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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Buying a Pig in a Poke

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It may seem hypocritical to worry about a millionaire buying an election in Wisconsin when we're talking about the election to succeed millionaire Democratic U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl.

Buying an election had been considered really sleazy until Kohl figured out a way to make it respectable when he was first elected in 1988.

Kohl's name already was widely known as a result of his successful family business of Kohl's Food Stores and the budding chain of Kohl's department stores. Kohl used his fortune to buy good will through widespread philanthropy, his ownership of the Milwaukee Bucks and highly visible projects such as the Kohl Center on the campus of his alma mater, the UW-Madison.

Kohl's wealth really turned into a politically popular asset when he self-funded his campaigns, refusing contributions from lobbyists and running as “Nobody's Senator But Yours.”

Kohl could carry it off politically because, as a generally liberal Democrat, Kohl consistently supported government programs benefiting the middle class, the working class and the poor.

That slogan doesn't work for Republican millionaires. Sure, they can use their enormous fortunes to put their previously unknown names and faces in front of voters around the clock.

But if their slick advertising succeeds in fooling ordinary people into electing them, they immediately begin pushing Republican policies that don't benefit anyone except millionaires like themselves. They're “Nobody's Senator But Their Own.”

Unfortunately, Wisconsin can point to two prime examples of this hideous trend—one already in office and another who wants to be in the worst way.

Let's take the fresh, new face first. Eric Hovde is an unbelievable candidate. Literally.

But he's the fresh, new face in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate against some well-worn political hacks.

There's a reason why very few people in Wisconsin had heard of Hovde until he announced he wanted to be their senator.

Hovde hadn't lived in Wisconsin for 24 years, moving here after Kohl's Senate seat opened up. He built a mansion on Madison's Lake Mendota late last year.  He didn't register to vote in Wisconsin until recently.

Most media never tell you who this mystery man really is. They blandly refer to him as a hedge fund manager and a banker, as if he had some kind of financial expertise.

Never once do they make the connection between the financial manipulation and exploitation by hedge funds and bankers that created the second-worst economic disaster in U.S. history and the enormous wealth it produced for a few manipulators at the top.

Hovde won't tell voters exactly how much he made off with. A vague financial disclosure form he was legally required to file lists his assets as somewhere between $58 million and $240 million. And there's unknown amounts hidden in the Cayman Islands.

A few sleazy details have emerged. Hovde's Wisconsin real estate companies collected thousands of dollars a year in government subsidies for not growing tobacco on real estate holdings that weren't tobacco farms.

And in 2006, Hovde paid $22,500 to settle a lawsuit from the city of Madison for underpaying property taxes on real estate to be developed by pretending it was farmland.

The Con Game

But most voters don't know about Hovde's shady side. All they know is he's taken control of their television sets with more than $4 million in TV ads showing him bounding up a steep bar chart representing the national debt he wants to end.

Like Congressman Paul Ryan, Hovde has learned that if you flash a lot of financial charts when you speak, people won't have any idea what you are talking about, but they will assume you are smart.

You don't want your audience to really understand your economic arguments because, if they did, they would know you were wrong.

Most legitimate economists today consider the national debt a long-term problem, but warn that enormous spending cuts in the present weak economy—as advocated by Hovde and Ryan—will create another major recession and make matters worse.

But some polls suggest all those glib commercials featuring Hovde, a millionaire no one knows presenting arguments they don't understand, are working. This guy looks good on television. He may be all right.

We have a prime example in Wisconsin of just how dangerous that thinking can be.

Ron Johnson was another millionaire nobody knew when he ran for the U.S. Senate. He, at least, lived in Wisconsin. He'd married into a successful company in Oshkosh.

He used his fortune to flood televisions with commercials portraying himself as a kindly, white-haired gentleman who knew how to create jobs. It was a masterful con.

It wasn't until Sen. Johnson got to Washington that most of his constituents found out just how appalling many of his personal views really were. He became a Fox News favorite because he would say the most outrageous things right out loud.

Johnson's contribution to the health care debate: Businesses and insurance companies shouldn't be required to cover patients with cancer because treatment costs too much.

Johnson's reaction to the tragedy in Aurora, Colo.: Using a 100-round magazine assault rifle that can commit mass murder is one of our “basic freedoms” protected by the Constitution.

When we elect a millionaire no one really knows based on TV commercials, we are buying a pig in a poke. You can end up with a real pig.

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