State Street art book factors into ethics complaint against Alder Sheri Carter

A local activist says Carter violated a state election law that regulates mailings from incumbents.

A local activist says Carter violated a state election law that regulates mailings from incumbents.

An ethics complaint against Madison Common Council President Sheri Carter alleges that Carter violated a Wisconsin campaign finance law restricting incumbent candidates’ use of public funds for campaign purposes. The complaint—filed by Amelia Royko Maurer, co-founder of the police-accountability activist group Community Response Team—alleges that Carter violated the rule when she enclosed letters to readers in a new book about the summer 2020 proliferation of mural art on State Street, and in two other official communications. 

Carter, who represents District 14 on the Common Council, is running against longtime Madison organizer Brandi Grayson in the city’s Tuesday, April 6 election.  

Royko Maurer, who filed the complaint on Tuesday, March 30 with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission, charges in the complaint that Carter violated an ethics regulation known as the “50 piece rule.” The rule prohibits state and local elected officials who are running for office from using public funds for mailings of 50 or more pieces  during an election season. Distributing “50 or more pieces of substantially identical material” constitutes a violation. Royko Maurer argues that Carter did this on four occasions: Twice in different print runs of the book, Let’s Talk About It, once in a letter the city mailed out to property owners in December about property taxes, and once more in a press release addressing the murders of Asian women in Atlanta. None of these letters mention that Carter is running for re-election or talk about the campaign, but the 50 piece rule is content-neutral—an incumbent can break the rule even if a given mailing doesn’t engage in blatant electioneering.

“I believe in fair and clean campaigning,” Royko Maurer says. “Absent enforceable rules for fair and equitable elections, we have abuse of power and voter disenfranchisement. Council President Carter knows the rules. They were explained to her multiple times. Incumbents and candidates who don’t follow ethics rules are for voter disenfranchisement. They can’t have it both ways.”

Grayson’s comment on the complaint strikes a similar note. “To me it is simple: elections should be about fairness and integrity and when they aren’t, everyone suffers, especially vulnerable communities,” Grayson says. Grayson has also faced criticism during this election, for her comments about Indigenous people.

Carter’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Staff at the Wisconsin Ethics Commission could not comment on the complaint or even acknowledge its existence, citing confidentiality provisions in state law. 

The basic idea of the 50 piece rule is to prevent incumbents from using the resources of elected office to gain an unfair advantage in campaigning and does not limit mailings that candidates pay for with their personal funds or with campaign donations. A letter the city paid to print and mail would clearly fall under the scope of the rule while a letter on city letterhead, but mailed out with private funds, might well violate the spirit but not the letter of the law. That seems to be the case with the Let’s Talk About It mailings.

American Family Insurance teamed up with Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell to create the book and  paid to print the books and distribute them free of charge to people who requested them while supplies lasted. Carter worked with Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and City of Madison Arts Administrator Karin Wolf last June to set aside some city funding to commission the artwork featured in Let’s Talk About It. Most, but not all, of the art that popped up on and around State Street was part of this city-funded program, though there were also unauthorized contributions from graffiti taggers and well-meaning volunteers painting bland messages of positivity as part of a cleanup effort.

Wolf told me that 15,000 copies of Let’s Talk About It have been printed so far. Of those, 10,000 included Carter’s first letter, and 5,000 included the second letter co-authored by Carter and Rhodes-Conway. However, Wolf says that no city funds were used, as American Family Insurance paid for all the printing and shipping. Clare Hendricks, a spokesperson for American Family, corroborated this.

“We printed and distributed a total of 15,000 books. A letter signed by Alder Carter was included in the first 10,000 books and a letter signed jointly by Alder Carter and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway was included with books sent out in a second printing of 5,000,” Hendricks says. “American Family Insurance paid for all costs associated with creating and disseminating the books.”

Because a private company paid to print and mail the books, the included letters from Carter may fall in a legal grey area—but there is another wrinkle here. It’s not necessarily true that American Family distributed all the books.  

“The City of Madison was given approximately 1,000 books to distribute on their own,” Hendricks says. “We were not involved in the process they used for those copies.”

So, if the city spent money to distribute any of those 1,000 copies and they had Carter’s letters inside them, that would fall much more clearly within the scope of the 50 piece rule. Wolf acknowledges that American Family “asked the City for help with distribution to artists or any City staff that wanted books because we had more direct access to them. But it was still their book and their project.”

Let’s Talk About It is an exhaustive document of the work dozens of artists created on the plywood that covered downtown storefronts amid summer 2020’s protests. Each chapter covers a block of State Street and its vicinity: As you page through, you move west from the Capitol. Each two-page spread consists of a professional-quality photo of a mural and an accompanying artist statement, along with information about where the mural was located and where to find the artists online. 

The book doesn’t water down pieces that explicitly call out systemic racism and police violence. The strongest examples of those include Darius Agard‘s bruising portrayal of a Madison cop (which includes the words “Defund The Police”) and Lauden Nute’s “Pitiful Piggy,” which uses the lyrics of the song of the same title by rapper K. Sankofa. (Full disclosure: Nute has occasionally contributed editorial art to Tone Madison.)

As a political artifact, Let’s Talk About It is, perhaps inevitably, steeped in contradictions. Carter has faced criticism for generally supporting the Madison Police Department after last summer’s protests, and for making public statements that foregrounded the issue of property damage—including in a failed Common Council resolution clearly aimed at condemning protest violence. Madison’s police union, the Madison Professional Police Officers Association endorsed Carter, and ranked Carter as its third-favorite incumbent Alder in a scoring of voting records. 

Meanwhile, American Family Insurance has hired retiring Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney for a security position he’ll begin after leaving his current post May. During last summer’s protests, Mahoney publicly shamed people for posting bail, and, according to Isthmus, misrepresented his agency’s use of tear gas. Madison365 reported in March that deputies in the Dane County Jail broke an incarcerated man’s hip and took 15 hours to get him to the hospital. On Mahoney’s watch, the jail also mishandled COVID-19 outbreaks. Mahoney has also been a leading advocate for a $148 million jail construction project, while anti-racist activists are demanding that Dane County instead invest that money in communities of color.

The 50 piece rule kicks in on the first day candidates can circulate nomination papers. For this election season, that day was December 1, 2020. The rule is in effect until the day after election day. Carter’s letter with the first printing of Let’s Talk About It is dated “December 2020″—no specific day, but clearly on or after December 1. Another letter, signed by Carter and Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway (who is not up for re-election this year), went out with a second printing of the book and is dated February 2021. The property tax letter—signed by Rhodes-Conway, Carter, and District 12 Alder Syed Abbas—is dated December 2020, and Carter’s press release about the murders in Atlanta is dated March 19. 

As the current election season got underway, City of Madison Attorney Michael Haas sent out several emails to Alders to provide guidance on the 50 piece rule, because the way the city interprets and applies the rule has changed since the city’s last election cycle. 

“I wasn’t here for the last campaign cycle but I believe some of the differences is that the Council’s previous policy did not have the 50-piece rule take effect until December 15th rather than December 1st, and it did not apply to communications that were seen as involving legitimate City business, even though the statute did not make that distinction,” Haas says.

Haas has an extensive background in dealing with Wisconsin elections law. He began working for Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board in 2008 and became head of its elections division in 2012. In 2015, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature dissolved the GAB—in retaliation for the agency’s investigations into then-Governor Scott Walker’s campaign activities—and replaced it with two bodies, the Wisconsin Elections Commission and the Wisconsin Ethics Commission. Haas went on to serve as head of the Elections Commission, but resigned that position in 2018 under continued political pressure.

Haas declined to comment directly on the complaint. 

“I have not even seen the complaint, I haven’t confirmed any facts regarding the American Family book, and our office does not represent elected officials when such a complaint is filed,” Haas says. “For those reasons I’m not going to comment on legal advice we would have given if asked.”

Either way, Royko Maurer is convinced that these mailings still run afoul of the law, and she says that some people received copies of Let’s Talk About It in the mail without asking for them. 

“A letter on city letterhead from and signed by Council President Carter was included in a book as a package deal then reproduced thousands of times and sent out during election season to people within and outside of her district whether or not they requested one,” Royko Maurer says. “It is up to the Ethics Commission to determine if that is a violation of the 50 piece rule, how much it cost, if it was posted as an in-kind donation and whether or not it is within the rules. I can’t imagine how it could be.”

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