The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (“WDC”) claims to be a nonprofit, nonpartisan political watchdog group. The organization targets the financial supporters of Republican and conservative policy leaders.
Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has been a staunch defender of the controversial “John Doe” investigations designed to target supporters of Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. The investigations, later halted by a court order for infringing the First Amendment rights of the targeted conservatives, were condemned by observers for extreme, heavy-handed tactics.
WDC’s core policy concentrations reveal that it has decidedly left-of-center policy goals. In addition, these goals are advanced by a staff that include well-known Wisconsin liberals. Its current executive director previously served as the editor of a well-known left-wing magazine, and its prior executive director is now a Democratic candidate for governor of Wisconsin.
In addition to the relatively innocent accomplishment of establishing a campaign donation database, WDC boasts of “working to overturn Citizens United.” WDC called the decision “calamitous” and marked the decision’s five-year anniversary by joining with liberal U.S. Representative Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin) and Assemblywoman Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) at an event in the Wisconsin state capitol.
In 2016, WDC published a “comprehensive indictment” of Governor Scott Walker’s (R-Wisconsin) “worst 100 laws.” Among the many non-campaign finance policy issues the analysis criticizes, WDC condemned Walker’s conservative policies on consumer protection, the environment, disability rights, immigrant rights, justice and the courts, labor, local control, public education, safety net programs, taxes, voting and elections, firearms rights, and abortion.
WDC condemned the Wisconsin Supreme Court for ruling that the secretive, open-ended John Doe investigation of Governor Scott Walker’s supporters violated their constitutional rights and must end. The investigation, orchestrated by the Democratic Party-controlled Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, has been described as involving an “early-morning paramilitary-style” raid on citizens’ homes and as the “nastiest political tactic” in 2014. WDC has also assailed the Wisconsin Supreme Court over its recusal rules, which prompted a public reprimand from the Court’s Chief Justice, Patience Roggensack.
WDC boasts of “siccing the IRS on Wisconsin Club for Growth” by filing a 2016 complaint for allegedly violating its nonprofit status by primarily engaging in electioneering on behalf of Governor Scott Walker. WDC’s longtime executive director, Mike McCabe, would later seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Walker in the 2018 Wisconsin gubernatorial election.
Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s most recent federal filing in 2016 showed revenue of $429,206 and total expenditures of $429,542, representing a $336 operating deficit for the year. The 2016 balance sheet showed a net fund balance of $390,031. The organization’s prior year’s financial position was weak. The prior year’s revenue totaled $352,600 while its expenditures were $427,737, representing a $75,137 operating deficit. The 2015 balance sheet showed a net fund balance of $375,532.
Compensation of current officers accounted for none of the organization’s expenditures. The only paid officer listed for the organization was executive director, Matthew Rothschild, who received $71,407 in compensation and $28,296 in “other compensation.”
In addition to the listed compensation of current officers, directors, trustees, and key employees, WDC’s expenditures includes $162,519 in “other salaries and wages” as well as $39,773 in “other employee benefits.” Between 2013 and 2016, WDC spent over $25,000 on lobbying activities.
The Foundation to Promote Open Society associated with left-wing billionaire George Soros contributed $75,000 to WDC in 2009. Then-WDC executive director Mike McCabe publicly defended accepting the grants from Soros’ group in an appearance before the Wisconsin Supreme Court in late 2009.
WDC is currently led by executive director Matthew Rothschild. Prior to joining WDC in 2015, Rothschild worked at The Progressive magazine for 32 years, much of those as editor and publisher. During his tenure at the magazine, he authored You Have No Rights: Stories of America in an Age of Repression and edited an anthology called Democracy in Print: The Best of The Progressive, 1909-2009. He boasts that his first job out of college was working for left-wing activist and former Green Party Presidential candidate Ralph Nader at the publication Multinational Monitor. When Rothschild assumed the WDC leadership role, even liberal media outlets questioned whether “a leading voice of the left for years” could run an ostensibly non-partisan organization.
Rothschild remains a frequent left-wing commentator. Rothschild has urged the adoption of numerous left-wing policy proposals, including universal government-controlled health care, a government-provided minimum income, fully taxpayer-funded college education, automatic universal voter registration, banning corporations from donating to political parties, and the disclosure of donors to non-profit organizations.
Between 1999 and 2015, WDC was led by Mike McCabe, who stepped aside and later ran for Governor of Wisconsin as a Democrat in the 2018 elections. In 1995, McCabe had helped to form WDC. Under McCabe’s leadership, the Campaign consistently advocated for more government financing of political campaigns more stringent limits on campaign spending.
McCabe was viewed as having very little appetite for compromise, with one observer noting that when approaching campaign finance reforms, “Mike was more of that school of thought that if it wasn’t [all-or-nothing], reforms wouldn’t have a chance to reform again.” McCabe’s philosophy often placed the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign to the left of other liberal Wisconsin advocacy groups such as Wisconsin Common Cause.
Other current staff include development assistant Evan Arnold, research director Mike Buelow, and outreach and advocacy director Beverly Speer. Speer has been with WDC since 2003 and previously worked with the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, another self-proclaimed non-partisan group with a left-of-center alignment. Buelow was previously an Associated Press reporter in Madison for 16 years and became research director in 1999.
The Board of Directors is comprised of Nino Amato, Marcie Brost, Peter Cannon, Bill Franks, Tom Hecht, Susan Lloyd, David Pauly, Mary Rouse, Diane Welsh, and Alfonso Zepeda-Capistran.
Amato is a registered lobbyist for and president/executive director of the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, Inc. During Amato’s tenure, the Coalition has been the target of three separate employment-discrimination complaints. In addition to service on the WDC board, Amato also serves on the advisory board of the social justice organization We Are Many – United Against Hate. Amato has publicly attacked Governor Walker, alleging that the administration targeted the Coalition for a loss of state funds, as well as Secretary Hillary Clinton, arguing her claim that the Democratic Party of Wisconsin shared blame in her electoral defeat was racist.
Of note, Brost is active with the Wisconsin Board for People with Development Disabilities. Cannon, who serves as the WDC Board secretary, is a retired state employee living in Madison. Lloyd is active in the League of Women Voters of Dane County. Pauly has served in numerous high profile roles throughout his career, including CEO and Chairman of the Board of Capitol Transamerica Corporation in Madison, Wisconsin and Chief Operating Officer of Acuity Insurance. Additionally, he serves as an advisor to the University of Oshkosh’s Insurance and Risk Management Department and teaches insurance in conjunction with the Greater Madison Urban league. In addition to serving on the WDC board, he serves on the boards of the Willy Street Co-Op (located on Madison’s east side) and Blue Jean Nation, an advocacy group started by WDC’s former Executive Director Mike McCabe. Welsh is a litigation partner at the well-known Democratic Party-aligned law firm Pines Bach and previously served as an Executive Assistant and Chief Legal Counsel in the Wisconsin Department of Health & Family Services under Governor Jim Doyle (D). Zepeda serves as an Education Consultant at the Department of Public Instruction. Zepeda previously served as president of Latinos United for Change and Advancement (“LUChA”) and in that role publicly commented on the need for Latino voters to support former President Barack Obama.
Relations with Other Wisconsin Liberal Groups
Throughout the years WDC’s coalition/organizational affiliations have included well-known progressive organizations. It prominently notes its affiliation with Community Shares of Wisconsin, Fair Maps Wisconsin, Money Out Voters in Wisconsin (MOVI WI), Wisconsin United to Amend, and Wisconsin Voices. Its most recent report to supporters features a quote from the Executive Director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, an extreme environmental advocacy group. In the past, WDC has highlighted other “coalition partners,” including AARP, Alliance for Animals, Associated Student of Madison, League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Madison Teachers Inc., Progressive Dane, Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice, and Wisconsin Retired Educators’ Association.
WDC is a member of Community Shares of Wisconsin, which is described as “[t]he oldest social action fund in the country” and works by connecting “donors with nearly 60 local nonprofit groups building social and economic justice and a healthy environment.” Community Shares “raises funds for its member agencies…through workplace giving and other community-based fundraising.” WDC became a member in 2004.