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What Happens in Wisconsin Won't Stay There. And It's Deadly for Democracy

August 17, 2015

By Joe Rothstein

In its 2010 Citizens United ruling the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates for big donors, including corporations, to give unlimited donations to independent groups supporting candidates and causes. And, by easily avoided barriers, even to do so without disclosure of their names or special interests.

The one saving grace in that ruling was that if the group coordinated with the campaign itself it would lose its independence and would be subject to contribution limits and disclosure requirements.

In 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker faced a recall election. His campaign's fund-raising consultant sent an email to a counterpart at the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a right wing organization supporting Walker with a massive “independent” campaign. The email said: “As the Governor discussed, he wants all the issue advocacy efforts run thru one group to ensure correct messaging.... The Governor is encouraging all to invest in the Wisconsin Club for Growth. Wisconsin Club for Growth can accept Corporate and Personal donations without limitations and no donors disclosure.”

Another email from the same consultant to Club for Growth leaders:

“Quick thoughts on raising money for Walker’s possible recall efforts. “Take Koch’s money.” “Get on a plane to Vegas and sit down with Sheldon Adelson. Ask for $1m now.” “Corporations. Go heavy after them to give.”

In July, 2015, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that these emails and others like them, suggesting sources of money and coordinated messaging did not amount to “coordination” under the Citizens United decision. The reasoning: The $10 million Club for Growth raised and spent promoting Walker and attacking his opponent did not directly say “vote for Walker.”

It gets worse:

The Wisconsin Supreme Court decision was written by Justice Michael J. Gableman, who was elected to the state Supreme Court with millions of dollars spent on his campaign by Club for Growth money. That money bought massive advertising that so distorted his opponent’s record that the Wisconsin Judicial Commission brought charges against him for “reckless disregard for the truth.”

The prosecution asked Gableman to recuse himself from the Walker case because of this obvious conflict of interest. He refused.

What happens in Wisconsin is not likely to stay in Wisconsin.

As you may have noticed, right wing groups have been spending heavily over the past years to elect like-minded judges to courts in many states. The Wisconsin court ruling is likely to show up in a campaign near you where millions are being raised, much of it anonymously, to elect judges, legislators, attorneys general, and others who control the levers of justice and public budgets and your children’s education.

If a political campaign can work openly with “independent” support groups to direct sources of money and campaign messaging, and if there are no limits to how much rich individuals and private interests can contribute, and if that money can easily be hidden behind thin veils of paper entities, then the U.S. and none of its elective entities: states, cities, counties, school boards, courts, public service commissions, sheriffs’ offices and the like, have any way to keep themselves from being bought and paid for by the highest bidder.

In Donald Trump we have the spectacle of this new reality by cutting out the middle man---the secret funding layer. Trump’s paying for his own campaign, so with Trump you see what you get. That’s actually less dangerous than what happened in Wisconsin, where massive messaging comes from who knows where, and no one is responsible either for the message or the influences behind it.

Floating out there in the ether is a proposal for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling. It’s time to make that proposal an urgent cause. If Wisconsin is any indication, 2016 may be our last chance to keep the 1% from not only owning most of the wealth, but all of democracy.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

Joe Rothstein is a political strategist and media producer who worked in more than 200 campaigns for political office and political causes. He also has served as editor of the Anchorage Daily News and as an adjunct professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He has a master's degree in journalism from UCLA. Mr. Rothstein is the author of award-winning political thrillers, The Latina President and the Conspiracy to Destroy Her, The Salvation Project, and The Moment of Menace. For more information, please visit his website at