Do Americans, even in anxious times, prefer an optimistic leader or an angry one?
The Koch brothers unprecedented meddling in two small, local elections in Wisconsin yesterday yielded mixed results.
In a Kenosha school board race, David Koch's Americans for Prosperity helped defeat two public education advocates.
In Iron County, Wisconsin, Koch money didn't work.
Three of the seven people targeted by Americans for Prosperity as "anti-mining radicals" won seats on the Iron County board, in spite of the attacks. Slick fliers attacking the three Iron County candidates who were challenging pro-mine incumbents backfired, in part because the candidates' friends and neighbors recognized that the expensive out-of-state smear campaign relied on outright lies.
One of the targeted candidates, Karl Krall, is actually a supporter of the controversial open-pit mine at issue in Iron County. Another winning candidate, Vic Oimette, the head of the chamber of commerce in the town of Mercer, was a mine supporter originally, but expressed concern about evidence that the proposed mine could poison local drinking water.
Both candidates, along with a third Koch target, Brian Matson, prevailed when the heavy-handed tactics apparently backfired.
But in Kenosha, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity is celebrating a major success.
The group has been working with the rightwing Bradley Foundation to undermine the local teachers union. Bradley's Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty argued in court that the collective bargaining agreement reached by the school board and the union was illegal under Wisconsin's controversial Act 10, the law supported by Governor Scott Walker that ended most collective bargaining rights for most public employees.
Essentially, the rightwing groups argued that it was illegal for the school board to bargain with the union on hours of work, benefits, and any other issues beyond cost-of-living increases. The question of whether or not the union will be decertified for failing to meet a deadline to hold a recertification election is also still up in the air.
When a court denied an injunction, and upheld the current union contract, anti-union groups shifted their focus to the school board race. Yesterday they succeeded in defeating incumbent board member Jo Ann Taube, a retired elementary school music teacher who voted to approve the contract. By electing Dan Wade and Gary Kunich, anti-union forces flipped the board.
"Why do out-of-state billionaires care who serves on the Kenosha school board?" asked attorney Lester Pines, who represents teachers unions in the state, "the answer is they want to suppress wages everywhere they can."
Today is Election Day in tiny towns and counties all over America. Voters are going to the polls to choose the school board, city, and county officials who do the unglamorous, nitty-gritty work of running their communities.
In these highly local spring elections, where neighbors turn out to elect neighbors, people do not expect to be bombarded with negative ads, or the kind of big money the Koch Brothers throw around, which now poisons national politics.
But this year is different. In little races from the Kenosha Unified School Board election in the industrial Wisconsin town near the Illinois border, to the county board race in tiny Iron County, on the shores of Lake Superior, Americans for Prosperity, the group founded by the billionaires Charles and David Koch, is getting heavily involved.
Phone banking, canvassing, and producing glossy color fliers the likes of which have never been seen in these often-uncontested races, the Kochs' group is determined to push out candidates who have concerns about protecting public schools and local water quality.
In Iron County, Americans for Prosperity has been handing out fliers accusing county board candidates of being "anti-mining radicals" who want to bring about economic collapse by opposing a massive open-pit mine in the area. Some local candidates have expressed concern about tests showing high levels of asbestos near the mine that could poison local drinking water, and the county board must make a zoning decision that will affect the proposed $1.5 billion project.
In Kenosha, the issue is a school board decision to approve a new union contract for teachers.
It's no secret that the Koch brothers are major supporters of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his divisive push to break public employee unions, including teachers’ unions.
Back at the height of the protests against Walker, prankster, blogger and Progressive contributor Ian Murphy called Walker pretending to be David Koch, in a prank that embarrassed the Governor by showing how cozy and accommodating he was toward the billionaire.
But the school board and county board races are a new frontier for the Kochs, who seem to be reaching their tentacles ever further down the ballot.
"We are seeing increasing signs of meddling in local elections by big, outside interests," says campaign finance watchdog Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign:
"We've seen isolated instances of front groups coming into local elections before, but it was very rare," McCabe adds. "This is much more coordinated and certainly more extensive. It seems like local politics are being nationalized."
In addition to the Koch Brothers’ efforts to influence today's elections in Iron County and Kenosha, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reports that a group called Operation Prosperity
has been working to get an entire slate of county board candidates elected in tiny Polk County.
"For too long, Polk County politicians have catered to those who put government control and regulation in front of jobs and opportunity for our citizens,” the group says on its website. “With your help, we can change that," declares the website for Operation Prosperity, Inc., which calls itself "a new grassroots movement created by a team of Polk County citizens."
"They claim to be an entirely local, grassroots group," says McCabe, "but the mailings they're sending out have an Arlington, Texas postmark. And I'll tell you the mailings sure don't look like a local, grassroots effort. They don't look very Polk County."
Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has not been able to determine if Operation Prosperity is related to the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, but the campaign is similar to the Kochs' other efforts to infiltrate local politics this year.
"It's not just Wisconsin. This is going on all over the country," McCabe says.
The good news, though, is that voters in local elections may be turned off by the Kochs' attacks on their neighbors.
In Iron County, one of the targets of the Americans for Prosperity attack fliers was the head of the Mercer chamber of commerce, who had initially supported the mine the Kochs are backing, but then raised concerns that the company refused to answer questions about possible arsenic and asbestos contamination of local drinking water.
Another target near the mine is Karl Krall, a firefighter who posed with Governor Walker to support the mine, and was given a pen from the bill-signing for fast-track legislation to help the mine's owner.
In the local elections, McCabe points out, the candidates live in the neighborhood.
"If people are getting mailings packed full of lies, the people being smeared are the people voters are likely to know,” McCabe says. “That makes these efforts more likely to fail."
Today, that's up to voters in little towns from Kenosha to Iron County.