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Retiring State Lawmakers Compare Old, New Campaign Tactics

The Wisconsin Capitol holds a history of illegal fundraising activities and a reputation of being among the cleanest.

Sen. Tim Cullen says he's observed changes. He served three terms during the 1970s and 80s, then won election again in 2010. Cullen says during his early days, he could focus on bills and constituent work for half his four-year term. At the midway point, he’d feel the need to start raising money and votes.

“So if you were elected in 1974, you weren’t on the ballot in 1976, but you realize that as soon as that election was over, the very next day, you were up,” Cullen says.

Cullen says, it was time to start knocking on doors in his district. When he returned to the Capitol in 2011, he says he noticed huge changes in fundraising tactics. Both parties had started conducting nonstop operations from offices in downtown Madison. Cullen says Democratic Party leaders offered to assist him.

“I just basically told Madison I didn’t need their help. I didn’t want them raising money for me. I didn’t want them coming down to help me, I didn’t want them sending staff down,” Cullen says.

Cullen says he was able to reject the overtures because he had name recognition, plus, Republicans had never poured massive amounts of money behind his opponents.

Sen. Dale Schultz says he raised and spent $10,000 on his first campaign in 1982 - a hefty number at the time. He says it’s nothing compared with today.

“We have a lot of high rollers, billionaires who’ve decided to get into politics in a major way and what I fear is we’ve created an American oligarchy, where corporations are people and we have no control over the amount of money that’s going into campaigns,” Schultz says.

Schultz lays much of the blame for the heightened need to raise cash on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. It allows groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on independent efforts to support or oppose candidates. Schultz says to keep the Republican fundraising machine at arm’s length, he’s set rules for his staff and himself.

“I run a business, I have a legislative job and I have a political operation. When I’m in the Capitol, I don’t bring in my political or business phones. I leave them in the car. Why do I do that? If you don’t bring them in, you’re not going to be tempted now, are you?” Schultz asks.

Democrat Tim Cullen says he has also discussed with his staff the importance of separating campaign work and state work. In addition, legislative leaders disseminate rules to aides, at the start of each two-year session.

“It’s very clear and there are documents they sign. If they were ever going to do something that involves politics, they literally have to leave my office and go outside on public property with their own cell phone and make a call that’s political,” Cullen says.

While raising money seems to have become a big part of holding state office in Wisconsin, the “caucus scandal” taught important lessons, according to Gary Bies.

He was first elected to the Assembly in 2000, when news of the scandal surfaced. It resulted in convictions against several legislative leaders for campaigning on state time.

Bies thinks the lessons learned were far-reaching and predicts large scale fundraising operations from the State Capitol would never happen again.

“From my first term or two, to where we’re at now, I think we’re in much better shape as to the way things are done,” Bies says.

Bies says he’s always been able to spend the first three-quarters of each term conducting the people’s business, and save the vigorous campaign work for the final stretch. However, he, like Cullen and Schultz has served in a “safe” district – a political district securely in his party’s hands.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.