Billionaire Chris Cline’s mining corporation, Cline Group, purchased the right to construct an iron mine in northern Wisconsin. The deal was made in 2010 at a price of $1.5 billion. The state’s permitting process was much too slow for Cline’s liking, however, and speeding it up would be no easy matter. It required a change in Wisconsin law.
Over the next two years, the Cline Group made stellar use of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling of early 2010. That decision gave corporations, corporate front groups (nonprofits) and unions a green light to spend without limit in the electoral system if the cash supported issue education and remained independent of candidates. Better yet, when money was funneled through certain nonprofit groups the donor’s identity remained under wraps. Such gifts are called “dark money.”
The 2010 ruling rested on two earlier decisions by the Supreme Court: equating corporations with “persons under law,” and equating money to “free speech” in our political life. The story that follows is a consequence of those two major legal falsehoods.
The Florida-based Cline Group, in league with its Wisconsin subsidiary, Gogebic Taconite Corporation, set out to influence legislators’ votes and shape the language of the new mine-permitting bill. Business corporations have the authority to write laws that impact the actions of their industry. The revised Wisconsin law would both speed the process and ax environmental protections, allowing the company to dump its mining wastes in wetlands and streams if it constructed new wetlands elsewhere.
But the early 2012 Senate vote on the corporate-written law was defeated, so the Cline Group revved up its donating “rights” to change the make-up of the Wisconsin Senate in the 2012 elections. Funds in excess of $3.5 million to two Wisconsin nonprofits, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Issues Mobilization Council (WMC) and Wisconsin Club for Growth, brought a flood of phone calls, attack ads and mailings. Evidence shows that the money resulted in a state senate favorable to the company’s wishes.
Surprisingly, the two nonprofits reported no political spending in their 2012 tax returns, claiming their support of the mining bill was simply like any other pro-business legislative effort! But State Senators Jessica King, D-Oshkosh, and Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, know differently. They voted against the law’s rewrite when it made its debut in the Wisconsin Senate. Later that year both candidate’s re-election campaigns were relentlessly assaulted by company media attacks. Schultz retained his seat but in King’s case, the WMC and Wisconsin Club for Growth outspent the candidate by more than six to one. She lost the race by 600 votes in a voter count of 85,000. Not until August 2014 did we have proof of the corporate role in King’s defeat when a legal contribution filing was accidently made public.
Following the election the bill’s second go-round in the Wisconsin Senate won narrow approval. Voters and even lawmakers were surprised to learn two years later of all the corporate cash behind that victory.
“The Gogebic spending – I don’t think anybody was aware of the amount or the degree until after the legislation was signed into law,” said a legislator who supported the bill.
Why should voters in this country have to wonder where election ads originate? Why should campaign ads be paid for by corporate entities under any circumstances? Why should we allow corporations to prowl the corridors of our legislative offices or have the power to shape mining policy, write mining law or law on any issue? Surely there is no democracy when corporations have such legal authority.
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