Madison Aldermanic Races Flooded By Realtors Association Money, Neighborhood Elections Should Not Be For Sale

Pressing for a process where elections are issue-oriented has been one of the foundations of this blog over the past 17 years.  Ushering more money into campaigns has not created policy wonks among voters but instead pressured elected officials to be more susceptible to casting an aye or nay that aligns with the monied interests who ‘brought them to the dance’.  As we near the April Spring election heavy monied maneuvers have been employed by the Realtors Association of South Central Wisconsin in a large number of Madison aldermanic races.  It is creating a backlash across the city that I suspect news operations will soon find merits coverage. In the newsroom of the radio station where I worked, we termed a story of this kind as ‘having legs’.

Central to this story is that races for alderperson, one of the most local and personal types of elections we are engaged in as citizens should not be smothered by the monied interests from outside our districts. They do not care about the community spirit we wish to maintain in our neighborhoods but rather about the use of raw political power during election season. 

As noted on the Marquette Neighborhood listserv this weekend, where one of the candidates for an alderperson in the 6th district next month received $20,000 in assistance from the realtors, there is ample reason to understand what is happening.  First, a brief primer about a similar move where Satya Rhodes-Conway, while serving as a city council member, weighed into what then was a political stink bomb lobbed into the Willy Street neighborhood.

“In the 2013 District 6 Alder race, the Building a Stronger Wisconsin PAC sent out a mailer supporting one of the candidates.  It raised quite a stir on this list-serv (and in the neighborhood) not only due to its scurrilous content about the opponent but also because a PAC directly entered into a local race.  As one poster at the time said:  “If a Madison council seat can attract this kind of PAC intrusion, what’s next?  PAC mailers for Co-Op, MNA and Wil-Mar board seats?”  Or, as then-Alder Satya Rhodes-Conway was quoted as saying in another post:  “Shady front groups have no place in Madison Politics.” 

Venture forth to March 2023.

Now, for the District 6 election, we have received a mailer from the RASCW Housing Advocacy Fund.  This Fund is an IRS section 527 political organization, first registered with the IRS on March 6, 2023.  The Fund is affiliated with the Realtors Association of South Central Wisconsin, and the Association’s CEO is the records custodian for the Fund.  The Fund’s IRS registration form states the purpose of the organization is “to influence elections.”  The Fund’s first registration statement was filed with the state on March 10th

WHAT IS ABSOLUTELY APPALLING is that this Fund has spent $ 169,889.02 (estimated costs, not all invoices have been received) on Madison Alder races. The Fund has spent money on candidates for Districts 3, 4, 6, 9, 12, 15, 16, 18, and, 19.  In addition, the Fund spent $17,477 on a Fitchburg mayoral candidate. 

The Fund spent $20,000 in the District 6 race for mailing services, online advertising, and phone/robo calls.  To put this in perspective, in 2021 Brian raised $1,080 and spent less than $400, Alder Abbas spent about $6K, Alder Bennett about $2K, and Alder Carter about $2.5K.”

Why this matters to voters is something I can speak to with first-hand knowledge. In 1988, for the first time, a race for a Wisconsin state assembly seat would top $50,000.  Most rural races were easily waged with $15,000 but the GOP desperately wanted Lary Swoboda’s First Assembly seat (Lary had taken the Door/Kewaunee seat after it had been held by the GOP for almost a century), so they pumped over $50,000 into the opponent’s war chest. I was working with Lary at the Capitol in those years and though we prevailed at the ballot box, due in part to people knowing the high gloss multicolored brochures in the mail were not aligned with the way they had long known races to be conducted, this race changed how our caucus in the assembly viewed future elections. Seeking large amounts of campaign cash and viewing the coming election cycle as a frenzied money-grabbing event greatly altered politics and undermined good governance. The way to remedy a similar cash grab locally from happening is to reject this kind of spending by sending a clear message at the ballot box about what good government means.

Finally, after the 1988 election, our campaign had some political buttons produced.  You read that right, after the election.  That race was so grueling we needed some way to alert others to the insanity we endured. “We Survived The $50,000 Club”. Today people think of $50,000 as start-up money for an assembly race, but in 1988 that was a major war chest to run against. 

Voters have the power to reject this monied interest and reverse the attempt to sway elections followed by their desire to plow through changes in the common council.

Here is the filed report. Type “rascw” into the search box, and the fund name will drop down. 

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