This is the strange story of how Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker cost his own state billions of dollars and tens of thousands of good paying jobs, all to curry favor with Iowa power players, religious zealots, and a self-styled ghostbuster turned anti-gambling activist, in his quest for the Presidency.
After Republican Governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker crushed the hopes of the impoverished Menominee tribe to build a casino, Menominee Chairwoman Laurie Boivin blamed Walker’s decision on his presidential ambitions. In the clearest indication that Walker is planning to run for president, he apparently sold out his own state to bow to the religious right in Iowa, simply to bolster his chances in next year’s Iowa caucus.
Conservatives in Iowa wrote two letters to Walker shortly before his decision to reject the widely supported casino in Wisconsin. The first letter was written by Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader, an Iowa social conservative political organization. The Family Leader bridges social and economic positions in its activism. They focus on opposing gay marriage, abortion, higher taxes and spending, and gambling. In his letter to Walker, Vander Plaats argued that, according to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, Native tribes could only build casinos on their reservations, and that the off-reservation Kenosha casino would constitute a “dangerous precedent.”
While the IGRA does set a higher bar for off-reservation casinos, it doesn’t ban them completely. The IGRA “…permits Native American tribes to conduct gaming on land acquired outside of the tribe’s traditional reservation or other trust lands.”
Before this is allowed, the Federal Secretary of the Interior must decide that the casino is in the “best interest” of the tribe and is not “detrimental” to the area. As I explained previously, the Menominee had met these conditions. The final hurdle was for the Governor to make his own decision that it benefited the tribe and did not harm the area. The casino would have been built on the land of a former dog racing track. It was an area where gambling had already been happening, but now, it was serving no economic purpose. It could have greatly helped the tribe, and improved the economy of the area. So, Walker didn’t make his decision based on the actual wording of the IGRA, but based on the misrepresented lobbying of Iowa social conservatives.
Who is this Iowa activist who compelled Walker’s decision to reject thousands of jobs for his state? Vander Plaats ran for governor of Iowa three times – in 2002, 2006, and 2010. All three times, Vander Plaats lost. But through Family Leader, he has managed to influence Iowa politics greatly. In 2010, Vander Plaats led a successful campaign to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices who voted to legalize gay marriage. Following this campaign, according to The Atlantic, he emerged as “The Iowa Caucus Kingmaker,” as GOP candidates courted his endorsement for the first primary of the election season.
In 2011, The Hill described Vander Plaats as one of the top 10 most coveted endorsements for a GOP candidate running for president, because of his influence with churchgoing voters in Iowa. In 2012, he unveiled a pledge that he asked all GOP presidential candidates to sign. The pledge included lines opposing gay marriage, gays in the military, abortion, and “Sharia Islam.” The pledge signer would support “Religious Liberty” and shrinking the federal government, debt, deficit, “unfunded liabilities,” and budget. The most controversial line in the pledge was,
“…sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President.”
This overtly racist statement caused many Republicans, including Mitt Romney, not to sign the pledge. Fearing a loss of prestige, Vander Plaats eventually cut the line out of the pledge. But this line shows his true colors, and the kind of man who Walker seeks to woo by killing jobs in his own state.
In 2012, Vander Plaats endorsed Rick Santorum for president. As a demonstration of Vander Plaats’s influence among Iowa conservative activists, Santorum won the Iowa caucus, edging out Mitt Romney. Yet, Santorum’s GOP opponents described Vander Plaats’s endorsement as “corrupt,” saying it was “for sale.” Santorum denied the charge, but cagily admitted that “money was … discussed” before the endorsement.
Walker decided to reject the casino that would have leapfrogged the Menominee from grinding poverty to Wisconsin’s most magnanimous business leaders, and create up to 10,000 jobs in Wisconsin, with no consideration to his state. His only consideration was to please Iowa’s “kingmaker,” a man whose views on marriage and race are so strident that many Republicans balked at them. But he helped Rick Santorum to win the Iowa caucus in 2012, perhaps corruptly. Santorum was considered a joke candidate in much of the nation, with his 19th Century views on marriage and sexuality. But Scott Walker clearly wants Vander Plaats’s endorsement, so he must play the same game that Santorum played, even if it means punishing his own state.
The second letter was written by Tom Coates, president of Consumer Credit of Iowa, and a political activist against gambling. Apart from several statistics about the ills of gambling, the letter is most significant for its “600 signatures of potential Republican caucus-goers.” This letter amounts to a petition asking for quid pro quo by powerful Republican leaders in Iowa.
Several names were singled out as being significant leaders in Iowa. Tamara Scott, an RNC committeewoman, religious political organizer, and right-wing radio host signed the letter. She recently warned on her radio show that governors need to plan “Response” rallies, political prayer confabs, to pray away gay marriage, or else God will destroy America. She specifically singled out Walker as a governor she hoped would organize such a rally.
National Committeeman Steve Scheffler signed the letter. Scheffler got his start in politics in the Christian Coalition, but eventually launched his own group, the Iowa Christian Alliance. Scheffler was a major political organizer in Iowa for social arch-conservative Pat Robertson in his 1988 presidential bid. Scheffler helped him finish second in the Iowa caucus. Scheffler became more pragmatic after that experience, supporting Bob Dole and later snubbing Mike Huckabee to support Mitt Romney.
Interestingly, one of the Republican State Committee members who also signed the letter, Steve Roberts, complained in 2008 about the outsized influence of Christian Alliance in Iowa’s Republican Party:
“It’s pretty well controlled now by the Christian Alliance,” Roberts said. “If somebody came to me and wanted to be a delegate to the national party convention, I used to say, ‘Talk to the state party chairman or to Grassley.’ Now it’s very simple. You go to the Christian Alliance, and they determine who is a delegate, and you have to do exactly as they say.”
This demonstrates that the religious/political organizations run by people like Scheffler and Vander Plaats are so in control of Iowa’s caucus politics, that moderate Republicans must kowtow to them.
Perhaps the most significant signature on the letter is that of Joni Ernst. Freshman Senator Ernst was elected on a platform of hog castration. In the 2014 election cycle, she was by far the largest beneficiary of money spent on communications by a shadowy Super PAC called Freedom Partners Action Fund, which donated to 21 Republican Congressional candidates. Ernst benefited from $3,867,665 spent by the group in support of her candidacy. According to Politico, during a closed meeting of major donors, the Koch brothers revealed that they had launched the Super PAC in 2014 to help Republicans take over Congress. Joni Ernst’s signature on the letter to Scott Walker demonstrates indirect influence by the biggest GOP donors, whom Walker would be keen to impress.
Walker claimed that his decision had nothing to do with his presidential aspirations, even though he raised eyebrows by announcing his decision the day before heading to the Iowa Freedom Summit – an event hosted by the infamous right-wing dark money organization Citizens United. And it was at that summit where Walker met with Iowa conservative anti-gambling activist, Sarah Bowman, who features prominently, just behind the scenes, in this network of conservative Iowans lobbying Walker.
Bowman, President and Chairwoman of ICAGE (Iowa Conservatives Against Gambling Expansion), is an ally of Vander Plaats and The Family Leader. The two were photographed (above) embracing congenially at the annual Family Leader Dinner last year. And in a photo (left) uploaded to ICAGE’s Facebook page, Bowman is embracing Governor Scott Walker at the Iowa Freedom Summit, held just after Walker’s announcement that he would not approve the Menominee casino. The caption of the photo reads:
“Our President and Chairman Sarah Bowman, was able to meet with and personally thank Governor Scott Walker for his decision against gambling expansion, at the #IAFreedomSummit.”
Incidentally, and straight out of the “truth is stranger than fiction” category of weirdness, Bowman is also a “paranormal investigator.” On an obviously very low-budget site called Midwest Paranormal Investigation Society, Bowman’s profile states, “…remember, ghosts were people too.”
And so it seems that Scott Walker – Wisconsin’s Koch Brothers shill governor, who wants to be President – actually bucked public and bipartisan opinion, killed up to 10,000 jobs in his own state, and consigned the proud and noble Menominee tribe to ongoing Great Depression level poverty, because he bent to the whim of Iowa’s religious far right – and a self-styled ghostbuster.
And, as our future reporting will show, the rabbit hole goes even deeper.
Check out my colleague Akira Watts’s discussion of Walker’s cynical retribution against the Menominee.