Tuesday, January 24, 2006

WILL CORPORATE MONEY FLOAT OR SINK DOYLE'S BOAT?


Soft money flood should float Doyle's boat
Posted: Dec. 17, 2005
Cary Spivak &
Dan Bice

What's a Wisconsin business to do when it wants to give Gov. Jim Doyle big bucks but can't because of the state's ban on corporate donations?

Well, that's what soft money is all about, as the first-term Democratic governor gratefully found out in 2002.

And the spigot is already flowing to one key Democratic soft-money account for next year's contest.

Records show that Wisconsin firms - including utilities, tribes and a smattering of big businesses - have given more than $264,000 to the Democratic Governors Association between January 2003 and June.

Sure, that's about a third of the $725,000 that Wisconsin tribes dropped on the Democrats in the 11th hour of the 2002 election, but, hey, it's a pretty decent start.

Among the big givers during that 2 1/2 -year stretch were philanthropist Dan Bader, $50,000; Wisconsin Insurance Alliance, $40,000; manufacturing giant Johnson Controls, $35,000; Oneida tribe, $10,000; and Doyle's favorite law firm, Foley & Lardner, $7,500. That sum doesn't include out-of-state corporate giants, like Maximus, Georgia Pacific and Waste Management, that do significant business here.

By contrast, no firms based here gave a dime to the group just five years ago, when then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican, was serving out his fourth term.

"We have a Democratic governor, and we were looking for ways to be involved in the process in Wisconsin, so we gave to the Democratic Governors Association," explained Kerry Spees, flack for Wisconsin Public Service. "I hate to see it painted like an evil thing. . . . You support people who are your friends."

The utility dropped $20,000 on the association in 2004, including 10 grand shortly after state regulators shot down a plan by WPS and Alliant Energy to sell their Kewaunee nuclear plant.

In recent days, Doyle has been hammered because his campaign accepted $43,650 from WPS and Alliant execs while the state was considering the deal. The sale was eventually approved in April by the Public Service Commission, headed by three gubernatorial appointees.

Could there be any link between the contributions to the governors' group - or, for that matter, the money that went directly to Doyle's war chest - and the PSC actions?

"Obviously not," Spees said. "My company is happy to contribute to candidates in Wisconsin who are pro-business, and we believe Gov. Doyle is pro-business."

Several other givers also had major dealings with the state at the time of their contributions to the Democratic group.

The Oneida and Ho-Chunk Nation, which gave $1,000 in 2004, were negotiating payments with the state over their compact payments. The insurance alliance has been fighting a proposal by paper manufacturers to make insurers pick up a large chunk of the $600 million cost of cleaning up the Fox River. Wisconsin Energy, which gave $10,000 in 2003, was pushing a plan to build an Oak Creek coal plant.

But Doyle's campaign manager, Rich Judge, was appalled that anybody could even think that big bucks given to the guvs' group could have any link to an action that benefits a state business.

"To suggest that there is any kind of coordination is ridiculous," Judge said Friday, repeating a variation of the comments all campaign managers make whenever reporters ask about large donations.

But, wait a minute - just last week Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann blasted Doyle for not objecting to casino-rich Indian tribes making that $725,000 in soft-money contribution to Democrats in 2002. McCann said Doyle, a fellow Democrat, lost credibility on campaign finance issues by not saying the legal contribution had a nasty odor and disavowing or rejecting them.

"I think that McCann is entitled to his opinion," Judge said. He added, "Certainly, the governor is a leader on campaign finance reform."

Besides, Spees pointed out, his bosses don't try to curry favor only with Democrats. They spread cash to politicians on both sides of the aisle and had no problem giving the Republican governors' group cash when Thompson ruled the state.

Indeed, a few of the contributors made nearly equal donations to both Republican and Democratic groups in the past three years. For instance, Wisconsin Energy gave $10,000 to the GOP governors' association in June 2003, just two months before it kicked the same amount to the Democratic association.

"We try to have as much of a balance as we can, though it obviously is not always dollar for dollar," said Wisconsin Energy mouthpiece Rick White.

So what happens with all this Wisconsin loot that's sitting in the Democratic association's D.C. coffers?

Roberta Heine of the group said there are strict limits on the amount of money it can give Doyle.

"Unfortunately, he has some pretty severe limits monetarily," she said. "We can give him $10,000. We're compliant with all federal and state laws."

Thank goodness for loopholes.

The group, of course, is free to spend that money on its own or can give it to other groups backing Doyle's re-election. It's not unusual for the association to pour a six-figure sum into a state.

And it can expect to receive more home-grown Wisconsin money as long as a Democrat lives in the mansion. One political insider said the corporate cash tends to follow the party in power.

"It's a natural thing for the tide to rise and fall, depending who is in the governor's office," the insider said. "If you look at the 16 years (before Doyle), it was high tide for the Republicans.

"It's just cyclical."

Cary Spivak and Dan Bice can be contacted by phone at (414) 223-5468 or e-mail at sb@journalsentinel.com.

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