Last week a conservative Supreme Court candidate named Annette Ziegler won election to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. A record amount of spending occurred by both candidates and third parties in a nasty negative campaign. Sound familiar?
According to an opinion entitled “Campaigns Badly Need Cleaning Up” by The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin, Ziegler
“was a candidate who spent most of the past year orchestrating one of the most negative judicial campaigns in Wisconsin history, starting with a vicious letter authored by former Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow and ending with a barrage of TV spots that depicted her opponent as a know-nothing “zero.”
An out-of-state outfit called the Club for Growth pumped $250,000 into Ziegler’s primary campaign alone to underwrite attack ads on Ziegler’s behalf, and even the public relations firm that engineered the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s slimy campaign against John Kerry in 2004 got involved on her side.
And none of this counts the onslaught by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the experts in negative campaigning, that piled on Ziegler’s opponent, Linda Clifford, for the better part of three months.”
In a separate article it is noted that besides the $1.7 million spent by the two candidates
“The race saw unprecedented spending by third parties. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business lobby, spent $1.45 million on ads supporting Ziegler and criticizing Clifford, according to Clifford’s campaign. ”
So is it any surprise that today a group of legislators in Wisconsin started circulating for co-sponsors a bill for public financing of state campaigns?
Any of this sound even more familiar now? Last year Washington went through a similar attack by the Building Industry Association of Washington and out of state money to try to elect right wing ideologues to the Washington State Supreme Court. We also saw record spending by special interests. We fared much better than Wisconsin but unfortunately the Washington State Legislature has done nothing to address the expected impact of large amounts of independent expenditures in future elections when the public is over the shock impact of last year’s races.
The Washington State Legislature this session has chosen to ignore public financing for judicial races as well as other state wide races. The reason is mainly that Legislators are also the recipients of large contributions spent by independent PAC’s in their own races. Speaker of the House Frank Chopp visualizes how such unlimited independent expenditures can be used to benefit his Democratic agenda and further solidify his caucus numbers. Republicans see it as their way back into power in the future.
They have however chosen to ignore the fact that we now have two separate and unequal campaign finance structures set up in our state that discriminate against the average citizen contributor. By limiting individual contributions directly to a candidate’s campaign committee, while allowing unlimited contributions by special interest groups, individuals and out of state funders to so called “independent PAC’s”, candidates lose control of their own campaigns and can be vastly outspent by outside interests.
One simple solution to end this segregated campaign system is to extend the present $1400 contribution limit per election for donations to major statewide candidate campaign committees, including Supreme Court Justices, to all campaign committees supporting or opposing a candidate. Whether given directly to the candidate or indirectly to a PAC, everyone is limited to the same $1400 contribution to support or oppose a candidate in a campaign.
The other solution to try to limit special interest mega-spending is to enact public financing for campaigns. Washington Public Campaigns attempted do this with a strong grassroots push to get the Washington State Legislature to pass legislation like Arizona and Maine have for all statewide candidates and North Carolina has for State Supreme Court races. Governor Gregoire supported a trial program for Supreme Court and Appellate Court races. The Washington State Legislature held hearings but ultimately passed nothing.