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Republican Ron Johnson has made clear he thinks the U.S. Senate has a surplus of lawyers, whose ranks include Democrat Russ Feingold, the guy he’s trying to replace.
Feingold’s retort: the more worrisome surplus is millionaires -- and Johnson would add to their ranks.
On the campaign trail, Feingold has long told voters that Johnson, an Oshkosh manufacturing executive, is trying to buy the seat. More recently, Feingold has hit the theme harder.
"His idea for growing our economy is to give millionaires like himself more tax cuts," Feingold told supporters at an Oct. 18, 2010 rally the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
"He likes to say there are too many lawyers in the Senate – 57. He’d be the 70th millionaire. I think they’re a little over-represented."
Is Feingold right on the fat-cat factor?
It’s not an easy question to answer, because senators are not required to disclose their true net worth. Under the required financial disclosure reports, they are allowed to list broad dollar-value ranges for assets and debts.
As support for the claim, Feingold’s campaign cites a widely quoted 2009 study by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group. The group’s work takes the 2008 asset and liability figures that senators reported and finds a mid-point to approximate net worth.
The center’s study found that 67 of 100 senators carry a net worth of greater than $1 million. Wisconsin’s Herb Kohl, a Democrat, was the richest on the list at $214 million.
PolitiFact Wisconsin updated the study to include three new senators -- Scott Brown of Massachusetts, George LeMieux of Florida and Carte Goodwin of West Virginia -- who were appointed or elected after the group’s study came out.
Two of the newbies, LeMieux and Brown, have a net worth above the $1 million mark, based on our calculations using the center’s methodology.
That’s the math the Feingold campaign used to get to Johnson as the 70th: 67 + 2 + Johnson = 70.
Of course that slots Johnson into the current crop of senators. If Johnson wins Nov. 2, he will likely be part of a different mix -- some incumbents are retiring or lost in primaries, others may lose on election day.
How accurate are the numbers compared to senators’ true net worth?
If you take Feingold as an example, the wealth estimates appear to be conservative.
Feingold takes the extra step of voluntarily disclosing his exact net worth through tax returns and a complete statement of net worth. The Journal Sentinel asks Wisconsin members of Congress for that information.
In 2008 Feingold reported a net worth of $452,500 -- far above the $83,000 figure that ranked him one of "10 poorest" senators in the Center for Responsive Politics study.
As for Johnson, based on the center’s methodology and his 2010 disclosure form, Johnson’s net worth would be $17.8 million.
That would put him in the top 15 wealthiest members of the current Senate, though for the others the 2008 figures are being used.
So let’s review our math.
In turning the tables on Johnson, Feingold says the problem isn’t lawyers in the Senate, but millionaires. He pegs Johnson as the would-be 70th, though that would be in the current Senate -- not whatever mix is there after the election. By our calculations, and those of the Center for Responsive Politics, Feingold is accurate. If anything, the methodology underestimates a person’s net worth -- and therefore may under-count the actual millionaires in the body.
We rate his statement True.
Center for Responsive Politics, Senate Net Worth report, 2008
New York Times, Your Senator Is (Probably) A Millionaire, Nov. 25, 2009
E-mail interviews, John Kraus, senior Feingold campaign strategist, Oct. 19-20
Ron Johnson, financial disclosure report, 2010
Russ Feingold, financial disclosure reports, 1995-2009
U.S. Senator Scott Brown,website biography
U.S. Senator Carte Goodwin,website biography
U.S. Senator George LeMieux,website biography
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Lawmaker from state are well-off, June 22, 2008
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