In Political Opponents We Trust

In an era of politics gone wild with exorbitant spending and toxic rhetoric, Ed Garvey and Bill Kraus recall the bygone days of trust, friendship and civility

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Looking for Trouble?

Because of their independence, one thing Kraus and Garvey have in common now is a sense that they are not welcome at their respective political parties’ annual conventions. Though Garvey is still a speaker in demand at county party meetings and smaller gatherings, neither man has attended a statewide convention in more than a decade.

“If I showed up everyone would wonder why I was there,” Kraus says. “If Ed showed up they would assume he was there to cause trouble.”

What they have done to gall the party faithful is to insist, quixotically, that the way campaigns are financed and conducted is bad for politics and results in poor public policy.

Garvey helped form the Nathan Heffernan Citizens Panel on a Clean Elections Option on which Kraus served in the late 1990s. The panel concluded that Wisconsin should adopt a state campaign finance model similar to Maine’s and a few other states’, where campaigns are financed mostly by tax dollars and spending is relatively modest.

Throughout the ’90s, Garvey went on speaking tours with Texas populist Jim Hightower at the behest of the national reform organization Public Campaign. Kraus has served on the boards of directors of the national organization Common Cause and Common Cause Wisconsin, a citizen’s lobbying organization for open government.

Their departure from the party line has forced them to create their own echo chambers. Garvey helped create Fighting Bob Fest in 2002 and will emcee the tenth annual gathering at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison this September. Garvey calls the day-long event, featuring authors and speakers from throughout the nation, a convention for the “politically homeless.” When Garvey created the online opinion journal FightingBob.com in 2003, where he posts daily GarveyBlog dispatches on the state of the world, he naturally invited Kraus to join him. Kraus posts once a week in the GuestBlog section. He sometimes disagrees with Garvey but most often blogs on topics Garvey doesn’t cover.

One subject Kraus returns to often in his blog posts is what he calls the “Arena Phenomenon.” There was a time, he says, when political opponents were able to disagree on the floor of the Legislature or in the pages of the newspaper but still get along outside the arena. They had in common their sense of public service and their respect for the give-and-take process that once characterized lawmaking.

“Democrats and Republicans used to drink together at the Salad Bar at the end of the day, but that doesn’t happen now,” Kraus says. “You can’t have an adversary anymore without having an enemy.”

Money Ain’t For Nothin’

Garvey and Kraus watched in horror in the fall of 2010 as money flowed into campaign coffers at unprecedented rates and nearly identical television ads filled the airwaves spewing venom and urging voters to avoid the certain doom associated with one candidate or another.

Together candidates and outside interest groups spent a record $37.4 million on the gubernatorial race between Democrat Tom Barrett and Republican Scott Walker—more than four times the amount spent in the 1998 governor’s race, when Garvey ran.
Outside interest groups, funded mostly by contributions from unidentified business, labor and ideological interests, spent an estimated $12.1 million. In a race that also saw record spending on television advertising, interest groups independent of the two candidates bought 42.5 percent of the ads, the highest percentage in the nation.

Last year’s U.S. Senate campaign was also the most expensive in Wisconsin’s history, with Russ Feingold and Ron Johnson spending $27 million between them. Add in the spending from outside interest groups and the total easily exceeds $30 million. Johnson, followed by Feingold, aired more TV ads than any Senate candidate in the nation.

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a group that advocates for campaign finance reform, says successful campaign fundraising almost always just means more money spent on broadcast advertising on network television, cable television and radio.

“We’ve seen races where as much as eighty percent of the money goes directly to TV stations,” McCabe says. “The
modern candidate is an agent for the television advertising industry.”

Most campaigns hire media strategy consultants from out-of-state places like Maryland and Virginia who produce broadcast ads with out-of-state video production firms and for their services they are paid the equivalent of fifteen percent of the total ads placed. With a sixty-second TV spot sometimes running several thousand dollars, $1 million ad buys are common. Add the $150,000 consultant’s fee and $27 million can disappear quickly.

“We have less control over politics in Wisconsin than ever before,” Garvey says. “Candidates are more and more dependent on people who were total strangers a month ago.”

Kraus agrees: “When I hired advisors and consultants for Dreyfus or Warren Knowles, they worked for me. Now the advisors are giving the orders.”

Back to the Future

Dreyfus’s thirty-minute campaign commercials from 1978 should be required viewing for every Wisconsin political candidate. Watching them now, they seem less like relics of a bygone era than beacons from an alternate universe, one where candidates run on the issues and the quality of their character.

A red-vested Dreyfus speaks informally and sincerely into the camera, talking about his life, his political views, and
urging people to listen to him and not to his critics. Every so often a supporter from Stevens Point, Wisconsin Rapids or some other Wisconsin hamlet appears next to Dreyfus to say, for example, that the
candidate really does support gun rights and should not be badmouthed by the National Rifle Association. Soon after a sign shows Governor Martin Schreiber outspending Dreyfus $496,000 to $186,000 at the end of September. “That’s almost three to one ... How far is he going to go?” implores Dreyfus, who goes on to talk about the Equal Rights Amendment, alternative energy sources and the scourge of special interests in politics.

The state had a tax surplus on its hands—how’s that for an alternate universe?—and Dreyfus advocated a tax holiday over a tax cut, rebate or keeping the money. When Dreyfus tells the government, “Don’t give it away, don’t take it in the first place,” he sounds like someone speaking common sense, not a political opportunist exploiting polling data and voter ignorance about the tax system.
During the course of the campaign, the Dreyfus camp did not issue a single press release or cut a single thirty-second
commercial, but they produced four of the half-hour infomercials that ran during the least expensive time slots.

For his part, Kraus drafted copy for the shows and managed Dreyfus’s campaign as an unpaid volunteer. He served similarly uncompensated roles in Warren Knowles’s 1966 and 1968 gubernatorial campaigns and John Erickson’s 1970 U.S. Senate campaign against Bill Proxmire.

“We were amateurs,” Kraus says of himself and others who ran campaigns back then. “We all did other things for a living, but we followed politics and government and we knew more about it than anyone else did. I don’t think it would have occurred to anyone at the time that you could just work on campaigns for a living or make any real money at it.”

By the end of the campaign Dreyfus had raised about $500,000, but he didn’t spend all of it because he and his staff thought it would be unseemly. Kraus says, “Eventually we had enough money to spend on TV ads, but by then it seemed hypocritical to advertise on TV because we had bad-mouthed it so much.”

After the campaign, after Dreyfus served his four years and said he’d had enough, and after Kraus moved to New York and back to Madison, he and Garvey became in-house political analysts on Wisconsin Public Television’s “Weekend” public affairs program. The show aired for ten years every Friday night, and for three years it closed with Garvey, Kraus and fellow Wisconsin political veterans Bill Dixon and Margaret Lewis debating the ins and outs of the week’s political news. “Weekend” eventually changed its name and format, and Garvey and Kraus’s roles there ended.

The two remain frequent and popular guest analysts on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Week in Review” program on Friday mornings. Every so often they appear opposite each other.

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WHY THEY CAN’T GET ALONG

Ed Garvey and Bill Kraus are two political observers who know how to take the long view. Still, when hot issues are burning they are drawn to the flame just like most people who follow politics. The February budget repair bill stand-off, pitting Gov. Scott Walker and the legislative Republicans against Democrats and organized labor, captured the attention of the entire nation. Garvey and Kraus were no exceptions.

The following is the transcript of an e-mail interview conducted while the stalemate was in its second week.

Dustin Beilke: How could the budget repair bill stalemate have been avoided?
Ed Garvey: It is time for the leaders to lead. Convene a panel of recognized experts, agree on the facts and then craft a solution. Everything is now so partisan that honest discussion is not possible.
Bill Kraus: We seem to be having a back-to-the-future week in Wisconsin. Gov. Walker wants to go back to 1959 and rewrite employee union history. Chancellor Martin wants to go back to 1971 and undo [the UW System] merger. I thought these battles were behind us. Silly me.
EG: I like Bill’s answer better than mine.
DB: Are stand-offs like this one something we can expect to see over and over for the foreseeable future?
BK: I don't think so. This is an almost perfect storm of compromise-killing conditions. The desirable side effect, in my view anyway, is that it militates in favor of split power over one-power rule.
EG: In my view, Wisconsin voters are pragmatic and do not trust ideologues. Joe McCarthy was too much and we have steered a middle course since Tail Gunner Joe died. Warren Knowles, Lee Dreyfus and Tommy Thompson were rather liberal Republicans. Tony Earl, Pat Lucey and Jim Doyle were moderate Democrats. I predict that Republican voters will throw Walker the ideologue out and look to moderation.
DB: If stalemates like the one surrounding the budget repair bill are something we would be better off without, how do we change?
EG: If right-wing extremists like the Koch brothers dominate the nominating process, gridlock is inevitable. Guys like the Kochs hate moderates. As John Birch types, they want a union-free America.
Robert La Follette created the open primary system to take the nominating from the money folks. Let the people nominate and all would go well. La Follette was right. Now we need publicly financed primaries so the people, not the Koch boys, can nominate non-ideologues.
BK: The governor can play a pivotal role in bringing adversaries together before they become enemies. He's got the executive mansion. All he needs is an instinct for schmoozing. A long series of dinner parties can do wonders.

 Dustin Beilke is a frequent contributor to Madison Magazine.
 

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