In the early 1980s, Mark Dayton ran for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota. He spent so much of his own money, about $8 million, that it shocked people, and he was defeated.
Voters in Minnesota comfortable with Don Frazer, Hubert Humphrey and Gene McCarthy running on a shoestring were not going to permit anyone to buy a Senate seat.
Today Dayton is a U.S. senator, and no one cares how much money he spent to get there. John Corzine, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, spent $59 million of his own money to capture a job that pays about $160,000 annually. In Illinois, five multimillionaires are competing to fill that state's open seat. And we have millionaire Republicans hoping to join multimillionaire Herb Kohl as our U.S. senator from Wisconsin.
Are we excluding the best and the brightest for the wealthiest self- or corporate-funded candidates?
Thus far campaign finance reform has tinkered around the edges. The McCain-Feingold soft money ban does nothing to provide public funding for worthy candidates who were sloppy about selecting their parents.
The combination of funds from those who are investing in the candidates and the personal fortunes that determine who can run and who can win is a startling amount of money.
Have we lost our minds, our democracy, or both?
When I was a child, my mother gave me a book titled "You Can Change the World." The part I remember today was the author's story about a speech in Kokomo, Ind. He had discussed starvation in India, segregation in Mississippi, excessive military spending and a host of other issues. After the speech, one member of the audience approached him and said, "Father, everything is fine in Kokomo." Wisconsin has become Kokomo. Everything is just fine in Wisconsin.
Or is it? We have a Legislature dominated by a dangerous combination of ideologues and lobbyists. The lobbyists purchase the pro-wealth agenda while the ideologues keep us focused on gay marriage, loopy ideas like faith-based prisons, concealed weapons and vouchers to solve the crisis of inner-city schools.
It is not just your imagination playing tricks on you. This Legislature is the worst in modern times. No big ideas, no leadership, no plans for solving our economic problems, no serious effort to fund special education, not to mention the gifted and those in between.
The proposed cuts by the Madison Metropolitan School District are a tragedy that should have us in the streets.
They are robbing citizens of a voice in growth, the siting of factory farms and power lines.
Why? He who pays the piper names the tune.
But there is an equally troubling issue. Who wants to run for the Legislature today? As Howard Cosell used to say, "You deserve whatever you get."
First question: What do I have to do to win a state Senate seat?
Answer: Go raise a million dollars and come back and see me.
Q. How about an Assembly seat?
Answer: Go raise $200,000 and call back.
Q. What do I have to do to run for governor?
Answer: Go raise $8 million and call me.
Q. What is my platform?
Answer: Don't worry about it, we will shape your message.
As we slip into a society of the rich and the rest of us, ask yourself what Democrats are doing about it. The answer, from Gov. Jim Doyle to Sen. Jon Erpenbach, is a resounding scream that would put Howard Dean's Iowa yell in perspective - NOTHING! Nothing. Nothing.
Campaign consultants keep whispering in Doyle's ear, "You are the governor and you can do what Tommy did. You can get Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the road builders, the utilities to contribute so much money you will be unbeatable in 2006. Don't prohibit contributions now! That's how you got here."
What they don't say is, "If you raise the money, you can pay us!" They aren't saying that this money is corrupting and devaluing the system and distorting our priorities.
Campaign finance reform died in this Legislature. The Ellis-Erpenbach bill became something less, Common Cause said it was better than nothing, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign said it was worse than nothing, and the Democratic Party and the governor remained silent. The bill was yanked.
On Sept. 18, the third Fighting Bob Fest will be held in Baraboo with the theme "Rights at Risk." One right at risk is that of middle-class and poor people to run for office or to be heard in the parlors of power.
We should remember the warning of Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward Ryan, given in 1873 while an attentive student, Bob La Follette, sat in the audience:
"The question shall arise, and arise in your day, which shall rule, wealth or man; which shall lead, money or intellect; who shall fill public stations - educated and patriotic free men or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?"
The fun is out of politics. Citizen participation in the legislative process has become an exercise in futility. Good people laugh if you ask them to run for office.
It is an outrage that the governor is not leading the charge to clean up Wisconsin politics.
Belle La Follette said Ryan's speech was "the inspiration for Bob's life." Let it be ours. I want patriotic and free people in that Legislature, not "feudal serfs of corporate capital." I'm tired of waiting.
Ed Garvey, the Democratic nominee for governor in 1998, is a Madison lawyer and the editor of the fightingbob.com Web site. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2003 The Capital Times