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Wisconsin Upside Down

June 14, 2011

What has happened to Wisconsin?

Like many others in Madison I spent a part of Tuesday at the Wisconsin State Capitol.  The weather was fantastic, the sun made the statehouse  stand out against the blue sky, and the new trees which have been planted on the lawn looked healthy.  All seemed perfect.

It was not.  Far from it.

Inside the Capitol an “Extraordinary Session ” had been called to pass a state budget.  Outside thousands gathered to protest Governor Walker and the Republicans concerning the collective bargaining law.  The State Supreme Court sent down a major ruling before the end of the day allowing the union law to take effect, and as newsworthy as the decision itself were the Chief Justice’s blistering words for the majority.  To top the day off  it was announced that six Republicans are running as Democrats to force a primary election on July 12 in the recall elections.

What has happened to Wisconsin?  Our political process?  To our shared sense of being Wisconsinites?

After today I can hardly believe there are any Republicans or Democrats that can say this is how we want to be remembered for having conducted our political affairs. Win or lose, this is not a day to be proud of.  I am also certain that the average citizen is not amused or pleased with the relentless rhetoric and high-stakes power plays that have come to dominate the public arena.

Not so long ago there was a time when differences between the political parties under the dome did not mean all out rancor and meanness.

Before going to the Capitol I encountered a friend who once worked as an aide for a state representative.  I asked about his views on some issues, and if he ever thought about working at the statehouse again.  He quickly said no, and added “Things are just so mean now.”

There was a time when staffers at the end of the day, regardless of party or political differences, gathered here and there around the Capitol for a drink and perhaps a game of darts.  I now hear reports of staffers being unable to say hello to each other in the hallways under the dome since the rancor and partisanship has settled in so deeply.

As I stood in the sunshine Tuesday and looked up at the Capitol, that grand building where powerful ideas are to be sorted out in order to move our state forward, I wondered how things could have changed so much.    Walking on the sidewalk I saw a man wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “F… Scott Walker”.  A car driven by someone who wanted to make a point blared the radio with a shouting right-wing talk show host.   No one could be pleased with any of this!

I love a frothy debate as much as the next guy in this state.  I like the tug and pull of ideas.  Spirited campaigning is fun too.  Throughout our nation’s history we have always had intensity in our political affairs.  That is a good thing for democracy.

Yet in Wisconsin something has happened in the recent past that leaves those of us who have followed politics here feeling uncomfortable and uneasy with where the road lies.  The shared sense of purpose at finding the way forward seems to have become lost by both sides due to hyper-partisanship and gutter-ball politics.

We have now come to a place where there are nine recall elections slated for this summer!  If that does not speak to the level of anger that has developed I do not know what would.

I certainly feel the anger about the way the collective bargaining issue was handled, and have scored my political punches in the past months on this blog.  As such, I take my share of the blame for the problem of which I write today. 

I think the recalls are needed in light of not only what happened, but more importantly how it happened.  The political process should not be discarded as we witnessed this year.  Having said that, however, I am not completely at ease with recalls for policy disputes.   My old-fashioned sense tells me regular elections are the best remedy for these matters.   Somehow I wish elder statesmen on both sides of the aisle could have used reason to tame the electorate away from jumping off the cliff with the recalls.

At the end of the day there must be a level of civility maintained in the political process or the worst will play out and claim the day.  I fear that we are perhaps too far down the road of anger and resentment for things to change anytime soon.

Something tells me we have been sucked into this mess and will have to ride it out.  Not even a sunny day on the Capitol Square can save us now.

  1. Father Jim permalink
    June 17, 2011 11:31 AM

    I was Democratic Governor Pat Lucey’s budget analyst for the Dept. Of Public Instruction and then Lt. Gov. Martin Schreiber’s staff director in the early 70’s. At the time, being a legislator was a part-time job. We had a citizen legislature as a result that was comprised of farmers UAW workers business owners and as today lawyers. The Joint Finance Committee was a case in point. The Senate Co-Chair was Republican Walter Hollander a farmer from a small town. The Assembly Co-Chair was Democrat George Molinaro a UAW official from Racine. Having appeared in front of them on several occasions I remember two things. 1. There was a civility to the discussion. Though on opposite sides of the political fence they respected each other as people that the voters had chosen to represent them. 2. They compromised to get things done for the good of the state. They accepted that the majority would rule and would determine what was ultimately enacted. If it went against you there was always the next election when if the people voted a change in the majority or in the Governor’s office then a policy could be reversed. What they didn’t do was just try to prevent any business from being conducted until the next election.
    Today we don’t have a citizen legislature. Assemblymen and Senators are not for the most part people who spend most of their time in other jobs, they’re full-time politicians. As a result they are always campaigning.The legislative process is not about working together to develop policies and programs for the good of the state, it’s about serving those who finance the campaigns and gaining political advantage for the next campaign. When the people voted in a Republican Assembly, Senate, and Governor to halt runaway spending and taxing and bring us back from the brink of default, the unions and their Democrat Senators adopted the strategy of preventing the Senate from having sufficient members present to pass any bill with financial impact. This was thwarting the will of the electorate. A partisan Dane County judge acted to support this effort. Now the state Supreme Court is criticized for simply allowing the legislators rather than the court to legislate.
    If the sponsor of this blog is sincere about wanting a return to civility I have a suggestion. Let the elected officials act. Ask the mob to get out of the Capitol building and off the lawns. This is not in fact how democracy works. End all the recalls including the effort a mere 5 months into the new Governor’s four year term to recall him. Let the people express their will in regular elections on the next election day. And get the big money from partisan interests whether union or corporate out of the process. Impose term limits and reduce compensation for both assemblymen and senators so they have to earn their living elsewhere and gather for short legislative sessions to do the people’s business. This is a wonderful state and our people deserve elected officials dedicated to doing the peoples’ business not just getting themselves reelected.

  2. tom beebe st louis permalink
    June 15, 2011 12:51 PM

    Let us acknowledge the right for all workers to collective bargaining with the limitation that it is a right, but should not be a condition of employment. The results of collective bargaining are often to the detriment of the workers. The UAW got sweetheart deals, and management looking the other way when workers got less and less productive. Result? Check out the nearest lot for Hondas, Nissans and Toyotas, and check out Detroit’s dismal streets or available manufacturing space here in Fenton, Missouri.

    The public sector is much the same in that the negotiators across the table from the unions are as corrupt, perhaps even more spineless, then those of the Big Three who gave away the store to the UAW. So let us seek legislation that would require public sector contracts be put to the vote of the taxpayers, just as the UAW contracts and member behavior were put to the vote of the car buyer. Unions’ and management’s last best offers go on the ballot for a binding vote by the electorate. And, should we feel the politicians charged with representing us have made too generous an offer to the unions, we need only look down the ballot to find the opportunity to throw them out.

  3. Patrick permalink
    June 14, 2011 11:05 PM

    Sad, but true.

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