WISCONSIN - Politicians on both sides are facing a furious electorate. Some are mad at Republicans for pushing through sweeping changes in collective bargaining. Others are angry with Democrats for fleeing the state to try to stop the measure.
Now, nine state senators are the target of recalls.
With all of the focus on campaign finance reform in the last few years, you'd think there are strict limits on political contributions. You'd be right, most of the time. But this is no ordinary time. It's the Big Money Recall and it has triggered a little-known law put on the books in 1987. Some call it one of the largest loopholes in the state's campaign finance system.
"They're going out there are raising 100s of 1,000s of dollars from a handful of donors because they don't have to adhere to the limit that usually applies," said Mike McCabe from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Once a recall effort begins, the financial floodgates open wide for both the group organizing the recall and the politician being targeted. Normally, in a state senate race, candidates can only receive $1,000 from each person or political action committee. Candidates can only get $22,425 total from special interest groups and political parties.
But from the time a recall effort begins all the way until an election date is set by the Government Accountability Board, those limits go out the window. That means right now, the big cash is coming in.
The money can only be used for "legal fees and other expenses" associated with the recall. What are those other expenses? You guessed it: Political ads.
Both sides are taking full advantage of the system.
Take Republican State Senator Randy Hopper from Fond du Lac. He received $20,000 from Jere Fabick, the CEO of Fabco Equipment. Ralph Stayer, the CEO of Johnsonville Sausage, gave Hopper $15,000. And even though the normal limit is $1,000, these giant donations are perfectly legal.
Republican State Senator Luther Olsen of Ripon got some help from his colleague State Senator Mike Ellis of Neenah. Ellis' campaign committee gave Olsen $16,000.
Ellis also gave $16,000 to State Senator Rob Cowles of Green Bay. Cowles has not had to report his contributions yet but he told me he also received a $10,000 donation. From who? He declined to say because his reports are not due yet.
On the Democratic side, it's not big money from individuals or other senators, its big money from the state party and labor unions.
State Senator Dave Hansen of Green Bay received $5,000 from the Bay Lakes United Educators, a teachers union in Green Bay that represents 7,000 teachers. Another $4,000 came from the United Transportation Union which is based in Ohio.
That same Ohio union gave $4,000 to State Senator Jim Holperin of Conover. Special interest groups like unions can usually give senate candidates just $1,000. But remember, in a recall, there are no restrictions.
Holperin's biggest chuck of cash came from his own party. The State Senate Democratic Committee gave Holperin $18,600.25. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin gave him a whopping $60,000.
Another $50,000 in Democratic Party money went to Hansen.
McCabe says the big money highlights the big problem with the current system.
"There are going to be ungodly sums of money poured into these recall elections," McCabe said. "I don't know how that does anything but leave us with a senate that is more beholden, up past its eyeballs, in special interest money."
While Republicans and Democrats are often at odds, this is one issue where they agree.
"Shouldn't a person that's being attacked be able to defend themselves? I'm going to defend myself," said Cowles.
"You gotta be part of the system that's in place. We can talk about making it better in the future but as it stands right now, the system is what it is," Hansen said.
FOX 11 asked Olsen whether taxpayers should be worried about the influence of money in politics, especially when some politicians can receive unlimited donations.
"There's that money that goes there but there's also money that goes to the Democratic Party and the Republican Party and the Democratic Committee in the Senate and Assembly, money goes there," Olsen replied. "Money flows freely all the time. So it does play a part in politics. I've seen it. I understand that folks who contribute have an easier way to get to the leadership."
It's not just politicians in Northeastern Wisconsin taking huge contributions. All of the senators being targeted by recalls are doing it.
In fact, State Sen. Alberta Darling leads the pack. She has raised $421,939.81, including $11,000 from one donor, $20,000 from another and $22,500 from a third donor.
Darling is the co-chair of the powerful Joint Finance Committee.
All of the contributions above the usual limits must be spent before a recall election is ordered, that will likely be in early June. Any unused money must be either donated to charity or returned to the donor.
Where is the money spent? Some of it goes to lawyers and consultants, some goes to local
newspapers, radio stations and television like FOX 11, in the form of political ads.
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