Scot Ross admits it: "The secretary of state hasn't now or ever had oversight over immigration issues." Yet he's nonetheless helped revive a controversy that once embroiled Doug La Follette, whom Ross is challenging in next Tuesday's Democratic primary, even highlighting juicy excerpts from articles that ran in 2004.
One such excerpt flagged by Ross says Ben Zuckerman, with whom La Follette served on the national Sierra Club board, was also a board member of Californians for Population Stabilization, which "was supported by the Pioneer Fund, a foundation that has funded race-based science dedicated to demonstrating white intellectual and moral superiority since the 1930s, when it was tied to Hitler's eugenics program.'"
Whaaaaat? Doug La Follette, Wisconsin secretary of state for most of the last three decades, is in bed with - or at least in a bed next to a bed belonging to - a bunch of racists? Ross points to reams of information about this on the Internet ("Just Google ‘anti-immigration' and ‘Doug La Follette'"), summing up its significance: "You can tell a lot about a person by the company he keeps." Ouch.
La Follette, asked about the controversy, is quick to speculate as to how it got resurrected: "Sounds like Scot Ross' dirty tricks." Ouch again.
Here's what it's about: In 2003, La Follette was elected to the Sierra Club's board, joining Zuckerman and another board member to form a threesome branded "anti-immigration ideologues." Zuckerman, the founder of a population-control group, allegedly gave fellow board members an article claiming that Hispanics, aided by "Hispandering politicians," were spreading disease and crime in the U.S.
In early 2004, a slate of three candidates said to also favor immigration curbs, including former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, sought election to the board. An alarm sounded that this could swing control of the club to anti-immigrationists. Articles called it a "hostile takeover" likely engineered by Michigan's John Tanton, a founder of numerous anti-immigration groups. Tanton had long eyed the Sierra Club, and may have been behind a failed 1998 push to get its members to adopt an anti-immigration plank.
In 1988, Tanton purportedly sent a memo to supporters: "As Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion? Why don't non-Hispanic Whites have a group identity, as do Blacks, Jews, Hispanics?"
In the end, the three candidates linked to the anti-immigrationist position were defeated, and the controversy faded. But Ross doesn't mind bringing it back.
"La Follette was part of a right-wing group that tried to take over the Sierra Club," he says. "[He] aligned himself with some pretty unsavory characters who seem to think some people should not be allowed in the United States of America."
La Follette, who agrees with Ross that this issue is far removed from the duties of secretary of state, sees the whole fuss as much ado about nothing.
"The Sierra Club historically has said the U.S. should limit its population to a level that's sustainable," says La Follette. But language to this effect was removed, so La Follette and others set out to restore it, a quest backed by former Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson. When this prompted an intense negative reaction, La Follette moved to table the issue and "got a unanimous vote for that on the board."
La Follette, whose three-year board term ended this spring, says he never met Zuckerman and the other "anti-immigrationist" board member until the first board meeting he attended. And while he backed Lamm and others seeking seats in 2004, he doesn't know Tanton (whom Ross dubs a "La Follette supporter") or share his views.
"I'm not anti-immigration," insists La Follette, whose grandfather was an immigrant. But he sees a need to seek sustainable population, through two prongs: reproduction and immigration. Does he think there are too many people here now? "Well," he cracks, "as traffic gets worse and worse in Madison...."
County Supv. Brett Hulsey, until recently the Sierra Club's senior Midwest rep, thinks it's unfair to lump La Follette in with Zuckerman and the others: "My sense is he didn't dance with those who brung him." Fellow County Supv. and longtime Sierra Club member Al Matano agrees, saying there's a "loving way" to curtail immigration, by working to improve conditions so citizens in other countries aren't so eager to leave.
Scot Ross traces his lineage to George Ross, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who asked his nephew's wife, Betsy Ross, to design the American flag. He says the immigration issue is relevant in light of efforts to require voters to present photo IDs, which he pegs as a Republican plot to disenfranchise poorer voters. As he puts it, "Mark Green wants to keep people who aren't making $35,000 a year from voting."
Ross notes that politicians in Ohio and elsewhere have used "completely and utterly untrue" allegations of voter fraud by illegal aliens to seek draconian new restrictions on who can vote.
La Follette, however, happens to agree. He rips the "disgusting manipulations by Republicans" who use concerns about illegal voting to impede the voting rights of legal citizens. He says Ross is conjuring up bogus issues because there are so few real ones, for the simple reason that "Doug La Follette has done a good job."
According to La Follette, the only legitimate issue Ross has raised is his call for the secretary of state to again oversee elections, a task that now falls to the state Elections Board. But La Follette says the Legislature will never allow this, and it's not a good idea.
"It's a dangerous precedent to put partisan politicians in charge of our elections," says La Follette, noting that the trend is toward a system like Wisconsin's. He adds that alleged election-rigging by secretaries of state in Florida and Ohio shows how bad an idea this is.
Ross agrees these officials behaved badly but says they are now being held accountable, which underscores the wisdom of putting "someone in charge of elections who is answerable to the people." And while the Legislature "would never give Doug La Follette that authority because he is an absent leader," Ross says there's no reason to believe it couldn't happen if he were in charge.
For Ross, this all folds back into his critique of La Follette as a do-nothing secretary of state: "He needs to defend what he hasn't done." Given Ross' decision to raise the Sierra Club immigration issue, those words may be truer than he realizes.