With voters and candidates holed in their own houses because of concerns about the coronavirus, this campaign season has ended quietly with no rallies, no speeches and no door-to-door campaigning.
Seizing on an opportunity — and a captive audience — dark-money groups flooded Milwaukee County mailboxes with sometimes dubious claims in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s contest. These groups are usually nonprofits that don’t have to reveal their source of funding and, sometimes, how much they are spending.
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In the Milwaukee County executive’s contest, a local liberal group sent out flyers — without saying who paid for them — as it sought to counter the heavy spending by outgoing County Exec Chris Abele and a national pro-school-choice group.
In the highly contentious Milwaukee city comptroller’s race, one candidate, deputy comptroller Aycha Sawa, has come under repeated attack from a local nonprofit lobbing accusations that earned it a “pants on fire” rating from PolitiFact Wisconsin.
And a shadowy group out of Virginia tried to tip the balance in the Wauwatosa mayor’s contest by sending out five rounds of flyers criticizing one of the candidates without ever explaining who was underwriting these attacks.
Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said it’s no surprise that dark-money groups are getting involved locally.
“Our democracy is drowning under a tsunami of dark money, which is now spilling over into the most local of races,” Rothschild said. “Until we require these groups to disclose their donors, until they’ve got to tell us who is paying for the mud that’s splattering our screens, the voters of Wisconsin will continue to be swamped with these nasty ads.”
In the county exec’s race, no one spent more money than Abele, whose group Leadership MKE has paid out more than $823,000 so far this year, including an additional $67,500 reported Monday.
About $746,000 of that sum has gone toward mailers and online ads in support of state Rep. David Crowley. Crowley faced state Sen. Chris Larson to replace Abele in Tuesday’s election.
Abele’s donations and spending with Leadership MKE are all made public.
Another group involved in the race, the American Federation for Children, is also explicit about what it is spending.
The school choice group, for which former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen is a senior strategist, also reports what it is spending. As of this past weekend, the American Federation for Children had dropped $47,092 on radio ads ripping Larson.
What is less clear is who exactly paid for the ads. The group has listed a single $40,000 donation from the federation’s nonprofit arm.
Larson’s campaign repeatedly attacked the ads paid for by the federation, which was founded by the family of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. “She’s back,” read one “Betsy DeVos alert” from his campaign.
Jensen said this week that the criticism is misleading: “Betsy DeVos does not currently hold any position with AFC. She resigned from our board in late 2016. She has spoken at a few of our events, but as Education Secretary she speaks to lots of education focused groups.“
Larson has been not at all critical of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a local liberal nonprofit that has sent out numerous mailers touting his candidacy. “Feel like there’s no end to prescription drug price hikes? Democrat Chris Larson wants to fix that,” said one recent one.
Robert Kraig, the executive director for Citizen Action, said he doesn’t consider his group a dark-money outfit for a variety of reasons. For instance, he said, people locally know where his group is coming from politically, and it’s been around since 1983. He said Citizen Action doesn’t have the support of multimillionaires who “seek a distorting influence on our democracy.”
Still, Citizen Action won’t say who specifically paid for its pro-Larson material or how much it spent on the campaign.
Larson has been repeatedly critical of dark-money groups. He has run online ads promising “Bold reforms, no dark money.”
But Sonja Chojnacki, Larson’s campaign manager, dismissed a question about Citizen Action’s lack of disclosure. She said there is no comparison between Crowley’s benefiting from Abele’s largess and Larson’s support from Citizen Action.
“One is rigging the system in his favor,” Chojnacki said of Abele, “the other is trying to unrig the system for the rest of us.”
But Crowley campaign spokesman Garren Randolph said Larson is contradicting himself: “Chris Larson has made his supposed rejection of dark money the centerpiece of his campaign, but now that he’s benefiting from dark money, he is silent.”
Perhaps no campaign has been as rough and tumble as the Milwaukee comptroller’s race.
Leaders for a Better Community, a nonprofit headed by local activist Sherwin Hughes, has put out multiple flyers saying Sawa “blocked an audit” of the Milwaukee lead program for three years that “put our children in danger” and spurred a criminal investigation.
Her opponent, state Rep. Jason Fields, makes a similar claim on his campaign website. Fields and Hughes are longtime political allies.
Last week, PolitiFact Wisconsin labeled the charges in the mailers “false and ridiculous.”
“Implying she continued blocking something for a three-year span is pure fiction — as is the claim that her actions spurred a criminal investigation,” the analysis concluded. “The investigation was of the health department, not Sawa or the comptroller’s office.”
What’s less clear is who is footing the bill for the ads or how much it has cost. Because Hughes’ group is a nonprofit, it doesn’t have to say.
But there’s this: The American Federation of Children, the national group that favors choice and charter schools, has reported that it contributed $302,000 to Leaders for a Better Community from 2015 to 2017 for “educational choice support in WI.” The entire budget for the Leaders for a Better Community was $389,386 during that period, according to federal filings.
Those are the latest years for which numbers are available.
Jensen declined to say whether his American Federation is underwriting the attacks on Sawa. The comptroller is one of seven members of the city Charter School Review Committee. The city currently operates seven charter schools.
Fields, an advocate for using vouchers for private schools, said he was happy to get the backing of Leaders for a Better Community and supports its mailers criticizing his opponent.
As for its funding sources, Fields said, “As a matter of transparency, I support the full disclosure of campaign financing across the board. Not only where the money comes from, but how it was spent and when.”
In an email, Sawa wouldn’t say who she believes is paying for the attack ads, though she said it was not a labor union or progressive group.
She declined to say if she supported the use of tax dollars for choice or charter schools.
“That is not a policy decision that the comptroller makes,” she said. “But an expert comptroller is necessary to hold charter schools and choice schools accountable to taxpayers and the students that they claim to serve — and someone who takes dark money from those groups cannot do that. My child will attend MPS schools.”
Then there is the Wauwatosa mayor’s race.
A Virginia-based nonprofit, Citizens for Effective Government, has spent $65,000 on multiple flyers attacking Nancy Welch, who is running against Dennis McBride. It is unclear who covered that expense for the group.
As Evan Casey of the Journal Sentinel’s NOW News Group turned up, the group was incorporated as a nonprofit by Michael Brown, according to the Virginia State Corporation Commission. The two candidates say they don’t know Brown.
Thomas Frenn, a local attorney who doesn’t work for either campaign, has asked the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office to get involved. “I have been involved in politics for 55 years, and this just disgusts me,” said Frenn, who gave to Welch after the mailers went out.
Rothschild, the head of the watchdog Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said voters should expect more of the same from dark-money groups in future elections without reform of campaign law — even after the coronavirus is a thing of the past.
“It has to do with another virus — the lucra-virus, the virus of big and dark money that is contaminating our democracy,” he said.
Contact Daniel Bice at (414) 224-2135 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DanielBice or on Facebook at fb.me/daniel.bice.
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