Gay foes funnel big cash into recall races

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

An anti-gay extremist group is pouring big money into commercials for GOP senators facing recall elections on Aug. 9.

Wisconsin Family Action has spent at least $304,000 in recent weeks on broadcast ads smearing the Democratic opponents of two right-wing state senators. That’s a remarkable level of spending for the small evangelical group, according to political observers.

Although WFA is not required by law to disclose individual donors, contributors are likely to be some of the same out-of-state groups that are shoveling cash into Wisconsin senate races at levels never before seen in the state, observers said.

WFA is an evangelical Christian group headed by Julaine Appling, a never-married woman who lives with her lifelong companion, Diane Westphall, in a home they own jointly in Watertown. The two also work side by side at WFA.

But despite the marital status of its leaders, WFA’s stated mission is to bolster the institution of “traditional” marriage. The group works to achieve this goal exclusively by fighting legal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships.

Appling spearheaded the successful 2006 campaign to amend the state’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions in the state. She’s currently mounting legal challenges aimed at revoking the domestic partner registry law signed by former Gov. Jim Doyle.

Yet the commercials paid for by WFA never mention gays, abortion or any other right-wing social issues. In fact, WFA’s most frequently aired ad attacks the driving record of state Rep. Fred Clark, who hopes to unseat Sen. Luther Olsen in Senate District 14 (which stretches from Waupaca County to the eastern part of Sauk County).

“They’re not talking about gay marriage, they’re talking about Fred Clark accidentally hitting a bicyclist with his car,” said Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate.

Tate said Appling was able to spend only about $200,000 for WFA’s flagship effort, the voter referendum that prohibited same-sex marriage and civil unions. Put in that perspective, Tate finds WFA’s sudden high-stakes position on issues outside its narrow purview to be alarming and suspicious.

“All of a sudden this little, tiny anti-gay outfit becomes a major player on the political scene? Come on. They’ve become a front group for somebody’s dirty cash,” Tate charged.

Cash from outside interest groups is dominating the summer recall races, as it did the recent Supreme Court race. It’s possible that WFA’s dollars are coming from Focus on the Family, a right-wing organization designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Tate said. According to Tate, who once headed Fair Wisconsin, Focus on the Family leader James Dobson often engages in stealth campaigns in local races.

All of the Republicans facing recalls have anti-gay records, according to Fair Wisconsin’s current executive director Katie Belanger. That would make them natural magnets for evangelical Christian donors like Dobson.

But ironically, Olsen is the only one of the group who ever sat down to speak with LGBT advocates, Belanger said. So why is WFA spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on defending this particular incumbent, when there are five others who won’t even bother listening politely to FW’s equality pitch?

WiG put this question to Appling via voicemail but she declined to return the call.

Experienced observers said there’s not much mystery to the situation. According to them, WFA has likely become another tool in the far right’s well-coordinated strategy to ensure Wisconsin remains solidly red. It’s speculated that Club for Growth, a front group used by the billionaire Koch brothers to promote their company’s corporate agenda, is now throwing money at Appling in an attempt to spread out its dollars.

If so, that represents a significant shift in Koch’s political strategy.

Koch money

David and Charles Koch run Koch Industries, the nation’s largest privately held company, with 70,000 employees and sales of $100 billion in 2008. The company was built by their father on oil trading and refining, but the brothers have expanded it to include coal mining, the paper company Georgia-Pacific and household products such as Teflon.

David Koch, a Kansan who’s intent on buying his way into New York society through massive gifts to art groups, has never been directly involved in anti-gay campaigns, Tate said. He would probably avoid being connected to a group of religious zanies as odd as WFA, which appears to be a tabloid scandal waiting to happen.

“That’s why there’s such a premium on being able to raise unlimited, anonymous dollars, so people don’t have to be publicly affiliated with causes and agendas that have some liability attached to them,” said Kelly Steele, spokesman for We Are Wisconsin, which is coordinating the effort to recall Republicans.

There’s no question that Koch and other big players on the corporate right are desperate to maintain the GOP’s tight grip on Wisconsin government. “At this point it is about absolute power,” Steele said. “They have both branches of the Legislature, the governor’s office and the Supreme Court to back them up.”

But it’s also about money. The state is considered Ground Zero for Koch’s national efforts to dismantle the organized labor movement. Since virtually assuming control of Wisconsin government in January, Koch and his fellow corporate nabobs have managed not only to incapacitate public unions but also to reduce access to the ballot box among minorities and students. They’ve decimated financial regulations, corporate rules and environmental standards in the state to benefit their business interests.

All of this has been accomplished through cookie-cutter bills created by the corporate-right group American Legislative Exchange Council. The bills are modified by local lawmakers to fit into each state’s existing statutory framework, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, which has created an online archive of over 800 ALEC bills.

Many of those bills have become familiar to Wisconsin residents in recent months, as the GOP has rammed them through the Assembly in advance of next month’s recall races. Some Wisconsin lawmakers even sit on ALEC’s board or hold prominent positions in Wisconsin government. State Sen. Alberta Darling is a dues-paying member.

Introduced in Wisconsin by Koch-backed lawmakers, ALEC bills have changed the state in six months into a place that would have been unrecognizable a year ago. In fact, a study published earlier this year said Wisconsin now resembles Mississippi in terms of the “pro-business environment” here. That means Republicans have given big tax breaks to the wealthy, created corporate welfare in the form of taxpayer-funded “incentives,” relaxed environmental and product liability laws, and eliminated many worker protections.

The study’s corporate-right authors touted all this as a great achievement, but few Wisconsin residents would want to be positioned alongside the nation’s perennial lowest-ranking state in terms of health, education and other quality-of-life issues.

Koch Industries has at least 17 facilities or offices in the state that stand poised to secure millions in lucrative no-bid government contracts from Walker and GOP lawmakers. But it appears that Koch wants not only to get those contracts but also to wring the maximum profitability from them by avoiding potentially costly rules and regulations – and by not having to deal with an empowered work force.

Steele said that’s why Koch will go to the mat to prevent the Wisconsin Senate from changing leadership next month. That change would occur if three of the six Republicans being recalled were to lose their races, while the two remaining Democrats being targeted win theirs.

As of July 22, Club for Growth had spent at least $1.5 million on commercials in Wisconsin to support Republicans, Steele said. He expected that figure to climb much higher as the election draws closer.

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For the record: Voting history of the GOP senators facing recalls

WiG looked at the ratings that various special interest groups have awarded the six GOP senators facing recalls. The ratings indicate the percentage of time the senators voted with positions taken by the groups during the legislative sessions shown in parentheses.

Robert Cowles, Green Bay
District 2

Voted to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions in Wisconsin.

  • Planned Parenthood: 25 (2007-08),
    0 (2006), 0 (2005)
  • Americans for Prosperity: 90 (2007-08), 71 (2005-06)
  • Wis. Manufacturers and Commerce: 100 (2010),
    90 (2009)
  • ACLU: 0 (2006)
  • Fair Wisconsin: 0 (2004)
  • League of Conservation Voters: 67 (2009-2010),
    50 (2005)
  • Sierra Club: 29 (2005-06)
  • Wis. AFL-CIO: 27 (2007-08)

Alberta Darling, River Hills
District 8

Voted to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions in Wisconsin.

  • Planned Parenthood: 50 (2007-08),
    17 (2006), 0 (2005)
  • Americans for Prosperity: 100 (2005-06)
  • Wis. Manufacturers and Commerce: 75 (2010),
    90 (2009)
  • ACLU 0 (2006)
  • Fair Wisconsin: 0 (2004)
  • League of Conservation Voters: 50 (2009-10),
    39 (2005-06)
  • Sierra Club: 14 (2005-06)
  • Wis. AFL-CIO: 27 (2007-08)

Sheila Harsdorf, River Falls
District 10

Voted to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions in Wisconsin.

  • Planned Parenthood: 50 (2007-08),
    0 (2006), 0 (2005)
  • Americans for Prosperity: 79 (2005-06)
  • Wis. Manufacturers and Commerce: 100 (2010),
    90 (2009)
  • ACLU: 0 (2006)
  • Fair Wisconsin: 0 (2004)
  • League of Conservation Voters: 58 (2009-10),
    50 (2005-06)
  • Sierra Club: 43 (2005-06)
  • Wis. AFL-CIO: 36 (2007-08)

Luther Olsen, Ripon
District 14

Voted to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions in Wisconsin.

  • Planned Parenthood: 25 (2007-08),
    33 (2006), 20 (2005)
  • Americans for Prosperity: 76 (2005-06)
  • Wis. Manufacturers and Commerce: 100 (2010),
    100 (2009)
  • ACLU: 0 (2006)
  • Fair Wisconsin: 0 (2004)
  • League of Conservation Voters: 67 (2009-2010),
    29 (2005-06)
  • Sierra Club: 29 (2005-06)
  • Wis. AFL-CIO: 45 (2007-08)

Randy Hopper, Fond du Lac
District 18

First elected to public office in 2008, Hopper has a limited legislative record.

  • Wis. Manufacturers and Commerce: 100 (2010),
    100 (2009)
  • League of Conservation Voters: 50 (2009-10)

Dan Kapanke, La Crosse
District 32

Voted to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions in Wisconsin.

  • Planned Parenthood: 0 (2007-08),
    0 (2006), 0 (2005)
  • Americans for Prosperity: 76 (2005-06)
  • Wis. Manufacturers and Commerce: 80 (2010),
    81 (2009)
  • ACLU: 0 (2006)
  • League of Conservation Voters: 67 (2009-2010),
    50 (2005-06)
  • Sierra Club: 43 (2005-06)
  • Wis. AFL-CIO: 50 (2007-08)

Source: Project Vote Smart

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