Elections in Wisconsin’s Iron County have always been down-home affairs: an ad in the Iron County Miner newspaper, some leaflets dropped at the door, maybe a hand-painted yard sign.
This year, that’s changed. Determined to promote controversial mining projects — and to advance Gov. Scott Walker’s agenda — a group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers has waded into Tuesday’s competition for control of the Iron County Board.
With dubious “facts” and over-the-top charges, the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity is pouring money into the county — where voter turnout in spring elections rarely tops 1,500 — for attack ads. Small-business owners, farmers and retirees who have asked sensible questions about the impact of major developments on pristine lakes, rivers, waterfalls and tourism are dismissed as “anti-mining radicals” who “just want to shut the mines down, no matter what.”
Iron County is debating whether to allow mining, not whether to shut mines down. And many of the candidates the Kochs and their allies are attacking have simply said they want to hear from all sides.
But those details don’t matter in the new world of Big Money politics ushered in by U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have cleared the way for billionaires and corporations to buy elections.
Most of the attention focuses on national and state races. But the best bargains for billionaires are found at the local level — where expenditures in the thousands can overwhelm the pocket-change campaigns of citizens who run for county boards and city councils out of a genuine desire to serve and protect their community.
That’s why it is vital to pay attention to Tuesday’s voting in Iron County — and in communities such as Kenosha, where the Koch-tied group has waded into local school board races.
That’s why it is also vital to pay attention to clean-politics advisory referendums on ballots across Wisconsin. Belleville, DeForest, Delavan, Edgerton, Elkhorn, Lake Mills, Shorewood, Waterloo, Waukesha, Waunakee, Wauwatosa, Whitefish Bay and Windsor will have an opportunity to urge their elected representatives to support an amendment to restore the authority of local, state and national officials to establish campaign finance rules ensuring that votes matter more than dollars. The initiative is backed by groups like Move to Amend and United Wisconsin. “The unlimited election spending by special-interest groups, allowed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, has drowned out the voices of ordinary people,” says United Wisconsin Executive Director Lisa Subeck. “Urgent action is needed to restore our democracy to the hands of the people.”
That urgency is especially real in rural Wisconsin, which is why the Wisconsin Farmers Union is calling for a “yes” vote. “Citizens of all political stripes — Republicans, Democrats and independents — agree that we need to curb the corrupting influence of money in politics,” says WFU Executive Director Tom Quinn. “Voting yes … will send a clear message that we the people are ready to take back our democracy.”