Meet The George Soros Of The Badger State
Since 1999, billionaire money manager George Soros has donated over $3.3 million to various political candidates. This amount is petty cash though compared to the $23 + million that he contributed to various "527" groups during the 2004 election cycle alone.
527s are the largely tax-exempt groups which often raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on negative advertising and other activities designed to influence the outcome of elections. For example, much of the money contributed by Soros in 2004 was used to produce political ads attacking various candidates (most notably President Bush).
527 groups are different from 501(c)(3) groups (which are limited by law to running "issue ads" to "educate" the public). As a practical matter though, the "issue ads" generated by 501(c)(3) groups are usually just as negative as the ads produced by the 527 groups. Unlike 501(c)(3)s (which do not have to disclose the identity of their donors), 527s must file quarterly reports with the IRS listing the names of those making contributions and the amounts contributed.
In any event, George Soros is certainly not the only uber-rich guy who has tried to use his wealth to influence public policy. For example, according to IRS records, Peter Lewis of Cleveland-based Progressive Insurance and Hollywood producer Steven Bing funneled $22 and $13 million respectively to various liberal 527 groups during the 2004 election cycle.
While we in Wisconsin have no one who is donating money to 527s at Soros/Lewis/BIng levels, we do have at least one major player providing big league financing for some of the state's most liberal 527s.
Who exactly is Wisconsin's own mini-George Soros? Meet Lynde Uihlein, daughter of Jane Pettit and heiress to the Schlitz Brewing and Allen Bradley fortunes.
According to records from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, between January 1, 2007 and March 31, 2008, Uihlein has donated a staggering $458,000 to various 527 groups. This includes $170,000 to the Progressive Majority, $138,000 to the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund and $100,000 to America Votes 2006. To put this in perspective, these donations represented between 50% and 100% of all the contributions these groups received from Wisconsin!
To put Uihlein's contributions in even further perspective, the second largest individual Wisconsin donors to 527s during the same period of time were Terry and Mary Kohler of Sheboygan who contributed $125,200. Certainly not chump change - but nothing like the dough being spent by Ms. Uihlein.
I have no problem with anybody spending their own money to try to influence the outcome of an election. If we want to improve the tone of the political advertising by these 527 groups though, I do have one suggestion. I propose that if contributions from a single donor represent more than a certain percentage (say 10%) of the total donations to a 527 during a particular election cycle, the donor's name should have to appear on all ads run by the group.
This means that the disclosure line would have to say "Authorized and paid for by Better Wisconsin Bunch and Johnny Appleseed" (if Appleseed was a major contributor to the group). I guarantee you that if Johnny Appleseed's name actually appeared on the ads being run by the group, Appleseed would insist on some editorial control (and thereby potentially rein in some of the sleaze mongers who produce these ads).
I think the McCain-Feingold campaign finance "reform" law has been an unmitigated disaster - if for no other reason than it has encouraged the growth of 527 groups and thereby taken some control of campaigns away from the candidates themselves. Accordingly, if we're serious about getting a handle on the role of big money in political campaigns and altering the tone of political advertising, it's way past time to make some changes.
As a start, if George Soros or Lynde Uihlein or anybody else wants to spend a fortune to help underwrite ads by a generic political group, let's make them put their names directly on the work product!