Matthew Rothschild (copy)

Matthew Rothschild, former editor of The Progressive magazine, now leads the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

It's been 25 years since Gail Shea quit her job with the then-Wisconsin Elections Board to become the executive director of a brand new nonprofit aimed at tracking the huge amounts of money being lavished on Wisconsin politicians.

"Big money is the problem; people are the solution," she said at a press conference announcing the formation of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Not only was it going to track campaign contributions so voters could easily learn who was trying to buy influence, but it was going to strongly advocate for campaign finance reform, seeking limits on the size of contributions.

The 1995 founders were an impressive lot. Among them were former Democratic Gov. Tony Earl, longtime Republican activist and national committeeman Ody Fish, Brown County County Executive Nancy Nusbaum, Republican consultant Bob Williams and Paul Hassett, then the recently retired head of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce — back in the day when the WMC actually thought it important to limit spending in state elections.

Through the ensuing 25 years, the Democracy Campaign has kept tabs on where big money is influencing our political system. Media outlets have been able to rely on the WDC's computerized data bank whenever there are questions about who and what are bankrolling a campaign.

The public is also welcome to use its database of contributors by going to wisdc.org and following the prompts on the home page.

The nonprofit first opened a lot of eyes in the 1996 recall election of state Sen. George Petak, who had raised the ire of his Racine constituents for voting "yes" to fund Miller Park, breaking a tie in the Senate. The WDC's tracking showed that some of the state's biggest corporations, GE Medical Systems, Harley-Davidson and Oshkosh Corp. had flooded Petak with money. Petak still lost.

Then there was the report later that year listing how large a role the state's wealthy play in boosting their favorite politicians.

The whole idea has been transparency, so important to the functioning of a democracy.

Shea retired from the WDC in 2000, turning the reins over to Mike McCabe, who expanded the WDC's interests during his 15 years at the helm to include advocacy for fair redistricting, support for the effort to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision and fighting legislation to make it harder to vote. Matt Rothschild, former editor of the Progressive magazine, replaced McCabe when he stepped down in 2015, and continues to be a key spokesperson for reform.

Some Republicans today complain that the WDC is really a "liberal" organization, ignoring that it regularly calls out Democrats and independent Democratic funders for excessive campaign spending and dubious tactics as well as Republicans. Former Democratic Gov. James Doyle was often cited for accepting money to bankroll travel costs.

Many Republicans, particularly in this Legislature, oppose campaign finance reform, defend gerrymandered political districts and favor voting restrictions, explaining why WDC's positions might irritate them.

If the coronavirus crisis subsides by then, the WDC will celebrate its 25th anniversary at Madison's Concourse Hotel from 4:30-8 p.m. on April 29. Shea, McCabe and Rothschild will all appear on a panel to discuss those 25 years of advocacy. The public is welcome; details are at wisdc.org.

The three directors have kept it alive all these years. Its work is needed for democracy's future more than ever.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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