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Down with shady billboards in Madison politics

Stop letting opaque right-wing campaigns sway local politics.

A new post on Tone Madison partner outlet Red Madison this week takes a closer look at the billboards that have been popping up around town thanking various Madison Common Council candidates for “trying to keep our city safe.” Those thanked include 12th District Alder Syed Abbas and District 14 Alder Sheri Carter, who are both running for re-election. The “city” imagery appears to be a stock image of a suburban street with no sidewalks in sight. Red Madison‘s Dan Fitch and Karl Locher find that the group claiming responsibility for the billboards, Community for Responsible Government, is vanishingly opaque: There are no public indications of who runs or funds CRG, and it’s hard to find any records of the organization’s existence, even though it claims to be a 501(c)4 organization. 

This is only the latest round of shady billboards that have popped up in Madison over the past year, pushing clearly pro-cop messages about public safety, often using broad but clearly coded language about “our” city, “our” community, “our” safety. Apparently these campaigns don’t run afoul of city ordinances or state laws, yet they clearly constitute efforts to influence the April 6 Common Council election, given the timing of the latest billboards and the fact that the various folks behind them have never been shy about calling out elected officials by name. 

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Not long after last summer’s explosion of protests against racism and police violence, billboards promoting the “Recall Satya” campaign sprang up. The leader of the Recall Satya group, Jon Rygiewicz, claimed that it was a “non-partisan political project” holding Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway accountable for her handling of rioting and property damage in downtown Madison. Rygiewicz has previously sought office as a Republican and sure seemed to be planning his own run for mayor if the recall petition succeeded (it didn’t). A few months later, an organization called “Save Madison” began putting up billboards in different parts of the city that used sloppily cited crime statistics and made exaggerated claims about various Madison alders’ attempts to “defund the police.” (A major budget cut for the Madison Police Department was never really on the table during the city’s latest budget cycle.) Isthmus revealed in January that Eric Hovde, a real-estate baron who lives in Shorewood Hills and ran for U.S. Senate as a Tea Party-aligned Republican in 2012, was behind Save Madison. 

So, while we don’t know exactly who is putting up the CRG billboards, it’s safe to say that we’re experience a new trend of Republican billboards, aimed specifically at city- and county-level political debates, that either don’t fully disclose that they’re Republican billboards or hide behind dubious claims of non-partisanship. At least the Dane County GOP was honest enough to put its name on those moronic Lincoln billboards.

Whether or not you support the candidates these latest billboards are “thanking,” you should not accept this underhanded, spurious propaganda as part of the normal landscape of local politics. Especially when you get down to a city level and then a neighborhood level, you should be able to put a face and a name to everything that political actors are doing. Anyone who deprives you of that is treating you with grievous disrespect and cheapening your participation in your community’s affairs. If you’re furious about Citizens United, the Kochs, the Uihleins, and so forth, please channel a bit of that energy into nipping this shit in the bud in your own backyard. Tolerate it now and you’ll get much more corrupt and expensive local politics in the future.

I live in District 12. I will be voting for Abbas’ challenger, Tessa Echeverria, because their vision as a democratic socialist is a lot closer to my own than Abbas’ is. (Echeverria is also a friend, and co-founded Tone Madison‘s partner organization, Communication. But if Tessa’s politics sucked I’d pass.) Still, I respect Abbas and agree with him on a good few things. Seeing a sign that supports him doesn’t bother me in and of itself, but when a sign deals in slippery language and hides its origins and purpose behind a daffy generic name, that introduces an unaccountable and unacceptable element into our local elections. 

Madisonians should pressure billboard companies like Adams Outdoor Advertising and Lamar Outdoor Advertising (and any other platforms running these ads) to either stop doing business with anonymous dark-money groups that operate in legal grey areas, or require such advertisers to disclose their funders and organizers. We should insist that local candidates, especially the ones these billboards support, disavow these shady groups and their sneaky, dog-whistling tactics. And we should push the City Attorney’s Office and current and future Alders to crack down with better enforcement and better ordinances.

The very existence of these billboards throws cold water on the fantasy that Madison can never move right of its cosmetically progressive status quo, that the right in Madison is too outnumbered and wacky and inept to exercise any real power. Why would Republicans spend money defending Madison’s status quo, supporting candidates who’d be painted as far-left extremists if they were running against Republicans? Because there are candidates in this year’s Common Council election who meaningfully challenge that status quo from the left, including Brandi Grayson (challenging Carter in District 14), Nikki Conklin (challenging the city’s most pro-cop Alder, Paul Skidmore, in District 9), Benji Ramirez Gomez (challenging incumbent Patrick Heck in District 2), Echeverria, and Juliana Bennett and Ayomi Obuseh (both running in District 8, which is an open seat because current Alder Max Prestigiacomo decided not to run for re-election). And because—much as I’d like to argue that the billboards don’t reflect our community at all—there are plenty of self-identified “liberals” and “centrists” in Madison who saw some busted shop windows and statues this summer and sure started to get more comfortable showing their own right-wing tendencies.

Everything about CRG, from the generic name to cheerful stock-photos on its now-lapsed website, tries so hard to be innocuous and sensible that it ends up making your skin crawl. Same with “Save Madison”—the wording seems to be asking you, who wouldn’t be in favor of that? Who doesn’t want to keep our city and our community safe? But what is the “our city” and “our community” these billboards speak of? Personally, I don’t think it’s a city defined by Madison’s municipal boundaries. It’s not even a place. It’s a state of affairs where affluent white people enjoy comfort and power at the expense of everyone else.

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