By John F. Di Leo -
Our young political volunteer learns the difference between declared and undeclared numbers…
Pavel Syerov, Jr was glum. After a delightful night and day celebrating the good news from Wisconsin, his parents had asked him to stop by headquarters and see if anything was going on. They thought it might be interesting today, so he was on his way, after stopping at the grocery store to pick up some snacks.
When young Pavel, as a high school student, was unable to find a summer job, his parents recommended that he volunteer at the 51st Ward Party HQ, because he’d find it an interesting experience. While his political views weren’t yet fully developed at that age, it struck him as a bit odd that they’d want him to work for that party, but they said in the big city, there was no choice. And he’d learn more there, anyway, than from the other one. As a good son, he obeyed. It was indeed an education.
Since that summer, he still dropped by occasionally to chat with the regulars there, and to report back what he learned to his parents. Since he had once said he wanted to be president someday, his parents wanted to make sure he understood the American system first; his friends at HQ seemed to think he might have a future in politics if he wanted one. Every time he visited, he wanted such a future less and less.
Well, he’d made it to the door, so he did a final count: Bag of snacks? Check. No campaign buttons or stickers on the shirt? Check. Bottle of antacids in the pocket? Check. It was time to enter.
“Hello, Paully!” shouted Pockets from his desk in the corner. “Welcome, son! Whattaya up to?”
“Nothing much, Pockets!” answered Pavel. “We just got back from Wisconsin and I thought I’d just drop by for a chat before joining my folks at our cousins’ place, that’s all.” Pavel saw that there was nobody else in the place (he didn’t see the Boss in his office), so he sat down and presented the bag of honey wheat pretzel braids for the snack bowl, the old man’s favorite.
“Wisconsin, eh, Paully? Rough week there. A lotta bad news,” mumbled the old man, as he reached for a pretzel.
“Why’s that, Pockets?” asked the lad. “I mean, sure, we lost, but we were outspent like crazy, who could blame us?”
At that, the Boss poked his head out of his office door. “Outspent? We could only WISH,” he said with a snort. “Good to see you, Pavel,” he added, remembering his manners. “You brought pretzels? Thanks. Don’t mind if I do.”
The Boss took his tweed coat back off – he’d been putting it on to leave when Pavel entered – and set it back on the hanger, then headed back to the refrigerator. “Longneck, Pockets? Diet, Pavel?” hearing “sure, thanks” from both, the boss returned with two beers and a soda, then joined them in the corner at Pockets’ disheveled area.
The Boss – that’s 51st Ward Party Committeeman Bill Marcy to you – sat back and took a swig from his beer, looking expectantly at Pockets.
“Just finished adding it up as young Paully arrived, Boss,” said Pockets. “Seven thousand, five hundred, and forty bucks. Dat’s what the 51st ward spent.”
“On what, Pockets?” asked the young man.
“On da recall up north” Pockets answered.
The Boss explained. “We’ve helped out a bit… you always help your neighbor when there’s a special election… and I just asked Pockets to add up what we spent on our piece of it.”
Pockets nodded and added, with a mouth full of pretzels, “We sent up a busload a volunteers six days, we bought ‘em pizza ‘n drinks each day, we pay da car rental an da diesel fuel fer da bus… it adds up quick, Paully!”
Pavel sat back, a bit surprised. “But all the reports were that the Republicans outspent the recall effort by millions of dollars!”
“Yeah, well, ya don’t think we report everything to da media, do ya?” chuckled Pockets, as he reached for another pretzel braid.
The Boss clarified. “Both sides have published and unpublished numbers. There’s the direct contributions to the candidates, right? Scott Walker raised millions and millions of dollars from Republicans and Republican groups. Tom Barrett raised millions of dollars from Democrats and Democrat groups. Both sides report their campaign fundraising and it gets filed with the state board of elections… in Wisconsin they call it the Government Accountability Board or something like that. That’s the hard money.”
“Right, but if it’s publicly filed, how can you say it’s not reported?” asked Pavel.
“Because dat’s just da campaign money” chuckled Pockets, sipping his beer. “Dat’s da money dey use to pay for radio ads and TV ads and mailings. Since dey hafta report how much dey spent, dey report what dey raise to pay for it. But dere’s more where dat came from!”
“You mean the campaigns don’t report all the money they raise?” prodded a surprised Pavel.
“No, we didn’t say that, son,” answered the Boss. “For all I know, both campaigns report everything they raise and spend perfectly. Beats me. What we’re talking about is the support from outside that the official campaigns ‘don’t know about’ at all.”
Pockets wiped his mouth and started listing names of organizations. Too many to remember, but it included some names already familiar to Pavel. “Dere’s de American Federation of State and Municipal Employees, da Service Employees International Union, da Wisconsin Education Assistance Council. You probably know dem by dere acronyms… AFSME, SEIU, WEAC…”
The Boss chuckled and ticked off some more. “Things like a recall election also prompt the creation of special groups, too many to remember. We Are Wisconsin, Recall Walker, a ton of groups, some made up of a thousand people, some of ten, some of one… sometimes just created to justify a website or a mailing, some created because the name sounds appealing to a demographic. Sportsmen for Walker, Sportsmen for Barrett… Teachers for Walker, Teachers for Barrett. Sometimes they do enough to require filing reports, sometimes not. And if they don’t file reports, the media can’t count their expenditures (which helps our narrative). It’s impossible to track down a lot of them.”
Pavel paused in thought, and reached for a pretzel. “So most of that stuff is little stuff, that doesn’t make a big deal, right? Not worth thinking about?”
The Boss chuckled again. “No, I wouldn’t say that, Pavel. There’s always a threshold – it differs from state to state – on what level requires formal filing of reports. The Republican groups tend to follow the rules; if they have a lot of spending, they report it properly, so we can add up what they do and yell about all their corporate money.”
“But not our side, Paully!” laughed Pockets. “We yell about theirs, but we don’t report all of the help we give, because a lot of it’s not strictly allowed, ya know?” At this, both Pockets and the Boss raised their beers simultaneously in an impromptu toast.
“How’s that, guys?”
“Well,” explained the Boss, “you saw it here just now, as Pockets added up how much we spent on the Wisconsin recall from the 51st Ward. It’s not a big deal on its own; we just paid for a bunch of bus trips, a lot of sandwiches and pizzas and beer for our people, and maybe some hotel stays. We’re a political party; that sort of thing is expected from us. It’s not illegal, though the good government types would probably be amazed at how much such spending and assistance there was from Democrats all over the Midwest, helping the Wisconsin recall effort.”
“The real big deal,” said Pockets, “is the groups that aren’t allowed to do what we do. Da unions, for example. Dere’s supposed to be a clear line between political activity and proper union work. Dey’ve never paid attention to dat line at all, and dey’ve gotten more and more blatant about dere activism over da years.”
The Boss nodded his head and continued the point. “The Midwest trade unions, both government and private, have spent the last 18 months doing everything they could to win in Wisconsin. Recall after recall, protest after protest… they’ve organized busloads of people and traveled across town to rallies, across the state to occupations like at the Madison capitol last year… union folks supported them from Illinois and Michigan and Minnesota…”
“…but it’s all small stuff, right? A bus rental here, a pizza there, it doesn’t add up to a lot, does it, guys?”
“Think about it, Paully!” said Pockets, gesturing with his longneck before he polished it off. “Do some math. Let’s just say it costs a grand to drive a bus around for a day and buy lunch and dinner for the busload of people in it, just for dat one busload, dat one day. Dere were hundreds and hundreds of buses over da last 18 months, probably thousands and thousands, as ya add it up.”
“Right, Pavel, we have an organized machine here,” said the Boss, proudly, gesturing for another so that Pavel would get the signal and go back for a couple more beers as the Boss continued talking. “Every thousand busloads at a grand each in undeclared expenditures is around a million bucks. Undeclared. All in the service of these incessant recalls, that so far haven’t accomplished anything to speak of. Thousands of buses, millions of dollars, down the drain.”
“So, Boss, what you’re saying….” Pavel asked, as he handed the Boss and Pockets their fresh beers, “is that the financial discrepancy between the two sides isn’t anything like what has been reported, huh?”
“Right, son,” answered the Boss. “Our side actually spent way more than the Republican side did through all this, because our side is mostly unreported, and their side was mostly reported. We’re the ones who paid for busload after busload, day after day…. Add hotel stays, and our contribution increases geometrically. Tens of millions of dollars in in-kind contributions by the unions and the other liberal interest groups. We don’t report much of that, so we can say that our side was swamped by corporate money, for public consumption, but we know the truth: that all things considered, the anti-Walker side probably spent way more, not less, on this election.”
Pockets shook his head. “And all for what? Walker won by more this time than he did the first time. All this work and all we did was give Scott Walker an opportunity to build on his first numbers. He won da first time wid, what, 6.2%... and den he won dis one by about 6.8%. It’s like we did all dis work, just to help him out! We gave him da ringing endorsement of popular support! If we hadn’t had da recall at all, we coulda claimed dat he was overreaching, dat all his stuff went too far, without public approval. But now dat he’s won bigger, he can honestly say dat if it was a referendum on his policies, he clearly has public support for them! Now, dat’s a HUGE deal. Can’t even put into words how big dis whole thing has backfired.”
“All we got was one state senate race in Racine, in a district that’s been redrawn as more conservative for 2014. It’s the classic pyrrhic victory,” interjected the Boss. Seeing bafflement on the face of his deputy, he explained “a win where it was so costly that it’s worse than not having done it at all. We got the recall called, forcing Walker to do a lot of work, and we won a state senate race, we think, but it cost us a mint, and Walker’s stronger than ever, and the state senate probably won’t even meet again before the November elections, so it just didn’t really help us at all.” He took another swig of his longneck in silence.
“Yeah, Pavel, Pockets is right,” the Boss continued, shaking his head. “We could have continued to say Walker was overreaching, but no, it’s the Wisconsin Democrats, and the Wisconsin unions, that overreached. We’ve sunk ourselves, and it’s done huge damage to the party… our methods are exposed; they’ve seen the vote fraud, the excesses at the polling places, the use of police to break up pro-Walker rallies that are smaller than pro-Barrett ones that had been allowed... if they recount the Racine senate race, even if we win it, the recount will expose more of our methods; that can only help the Right. And worst of all… the damage this process has done to the unions themselves!”
Pavel asked “how’s that, Boss?”
“Well,” the Boss answered, “the Right has been claiming for years that the unions aren’t really in it for their members… that they’ve spent at least the last fifty years as just an arm of the Democratic party, that they’re all in it for their shop stewards and officers and the Democrats. And of course, to an extent, it’s true… but this blasted Wisconsin thing has given the Right a much stronger argument than they had before, blast it.”
Pavel was now having trouble suppressing a grin as he asked his next leading question. “Well, they aren’t really going to lose members, or anything important, are they?”
The Boss sighed. “AFCME in Wisconsin has already lost half their membership since Scott Walker got into office. Now that the state doesn’t forcibly withhold union dues for state employees, AFCME membership in Wisconsin has dropped from 62,000 members to 28,000 members, just in less than a year and a half! All those dues plummeting…. That leaves less than half as much money in the till to spend on politics. I mean, they’ve got to have SOMETHING left over to actually spend on legitimate union activity, you know? All those mansions they’ve built for union halls have utility and upkeep expenses… with less and less money coming in, they’ll have to sell off some of their real estate. And that’ll really hurt – that’s where we run our phone banks, hold meetings, everything!”
The Boss had another swig of his beer and shook his head. “We haven’t heard how much dropoff the other public unions are suffering. WEAC doesn’t seem to be losing that much, yet. But WEAC has lost one of their biggest cash cows, the massive profit of their health insurance scam, that worked so well for so many years. Now that’s over, and the cover is blown, there’s huge rancor in the ranks. Teacher membership just has to plummet eventually; it just has to, even if it hasn’t yet. I don’t know what they’ll do. They’ve been the core of the Wisconsin left for decades.”
Pockets nodded in agreement. “Now that union membership is optional up there, da unions are gonna hafta actually do something directly for dere membership, to stop the bleeding. And dat costs money, money dey just don’t have anymore.”
Pavel couldn’t resist. Gesturing with a pretzel braid before eating it, he said “Well, the unions could try doing the one thing they’ve never done, which might be the best thing they could do for their membership. And it wouldn’t cost them a penny.”
Expectantly, Pockets and the Boss looked at him in wonder, and asked “Well? What”?”
Quoting a character in one of Pavel’s favorite novels, he just said “They could just… Get out of the way.”
Copyright 2012 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance lecturer. A former chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican Party, and a former vice president of the Illinois Right to Work Committee, he has now been a recovering politician for over 15 years.
This story is a work of fiction. Pavel, Pockets, the Boss, and the other denizens of the 51st Ward are obviously fictional characters, and any similarity to real individuals is a mere coincidence. The issues of vote fraud and corruption that they discuss, however, are sadly all too real.
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