By Dan Fitch and Karl Locher
Community for Responsible Government (CRG) is posting billboards around town, supporting Common Council incumbents like Syed Abbas and Sheri Carter. CRG is likely the same group (with backing from non-Madison-resident but rich-landed-gentry Eric Hovde) that sponsored the last round of silly City Council billboards claiming to “Save Madison.” Hovde’s work of political genius was covered here back in December. While coverage of Hovde and his apparent front groups unveiled some of the mystery of these billboards, the political strategy behind the campaign remains impenetrable – or perhaps just haphazard. For example, the website from the original run of billboards is no longer online.
The previous Community for Responsible Government billboard, posted at the corner of East Washington and Ingersoll a few months ago, sported a big Uncle Sam and encouraged “common sense” people to run for office. The billboard in support of Alder Abbas thanks him for “trying” to keep the city safe, a tone that is bizarrely sarcastic for an advertisement clearly encouraging support of Abbas. Abbas has since distanced himself from the billboards – albeit half-heartedly – with his campaign Facebook page saying “We continue to be appreciative of community members for their support. We are committed to racial justice and community oversight and reform of police.”
That goes against Abbas’s voting record, and the implied pro-police messaging is just the tip of the iceberg of vexing concerns raised by these billboards. To start with, the website on the billboard has been broken for days. CRG’s website is visible in the Wayback Machine in a snapshot from last November. Looking past the truly incredible barrage of stock photography, you can see that CRG claims to be a 501(c)4 organization. The IRS doesn’t seem to know about them yet, though.
One thing that is clear is that Hovde and CRG absolutely love stock photos. Do you think those houses on the Abbas billboard are in District 12? Nope, that’s a stock photo. We can spot that exact shot rotating through headers on various home inspection and realty sites around the country. If CRG is committed to saving Madison, they might do well to start by visiting first. Nikki Conklin, who MADSA endorsed, had fun with this on Facebook..
While CRG’s campaign raises suspicion, spending thousands of dollars on billboards with broken URLs is hard to explain as anything other than incompetence. Indeed, even just a few billboards are likely to cost more than running an actual campaign for Common Council. Is this a visionary political strategy, the purpose for which is beyond the grasp of leftist commentators? Most likely it’s just landlord laziness.
There’s nothing in the city ordinances (MGO Sec. 3.35 on ethics) that appears to prevent an independent entity from spending dark money on a candidate for city office. The fact that Abbas, the incumbent in the race, is getting this sort of implied pro-property-and-policing support while being challenged on the left by democratic socialist candidate Tessa Echeverria raises some questions. Abbas isn’t alone; more billboards are going up supporting other incumbents around town, with similarly boring stock footage and the same broken URL.
While CRG itself seems to offer little insight into its political strategy, the actions of more reputable organizations might be illuminating. Recently, the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and Building Trades Council announced a series of joint endorsements for City Council. The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce is a powerhouse of conservatism hiding in plain sight. With policy positions ranging from enthusiastic support for U.S. imperialism and PFAS contamination, to eliminating any vestige of city control over property development, the Chamber of Commerce hides a lot of harmful work underneath a website that is light years ahead of CRG’s. Even Citizen Dave, with his profoundly warped sense of political reality, acknowledges the Chamber of Commerce as a conservative force.
Importantly, the Chamber of Commerce is getting to be a skillful organization at the sort of soft-touch corporate exploitation that Madison is built on. The collaboration of the Chamber of Commerce and Public Health Madison & Dane County to encourage businesses to reopen as the pandemic was just beginning to inflict its lethal toll displayed a shocking disregard for public health. But it didn’t appear outwardly surprising as it happened — it was just a public-private partnership for public health, which sounds pretty normal for Madison.
In context of the efforts of other conservative groups, the efforts of the CRG to support Syed Abbas appear to be a page from a well-worn playbook, if poorly executed. Just as the Chamber of Commerce hides an anti-worker agenda under the cover of “innovation” and “partnership,” these billboards are simply an effort to associate a candidate with a loosely-defined word over which few people will argue. Syed Abbas is trying to keep our city “safe”, and who could argue? Unless, of course, you realize that “safety” is coming at the expense of Madisonians of color, specifically Black Madisonians, who are more likely to be brutalized by a police force that Alder Abbas has refused to hold to account.