Wisconsin has a serious Tea Party problem. Nothing very revealing here as large scale union protests have resisted the attempt by Tea Party supported Governor Scott Walker to strip public employee’s unions of collective bargaining rights. What is less known is that the Democratic Party is also in on the Tea Party moment in Wisconsin – dipping into the funds offered by a key Tea Party supporter during recent elections.
Campaign Finance Reports filed with the State of Wisconsin from 2008 until 2011 indicate that key Democratic Party officials in the State Assembly and the Democratic Party as a whole have taken campaign contributions from the Koch Industries Inc. Political Action Committee (PAC). This PAC is operated by the infamous Koch brothers, key funders and architects of the Tea Party Movement. From 2008 until 2011 the Democrats took thousands of dollars in funds including contributions made to the losing campaign of controversial ex-Speaker of the Assembly Mike Sheridan.
Current Democratic Wisconsin State Assembly Representatives Gordon Hintz and Cory Mason both accepted funds from the Koch brothers in July 2010 as part of their reelection campaigns. Hintz and Mason received payments of $250. Other Democrats did the same during failed campaigns including Pedro Colon who ran for the Mayor of Milwaukee, Russ Decker a member of state Senate, Jim Nelson, a former Assemblyman who ran for Lieutenant Governor, former Assemblyman James Soletski and former Assembly Speaker Sheridan.
The Koch Brothers covered all bases in July 2009 when they delivered contributions directly to both the Republican and Democratic Parties. The State Senate Democratic Committee received $3,000, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin $5,000 and the Assembly Democratic Committee another $3,000. Similar contributions were provided to the Republican Party.
The Koch Brothers have gained notoriety first as the philanthropic muscle behind a myriad of climate change denial groups and then as prime underwriters of the Tea Party movement. Their company, Koch Industries Inc., has been consistently cited as one of the top polluters in the country. Their anti-climate change research has sought to create a justification for their company’s actions while also squaring well with their long-held libertarian sensibilities. The resulting marriage with the Tea Party was one of convenience.
Koch Brothers money began flowing into Wisconsin in 2008 as their PAC built alliances with large businesses in the state including subsidiaries of their energy company. Their activities began slowly by paying out $4,000 to the election committees of Republican candidates. However, by January 2010 their intake from local businesses had increased to more than $9,000 and their payouts to state-wide candidates and parties, including the Democrats, increased to more than $28,000.
As has been reported widely, current Republican Governor Scott Walker was a special project for the Koch brothers. He received large-scale contributions amounting to more than $43,000. All told, the fund was used to support 40 different candidates including 26 currently seated officials.
The Koch PAC seemed to be hedging its bets during the 2010 gubernatorial elections in Wisconsin. While massively funding Walker, they also paid out funds to Tom Nelson, the Democratic Party candidate for Lieutenant Governor. Though Nelson ultimately lost, the Koch brothers were covered since they had also, in 2008, funded the campaign of the eventual Lieutenant Governor winner, Republican Rebecca Kleifisch.
The ascendancy of the Koch brothers and their local allies as significant campaign contributors on the Wisconsin electoral scene represents a serious challenge from the far-right wing. Though Walker is now the poster-boy for this movement, and the easy mark for progressives everywhere, election records indicate that the far-right has also found that the Democratic Party makes a useful target for funds.
The money marks the full conversion of the Democrats into a corporate political party. This is certainly an outfit that is entirely unworthy of becoming the electoral representatives of the anti-Walker fight back movement. The contributions cast doubts on claims by Democrats, even the seemingly brave ones in exile in Illinois, that they want to “negotiate” with Walker. Union members who are protesting Walker would be wise to wonder how they will fare when Koch brothers financed politicians bearing the tag of Democrat and Republican eventually sit down to discuss their future.
The long lesson of social movements in the US is that an independent protest movement requires independent political candidates come election time. This will require looking outside of the mainstream parties in Wisconsin.
Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and the editor of the Socialist WebZine. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and the Monthly Review Zine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Become a FAN on Facebook.