This Green Bay story is not about the Packers … it’s about the 2022 city council race in that community. And it’s about the political roller coaster experience of a 2022 candidate for a nonpartisan seat on the city council.
At the start, the 2022 city council elections in Green Bay appeared to be headed in a fairly routine direction. A total of 11 positions were up for election; three were open seats. Michael Poradek announced his candidacy for the 11th district with this statement: “I care about our Green Bay community and want to serve my neighbors across District 11 by focusing on local issues that matter to each of us on a daily basis. That includes public safety, economic and community development, infrastructure and streets, and increasing regular communication and transparency between City Council and residents.”
However, what started as a fairly typical election cycle soon took a turn. Under the cloud of the growing political divide, the election climate shifted dramatically. Large amounts of campaign money began flowing into the election in an effort to select or support candidates based upon party affiliation. Strikingly, the overwhelming amount of money came from out-of-town political action committees (PACs) that don’t have to identify their specific funding sources.
Poradek was approached and offered outside contributions. He not only declined, but he also led an effort to circulate a nonpartisan pledge, rejecting contributions from political parties and external special interest groups. Eight of the 21 candidates signed the pledge.
As the outside money continued to flow into the election, the campaign ads became decidedly partisan, often using “carbon copy” statements to portray a candidate. At best, the ads were misleading; at worst, they were false. By the end of the campaign, more than $300,000 in outside, dark money was spent on the nonpartisan city council election!
Poradek lost the election by a little more than 100 votes. He shared his dismay that many of the ads running in his district were false, portraying him as unrecognizable to the person he really is. He was targeted by the Pewaukee-based PAC, Wisconsinites for Liberty, whose attack ads were particularly accusatory and misleading. Identical attack ads were used with other candidates. In a “cookie cutter” approach, they simply inserted his name and image.
Poradek noted with a sense of irony, “I was running to support my community as an independent candidate for a non-partisan position.” He humbly added, “I wanted to get a stop light at the end of the street”.
It is not unusual for a community to be flooded with campaign ads in the weeks leading up to the general election, many of them painting a very negative picture of the targeted candidate. These kinds of ads have played a part in elections in our country since its founding. So, is this year’s campaign season any different than prior years? The answer is yes.
Supporters of both political parties are funneling large amounts of money into local, nonpartisan elections for county board, city council, and school board. The Green Bay story is repeating in Wisconsin communities and spreading. So where is all this money coming from? As reported in OpenSecrets.org, campaign spending in the United States topped $14 billion in 2020, up from $5.7 billion four years earlier. Campaign spending is projected to exceed $20 billion in 2024. Alarmingly, more than $1 billion in 2020 campaign spending came from unknown sources … dark money.
This should highlight some very concerning trends. First of all, campaign spending is largely unregulated due to the 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. A small number of donors are driving these massive contribution increases. For example, a total of 12 individuals (six pro-Republican and six pro-Democrat) contributed over $1 billion in 2020 alone!
It’s no wonder that, according to Pew Research, 90% of Americans believe that big money donors have more political influence than other people. There is a belief that the Citizens United decision benefits the Republican Party. It is true that many big money donors are Republicans … leading Democrats by a nearly 2 to 1 margin. But in recent years, Democrats outspent Republicans by a 4 to 1 margin when it came to dark money. Clearly, both parties are taking advantage of the Citizens United decision. It is the average citizen, regardless of party, who is losing out.
What can be done to restore leverage to the average citizen? Given the Supreme Court decision, it will require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to restore the legal authority to regulate campaign spending. This is no small undertaking.
Despite the enormity of this challenge, a serious effort is underway to take this on, led by an organization called American Promise. So far, 22 states have approved a resolution in support of the amendment. A total of 38 are needed before it can be presented for a congressional vote.
Beyond campaign finance issues, it is alarming that the growing political divide (along with massive infusions of unregulated cash) is injecting national politics into local issues and elections. It is troublesome that more than $300,000 in outside money was spent on a city council election. And even more concerning is that we may fail to recognize who our neighbors really are, as opposed to a stereotypical caricature from a political ad.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Green Bay to meet some of the community leaders. The Rotary Club of Green Bay hosted a special meeting with leaders from American Promise to learn more about how Wisconsin could add their state’s name to the proposed Constitutional Amendment on Campaign Finance Reform. While some Rotary clubs avoid topics that might appear “political,” the Rotary Club of Green Bay knows that the topic in question is really about protecting the local community from undue external manipulation. At that meeting, I also had the opportunity to meet Poradek, who spoke to the group about his personal experience. Despite the election results, it appears that he may be setting his sights beyond city council. He may be accepting opportunities to speak out on behalf of promoting integrity in the American democracy. We should all hope that is the case.