Spencer Black owes us at least $18,000.
And that doesn’t include interest. With interest, I figure the retiring pol from Madison owes us more like $35,000.
He’s got it, too.
Black has $145,000 in his campaign account (about the same amount of money, rumor coincidentally has it, it would have cost each man, woman and child in Wisconsin if he had actually succeeded in passing all the legislation he proposed over the years.)
In the 26 years in the legislature he spent building up the sum, he noted recently, he never once took a campaign contribution from a Political Action Committee, a lobbyist or anyone from out of state. Instead he took a lot of money from, for example, Forest County Potawatomi Tribal Chairman Harold “Gus” Frank, people who made their living off the state, and us -- taxpayers.
Luckily, now that he is hanging it up, he has an opportunity to pay us back.
First elected at the age of 34, Black is one of those guys who has been around Madison forever and hasn’t had to raise much money in recent years. He hasn’t received less than 87% of a vote since 1992 and it’s been ten years since he has even had a challenger in the general election. So you have to go back a little further to get a handle on where a lot of his campaign money came from – and how he started scaring away challengers in the first place.
Records from his first few elections have either been misplaced or destroyed. We know for sure, though, that he took over $18,000 from taxpayers to run his campaigns in 1992, 1994 and 1996 alone, I noted in a story earlier this year about the Wisconsin Election Campaign Fund that ran in Wisconsin Interest.
The WECF is the place you send your dollar when you check off that little box on your tax form. Folks who check the box don’t pay extra. They just get to act like governor for a brief moment and transfer money out of the general fund to someplace where it can be used by politicians without a lot of bothersome scrutiny.
Black never needed the tax dollars to compete. At the same time he was tapping into WECF dollars between 1992 and 1997 and using them to campaign, in fact, he was using other donations to build up his campaign fund from $39,000 to over $100,000. He was also transferring other campaign donations from his account to political allies like Tim Carpenter and the Dane County Conservation Alliance. In other words, he can argue that he used his WECF money to campaign, but he also, as a result, had more money to save or spend elsewhere.
Black had to stop taking WECF money when people took note of his little war chest and stopped running against him; and he hasn’t had to raise much money elsewhere of late either. He still uses his campaign fund, though. In the last six months of 2009 alone, he transferred $1,000 from his campaign fund to the Wisconsin Democratic Party’s federal account, $100 to the Democratic Party of Dane County, $150 to Dane County supervisors and – three days before Christmas – $100 to gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett.
I don’t know if Black also sent a Christmas card wishing the Milwaukee mayor a Merry Christmas, and a reminder who his angel is. But I’d guess Barrett got the message.
A lot is made of politicians aligning themselves with special interests who donate to campaigns. But the underbelly of how money forms alliances immune to good public policy has a lot to do with how a guy running for, say, governor might also feel bound to support, say, future global warming legislation being pushed by other politicians in a position to help him.
Speaking of which, Spencer Black – since he is retiring – is now in a position to financially help all kinds of things and people, and with a lot more than 100 measly bucks. He didn’t return a phone call inquiring what he plans to do with his campaign cash, but he has a number of options.
He can – within normal contribution limits – keep giving the money to other politicians. He can also give it back to contributors, to the WECF, to the Common School Fund or to “any other government entity,” according to state campaign finance rules.
It’s unlikely most people who gave money to the WECF years ago would want Black to give money back to the fund today. The percent of people checking the box on their income taxes has decreased from a high of 20% in 1979 to less than 5% now. Most – especially if they knew how the fund really operates – would surely prefer that Black use his war chest to help build roads or pay for schools or something else taxes typically fund.
Spencer Black, the thing is, has his angels, too: taxpayers and folks who would like to see all tax dollars used for the common good.
How come we never get so much as a card?
-May 24, 2010