Another day, another scandal. A contractor wins a $29.5 million deal to build a state prison facility and, soon after, its execs make a sizable contribution to the governor's campaign fund. Road builders who contribute to the governor snare contracts worth more than 20 times as much as road contracts awarded to nondonors. The guv gets tens of thousands of dollars from tobacco industry execs negotiating a settlement with the state in a class-action lawsuit.
Three more nails in Democrat Jim Doyle's political coffin?
Hardly. Each of these stories goes back to the last century ' and to Gov. Tommy Thompson.
The largest state media outlets have relentlessly questioned whether Gov. Doyle's administration operates in pay-to-play mode. One state employee has been convicted of a felony in federal court for leveraging a contract to a Doyle donor ' although there's no smoking gun yet pointing back at the governor or his campaign.
Rewind nearly a decade, however, and the media reaction is far different. Throughout the administration of Republican Tommy Thompson, reform groups and opposition candidates repeatedly tried to make an issue out of donations that coincided with Thompson administration actions that benefited the governor's campaign contributors. Among them:
In March 1999, Fond du Lac contractor C.D. Smith Construction won a $29.5 million contract to build a sexual predator facility in Mauston. Two weeks later, Smith executives gave $37,000 to the Thompson campaign. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign publicized the connection in August 1999. Spokesmen for the governor and the firm denied any connection.
A 2003 report by University of Michigan researcher Roland Zullo, using data compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, found that road-building contractors who contributed to the Thompson campaign during the 1990s received contracts that averaged $20 million in value. Contractors who did not contribute received contracts averaging just $870,000. A Thompson spokesman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel when the study was released that the former governor "never looked at campaign contributions, was never involved in it, and awarded state contracts on their merits ' period."
During negotiations between the state and Philip Morris to settle Wisconsin's portion of the multi-state lawsuit against the tobacco industry, the tobacco giant's executives gave Thompson $20,000.
Although all of these allegations were duly reported, none got the kind of wall-to-wall, scandal-mongering coverage that has been dogging Doyle, especially during the last year.
"We saw and tried to shine a light on a number of instances in the Thompson administration," says Mike McCabe, executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. "A lot of the things we reported were not taken as seriously as they are taken now."
"I don't think there was any question that there was quid pro quo," says Jay Heck at Common Cause in Wisconsin. "There wasn't much coverage back then because it was a relatively new phenomenon in Wisconsin."
Call it a change in priorities, or call it a double standard. But the difference is palpable.
Perhaps the biggest reason for this difference is the legislative caucus scandal. It began in mid-2001 with an eye-opening series of articles in the Wisconsin State Journal. The scandal is only now winding down, with the conviction and ongoing appeal of former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen. In all, five former high-ranking legislators were convicted of crimes.
"The legislative caucus scandal changed everything," says McCabe. "Once you had top legislators investigated and criminally charged and ultimately convicted, that created the scandal atmosphere that didn't exist when Thompson was in office."
Heck agrees, adding that another factor is that the amount of money being raised for campaigns is much higher now than under Thompson. As a result, he says it's "inevitable" that the fund-raising practices of the current administration are being subjected to greater scrutiny.
The effect of the scandal may be further amplified by a changeover in the Capitol press corps, as both the Journal Sentinel and Associated Press have brought in tough, young reporters. In particular, the Journal Sentinel's Patrick Marley and the AP's Ryan Foley have been constant thorns in the Doyle administration's side.
Still another difference is the rise of high-profile citizen-pundits with sharp political axes to grind and a new medium ' the Internet ' on which to grind them. Bloggers dominate the modern age of political commentary.
"The media has changed," says Steve Baas, former spokesman for GOP legislative leaders John Gard and Scott Jensen. While left-wing bloggers attack Republicans, "Republicans out there are looking for ways to connect the dots and call Doyle a crook."
Baas, now government affairs director for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, acknowledges "there were as many wild allegations about what the Thompson administration was doing as about Doyle today. But there wasn't a legitimizing media outlet."
Add in the rising influence of good-government groups like Common Cause in Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, and there's a synergy that's turned explosive for Doyle.
But is it fair? Are the campaign conflicts involving Doyle really more egregious than those of Tommy Thompson? Or is Doyle being unduly caught up in a wave of media interest and public resentment?
Rick Wiley, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party, paints Thompson and Doyle as being worlds apart in terms of their alleged ethical lapses.
"I don't know what was alleged in the Thompson administration," he says. But in the case of Doyle, "there have been repeated instances where you have large donations coming from companies just before or just after state contracts have been signed with those companies."
In a bit of overstatement, Wiley says the most obvious difference is that "there's an ongoing, bipartisan investigation of Gov. Doyle's campaign finances by the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Wisconsin attorney general and the Dane County district attorney. You didn't see that type of investigation in the Thompson administration."
Well, not quite. When asked to be specific about the claim of the "ongoing, bipartisan investigation," Wiley cites a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article published July 7, after the conviction of Georgia Thompson on charges she improperly steered a state travel contract to Adelman Travel.
But that article merely noted that U.S. Attorney Steve Biskupic was still looking into the case. "The public should not presume that anyone else will be charged," he told the paper. "We are continuing to look at the evidence, but the public is cautioned not to read anything else into it, only that we're being careful. It doesn't necessarily mean that more charges are forthcoming."
Indeed, Georgia Thompson's trial produced no evidence linking her actions to the $20,000 Adelman principals donated to Doyle's campaign. While others testified that Thompson referred to political pressure from above, there was also testimony suggesting that her talk of "political problems" from awarding the agreement to Omega, a rival bidder, may have simply referred to flak for picking an out-of-state firm. Even a post-trial filing earlier this month from Biskupic ' while asserting that Thompson acted to curry favor with Doyle administration higher-ups ' offers no evidence that Doyle or those around him pressured her.
And Wiley is apparently incorrect in asserting that the Dane County District Attorney's Office is involved in this "ongoing, bipartisan investigation." Dane County DA Brian Blanchard says that as far as he's concerned, the federal prosecution of Georgia Thompson is "now resolved."
Blanchard praises the impartiality and professionalism of Biskupic, a Republican, saying he'll "continue to consult with him as the need arises regarding allegations of any potential crimes over which our offices might have overlapping jurisdiction." However, he stresses, "This office is not investigating the campaign finances of Gov. Doyle."
This episode points up how relentlessly the GOP has been promoting the notion that the Adelman deal was a crooked quid pro quo for campaign donations.
But some long-term observers of Capitol politics say that if such claims can be made against Doyle, they apply with equal vigor to the alleged abuses of the Thompson era.
Chief among the legislative Democrats who tried to unpack Thompson's campaign-contribution baggage is state Rep. Spencer Black of Madison. In 1994, Black highlighted that Thompson had authorized payments to five road contractors totaling $305,000 more than their contracts called for. Together the five had given more than $15,000 to the Thompson campaign. Moreover, Black said, the size of their excess payments mirrored the sizes of their donations: The largest donor got the largest additional payment, the next-largest donor the next-largest payment, and so on.
The issue received some press attention, but it never got legs. And of course, says Black, "There was never any prosecution of Thompson."
But Thompson did get sued once, by Marshall Burkes, the fired executive director of the State of Wisconsin Investment Board. Burkes claimed that lobbyist Bill Gerrard got SWIB to put money into his clients' businesses after Thompson and his aides Jim Klauser and Nick Hurtgen put pressure on the board. Burkes won $450,000 in a pretrial settlement.
Although no one admitted to any wrongdoing, such an eye-popping settlement inevitably gives rise to if-there's-smoke-there's-fire thinking. Democratic state Rep. Sheldon Wasserman, a doctor, says he'd "never" settle a groundless malpractice claim for that kind of money: "I'd go to court."
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did conduct a major investigation of the Thompson administration in the 1990s that strongly suggested a pay-to-play ethos. The stories broke in November 1997, the day Democrat Ed Garvey announced he would challenge Thompson for governor and make campaign finance reform the centerpiece of his campaign.
As the Journal Sentinel series unfolded, "It suddenly hit me that I might win," says Garvey. "But that was the end of it." Garvey and Black both note that Steve Schultze and Dan Bice, the primary reporters of this series, were subsequently transferred from the paper's Madison bureau. And Garvey went on to lose the election by an overwhelming margin.
Garvey suggests that reform groups are finally starting to change the culture in Madison. "I think there's a more sophisticated approach to the money-watching than there was before," Garvey says. "Some of it's unfair, but I think some of it's a new reality."
Garvey has stridently criticized ' but reluctantly endorsed ' Doyle. Like other Doyle supporters, though, he is quick to charge that the state's media have it in for the Democratic incumbent ' or, alternately, that they went easy on Thompson. "The editors and media owners loved Tommy Thompson," he says. "He just had a free pass for 16 years."
Common Cause's Heck is particularly critical of Doyle for having run hard on the issue of campaign finance reform as a candidate four years ago, then not following through. In the Democratic primary, Doyle "arguably defeated Tom Barrett and Kathleen Falk in 2002 because he was more vociferous about money and politics," Heck says. "Then upon becoming governor and turning his back on all of the rhetoric, it was inevitable he would come under scrutiny. This isn't a surprise."
Of course, the underlying factor in all of these whirling pay-to-play accusations is that modern statewide political campaigns cost a boatload of money.
Spencer Black traces this money chase to 1990, when Thompson refused to abide by spending limits in his race against Democratic challenger Tom Loftus, whom he handily defeated.
"That changed Wisconsin from a clean-government state, where money didn't play a big role in politics, to the current system, where there is an enormous amount of money spent on campaigns by special interests," says Black. "Groups and businesses that have a major interest in the outcome of state politics are providing the money that is used to run campaigns. They're not doing it out of some beneficent interest in politics. They believe it's a good investment."
Black suggests Doyle may be suffering in part because of an old rule of thumb on the gridiron.
"In football, it's not usually the guy who makes the first foul who gets called on it," he says. "It's the second guy."
Indeed, if voters turn to Republican hopeful Mark Green on Nov. 7, Jim Doyle may look back and wonder why they called a foul on him while letting Thompson score all those tainted touchdowns.