In The News
Street energy wars with big ad money in senate race
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted August 1, 2011
The ”Friends of Alberta Darling” inadvertently did unions a major service with a weekend mailer to most of the homes in Senate District 8 -- where frankly there are not enough union members to make the crucial difference in the Aug. 9 election.
In every mailbox the campaign group deposited Phil Neuenfeldt’s face (a grainy candid) labeling him “Union Boss.” The 8 x 11 mail piece failed to reveal why he was being picked on – no, he’s not the president of the police union or the head of road builders union that endorsed Walker. Neuenfeldt is the president of the state AFL-CIO plus a leading strategist for the successful We Are Wisconsin, the coalition of unions and progressive groups that has surpassed one million phone calls and in-person contacts in all six recall districts and is also responsible for several powerful electronic ads.
This backhanded compliment to his effectiveness also led anyone in the district who Googles to learn that he is also the leading legislative voice for family supporting jobs bills and a veteran of creating training programs.
Most of the mailer regurgitated that debunked idea that only unions are angry at Walker and Darling (in a contest now neck and neck with voters analyzing the failed thinking behind budget cuts in education, public safety, air quality and more).
And then it replayed the
discredited arguments linking Rep. Sandy Pasch (who served only two years under the former eight-year governor) to Doyle, without mentioning that GOP incumbent Darling in her 21 years in the legislature voted for far bigger Republican deficits.
In trying to gin up these myths exposed in those previous columns, the mailer lists Neuenfeldt’s annual “compensation” at $147,481, which it is trying to suggest is way too much though it barely buys a garage in Darling’s River Hills neighborhood. Let’s not get sidetracked into explaining the obvious – how that official AFL-CIO filing includes every benefit, pension and deferred holding he has. But it is amusing. The characterization raised guffaws among those who know Neuenfeldt’s actual yearly wage and style of living (“You should see the hole he lives in,” chuckled one). For the quarter of a million members of the state AFL-CIO, it works out to paying him a nickel a month!
The Friends of Alberta Darling (no jokes about the dirty dozen, please) actually uncovered one of the few bargains in American politics, something real fiscal conservatives should envy compared to the millions Darling’s CEO backers are paid to line their pockets with her influence as they shed jobs or move them offshore. Neuenfeldt’s pay doesn’t touch what media consultants are making to dispense her $1 million in personal campaign cash or coordinate the estimated $2 million third party groups are pouring into just this one district race.
They may not have intended to emphasize the contrast between what Darling backers rake in and what street activists make. But they sure did.
This is actually the danger of treating the voters like sheep and goats in this ad blitz. This trust in volume and frequency on TV, radio and at the doors has become rampant and it expects the voters to similarly abandon nuance and thought in their decisions. Yet it almost forces voters to start thinking about what’s left out, what a little examination of the other side may reveal.
It even exists in the sideshows of rumor and talk radio. GOP voices – perhaps recalling those cushy air-conditioned busses the Koch boys and the Tea Party filled to tour the state and speak out at supposedly spontaneous rallies – tried to similarly demean the We Are Wisconsin’s Recall Bus tour to the six districts, figuring this could only be some similar luxury bus packed with well-heeled imports. A little research exposed the truth. The Recall Bus turned out to be the lowly Plumbers Local 8 antique that usually serves coffee during cold winter pickets or is parked at Laborfest. It has no air-conditioning and no shock absorbers that I can feel and pity should be extended to anyone aboard on its journeys from Green Bay to La Crosse. The campaign rhetoric of extremes again doesn’t fit the mundane reality.
But are we really being fooled? Partisan assumptions, tired clichés, catch phrases and dubious exaggerations – isn’t this creating the extreme dysfunction that everyone knows is driving our country over the cliff? And do all these advertising experts and opinionated closed minds expect us to stand still for it this time?
“Union bosses”? Only for those who still live in the 1950s Red Scare congressional hearings era, the “On the Waterfront” black and white analogies. To conjure up events from 60 years ago simply seems an effort to deflect the voters from thinking about why workers need to stand up for their rights now more than ever and why the right-wing must be weaklings to use the law to restrain worker voices on the other side of the bargaining table.
Spendthrift Democrats? Seeking to tie Pasch to that hackneyed image not only ignores which party pounded on the taxpayer in recent times but also deflects from the deep disappointment in how Darling was so willing in the name of budget to abandon today’s second and third graders as if they can cavalierly recover five years from now.
In an election about priorities, it is convenient to oversimplify on both sides. But at least give the progressive side credit for both humor and raw street energy. That turns off some voters who seem to prefer the canned emotion of mailers and TV ads.
Consider the passersby who sniff when they hear Pasch supporters use revised folk tunes and comic golden oldies in street cafes and at parties, but they did stop and listen when they heard a familiar basso from one self-described (and self-funded) outsider celebrity. (It was Joe Bauman, better known as Bowzer of Sha Na Na and TV commercials who says he had to come to Wisconsin because the whole country is “watching to see if the state can restore common sense to our democracy.”)
There was also too much raw energy for some – while admirers honked car horns along Silver Spring Drive in empathy -- when Citizen Action of Wisconsin “celebrated” a Medicare anniversary with a hearse outside Darling’s campaign headquarters. That was all about her support for Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan, and then her weasel words denying that support, for which the media promptly nailed her with her own remarks
Unambiguously she supported Ryan’s idea of dropping guaranteed retirement health coverage for those under 55 by having them instead buy a partial coupon for such coverage from a private company. Some Ryan supporters even in the media gamely interpret all this as continuing Medicare in a different way, but the public understands English better and knows it would clearly end Medicare as we now know it. Yet the harsh accuracy of coupling Darling to a casket was too tough for some.
So what we seem to have here is more than the old “Cool Hand Luke” phrase of “a failure to communicate.” It sometimes is also a war of style. It is energy and street action on one side that Darling supporters and some traditional suburban residents regard as unseemly. At the same time they are being flooded with oversimplified snippets, sound-bites and hoary adages that advertising experts expect them to blindly embrace and accept. It does make you wonder which approach will get through at the polls.