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Monday, March 05, 2007

Troha, Doyle, and Campaign Finance Reform

by folkbum

Dennis Troha, while innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, probably did some illegal things. I say this not because I have any kind of special knowledge of what went down, but because Steve Biskupic doesn't usually bring indictments against people he can't convict.

It looks like Biskupic is going to get Troha for contributions to Jim Doyle in last year's governor's race. The pattern seems to have been that Troha "loaned" family members and employees money to cover what those others gave to Doyle's campaign. The Trohas were able to bundle the contributions together into one easy-to-pick-up pile of checks for the Doyle campaign.

This is not a pattern unique to Doyle; check out the Trohas' contributions to Paul Ryan, the congressman who represents them down there in Kenosha. Even the "unemployed" Lynn Troha was able to chip in $2100 (the maximum) to Ryan's re-election bid; I have a job and couldn't afford to give anyone that kind of money. But many of those checks were all written on the same day, and I wouldn't be surprised if they came bundled in one nice big pile for Paul Ryan's campaign staff to pick up.

So let's be clear who's been indicted and who's on trial here: Dennis Troha. Got it? Not Jim Doyle, whose campaign seems to have done nothing illegal or more unethical than calling a donor and saying, "Hey, Dennis, can you raise some money for us?" Not Paul Ryan, whose campaign may very well have made the same phone call.

There are some legitimate questions about whether the Trohas' money bought influence--in other words, one has to wonder whether Paul Ryan's intercession on Troha's behalf on the casino project came because of the money, or whether Doyle may be more likely to approve that casino because of the money, and what, exactly, Troha may have gotten from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, whose members also got his money. That kind of influence peddling is much harder to prove than, say, giving your family money so you can skirt campaign finance laws, or outright bribery that involves handing over large sums of cash that a congressman then keeps in his freezer.

But even if Ryan, Doyle, Don Young, or Jim Oberstar did or will pull some strings for Dennis Troha, that's still not illegal. Unethical? Maybe. Unseemly? Most certainly. But not a violaton of the law.

Seth Zlotocha has probably the best reaction to this that I've seen--including a lot of great discussion in the comments--and I think he nails the problem quite sqarely:
this issue isn't just about casinos. It's a problem that pervades public policymaking. Unless the plan is to stop elected officials from setting public policy--in other words, doing their job--then no amount of futzing with the legislative process in relation to the campaign donation process is going to change the fact that elected officials are accountable first and foremost to those who help their chances at re-election the most. That is, those who give them the most amount of money.

The solution, rather, is to focus on the pay side of pay-for-play. If politicians are going to be accountable first and foremost to their donors and the goal is to make them accountable first and foremost to the public, then you need to make the public their donors, plain and simple.
This is an argument I have been making for a very long time now. But people on the right--including the Charlie Sykeses and Mark Bellingses who unfortunately drive so much of the political discourse in this state--see this as not Exhibit A in the case for campaign finance reform, but rather a chance to accuse Democrats, and only Democrats, of wrongdoing.

James Wigderson, whose solution to the Troha mess seems to be to spread authority out, perhaps to make sure more officials get big bucks from the likes of Troha, often laments that Democrats--and he names Russ Feingold in particluar--have succeeded in making money in politics de facto dirty. I remember his statement to that effect at the "Download 2006" event, and being amazed at the audacity of it, because at the same time as he was complaining about how we now perceive any campaign cash as dirty, every other conservative panelist that day assured us that Doyle was dirty because of the way he could be bought off with campaign cash. In other words, big-dollar campaign contributions aren't a problem, unless, of course, the money goes to Democrats.

But they are a problem. They have been and will continue to be a problem. Just the very thought of anyone, let alone Dennis Troha's unemployed relatives, being able to give $10,000 a shot to a campaign turns my stomach, and probably a lot of other people's, too. It leads to cynicsm and, as the ever-astute Recess Supervisor put it, it makes "people assume ALL politicians are dirty. So when one of them gets caught, it serves to affirm the public's perception of ALL politicians, not just Republicans or Democrats."

And that, I believe, is the crux of the matter. Doyle got caught here doing, what, exactly--obeying the law? And it has everyone crying foul. That means, to me, that it's the law that needs to change. Even, as I've suggested before, cutting the maximum contribution to a state-wide race from ten flippin' thousand dollars to something normal people might be able to pony up, one or two thousand, maybe. Or, more radically, as I've also suggested before, moving to a state-funded system like Arizona's or Maine's. The nice new ethics entity our lawmakers created to watch over themselves will remain toothless to address issues like the one involving Troha as long as what Doyle (or Tommy Thompson before him) does remains legal.

So go ahead, you righties, and demand Doyle's head on a stick (and Paul Ryan's, too, if you want to be consistent). You won't get it this time, the same way you didn't get it from Georgia Thompson, because Doyle's behavior here is not illegal. But at some point you need to recognize that crying foul on all these things will only make you hoarse. Or, like the boy who cried wolf, the public will finally tune out everything you ever say about scandal and corruption. (There are only so many people you can accuse who then walk away--since they did nothing illegal--before people stop listening.)

But if you'd rather make a difference, perhaps it's time you stand with those of us who see the problem for what it is--an institutional one--rather than hope to make partisan hay out of it. The only way to stop the Dennis Trohas of the future or, for that matter, the Jim Doyles of the future, if you must think that way, is to change the system that perpetuates them. It's time for campaign finance reform now.

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