Friday, April 29, 2011

Howard J. Brown -- Another of "The Greatest Generation" gone

It is with deep sadness to write about the passing this morning of Howard J. Brown – friend for more than 46 years, benefactor, confidant and occasional intellectual sparring partner.
Officially, Kenosha’s “Uncle Howard” was for 40 years the publisher of the Kenosha News. He passed that title onto Ken Dowdell ten years ago but remained president of the parent company which owns television stations and other newspapers.

The Kenosha News, however, was his “baby” and the people of this community by and large his unofficial nieces and nephews.

There wouldn’t be enough space in the newspaper to list the many people, organizations and causes Howard supported – almost all privately. Yes, he was a trustee of Carthage College and the ringmaster for Kenosha Christmas Charities – the official name for what we know as Goodfellows. A rite of passage into adulthood for many business and professional people in our community was receiving the Goodfellows invitation from Howard.

Media owners like Howard do not exist today. He would work late hours and take delight not only in a good news story but being able to sell someone an ad in the paper. Reporters would not find it unusual for Howard to stop at their desks and provide his good counsel. Readers had a way of telling when Howard wrote an editorial. The preacher of brevity as the soul of wit seldom practiced it.

Howard was very loyal to Betsy – his “bride” – and virtually every adult conversation would inquire about your bride and children. Howard was also very proud of his girls, all of whom are independently successful women today.

On a very personal level, I would not be where I am in life without his support, guidance and advice which began when a precocious 12-year-old popped into his office and started a lifelong friendship.

Only two or three times did I ever see Howard emotional. The last was about when he held back tears to lament how he had to lay off employees and downsize due to the economy, something he dearly did not want to do. His sadness then was greater than at the death of his own father who lived well into his 90’s.

Last year at one of our lunches I told Howard how much he meant to me and said that the one lasting impression I had was his reverence for people and the dignity of work. It didn’t matter if you were a high roller, a public official or the man stocking the vending machines Howard respected you and made you feel that way.

For all the good that Howard has done for others and this community he only asked for one thing in return – that you “be of good cheer.”

Journal-Sentinel "fact checkers" pants are down

The "fact checkers" at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel created a gaffe of their own today in the story about state supreme court candidate Joanne Kloppenburg's statement: "There are legitimate and widespread anomalies, and widespread questions about the conduct of (the Wisconsin Supreme Court) election, most visibly in Waukesha County, but also in counties around the state."

The newspaper rated Kloppenburg's statement as "barely true" and at the end of the day they may well be right but we're not there yet.  A statewide recount of votes in the Kloppenburg's battle to unseat incumbent justice David Prosser is underway.  The recount process will be the arbiter of whether there were irregularities, widespread or otherwise.  We'll know more when that process is finished.  It isn't and the newspaper shouldn't have jumped the gun.

We can't rate the newspaper's claim "pants on fire" but more appropriately the Journal-Sentinel was caught with its pants down.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Trumped: Obama reveals birth certificate in hopes "The Donald" will go away

President Obama Wednesday took some wind out of Donald Trump's sails when he called the billionaire's bluff and released his birth certificate showing that the president was, after all, born in Hawaii.  Yawn.

Of course the Obama team hopes this will squelch Trump and like-minded people.  My take: it will end that debate and open the door to others.

Trump is the spolier Democrats and Republicans love to hate.  The "birther conspiracy" buffoonery is now sidelined -- as it should be -- and the nation can now focus on other issues and I don't see "The Donald" going away but rather he may just be getting warmed up/

Predictably unpredictable, brash and politically uncorrect Trump could be the spolier who either ruins the election for one candidate or else defines the race for everyone.  Don't sell him short.

Trump's two major talking points -- gasoline prices and a huge trade imbalance with China -- may well resonate with voters feeling the pain of $4+ a gallon gasoline and the loss of American jobs, both to seemingly deaf ears in both major political parties.  What will make life especially uncomfortable for the political elite is that Trump is basically right.  His issues are viable and voters may be swayed by straight talk from a businessman vs. same old, same old from a bunch of political hacks.

Ignoring Trump is something Democrats and Republicans should do at their own peril.  If you don't think an outsider can't get elected president, I have two words for you: Jesse Ventura.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Waukesha County: Get a new county clerk

Waukesha County needs a new county clerk.

Kathy Nickolaus -- who sat for more than a day on the news that she goofed in reporting votes from the City of Brookfield -- wisely pulled herself out of running the recount of votes in the hotly contested state supreme court election which originally had challenger Joanne Kloppenburg with a razor thin lead until the "missing" Brookfield votes were "found" and reported.

It appears that Nickolaus -- no stranger to controversy as observed here earlier this month -- had some prodding from state officials but nonetheless it was the right thing to do.

So why the "I have no comment" when asked tonight by a news reporter about the rationale for her decision to recuse herself?

The high road would have been to proudly say that "Given the history here I felt it was proper to avoid even the appearance that there might be impropriety in the process."

That would have been the high road.  Nickolaus didn't take it.  Even though I don't buy the notion that there was hanky-panky in her goof-up, sitting on disclosing the error and now giving evasive answers to what ought to be a simple answer should prompt Waukesha County voters to give her the boot.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Obama: Bush III???

The Republican'ts are gearing up their war machine and mud pie throwers to take on Barack Obama's reelection campaign -- and my guess is that just like Obama's shot at delivering the hope and change he promised, they'll fizzle.

That's because "inside the Beltway" advisers don't have a clue how angry and disillusioned voters are.  They'll overanalyze and miscue the skew but the simple truth is that it's the economy.

You'll recall that in 1992 George H.W. Bush blew a massive post-Desert Storm approval rating.  How?  He was insensitive to the economy (which was a lot better then than now).

Son George W. wasn't much better.  He got us into a bottomless pit of a war, draining our economy and wasting American lives.

So we got Barack Obama, a charismatic speaker but unable to make the leap from charismatic candidate to governance.  High unemployment, rising consumer prices and gasoline topping $4 per gallon hardly qualify as talking points for reelection -- and then there's the fact that Bush's war is now his and we keep wasting American lives in the bottomless pit of middle east conflicts.

Of course there's more ineptness to go around.  After all, Obama couldn't control his own party and the Demo, who had the chance at success, squandered it.  A laudable effort to deal with health care reform wound up with a horrendous law and no real reform (particularly cost containment) at a time when the Obama administration couldn't manage the economy.

The Repulican'ts, of course, will get mired up in Obamacare, the Ryan budget plan to nowhere and whether Obama has a legitimate Hawaiian birth certificate.  They may just do Obama a favor by deflecting attention away from Obama's major economic failures. 

It's not rocket science, folks.  They only need to recite two Ronald Reagan lines:  (1) Are you better off than you were four years ago?; and (2) Isn't it nice to see the gallons add up faster than the dollars?

Friday, April 22, 2011

A hat tip to a clean election

In the midst of the celebrated state supreme court race -- the surrogate referendum on rookie Gov. Scott Walker -- there was an election for mayor of Madison in which the incumbent, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, lost his bid for reelection to former Mayor Paul Soglin.

This election is not just as asterisk in Wisconsin history or a footnote about Soglin getting a third crack at serving as Madison's mayor.

It really is a study about how two men can conduct a gentlemanly, above the belt campaign for political office, a rarity today.

Soglin and "Mayor Dave" confined their rhetoric to who has the best vision for Madison and the best skill set to get there.  The voters chose Soglin but, as The Capital Times, which endorsed Soglin, noted, they had to choose one or the other and a vote for Soglin was not a vote against Mayor Dave who did an able job of running the city for eight years.

After the election Soglin praised Mayor Dave for his civility and cooperation in the transition.  These two men showed us that it's possible for politicians to disagree on some issues without being disagreeable or disgusting. For his part, Soglin says he's not going to reject the good things Cieslewicz did for Madison but intends to build on them.  And Mayor Dave left office without even a hint of "sour grapes" but, to the contrary, by an exemplary show of courtesy and cooperation.

We joke a lot about "the People's Republic of Madison" and it being "an isthmus surrounded by reality" but in reality Madison has generally been a well-run city.  Other communities could learn from its successes, especially how to have an election in which while one candidate had to lose, everyone still won.

Appointing judges doesn't stop political shenanigans

The Wisconsin State Journal editorially expressed growing discomfort with Wisconsin's elected judiciary which it feels does little to insulate judges from partisan politics, a scenario played out in recent state supreme court soap

The newspaper is right to voice concerns about judicial independence and freedom from partisan politics but abandoning electing judges won't necessarily solve the problem.  If you need proof, let's look at Iowa where judges from the local level to the supreme court are nominated and appointed but face retention elections where voters periodically decide whether to keep a particular judge in office.

After the Iowa Supreme Court ruled same sex marriages were protected by the state constitution three of the seven justices lost retention votes.  While their supporters cried foul that judicial independence was being attacked and outside groups were influencing the election the process nonetheless was followed according to law.  In short, like it or not, Iowa voters had the chance to express their oversight over the court.

Waiting for the next retention vote, however, isn't enough for some Iowa Republican legislators, five of whom have introduced impeachment bills against the other four justices who have yet to come up for their retention votes.

The four resolutions — one for each justice — argue Chief Justice Mark Cady, and justices David Wiggins, Daryl Hecht and Brent Appel, performed a function solely reserved for the legislature in making the ruling.  The court’s decision violated the state’s constitutional separation of powers, and created social disorder and unrest, the resolution said.

Not all Republicans are willing to go that far.  The resolution will move on to the House Judiciary Committee, where its chances of advancing are unlikely, said its chairman Rep. Rich Anderson, R-Clarinda.

The justices’ actions in issuing a ruling that in effect legalized same-sex marriage do not meet the standard for impeachment spelled out in the Iowa Constitution: misdemeanor or malfeasance in office, Anderson said. He believes the majority of House Republicans agree with him and that it’s unlikely that the resolutions will go anywhere.

Anderson is a lawyer who initially applied to fill one of the three seats left open after voters in November ousted three justices but later withdrew his name.
“Rendering an opinion or resolving a dispute, which is what judges and justices are charged with doing, that is not misconduct or wrongful or unlawful,” Anderson said. “As much as the sponsors of the resolution disagree with the opinion, I don’t think the legal standard is met.”

Anderson's assessment mixes Iowa law with Iowa common sense.  If the voters don't like the other for justices, they can give them the boot at the next election.

This process, however, is far from immune from politics.  Outgoing Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, could have appointed three replacements before he left office but yielded to calls that he allow his Republican successor, Terry Branstand, to make the appointments. 

In my view that gives a governor too much power and makes it easier to stockpile a court with partisan jurists.  In other words, six of one, a half dozen of another.

Bras and prostates -- television is the vast wasteland.

Nearly 50 years ago Newton Minow, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, feared that television was becoming a "vast wasteland."  How prophetic.

I just awoke to a half-hour paid program on WTMJ-TV about how to buy better fitting bras that show enough cleavage while not drooping.  This was followed by another prolonged infomercial on prostate health supplements.  They should have completed the circle by airing Povich and Springer.


Prosser vs.Kloppenburg: A most necessary unnecessary recount

It's hard not to have mixed feelings about Joanne Kloppenburg's legitimate demand for a recount of the votes in her battle to unseat David Prosser from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, a surrogate battle between two political parties in a supposedly nonpartisan race fueled by enormously disgraceful quantitues of special interest money and injudicious conduct by a sitting supreme court justice.

You'd have to be living under a rock not to be aware of the highlights of this soap opera -- little-known Kloppenburg at first claiming a razor-thin victory and then two days later the disclosure by the Waukesha County Clerk that she failed to tally thousands of votes from Brookfield, a Republican stronghold that eventually put Prosser more than seven thousand votes ahead of Kloppenburg.

If that wasn't bad enough, the particular county clerk not only had ties to Prosser but has had her election conduct questioned in the past and was involved in one of the premier legislative scandals when she was a Republican causcus staffer a few years ago.  If that wasn't enough of a cloud, the clerk waited more than a day to disclose discovery of her latest mistake.

Regardless of who you voted for, the Waukesha County fiasco raised very good questions about how we run elections in Wisconsin -- concerns unfortunately drowned out by the cacophony of spin cycles by the political camps and their financial supporters.  Let's try to cut through the many layers of crap and try to make some sense of this.

First, we need to get out of the way the obvious but still ignored truism that this is politics, folks.  Had thousands of uncounted votes favoring Kloppenburg turned up in Dane, Milwaukee or some other county the Prosser supporters would be crying bloody murder.  One day your're the bug, next day the windshield.  Neither side can claim purity.  It's like having two madams arguing over which one is the bigger whore. Get over it.

Next, there are quite a few folks distressed that Kloppenburg is demanding a recount.  They point out that while she's within the .5% difference in vote totals entitling her to ask for a free recount, the chances that she'll find enough votes to change the results of the election.  Ordinarly this point is not without merit but this isn't an ordinary election and the catcalls about Kloppenburg exercising her right are myopic and misguided.

Yes, there is an expense to a recount and, yes, it's not likely to change the result.  But integrity does not operate on a balance sheet or a profit and loss statement.  What these folks -- including the editorial board of the Racine Journal-Times -- are saying is that we're wasting money on a recount.  While that has some plausibility it also begs the question of whether we should place a dollar value on the exercise of our rights and say to people, "It's your right to challenge __________________ but you shouldn't because it'll cost us money for you to exercise your rights."  That's a slippery slope.

In a micro perspective we conduct a recount to come up with an accurate tally of a close election.  The larger view, which apparently is overlooked by many here, is that we also do this to ensure the integrity of the election process and here, where there have been plausible concerns about the conduct of some election officials, it's not blatantly improper to seek a recount not just to ensure the accuracy of the outcome but also the integrity of the election itself.  That oversight is necessary, proper and priceless.  To suggest otherwise is to cheapen the respect for the election process.  It's important that the public have confidence in the process, including the conduct of election officials and equally important that oversight be exercised to prevent potential future abuses.

This brings us to Prosser's cheap shot labeling Kloppenburg's call for a recount as "frivolous."  He should know better, especially since he's caught flak -- appropriately -- for his vulgar and sexist description of Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson as a "bitch." 

Allow me to illustrate why this latest manifestation of foot-in-mouth disease demonstrates legitimate concerns over Prosser's judicial temperment.

Several years ago I handled a case involving a fight between two Jewish businessmen which broke out after one called the other a "schmuck."  For most of us that term connotes someone who is somewhat like a blundering fool and/or just generally inept -- not the kind of stuff that should lead to fisticuffs.  An expert on Jewish culture, however, explained to me that in his culture the ostensibly benign epithet is actually much more offensive as it's the functional equivalent of calling someone a "cocksucker."

So, too, is the word "frivolous" in legal circles.  The general public may equate the term with "unnecessary" while in legal parlance it's a pretty significant slap when one attorney uses it against another.  Beyond the general implication of incompetence it's also used to slap up an attorney who claims either a nonexistent legal wrong or  legal right.

Here, Kloppenburg is well within her legal rights to demand a recount, even though the outcome of the election is not likely to change.  A recount may be costly and some may question its necessity but it's hardly "frivolous" and Prosser of all people should know better.  He owes Kloppenburg and the people of Wisconsin an apology. 

For those who decry the recount because it costs money and is unlikely to change the result, you need to chill out and remember it's not just about the "bottom line" of who won this election.  It's also to provide necessary oversight over a murky election.  You don't measure transparency and integrity in dollars and cents.

Many years ago a young reporter was lectured by Capt. John Weinandy of the Toledo Police who noted with approval the broad access local media enjoyed to the police station and adjacent city hall.  "One reason we don't have much corruption here," Capt. Weinandy explained, "Is that there are reporters everywhere and, unlike other cities where they try to hide things, we generally want the public to know what we're doing."

Capt. Weinandy is right.  The price of transparency is far cheaper than that of corruption.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Milwaukee Marcus PAC -- Bush league in a big city

Earlier this week my wife and I celebrated her birthday by a trip to "the PAC" -- er, Marcus Center for the Performing Arts or whatever it was renamed -- to see Les Miserables for the umpteenth time. 

What can I say?  We love the show and for the most part we weren't disappointed.  The latest tour has new special effects and sets which gave the performance a bit of a fresher look.  It's worth seeing but not necessarily in Milwaukee.

That's because the PAC just isn't quite up to snuff these days -- inside or outside.  Think of a 1960's era Holiday Inn which was great in its day but even with remodeling may fall a bit short of contemporary standards.

The PAC suffers from bad audio.  Yes, it has a sound system but there aren't good speakers in place where people need to have them -- away from the stage. In today's world people know clean and crisp audio is possible in a theater and for the price you pay at the PAC it should be pristine.  No excused.

Then there's the complaint of myopic Mike Fischer, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel critic, about the disruption caused by latecomers being seated.  Fisher blindly blamed the patrons, a cheap and generally inaccurate shot.

Besides a bush league sound system, the PAC, unlike other venues around the country -- even the Fox Cities PAC in Appleton (a nice facility, by the way) -- offered no traffic control and there was a huge traffic bottleneck in which it literally took almost a half-hour to travel one block and into the parking garage where only one employee was manning the entrance gate.  Adding injury to insult -- almost literally -- was the icy conditions in the ramp making it difficult for patrons to safely (and efficiently) walk from their cars.

This smacks of community indifference and poor management.  If you want people to come to the PAC then you need to make it inviting and efficient to do so.  We patronize theater venues around the country and most today are pretty attentive to this.  Sadly, Milwaukee isn't.  Again, no excuse.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Leaving at 4:00 a.m. for the Smokies...need to get away for a long weekend.

Partisanship vs. Public Safety: Assembly Republicans Ignore Crime Victims

Buried in this week's chaos report from Madison is the demand from Gregory Gracz -- Governor Walker's hand-picked employment relations secretary who was once the focus of a sexual harassment controversy -- that Wisconsin prosecutors take six additional furlough days before the end of June, a move that violates the state's contract with the Association of State Prosecutors which caps furlough days at five per year and, if carried out, would wreak havoc on the state's already understaffed district attorney offices.

Assistant district attorneys took ten furlough days in the past two years but refused state demands, beginning with former Gov. Jim Doyle, to take the additional six days, pointing out that the they were the only employees who were furloughed in 2003 after which the state agreed to place a cap on furlough days.  In addition, the state's own figures show the state is short well over 100 prosecutor positions and young prosecutors often work side jobs due to low pay.  Further, unlike state public defenders who can farm out some of their work, prosecutors have no limit on the number of assigned cases.

Gracz has threatened to cut prosecutors to 80% part-time status, another contract violation, if they don't cave in to the state's demands.  He fears that if the prosecutors don't take the additional furlough days other state unions with "me too" clauses in their contracts could demand payment for six furlough days, costing the state an estimated $11 million, Gracz said.

Assemblyman John Steinbrink (D-Pleasant Prairie) authored a nonbinding resolution which reads: "Resolved by the assembly, That the governor, the secretary of administration, and the director of the office of state employment relations cease and desist all actions relating to requiring unpaid leaves of absence or reducing the FTE status for any state employee who is an assistant district attorney for the remainder of the 20102011 fiscal year."

Steinbrink accurately pointed out that even with current staff shortages and furloughs Wisconsin cititizens who have been victims of nonviolent crimes have had to wait to have their cases charged or in some instances no charges have been filed.

Assemblyman Robin Vos (R-Burlington), co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, aptly noted that in the last session the Democratic majority ignored pleas from district attorneys that the furloughs would devastate their offices. 

Vos is mostly correct except that Steinbrink and Senator Robert Wirch (D-Pleasant Prairie) tried to tack on a $5 surcharge on some traffic fines to resolve the problem but party leaders sat on the bill until it died.

Still Vos, who argued in favor of the prosecutors last year, did a turnabout when, if he was correct that political posturing was the only motivation for Democrats, he could have called the bluff and supported the nonbinding resolution.  In brief, he had an opportunity to rise above it and didn't. The Republican controlled assembly this afternoon refused to even take up the resolution on a 39-56 vote with only one Republican, Jeremy Thiesfeldt, bucking the party line. 

Over 50,000 visits!


(Now only if I accomplished something!)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Heading to the Smokies this weekend!

Doofus Democrats and Rectal Republicans

With the drama queens in our state capitol captivating the nation's attention it's been easy to do two things: (1) focus on the Republicans in Madison because, well, they simply suffer from so much rectal-cranial inversion that they're hard to ignore and (2) forget what's happening in Washington, such as the audacity of Barack Obama to seek another term as our president.  I mean, folks, we thought there couldn't be anyone as inept as George W. Bush.  What we proved is that P.T. Barnum was right.

On a winter's day in December 2007 I was visiting a friend in an Iowa nursing home just before the Iowa caucuses would kick off the presidential campaign season.  Iowans are not afraid to share their opinions with you and these old folks were true to form except that the typical support for the GOP in those parts wasn't even on the radar.  It's the economy that bothered them and there was a feeling among these elder WASP's that there really was a need for change and Obama should be given a chance.

Let's remember that George W. Bush wasn't exactly a rocket scientist but 2004 was his year.  After all, we were at war and in the post-9/11 United States there was no inclination to change commanders.  Of course the Democrats didn't help matters.  Instead of the best and the brightest they gave us John Kerry, a man with virtually no accomplishments in his two decades in the United States Senate.  In short, they gave us a candidate more inept than Bush.

The 2008 presidential election was supposed to be a wake up call from America to Washington: fix the economy and get out of this war. The buzz saw that cut down the GOP was dramatic.  You'd think the Democrats would have figured out that this was 1992 all over again when daddy Bush got the boot because he was insensitive about the economy.

So Barack Obama came on the scene full of a mandate for hope and change but, in the end, we have little hope and any change was for the worse.  We're still in a war.  American troops are still dying in the Mideast.  Our economy has yet to recover.  And the voters, fed up with the fact the Democrats squandered their chance to fix things, went red and now the Republicans think they have a mandate for their ideology.

Wrong.  Only people who are inside the Beltway can't figure out that it's the economy, stupid.

With gas prices shooting over $4 per gallon, our incompetent president has been sitting on his hands and his few supporters have been trying to defect any blame, saying it's the speculators. 

Well, in part, they have a point.  In part.  Prices shot up due to instability in the middle east where, guess what, we still have troops on the ground.  Where is the outrage against the Obama team for not bringing our troops home and getting us mired deeper into an unwinnable war against an enemy that doesn't care?

In short, Obama failed us, just as Bush did.  But George W. never promised hope and change.

The sad part is that there is really nobody on the bubble up to the challenge of fixing things and the voices of reason and common sense have all but been silenced.  But for all his ineptness and indifference, Obama may in the end have little to worry about -- especially if the Republicans put up Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann against him.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

And now, back to politics in Fitzwalkerstan...

Time for a brief diversion from politics

Shenandoah National Park, VA

Wisconsin's new tourism slogan: FORGET BARABOO. THE REAL CIRCUS IS IN MADISON.

I never thought any of the successors beat "ESCAPE TO WISCONSIN" but feel free to add your picks for our new state tourism slogan below.

Wisconsin Politics: Come Smell Our Dairy Air (Or where is Fighting Bob when we really need him?)

Wisconsin's new tourism chief, Stephanie Klett, says the state is looking for a new tourism motto.  After all, the way things are going in Madison you're certainly no longer among friends and given our perennial budget crisis, we can no longer afford to live like we mean it when life isn't so good.  In fact, the political and economic chaos, rather than enhancing our state's image, leaves a lot of folks wondering if we should escape Wisconsin.

All puns aside -- at least for the moment -- we all ought to be concerned about how the shenanigans in Madison hurt our state's image.  Being open for business doesn't necessarily mean business will come -- or stay -- here.  Removing about $380 million a year in purchasing power from state employees will hardly create jobs or turn money around in local economies -- and that's just state employees.  When de facto pay cuts hit local workers and teachers the economic hit will likely be a mini tusnami with no appreciable benefit to most taxpayers, especially the middle class.

To be fair, this didn't start with Scott Walker but our rookie governor makes a bull in a china shop look docile.  And while it's easy to bang up on legislative Republicans, we must remember than when Democrats were in the majority under Jim Doyle the legislature's poo-bahs asserted virtually no independence from another of the finest governors that money can buy.  It's been a slippery political slope for the past two decades and Walker and his Republican bobbleheads only attract the lightning rod -- or the mindless praise -- because of the ultraextremism which has taken partisanship to a new low in our state. 

It's kind of like the fall elk rut.  The male wapiti are so preoccupied with banging up on each other that it's impossible for them to see the big picture.  Unlike the elk, however, partisan legislators these days no longer hang out with the colleagues they bashed during the political rut.  In short, rather then playing the role, they've let the role play them.

This is serious stuff.  A lot of day to day governance -- the nuts and bolts stuff -- got done because politicians would sit down and dine and drink with each other -- a rarity today.  A month or so ago I was with Michigan's Levin brothers -- Senator Carl and Congressman Sandy, both old-school liberals -- and we got to talking about the demise of personal relationships among elected officials and ultraextreme hardball politics.  They pointed out that the gridlock today can be traced to blind "oneupsmanship" than is becoming more the rule than the exception.

If we want Wisconsin open for business we must realize that business wants more than just a favorable tax climate.  People with money to spend is one plus -- and happier people even better.  Responsible collaborative labor peace is gold.  Labor instability is quicksand.  A solid, well-maintained infrastructure is likewise essential but the day to day governance and keeping the ship afloat is taking a back seat to the political shockwaves coming from the state capitol.

What's the solution?  Democrats will say return them to power but they had a shot and failed to adequately address our state's problems.  The proclaimed concern for Wisconsin's working men and women and the dignity of our political process is just that -- proclaimed -- but the reality is that the mark of a great politician is the ability to conceal envy when accusing an opponent of screwing the public.

Perhaps the solution for what ails Wisconsin now is going back to the future.  The "Fighting Bob" La Follette Progressive party -- perceived now as a liberal faction -- was actually spun off of the Republican party in Wisconsin.  A responsible significant third party in Madison and Washington may provide the balance that we critically need -- a watchdog over the extremism of the far left and far fight.  Perhaps now more than ever if we can't get the two major parties moving toward the center we need a buffer between them. 

Time is running out.  If we can't restore sanity to the state house then perhaps there's no reason for us to stay a little longer because the "dairy air" of Wisconsin politics will have become an irreversible noxious stench.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Fixing Wisconsin's Economy: No Quick Fix, But Possible

Rookie Gov. Scott Walker likes to tout his mantra that "Wisconsin is open for business."  But talk is cheap.

Unfortunately, almost everything the neophyte governor and his cronies have attempted isn't the type of governance that leads to the stable soil for growing good jobs and Wisconsin's economy, according to Chandley McKelvey, a former Wisconsin development secretary, who wrote that a demoralized workforce and an image of political instability doesn't attract the right attention to Wisconsin.  Add to that Walker's efforts to undermine the University of Wisconsin system and it's hard to find a blueprint to grow out economy for long term prosperity. 

The truth is no fix is quick but the result of a deliberate process. Toward the end an educated, stable and prosperous workforce is an asset, not a liability. 

For far too long Wisconsin has sought to cling onto a manufacturing based economy as manufacturing jobs have been drying up around the country.   Yet we have great educational tools at our disposal  but have failed to maximize the possibilities that our educational system should be a partner, not an outsider, in pursuing economic growth,

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Add Waukesha County SNAFU to Wisconsin's dysfunctional politics

It didn't take long for the political wagons to circle and volleys to be fired after Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus' stunning disclosure that she miscued on election night and didn't include 14,000+ City of Brookfield votes in her tally -- and then when she discovered her error she sat on it for more than a day before making a public disclosure.

Of course, Nickolaus, a former Republican legislative staffer, is no stranger to controversy herself.  Her office's antiquated computer system was rapped before the current debacle by the county's IT honchos but she refused their offer to update and secure her system.  In 2006 she miscued again and called the wrong winner in a Republican primary race for state assembly.  Before that she had to be given immunity from prosecution to testify about political hijinks in the Republican caucuses at the state capitol including using state employees to work on political campaigns on state time.

Suffice to say that Nickolaus herself is a polarizing force and her conduct here, even if legitimate, will be skewed by her past history as well as the political tsunami surrounding not only David Prosser's bid to keep his seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court but the conduct of rookie Gov. Scott Walker and his legislative cronies.

With a recount in the race between Prosser and challenger Joanne Kloppenburg on the horizon it didn't take long for the Republican and Democratic parties to hire big gun law firms to duke out the recount process in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan race. 

Then after Nickolaus' shenanigans Congressman Tammy Baldwin from Madison wrote Attorney General Eric Holder asking for a federal investigation of the missing Brookfield vote tally, mirroring the editorial position of The Capital Times.

Meanwhile, pundits on the right are willing to accept Nickolaus' tardy mea culpa explanation of human error which, to be frank, may be accurate but her past track record and the political firestorm surrounding this election raise enough suspicion that an independent review is justified.

Earlier the suggestion was made here that the proper forum for this inquiry is to convene a grand jury in Waukesha County.  That's still a good idea and a far better one than bringing in federal investigators.  Maybe that will be necessary at some point but the good citizens of Waukesha County ought to have a crack at investigating and cleaning up their own mess.

That may not be easy.  District Attorney Brad Schimel is likely busy these days figuring out how to cope with Walker's bombshell threat to cut prosecutors to part-time (80%) status even though the state's own figures show that almost every district attorney's office is understaffed.  And don't look for Walker buddy J.B. Van Hollen, the state attorney general, to do anything.

The failure of Schimel and/or Van Hollen to act may delay and obfuscate a much needed open and transparent investigation of what happened in Waukesha County.  Time is of the essence.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Updated: Grand Jury Necessary To Ensure Electoral Integrity

The grand jury is commonplace in many states but a rarity in Wisconsin because it's rarely needed. 

Unlike grand jury states our prosecutors can directly file charges and, if a secret proceeding and/or compelled testimony is needed to investigate a crime, a judge may hold a "John Doe" proceeding -- essentially a one-man grand jury with almost all of a grand jury's authority. But the grand jury law is still on the books in Wisconsin and there's a time and place for convening one. 

Now is the time.  Waukesha County is the place.  The reason is because the people of Wisconsin -- especially the citizens of Waukesha County -- need to be assured that the electoral process is fair, accurate and free of taint.

I have been intimately involved with the election process for more than forty years both in Wisconsin and elsewhere.  Despite the political rancor which permeates many election campaigns, the fact is that the thousands of election workers and clerks, regardless of their own political beliefs, are uniformly passionate and committed to ensuring that elections will be fair and square and everyone's vote will be counted.  I have undying respect and gratitude for them -- and so should you.

Yes, these folks are only human and they do make mistakes.  That's why there's an official canvass after the results are initially tabulated.  That's why recounts can be had.  It's certainly possible to transpose numbers or mistake a "2" or a "3" for "5." 

And there are system failures.  After the controversial 2000 presidential election where Florida's punch card voting system and it's proverbial "hanging chads" came under fire Nancy Principe, who had been Kenosha County Clerk, told me that she got rid of punch card voting because it was difficult to count those ballots more than once and come up with the same results.

This brings us to Waukesha County where Kathy Nickolaus, the county clerk, dropped a bombshell that 14,000 votes in the City of Brookfield weren't counted Tuesday.  14,000.  That's not tranposing a number of mistaking a "2" or "3" for a "5." 

Nickolaus said that she failed to save in her computer and consequently report 14,315 votes cast in the city of Brookfield, omitting them entirely in an unofficial tally released after Tuesday's election. The new totals give 10,859 more votes to incumbent Supreme Court Justice David Prosser from Brookfield and 3,456 more to challenger Joanne Kloppenburg. Smaller discrepancies turned up in two other communities as well.

A tearful Nickolaus told reporters that it was human error for which she accepts responsibility.  I tend to believe her.  You'd have to be awfully diabolical to conjure up a scheme like this.  

Nonetheless, a boner like this is bad even without evil intent and circumstances surrounding Nickolaus and her office suggest that a lot of folks won't be comfortable taking her word for it.  After all, she's the Republican county clerk in a heavily Republican county in which the bulk of the missing votes favor a former Republican legislator who yesterday was trailing by 204 votes.

Apart from that, Nickolaus has been under fire in her own county.  While she said the problem had nothing to do with her election system, which has been criticized as outdated, her election operation was the subject of a county audit last year after complaints that she was not cooperative with information technology specialists who wanted to check the system's integrity and backup.

The audit found that while the clerk's system generally complies with state and federal guidelines and accuracy of election totals was not at issue, Nickolaus should improve security and backup procedures.  Not among the audit recommendations was Nickolaus' decision to no longer report municipal election results separately on election night, as most other county clerks do. Nor does she show in the running totals throughout election night what proportion of the voting units are included in the tallies.  Had municipal results also been on her web site, the error might have been caught sooner.

Then there's what happened in 2006.  Christine Lufter, who lost a Republican primary in the 97th Assembly District, was originally shown by Nickolaus to be the winner.

Computer monitors at the county clerk's office showed Lufter winning her race, as county officials scrambled to correct flawed returns from the City of Waukesha.  Final results later showed Lufter losing to fellow Republican Bill Kramer by a significant margin.

Nickolaus said some returns from the City of Waukesha inexplicably had data recorded in the wrong column, which momentarily skewed results.

Nickolaus and her staff resorted to correcting the city's results manually -- a process that continued until 1 a.m., with staffers poring over a blizzard of numbers on computerized printouts.

"The best thing to do is go back to paper," Nickolaus said of the tedious process. "And that's exactly what we did."
Then there's the aura of partisanship. 

For 13 years Nickolaus worked for the Assembly Republican caucus, one of four partisan legislative groups that were shut down following a criminal investigation into state staffers doing campaign work on state time.

The investigation eventually led to the resignations and criminal convictions of leaders in the Senate and Assembly for directing caucus and staff employees to engage in illegal political activity during their state employment.  Nickolaus, a data analyst and computer specialist for Assembly Republicans, was granted immunity in 2001 by authorities conducting the investigation.

So, while Nickolaus may be right -- in fact, she probably is right -- that this was a massive human mistake, the public interest in ensuring a fair, accurate and competent election remains, particularily amidst the backdrop of questionable practices in her own office.  We need to do more than take her word for it.  Plus we need to make sure than reasonable measures are taken to ensure that it doesn't happen again.

A grand jury is necessary here not to go on a witch hunt or to order Nicklaus' head on a silver platter.  To the contrary, the grand jury isn't just a prosecutor and a judge where the opinions of two lawyers guide the course of the proceedings.  The grand jury is made up of Waukesha County citizens and with safety in numbers insulates the review process from potential accusations of collusion.

As a veteran public official Nickolaus should welcome the scrutiny.  She should realize that her constituents, the candidates and the people of the entire state have a stake in ensuring the integrity of our elections.  Toward that end the grand jury process should be open and transparent.

This is something much larger than whether Prosser or Kloppenburg wins.  In fact, the candidates should equally welcome such an investigation because not to have one would mean that the winner will take office under a cloud of a potentially suspicious election instead of the light of a free, fair and competent electoral process.

A hat tip to my nephew Brian for the additional information about the 2006 incident.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

This is what democracy looks like!

At 11:45 this morning the epicenter of Wisconsin politics was, for a moment, the Town of Lake Mills in Jefferson County, the lone precinct not reporting votes in the nip and tuck battle by Justice David Prosser to keep his seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

An hour later the vote tally was completed and Prosser gained a net two votes which left challenger Joanne Kloppenburg, a relatively unknown veteran environmental prosecutor, with an unofficial 204 vote margin of victory in the hotly contested race.

It was a battle in which more than $3 million in special interest money was poured to promote one side or the other in what otherwise would have been a battle between two rather lackluster personalities but for it becoming a surrogate referendum on the administration of rookie Gov. Scott Walker.

The attack ads, robot phone calls, mass mailings and what have you brought a strong turnout for what is usually a mundane off-year spring election day.  And it also brought some interesting results.

Kloppenburg trounced Prosser in Dane County, as expected, and he returned the compliment in Waukesha, Walworth, Washington and Ozaukee Counties.  Racine and Kenosha pretty much cancelled each other out.  Milwaukee went for Kloppenburg but the Fox Valley and most of northeastern and north central Wisconsin tipped in Prosser's favor.

All of this led to the nail biting exercise of waiting for stray unreported votes to come in from western Wisconsin.  The La Crosse area was strongly for Kloppenburg.  Then came Eau Claire, Chippewa and Dunn Counties which helped the previously little known Kloppenburg squeak past Prosser by 206 votes.  And then it was down to the Town of Lake Mills which had some ballot issues the night before. 

The major news media outlets stumbled trying to locate the missing vote tallies but just before seven this morning the weekly Lake Mills Leader reported on its website that 24 paper ballots needed to be counted and that would happen at 8:30 a.m.  The major media outlets missed this.

A funny thing happened at 8:30 a.m.  A quorum of canvassers wasn't rounded up so the tally was postponed until 11:45 a.m. with a proper notice of at least two hours given.  This, too, was dutifully reported by the little Lake Mills Leader.

As Wisconsin waited for news as to whether Prosser could regain his lead and win reelection the major media outlets continued to chug along in blissful ignorance until about an hour before the adjourned canvass when they scrambled to find and get to the town hall.

And so it went.  Under the watchful eyes of television cameras and hot lights the canvass plodded along for an hour before it was over.  Dutifully at 12:58 p.m. the Lake Mills Leader updated its website with the Town of Lake Mills vote and, for an hour or so, the little weekly "scooped" the rest of the state with the news.

All the millions of dollars of special interest ad money, all the hype and noise of what passes for news reporting these days and all the anxiety surrounding this important political battle was reduced to a small room in a small town hall in rural Jefferson County dutifully, accurately and competently reported to the people of Wisconsin by the Lake Mills Leader. 

As it should be.

Back in the 2000 presidential election one of the major party boffos was blowing steam about how demeaning it was that they had to spend time at city halls in Florida while votes were tallied.  "What is this?  A city council election?" was the arrogant salvo that made me smile.

No, it wasn't a city council election.  It was American democracy reduced to its humble, basic level.  Instead of a moment of shame, it was a proud observation that the high and mighty were made to cool their heels while local folks went through the process of trying to ensure that everyone's vote was counted.

As it should be.

For all the foulness of this election the sweetest breath of fresh air came for a brief moment at the Town of Lake Mills town hall where the high and mighty had to cool their heels and all the fancy expensive satellite trucks owned by well-heeled media conglomerates were upstaged by a little weekly newspaper.

This is what democracy looks like.

Are you better off than you were four years ago?

As Barack Obama announces his bid for reelection next year and Republicans stuggle to find the equally most extreme candidate to alienate middle America, it's time to ask ourselves what Ronald Reagan suggested that we ask: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

Well, fair question.  We're still seeing American men and women killed in the line of military duty and the National Guard on the front lines due to the lack of an indequately staffed regular armed forces.  Our troops aren't back home and we're still meddling in the affairs of other nations. 

Then there's the economy.  Although there's a smidgen of light the fact is that too many people are out of work, too many people are working harder for less, too many jobs have been exported overseas and prices continue to go up -- especially groceries and gasoline.

I think I'll stop there because the rest would simply be piling on.  Ronald Reagan once quipped when gasoline dipped below a buck a gallon, "Isn't it nice to see the gallons add up faster than the dollars."

Obama and his crew didn't fix our foreign policy or our economy.  About the only hope we'll have for change is a few coins in our pocket after filling up the gas tank.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Cubs Win! Cubs Win! What if the Cubbies really did win the World Series?

It's April Fool's Day and since the Kenosha News abandoned its popular front page April Fool's spoof maybe we could think of one of our own.

How about the Cubs winning the World Series?

How powerful would that be?  So powerful that even in a city where "the fix is in" can usually dictate the outcome of things, the one place where it never worked is at Wrigley Field. 

Oh, the Cubbies came close -- like the 2007 and 2008 National League Division Championships -- but what if they took the whole enchilada?  After all, the last time the Cubs played in the World Series was 1908.

I think not.

The Cubs are popular as one of "America's teams" because they are the perennial underdogs, even with stellar players like Ernie Banks, Sammy Sosa, Ron Santo, Rick Sutcliffe and that Sandberg guy.

They play in a small park in which nothing's fancy -- that's the way Bleacher Bums like it -- and parking is a joke. 

But it's also the place where the class acts like Banks and Santo and the loyal crowds spurred on by Jack "Hey! Hey!" Brickhouse and Harry "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" Caray had fun regardless of the final score.

A Cubs World Series appearance -- and hopefully a victory -- might change all that.  Maybe success would go to their heads and the "friendly confines" would become not so friendly.  Maybe one of the last vestiges of real major league baseball would begin its ultimate decline.

It would be like the coyote ultimately catching the roadrunner or Elmer actually shooting Bugs Bunny.  It could very well be the demise of one of "America's teams."

Maybe a Cubs World Series victory would be the worst thing that could happen.  Just maybe.

But there's absolutely nothing wrong with Cubs fans dreaming the impossible dream.

And there's always next year.