By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
It’s hard not to like Glenn Grothman, though some people find a way.
The Republican state senator from West Bend is what legislative insiders call a “true believer.” He’s also a straight shooter. Ask him an honest question, you’ll get an honest answer.
So there’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of Grothman’s belief that Wisconsin’s political process would work better if people had access to less information. He has introduced a bill to end the requirement that those who give more than $100 a year to state political campaigns disclose their principal place of employment.
Grothman, in a press release, backs this change because “mean-spirited public employee unions,” including the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, “have tried to use the massive purchasing power of our public workers to make it difficult for businesses that hire Republican employees within our state to continue operating.”
He says this practice “reached a new level” recently when state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, called on state residents to boycott the products of Georgia-Pacific. The company, which employs about 3,000 people in Wisconsin, is owned by Koch Industries, whose political action committee gave $43,000 to help Republican Gov. Scott Walker get elected last year.
“I don’t think we want in Wisconsin a permanent state of affairs in which you are boycotting companies based on who their employees give money to,” Grothman says in an interview. He believes this “creates an awkward situation between an employer and the employee,” who must worry about the repercussions of his or her political donations.
Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, defends the decision of his and other unions earlier this year to seek a boycott of two companies it identified as giving substantial support to Walker.
“It’s part of our job to inform our members about companies which do not support their basic right to take a seat at the bargaining table,” says Palmer, adding that companies were targeted because of decisions made by top execs, not giving by ordinary employees.
He suggests Grothman’s effort to “degrade Wisconsin’s longstanding tradition of open government” is driven by a desire to “demonize public employee unions” in advance of an expected campaign to recall Walker.
Grothman’s press release does seem to play the demon card, blending references to “top level union bosses,” “a Cuban/Soviet-style environment” and “members of Wisconsin’s Totalitarian Left that will do all they can to destroy those who disagree with them.”
Moreover, Grothman’s bill would do little to solve the problem he alleges. People could still track spending by PACs and individual execs. They just couldn’t get a full, true picture of employee giving.
The state Government Accountability Board lists employers on individual reports. The nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign uses these reports to create a contribution database that be searched by company name.
It shows that outside of the Koch Industries PAC, employees of Georgia-Pacific have given less than $6,000 to political candidates over the past 20 years, none to Walker. Having this information actually undercuts the case for boycotts.
Mike Kawleski, a spokesman for Georgia-Pacific in Green Bay, said the company has taken no position on Grothman’s bill. Neither has Walker, according to spokesman Cullen Werwie: “We will evaluate the final version of that bill if it reaches the governor’s desk.”
Earlier this year William Gardner, CEO of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co., was convicted of two felonies for using his employees to funnel contributions in excess of legal limits to Walker’s campaign. Being able to identify employee giving “certainly helped” the investigation into this matter, says Government Accountability Board spokesman Reid Magney.
And of course, Grothman’s bill would make it much more difficult to track contributions from, say, trial lawyers, or teachers, or employees of labor unions — groups on which Republicans like to keep a vigilant eye.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication and other news media. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.