Herman Cain’s opponents may think that Mark Block, the tough guy in the weird ad that has gone viral, is just some cigarette-smoking nut. Wisconsinites who have followed the degeneration of their state’s progressive political tradition know better.
Block has been all over the media in recent days, defending his current boss against allegations of sexual harassment—and claiming that Cain is a victim of an ugly political attack.
Well, it there is anyone who knows about ugly politics, it’s Block.
Indeed, he was a central player in an epic 1997 campaign where Wisconsin politics turned ugly.
That was the year when Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox was seeking his first full term on the high court. A former legislator and longtime crony of then-Governor Tommy Thompson, Wilcox had been appointed to the court by Thompson five years earlier. Now, he was running for a full term.
Wilcox had been an uninspired justice, who voted in lockstep with the Thompson administration on major issues—much as Justice David Prosser now serves as a proxy for Governor Scott Walker’s administration on the Supreme Court. And he was an uninspired campaigner.
When Walt Kelly, one of the most respected and dynamic lawyers in the state, announced that he would challenge Wilcox, the Thompson administration and the governor’s legislative allies, led by former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, got scared.
Republican operatives took charge of the supoosedly nonpartisan Wilcox campaign and inserted a veteran political fixer as Wilcox’s campaign manager. What was supposed to be a nonpartisan judicial race took on all the characteristics of a high-stakes partisan contest. Kelly was attacked relentlessly by a smear campaign that featured negative ads and mailings. The crudest attacks were mounted by a supposedly “independent” campaign that was funded with an estimated $200,000 from out-of-state interests that supported so-called “school choice” schemes.
That didn’t surprise anyone, as Thompson and Jensen were big backers of “school choice” initiatives that sought to steer public money to private education projects. And they knew the high court would be ruling on their constitutionality.
What was surprising was the extent to which the Wilcox campaign and the supposedly “independent” campaign funded by the out-of-state interested seemed to be coordinated.
After Wilcox won, Kelly pressed for an investigation, as did the Madison Capital Times.
That investigation eventually led the Wisconsin Elections Board to allege that Wilcox and his campaign had violated state election law by coordinating a campaign with what was supposed to be an independent group.
Wilcox denied that he knew of the coordination, but agreed to personally pay a $10,000 fine—one of the largest forfeitures ever by a candidate for public office. The co-founder of the “independent” group also paid a fine.
But the roughest justice was dealt to Wilcox’s campaign manager, who was alleged to have been at the center of the scandal. He paid a $15,000 fine and agreed to refrain from working as a political consultant in Wisconsin—or even as a volunteer on campaigns—for three years.
The former Wilcox manager became the Wisconsin point man for AFP. In that capacity, he was accused of running one of the most ambitious voter-suppression campaigns in the country—a “vote-caging” scheme that sought to intimidate minority voters and college students by demanding information about their residency and registration status that went far beyond what was required by the state. This project, which was allegedly coordinated with the Republican Party of Wisconsin, came just in time to help Scott Walker secure the state’s governorship.
AFP’s man in Wisconsin also invited Herman Cain to the state to address AFP-managed “Tea pParty” rallies, forging a close relationship with the former pizza company executive.
The rest was history. Wilcox’s manager and AFP’s man in Wisconsin was, of course, Mark Block.
Block’s now a cigarette-smoking Internet sensation. But Wisconsinites who remember when the state’s politics turned ugly will tell Mitt Romney and Rick Perry: beware! This guy is trouble!
How much trouble? Even as he was trying to explain away charges of wrongdoing by Cain, Block’s name surfaced in connection with another scandal.
Prosperity USA—a tax-exempt charitable group Block helped run that promoted Cain as a national figure—claims the group is owed almost $40,000 by “FOH.”
Prosperity USA is a spin-off of the supposedly “independent” Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers–funded group Block ran. Block spun Prosperity USA off from the Americans for Prosperity operation in Wisconsin, although the national group is now suggesting that the various organizations are legally separate.
“FOH” is short for “Friends of Herman Cain,” the presidential contender’s campaign organization.
According to revelations published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Block’s Prosperity USA “helped the GOP presidential candidate (Cain) get his fledgling campaign off the ground by originally footing the bill for tens of thousands of dollars in expenses for such items as iPads, chartered flights and travel to Iowa and Las Vegas—something that might breach federal tax and campaign law, according to sources and documents.”
Using a non-for-profit group to organize a political campaign and coordinating payments between the charitable organization and the campaign raises every kind of red flag for experts on campaign law. Tax-exempt charities aren’t supposed to be forming the infrastructure for political campaigns.
“The number of questionable and possibly illegal transactions conducted on behalf of Herman Cain is staggering,” says Michael Maistelman, one of Wisconsin’s most prominent and broadly regarded experts on election law.
Block has been dodging questions about Prosperity USA. But that’s going to get tougher.
Revelations regarding the group demand an inquiry. They also bring to mind the old scandal in which Block ran the Wilcox campaign while allegedly coordinating election activities with groups that were supposed to be “independent.”