Badger State (Still) Rising
By Charles Sykes
Well, that happened.
After a year in which Wisconsin’s conservative revolution seemed to gather momentum — from Gov. Scott Walker’s decisive reaffirmation in the June recall to the selection of Congressman Paul Ryan as the GOP vice presidential nominee — November’s election came as a harsh reality check: Wisconsin is still a decidedly purple state.
A mere two years earlier, Wisconsin had sent conservative Ron Johnson to the U.S. Senate. But then it turned around and paired him with Tammy Baldwin, one of the most liberal legislators outside of the steamy precincts of Madison. Voters who re-elected Walker in June dealt a stinging repudiation to GOP icon Tommy Thompson in November.
But all was not lost amid the rubble, and therein lies a paradox that is Wisconsin.
Even in the midst of defeat at the top of the ticket, conservatives found themselves still ascendant after the election. Walker not only remains governor, but voters gave him even stronger control of the state Legislature, ensuring continuing support for his agenda. In 2010, no state switched as decisively from blue to red as Wisconsin. Before the 2010 election, Democrats controlled the governorship, both houses of the Legislature and all the levers of power in state government. After that election, they controlled none. As a result, Walker was able to advance one of the boldest agendas of any governor in the country.
And now in 2012, as our own Christian Schneider noted in his column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the political landscape is “exactly where it was two years ago, when Republicans swept into office, Walker took on the state’s public employee unions and the state devolved into a Mad Max-style, futuristic, lawless wasteland. Over the past two years, we have been recalled and petitioned, Prossered and Koched, and ‘shamed’ and marched into submission.” In November, Republicans picked up a seat in the Assembly, giving them 60 votes in the 99-seat house. They gained two seats in the state Senate, where they now have an 18-15 majority.
So while other conservatives are licking their wounds, Walker finds himself empowered to continue to pursue the kind of conservative agenda that has already made him a national political figure.
How about some good news?
In October, a national survey on business climate ranked Wisconsin the 13th most attractive state in the country. The ranking, by Site Selection magazine, was yet another indication that attention was being paid to changes at the top in a state once known more for its high taxes than for its friendliness to business. (Michigan was 23rd, Iowa was 25th. Illinois and Minnesota failed to make the top 25.)
Something seems to work
And even as the candidates criss-crossed the land, breaking campaign spending records and filling the airwaves with attack ads, the state announced that because of unexpectedly good revenues, the Walker administration was able to deposit $108.7 million into the state’s rainy day fund. That marked the largest such deposit in state history. “Because of our actions,” remarked Walker, “the next generation will not be buried under a mountain of economically crippling debt.”
The move was unmarked either by drum circles or vuvuzelas.
Trouble in paradise I
In September, the owners of one of the oldest businesses in Madison’s Meadowood neighborhood announced that they were closing their hardware store. A newspaper account described them as “frustrated by plummeting sales over the past three years and a neighborhood plagued with gunfire and negative perceptions.”
Blogger David Blaska was blunter: “The hardware store is not leaving the Meadowood neighborhood. It has been driven out, victim of the societal version of Gresham’s law in which bad behavior drives out good. It is a tragic opera that has been played out in countless neighborhoods and classrooms since the Great Society. The fat lady is singing.”
Trouble in paradise II
This episode would seem to be a matter of some import for the city’s police, but Madison’s police chief had other preoccupations.
Chief Noble Wray was described as “contrite” as he apologized to a group of homeless people for the confiscation of belongings that they had left strewn about a Madison park. “From the bottom of my heart, on behalf of the Madison Police Department, I’m sorry that happened,” he explained to five aggrieved hobos.
Ticket to ride
Perhaps to assuage such bruised feelings, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin suggested that the city spend $50,000 to create “Madison: The Music Video!” The idea was to enhance the city’s image by having the video go viral on YouTube, thus reinforcing the city’s digital coolness.
Among Soglin’s other creative proposals was his suggestion that taxpayers pay $25,000 for bus tickets so that the homeless could go someplace else. “It’s not a vacation to Miami,” Soglin tried to explain to outraged Madisonistas. “It’s not getting a free ride when the snow piles up and the temperatures drop. It is not ‘Greyhound therapy.’ ” The program, which would provide one-way tickets out of town, would even have its own delightfully Orwellian name: Helping Hands Homeward.
Politicians with gavels
All of this would be amusing were it not for the fact that Dane County judges continue to hold the rest of the state hostage.
In September, yet another liberal judge ruled that the Walker collective bargaining reform was unconstitutional. “As Yogi Berra once said, ‘It’s déjà vu all over again,’ wrote legal scholar and WI columnist Rick Esenberg.
“The problem is that there is no constitutional right to collective bargaining. This is not my ‘right-wing’ opinion; it is black letter law, as [Judge Juan] Colas concedes. While there is a constitutional right for public employees to form associations and advocate for their common interest, Act 10 places no limitation on that right.
“This decision is unlikely to survive appeal. If it doesn’t, it won’t be because of politics. It will be because it is wrong.”
Even though the mass protests at the Capitol are now a distant memory, a small group of professional annoyers continued to ply their trade. One of the more notorious, named Jeremy Ryan (nicknamed “Segway boy” because he glides around on one), reportedly stood outside the Capitol pressroom singing the words, “Dick Wheeler’s dead.” The pressroom is named after Wheeler, the longtime dean of the Capitol press corps, who died last year. His daughter, Gwyn Guenther, worked in the pressroom until driven out by Ryan’s harassment.
A Capitol Police report noted that Guenther was upset that her fellow journalists would not file complaints against Ryan, apparently at the request of their editors. Despite such reticence and their refusal to run stories about the harassment, one reporter for the Associated Press told police, “If something is not done about the protestors inside the Capitol, someone is going to get hurt.”
The AP reporter, wrote the officer, “told me it may not be today, tomorrow or next month, but eventually someone is going to get hurt.”
In September, the new chief of the Capitol Police announced a crackdown on protestors, a move that was met with a chorus of criticism from the usual suspects.
As fall turns to winter, there are faint stirrings of interest in the next round of elections next spring, when control of the state Supreme Court will once again (again!) be in play. But that, as they say, is a matter (thankfully) for another season.
Charles J. Sykes is the editor of Wisconsin Interest. His new book is A Nation of Moochers: America’s Addiction to Getting Something for Nothing (St. Martin’s Press).