In The News
Media Fails School Board Races: And Just Who Is Funding Bruce Thompson and Jeff Spence?
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Journalistic wimpiness, as explored in a previous column, clearly affected coverage of the Supreme Court race in Wisconsin. But what about contests such as the Milwaukee School Board District 2, when both candidates ran afoul of the law? Isn’t that just a wash?
Not if answering the “whys” is still a major function of journalism. Exposing the motives proves more revealing than the actual offenses, and we rely on journalists to dig that out.
But don’t rely on mass media in the school board races. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has editorially committed to what it calls the “reform candidates” (though after a failed 15 years of their ideas the “reformers” should more accurately be called the mossbacks).
Such an editorial stance ought to compel a newsroom to make sure internal politics aren’t influencing its coverage. To the contrary, we had a reeking March 19 example of “balanced reporting” – what one election official called “a slippery piece of journalism.” The legal woes seemed equal but weren’t in terms of importance to voters. Treating them as offsetting offenses simply enabled the media to fall down on the job.
Forced to report public complaints to the district attorney about the chronic failure of District 2 incumbent Jeff Spence to file timely campaign finance reports, the newspaper dug through the open database of property tax delinquents to report that Spence’s opponent, retiree Wendell Harris Sr., was several thousand dollars behind. (So, alas, are thousands of other Milwaukee residents.)
This is not good for either side seeking a board seat in a $1 billion school system. But Harris’ $15,000 problem was sitting in the open for months. Inserting his troubles into this story seemed an effort to lessen the significances of the deeper Spence complaints.
Fueling that belief was how the story obfuscated that the Spence complaint didn’t start as a partisan issue, but stemmed from the legal protocols required of the Milwaukee Election Commission.
After months of letters and meetings with Spence, the commission was compelled to alert the DA’s office to his chronic failure to correctly report campaign contributions. In Spence’s case, the failure involves six required filings throughout the 21st century and was noted by the commission for both “volume” and “discrepancy” of the violations.
The pressure on the DA to act was furthered by Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a community coalition of some 30 groups that mainly support Harris. One of the complainers to the DA was serving in her capacity as board president of Citizen Action, but the newspaper only identified Sheila Cochran for her better known role as secretary-treasurer of the Milwaukee County Labor Council, which has endorsed Harris.
Almost all election complaints have a partisan tinge, left or right, but that doesn’t relieve the media of its obligations to search the deeper issues, to explore the whys.
The Harris whys are relatively easy and part of the public record. A retired steelworker and frequent public figure in elections and NAACP service, Harris started a business to connect inner city residents by vans to outlying jobs – and put himself $50,000 in hock.
And he hasn’t denied or ducked his responsibility, though he clearly should have been out front with the problem. (As an example of how to handle this, look over at the District 3 race where Stephanie Findley has spoken openly about her financial delinquencies as a single mother, turning her personal experience into a call for better financial preparation of MPS teenagers.)
Spence’s failures are at first glance more mystifying and his excuse of simply being “naïve” much harder to swallow. He’s a veteran campaigner, seeking his third term on the MPS board (a measly $18,000 a year salary). He is also an MMSD manager. In both roles he is fully aware of complex regulations and financial requirements. The question the media forgot to ask: Could he possibly benefit by failing to let the public know before an election where his money was coming from?
Turns out, by avoiding timely filing, he avoided a glaring spotlight. To understand that, you have to look back at the 2003 spring election (the biggest hole in his records). That year, probably four years too late, several media outlets had finally stirred to look hard at campaign reports – and reveal how these typically modest and low-cost local MPS races were being shanghaied by outside forces.
Those news reports revealed a large well-heeled network of voucher supporters pouring money into the races – the heirs of the Wal-Mart fortune, New York financiers, a woman modestly described as a San Francisco housewife, Susan Oberndorf, who with her husband has been a major money machine in the national voucher movement.
The network’s philosophical dominance on the MPS board would in effect create what one lawyer called “an alternative school district” of so-called choice and voucher schools relying on the taxpayers and robbing the MPS, which the board is supposed to protect, of resources and funding options.
For candidates such as Spence and Joe Dannecker (running again this year) and Barbara Horton and Ken Johnson (not running again), this network had been crushing opponents by sheer power of money. In 2003, it had a failure of its most prominent voucher advocate, John Gardner. In 2001, another failure had bounced Bruce Thompson from the board – yes, the same candidate now back with big money in the 2007 at-large race. (And how Thompson connects with the Spence case is intriguing.)
Working through a nonprofit and a fund-raising conduit operating out of the same offices (and headed by such familiar voucher names as Howard Fuller and George and Susan Mitchell), aided by outside parties such as the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, the network allowed its candidates the fanciest brochures and media ads while the public assumed that all the concern stemmed from actual residents and users of the public schools, not rich private-school advocates in Arkansas and Florida.
The treasurer/administrator for this voucher conduit remains none other than Thompson. The millionaires and billionaires sent checks to the conduit, designating how much should go to whom. The conduit deposited the funds and then issued checks to the candidates.
Spence’s delayed filing made him seem a minor player in all this hullabaloo, but the now-filed campaign reports reveal he wasn’t – and also reveal that many of the contributions should have been reported prior to the 2003 election. In 2003, the belated reports reveal, Spence received $11,495 from out of state, twice what the news media thought, much of it through the conduit, and $2,520 more from state residents living outside the city. The public didn’t know before it voted because he filed late.
This background sets the table for looking at campaign reports for 2007 filed eight days before the April 3 election. (As of this writing these campaign filings, the last before the election, went unreported in Milwaukee newspapers.)
These reveal that the conduit has quieted way down, as has the issue of voucher schools.
But apparently Thompson’s role as conduit treasurer helped keep those familiar out-of-state names interested in him. This time they’re giving directly to his campaign, helping him raise a whopping $66,522 so far in 2007 – and more than $27,400 from outside Milwaukee. There’s also $7,500 (the max) from three “friends” committees of school board member Danny Goldberg and the non-running Horton and Johnson (who seemed to have a lot of campaign money left over). And carryover from late last year.
His opponent for the at-large seat, Bama Brown-Grice, would normally be applauded for her fund-raising in 2007, $24,658. It is eminently grassroots local. Almost half came from Milwaukee residents giving $5 to $500 – in fact, some 100 citizens gave an average of $125 each. The other half of her money comes from local committees – candidates she beat out in the primary and labor groups (SEIU, AFT, AFSCME, MTEA).
By contrast, Thompson had about half the Milwaukee contributors, many CEOs or noted investors and political players, who on average gave nearly $300 each.
Typically, school board candidates rely on door-to-door slogging and local printers to get the word out. Thompson has so much money that he has reached to Austin, Texas, to hire a major player in political advertising, Fero Hewitt Global, which so far has been paid $29,500 for slick brochures and media ads that will mainly hit the week before the election.
In District 8, former teacher Terrance Falk has also emphasized grassroots, including $2,400 from labor groups, to raise $7,690 in 2007. That’s pretty good in a district race, but it’s not as much money as incumbent Dannecker reports ($9,771) boosted by several of the same supporters in the Thomson citywide race, plus a forgiven $600 loan from Johnson.
Considering all the attention, it is no surprise the Spence has cooled it, turning in the thinnest campaign report of all the school board candidates and relying on only five contributors (including the president of the Bradley Foundation and $800 from Thompson) to raise $3,123 in 2007. But wait! He also has a $4,175 carryover from previous years.
The media was right to report Harris’ problems, especially since he failed to do so himself. But it has a larger responsibility. It should have asked, and still should be asking, whether Spence was “naïve” as a fox to fail to be open about just who has been supporting him and why. And it should have reported – quickly – the outside forces ganged up behind Thompson.