby, has embarked on a fundraising campaign that aims to raise $1 million by Labor Day. That should be a simple matter for the group. According to the watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, WMC sunk nearly $1.8 million into last spring's Supreme Court race to help its candidate, Michael Gableman, defeat a sitting justice for the first time in 41 years. The group also spent about $2 million in the 2007 Supreme Court election getting conservative Justice Annette Ziegler elected.

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, predicted the business lobby won't stop at $1 million.

"I'm sure WMC won't just fundraise for a month," he said.

Despite the fact that Republicans stand to be the beneficiaries of vast quantities of special interest spending, WEAC's early purchase of air time has brought howls of protest from the state GOP.

"WEAC and the Democrats have opened the floodgates for special interest spending levels unlike anything Wisconsin residents have ever seen," said Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. "If successful, Assembly Democratic leadership intends to reward them with hundreds of taxpayer dollars for every dollar spent buying off their candidates."

State Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, who's heading up the effort to win a Democratic Assembly majority in the fall, found that claim laughable.

"It's curious to hear Republicans talk about special interest money, given the vast outspending they'll have from WMC and other corporate interests," he said. "If they're implying that anyone who spends money on an election is going to get favors, I assume they're going to provide a list of what WMC has asked for."

Pocan said WMC's grip on the Republican-led Assembly and, until two years ago, the Senate, has gotten the group "tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks for big business over the years - probably hundreds of millions, if you add it all up."

Jefferson counters that WEAC wrote the book on special interest spending, holding a virtual monopoly in the 1980s and 1990s.

"So now they're setting the bar for 2008, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of the right-leaning groups start looking at that and thinking, 'We have to counter that.' "

But the reality is that special interest spending by both right- and left-leaning groups will likely explode in coming weeks. Besides WMC and WEAC, right-leaning groups like the Coalition for America's Families and the state chapter of Club for Growth, and the Greater Wisconsin Committee on the left, will likely weigh in with their own ads.

"There's a cast of other characters," McCabe said, "but WMC and WEAC are the big ones."

Bell stressed that the ad time WEAC reserved does not necessarily mean the group will actually run ads. The group can still pull out.

"Those aren't buys; those are markers," she said.

But McCabe said it's unlikely that WEAC will not use the air time.

"They'll do much more than that," McCabe said. "This is certainly consistent with WEAC's pattern. They have weighed in very, very heavily in state legislative races, and I would expect this fall they will spend with abandon."