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Politicians raise cash behind closed doors

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie poses Sept. 29 with supporters of Gov. Scott Walker at the Republican field office in Hudson, Wis. But the fundraising events that bring in the real cash occur, as much as possible, out of public view. (AP photo by Ann Heisenfelt)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie poses Sept. 29 with supporters of Gov. Scott Walker at the Republican field office in Hudson, Wis. But the fundraising events that bring in the real cash occur, as much as possible, out of public view. (AP photo by Ann Heisenfelt)

On Oct. 8, Mandy Wright held an event to raise money at a bar across the street from the state Capitol in Madison.

According to the event listing, “we will be accepting donations of $250 or $100” from host sponsors, “but please know that donations of any size are greatly appreciated.”

Wright, a freshman Democrat, is seeking re-election in the 85th Assembly district, which includes most of Wausau. It is a seat Republicans have targeted for defeat.

Mindful of that, she has held more than a dozen such events since 2012 in her district and three outside of it.

“I am absolutely disgusted with money and politics,” she said. “But you need the money to win.”

In the most recent election, Wright’s GOP rival spent $147,000 to her $57,000, and nearly won.

Her goal this time is to raise $100,000. From Jan. 1, 2013, through the end of July, she reported raising about $74,000. That is nearly three times as much as her current Republican challenger, businessman Dave Heaton, who announced his candidacy in April and also has held events to raise money.

With the Nov. 4 election looming, dozens of those political events are happening in Wisconsin each week.

On the same night as Wright’s event, a few miles away, GOP congressional candidate state Sen. Glenn Grothman held a similar event at the Madison home of former U.S. Senate candidate Eric Hovde. The host levels ranged from $2,600 to $500 per person, with $100 being the “General Reception Attendee” fee.

Grothman declined to let a reporter attend. Wright, after initially agreeing, changed her mind.

Both expressed concern about making attendees uncomfortable.

“There’s a lot of lobbyists who are going to be there who don’t generally support Democratic candidates,” Wright said. “I don’t want to burn bridges.”

The reporter, Grothman stressed, would not miss much.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

“People come in, they eat hors d’oeuvres,” he said. “After a half-hour of socializing, Eric Hovde will introduce me. I will talk about my campaign and why it is a close race. People will leave contributions and go home.”

That is essentially what the events entail, but campaigns shroud them in as much secrecy as Yale’s Skull and Bones society. The giving of money to politicians occurs, as much as possible, out of public view.

And the events are a mainstay of political life. Wisconsin congressional Rep. Paul Ryan was listed as the special guest at 10 of them for other Republicans from Oct. 3 to Oct. 21. In his own race for re-election, Ryan has raised $8.5 million.

Wright said her Oct. 8 event drew 40 to 50 people and that “I’m really happy with what we made.” She wouldn’t give an amount.

Despite hiring a full-time person to attend to campaign-related tasks, Wright still devotes 10 to 20 hours a week during campaign season to raising money. Having run for office to do good things, she said, “the need to raise significant amounts of money can feel very counterintuitive and becomes emotionally exhausting.”

Wright has called for nonpartisan redistricting to create more competitive districts so the focus is not on a few swing seats such as hers. And she said she favors public financing of campaigns, citing a New York City model in which donations of up to $175 are matched six to one for candidates who accept strict spending limits.

“That would really boost the power of the small donor,” she said.

And maybe lessen the need to raise money.

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