By Tom Still
MADISON – The jury verdicts against former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and former legislative aide Sherry Schultz have ended, for now, the legal drama that surrounded the Capitol’s five-year-old “caucus scandal.” The felony convictions returned Saturday against Jensen and Schultz bring to nine the number of Capitol figures, including five legislators, who have been toppled for improperly using state resources to run political campaigns.
For the most part, however, those who were charged with a mix of felonies and misdemeanors haven’t been at the core of power in the Capitol for several years. The scandal long ago cost key lawmakers positions they held dear – posts such as Speaker, Senate Majority Leader, Assembly Majority Leader and co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee. Only Jensen still remains in the Legislature, and his convictions mean he must soon surrender his seat.
So, is the problem solved? Have the twin brooms of investigative reporting and criminal prosecution swept clean Wisconsin’s Augean Stables?
Yes and no. New leaders are in place in both parties, and in both houses. None of them would be so reckless as to repeat the mistakes of past leaders, who secretly turned Capitol staff, offices and equipment into a giant campaign machine that ran on public dollars.
And yet, the legacy of the caucus scandal has created a Capitol in transition. The old ways are gone, but new ways of running campaigns and doing the public’s business are still evolving.
Before the caucus process was unmasked, legislative campaigns were essentially run by the internal staffs of the Legislature itself. The privately funded Democratic and Republican parties were, in effect, neutered as political forces. Candidates for Senate and Assembly seats were obliged to turn to legislative leaders to support their campaigns with workers, materials and cash, and the system created candidates who were indebted to benefactors who expected loyalty in return.
Power abhors a vacuum, and the vacuum created by the dismantling of the caucus process was no exception. Both the Democratic and Republican parties – the very places where campaigns should be conceived, financed and run – are still recovering from having their core duties wrenched away from them. As a result, special interest groups have filled the void. They have become the primary recruiters of candidates for the Assembly and Senate. They also finance the campaigns and, not surprisingly, expect loyalty when their issues emerge on the legislative agenda.
Wisconsin has gone from a time when a handful of key legislators controlled campaigns and commanded the fealty of those they elected to a time when a handful of special interests are running the campaign structure and demanding the loyalty of those they elect. Neither scenario is healthy for our institutions or the discussion of public policy.
The restoration of political parties is one answer. Recruiting candidates, teaching them how to run and helping them raise dollars is precisely what American political parties have done for years – for the most part without siphoning public dollars to do so. Some of the so-called “election reforms” of the past have hurt the two-party system, our democracy’s natural campaign staging grounds.
A careful review of campaign finance laws is another. Both the U.S. and Wisconsin Constitutions guarantee the right of political expression, which includes donating to candidates and parties. But there is plenty of room to establish more effective safeguards and to limit campaign spending in ways that don’t disadvantage challengers.
That final point requires action by everyone. Candidates spend a lot of money on campaigns because they’re desperate to get the attention of voters, who all too often ignore what’s happening in public life until a few state legislators have been sent to jail. Citizens must take more responsibility for society’s political processes, or our democracy suffers. Rather than forcing candidates to buy 30-second television spots to catch your eye, try reading your local newspaper’s election coverage or attending a local candidates’ forum The caucus scandal may be over, but the job of restoring public trust is only beginning. We all have a stake in its success.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.