By Lisa Graves and Brendan Fischer
An activist group called SpeechNow.Org is running ads against Senator Russ Feingold. It blames him for the deficit and claims that clean election laws he spearheaded are “attacking free speech.” But who’s really behind SpeechNow’s folksy, cartoon attack ads?
The Money Bags: One funder is multi-millionaire Fred Young, the heir of the Young Radiator fortune in Racine. He sold his Wisconsin company for over $70 million in 1998 to a group that quickly merged with Wabtec Corporation, a multinational with a history of outsourcing jobs to make goods in China and elsewhere. But even before Young sold the company, he worked to ship well-paying Wisconsin jobs out of state. Back in 1991, Young Radiator closed its Racine plant and fired 120 Wisconsin workers in order to boost his profits by outsourcing work to Iowa and Tennessee plants that did not give union-negotiated benefits. Young donated over $100,000 last month to fund attacks against Feingold, constituting the bulk of the funding. With millions in profits from helping to sell out Wisconsin’s industrial base and time on his hands, Young has become involved in Washington, D.C.-based groups, like SpeechNow.
The Political Operative: SpeechNow is spearheaded by David Keating, who formed SpeechNow with other millionaires to fight campaign finance reforms. He's an old nemesis of Senator Feingold's efforts to ban soft money and bring a little democracy to our democracy. SpeechNow has brought lawsuits against the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms, and recently won a ruling lifting the prior $5,000 limit on the amount individuals could donate to a group’s electioneering efforts. That ruling stems from the Supreme Court’s January decision in Citizens United to allow corporations to spend unlimited money influencing elections. SpeechNow’s litigation paved the way for Young to give $100,000 to the group last month alone to fund attack ads in this election, and also paved the way for corporate spending to fund new groups running election ads like the American Action Network, which has spent almost $1 million dollars in ads against Feingold in this race.
The Web of Money: Keating emphasizes SpeechNow does not accept corporate donations and the group also does not pay him; instead, the D.C.-based “Club for Growth” pays him almost $200,000 a year to serve full-time as its executive director. Club for Growth also paid Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Pat Toomey almost $680,000 last year to act as its president and it does not reveal its major donors, although donors to its PAC are required to be disclosed. The Club for Growth opposes limits on trade that would protect American workers and is desperate to put social security trust funds into Wall Street’s hands. The Club for Growth has been called so out of touch on economic policy that conservative former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (now a Fox News commentator) dubbed it the “Club for Greed.” The Club for Growth has become a big player in many close races, spending almost $200,000 in the Wisconsin Senate race so far and millions nationwide.
The Attack: SpeechNow’s attack on Feingold accuses him of creating the federal deficit. The attack is grossly misleading. Feingold has received numerous awards from non-partisan watchdog groups, like Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Concord Coalition and others for battling pork and excessive spending. Feingold worked to balance the federal budget in the late 1990s, a successful effort which allowed Republican President George W. Bush to begin his first term with a $230 billion budget surplus that Bush turned into a trillion dollar deficit. Even in this hyper-partisan moment, Feingold works with conservative Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma]] on eliminating earmarks, and with Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) on a bill to create a federal line-item veto. Feingold also voted against the $780 billion TARP bailout bill and has pushed to use excess TARP funds to pay down the deficit. SpeechNow’s misleading attack echoes deficit claims by other Feingold opponents, like the American Action Network, which is supported by Wall Street elites like the Goldman Sachs executive who led the failed Wachovia bank, which became part of the Wall Street bailout.
CMD does not endorse political candidates, but we work to protect the public's right to know about front groups and corporate PR campaigns, as part of our core mission. And, we believe Wisconsinites have a right to know who’s behind misleading attacks like SpeechNow’s -- who’s footing the bill and who stands to gain.