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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Dirty Money

Let me start by offering a partial apology to John McAdams related to my post Tuesday. In that post, I noted several times how McAdams returned to the theme of laundering "dirty money" while he was on Wisconsin Public Radio, and I said that no one was making that charge. I had not seen that charge made in a TV commercial (one benefit of TiVo), but I suppose I probably had seen it come up in one or more press releases against Mark Green's transfer of funds from his federal account to his state account. My larger point, the one I was trying to be clear about and probably wasn't, is that while he was on the air, no one made that charge. He kept coming back to it--and arguing against it--as a way, I believe, of avoiding talking about some of the issues callers like me actually raised. And the case against that argument that no one made on the air is, indeed persuasive, so I can understand why he kept using it.

But more to the point of this post: I think any strategy on this issue--Mark Green's having broken the law by transferring this money--that tries to make the implication that this is "dirty money" misses the mark, for several reasons.

First of all, I firmly believe that most voters already believe that a significant portion of the money in politics now already is "dirty money," even if that money is perfectly legal (as those PAC and individual contributions to Green's congressional campaign indeed were at the time). I think this is compounded by the fact that in Wisconsin, the individual contribution limit for the governor's race is ten thousand dollars. Consider how much different the Adelman Travel accusations would have sounded if we learned that the company's executives had only given, say, $500 a piece to Doyle's campaign. Just the mere mention of a ten thousand dollar contribution has the smell of corruption on it, even though legal, even though no one but anti-Doyle bloggers has connected Doyle to the violations of law in that case.

In short, saying that Green's PAC money is "dirty money" isn't going to move voters away from where they are.

Second, I think focusing on the PAC money or the PACs themselves distracts from the real story here. Face it; Mark Green thought what he was doing was legal when he did it--a whole lot of us did. That, in fact, is the persuasive part of the noise McAdams was making on the air: We all know that Green carefully sought advice about the transfer and did it in good faith. Sadly, the people whose advice he got, including the State Elections Board's counsel, were not the ones who ultimately ruled on the matter, not the ones whose opinions counted. So the real story--and the part of the story that really, really makes Mark Green look bad--is that, once told he'd broken the law, he said, "Forget you. I'm doing it anyway."

The story should be not that Green or his money is "dirty," but rather that he's a scofflaw.

For example, my friend Tim Schilke--whom I love dearly and who has the unenviable position of being the only liberal columnist in Waukesha County--writes this week about the story and gets it wrong. Here's how he closes:
So what’s the big deal anyway? Why not allow Mark Green to use any money he can gather in his campaign for governor?

One only has to look at Schedule 1B from Green’s fund conversion to answer that question. Do you really want to see JP Morgan PAC from New York ($2,500 converted), Pfizer PAC from New York ($6,000 converted), Glaxo Smith Kline PAC from Durham, N.C., ($5,500 converted), and Bank One PAC from Chicago ($10,000 converted) exerting undue influence over the governor’s office in Madison?
Well, no, of course not, is that answer to the question. But that question gets a no answer regardless of whose PAC contributions we're talking about--Green's or Doyle's. Saying that PACs are bad is axiomatic, even if some of us give to PACs and even if some of the nation's leading campaign finance reformers have PACs of their own. Continuing to harp on the notion that the money itself is tainted isn't going to move the voters away from where they are.

Third, I think Green's initial refusal to follow the SEB's order is the biggest mistake he's made in this campaign. Admittedly, on his part, he took a gamble, figuring that trying to rally support around what he perceived, perhaps rightly given the SEB's actions in 2001, as unfair treatment would be a winner for him. But he also took the chance of being painted as a scofflaw--an opportunity that I do not believe Doyle, the Democrats generally, and the issue groups on Doyle's side have fully taken advantage of.

Green's situation is compounded now that the case has gotten a wider examination in the light of not just SEB precedent--which is neither binding nor, apparently, trustworthy--but of state and federal law. The more we learn about the statutes govenrning campaign finance in this state and nationally, the more it looks like (and, sure, I'm biased here) Green broke both state and federal laws. Check my archives from the last week or so for a fuller explanation of why I believe that to be the case.

And, as a result of that deeper examination of Green's transfer and the laws governing it, the non-partisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which brough the initial complaint to the SEB against Green, is now filing a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission. An FEC ruling against Green, though not likely to come before the election, means not just the return of up to $1.2 million of the transferred funds, but fines, fines, fines.

Had Green just said, last month when the SEB made its order against him, that he'd follow that order and let it go, the story would be dead now. As it is, the opportunity is still there to make the case: Green is a scofflaw. He seems to have broken state and federal law, we say, whether he meant to or not; and now, instead of following that law, he's trying to get away with it.

That's the story that might move voters--Green knows he broke the law and he's trying to get away with it--not any tale of "dirty money."


Another rich line of attack to exploit might be that Green is now lying in his campaign ads. From this morning's paper:
[Green's new] ad says the Journal Sentinel reports that Gov. Jim Doyle "secretly rigged a state Elections Board vote to try and steal the election."

Don't be fooled. The newspaper didn't write that. News stories reported on calls from a Doyle campaign attorney to Democratic members of the Elections Board before a key vote that was to determine if Green should return nearly $468,000 that went from his congressional campaign fund to his governor campaign. Another news report cited a call from the state Republican Party head to a board member on the same matter.

A Sept. 22 editorial mostly bemoaned the blatant partisanship of the Elections Board in that vote and urged reform that would remove partisanship from such decisions. Specifically, it urged passage of legislation that would have removed the partisanship.

But the editorial also agreed with board counsel that there was likely nothing illegal about those calls, though it welcomed an investigation into whether open meeting laws were broken. So, "rigged?" "Steal?"
A few weeks back, Doyle came under pressure for using unedited footage from Madison TV news reports about the SEB's order against Green. There was no accusation that he was taking things out of context or misstating the stations' reporting. Here, it's clear that Green, perhaps reading between the same lines as the rest of us, is misrepresenting what was actually reported. If Doyle should have stopped his ads--and many on the right made it clear that's how they felt--Green certainly should. (Besides the contact's having been legal, there is also no evidence--and, indeed, evidence to the contrary--that either the Doyle lawyer's emails or the GOP executive director's phone calls actually changed anyone's mind.)

So this is what we've got: Green is told he broke the law, thumbs his nose at it, and then lies about how the story's been reported.

That's a compelling narrative on its own. You don't need to start throwing around charges of "dirty money" to make that story work.

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