Monday, January 30, 2006

“Diamond Jim” Pays to Play -- Sykes Writes


WEDNESDAY, Feb. 26, 2003, 7:25 p.m.
“Diamond Jim” Pays to Play
By Charles J. Sykes
(Note: An edited version of this column appears Thursday in the Madison newspaper Isthmus.)


This is “pay to play” on a biblical scale.

Profits measured in billions.

Deals that will outlive the Second Coming.

Campaign cash siphoned to the one political figure with the absolute, unreviewable power to grant perpetual monopoly status to the most powerful special interest lobby in the state.

Next to “Diamond Jim” Doyle’s deal with the Indian tribes, quipped Senator Mike Ellis, the charges against legislators who traded campaign cash for votes look like “stealing a gumball in a penny arcade.”

And yet the watchdogs were apparently sleepwalking through what may have been the most massive quid pro quo in state politics. At least two things should have tipped them off.

The first was the decision by the cash-heavy Indian tribes to become heavily involved in state electoral politics. The second was the coziness of their gaming lobbyists with the Doyle administration.

First, let’s understand the stakes. The tribes have a government-mandated monopoly on gaming in Wisconsin, in effect a license to print money. In 2001, their net revenue from gaming – the amount wagered minus payouts – was $971 million and rapidly rising.

That cash gives a potential war chest that eclipses anything that either business or labor can muster. Given the stakes, it’s not inconceivable that they might invest as much as $10 million in the campaign of a friendly politician. In pure political clout, the tribes could dwarf the teachers union, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, even the trial lawyers.

Last year, for the first time, the tribes decided to begin spending that money to elect their friends and defeat their foes.

That, of course, is their right. But it also represented a seismic shift in state politics. Gambling money became the trump card in state politics.

Since Doyle announced his extraordinary sweetheart deal with the Oneida’s – perpetual compacts, 24/7 casinos, a green light for craps and roulette – the extent of the tribes’ political support for his campaign has become apparent.

Within days of walking away from negotiations with the McCallum administration, three of the tribes with the most at stake siphoned more than $700,000 to the Democratic Party which kicked the money back to help elect Doyle. In addition to the soft money contributions, the tribes spent at least $275,000 on “issue” ads advocating Doyle’s election and another $75,000 on his inauguration.

It gets worse. According to a former McCallum aide, a representative of the Ho-Chunk allegedly offered former Governor McCallum a half million dollars in campaign money if he would agree to a deal that would go on forever. When McCallum refused, the money promptly went to Doyle.

Somebody please wake up Brian Blanchard, because that sounds a lot like “pay to play,” except that the numbers are so much larger than anything the Capitol has ever seen.

But at the time nobody seemed to notice. Even though they were in High Sanctimony about corruption in state government, neither the media nor the watchdog groups paid much attention to the amount of money that the tribes were investing the campaign or what they wanted in return.

Nor was there any comment when Governor-elect Doyle tapped the registered lobbyist of the Potawatomi to be the emcee of his inaugural event. Former Governor Martin Schreiber was a Doyle campaign insider, but he has also been the most prominent lobbyists for the Forest County Potawatomi, which had a huge stake in the negotiations with the state.

The bottomline: the “negotiations” between the tribes and the state were over before they even began. If there was any hard-nosed bargaining it was over which sandwich to order during the talks. On the substance of the deals, Doyle caved as quickly as completely as the tribes could have imagined.

Doyle and his supporters insist that the legislature’s action last week to require legislative approval of the gaming deals amounts to a power “grab.” Republicans, they point out, never wanted a veto when it was held by Tommy Thompson. About the only politician who objected was Jim Doyle, who thought the system was ripe for abuse until he had the power himself.

But the Legislature’s action was also recognition (belated) that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Under the current system of negotiating the gaming compacts, a single official has the power to change fundamental public policy unilaterally and in secret. In his first major action in office Diamond Jim used it to grant a perpetual monopoly to one of his biggest cash contributors.

The system of checks and balanced failed, because there is no check and no balance. Just campaign cash and monopolies that go on forever.

"We are selling the integrity of Wisconsin down the sewer," said Mike Ellis.

But the most cutting comment came from one of Doyle’s fellow Democrats. "Desperate times, desperate circumstances, desperate governors sometimes make mistakes,” said Senator Chuck Chvala, who faces 19 felony charges for trading votes for cash. He should know.

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