Mike Ellis, RIP

Posted April 14, 2014 by meisen
Categories: Politics, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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State Sen. Mike Ellis’ 44-year career in state government ended in ignominy. Surreptitiously videotaped  in a barroom plotting to engage in the sort of illegal campaign tactics he once righteously denounced, the Neenah Republican saw the handwriting on the wall and meekly announced he wouldn’t seek his umpteenth re-election.

What a sad story. Ellis was a walking contradiction–simultaneously brilliant and crazy, both full of himself yet paralyzed by a fear of risk. In the end, Ellis showed himself to be another clueless politician who stayed too long at the fair. He was out of touch with the monochrome conservatism that rules the GOP these days, but lacked the guts to challenge its policies.

In January 2006, I wrote: “He could have been a contender. Instead he is a footnote.” I’ll stick by that assessment. That comment from eight years ago followed Ellis’ announcement that he would not challenge Jim Doyle, the incumbent Democratic  governor. The original links to two old Isthmus columns have been lost. But here’s part of what I said in June 2005, when I naively argued Ellis was well positioned to run an insurgent campaign for governor:

To talk politics with Mike Ellis, 64, is to talk substance, not tactics and wedge issues. He has a sweeping unified view of how Wisconsin has spun off the tracks and smashed into the wall -– and, more important, how it might yet regain its status as a leader among states.

Though he calls himself pro-life, Ellis ignores the familiar “guns, gays, God and feeding tubes” spiel of the GOP True Believers. Instead, he talks about Wisconsin’s unending fiscal crisis.

“We’re perpetually in hock,” he moans, noting that governors and lawmakers have cooked the books to balance the last six straight biennial budgets. “The papering over of the biennial budget deficit immediately throws the next budget into the red, so we can never do any serious reform because we don’t have the resources.”

Blame the pols, says Ellis. They’ve mortgaged their souls to the special interests who finance their campaigns. Doyle and the Democrats dance to the teachers’ union tune, while the Republicans take their cues from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

“We need to get the special interests out of the game,” Ellis says. “We need to use public money to fund elections. If we did that, the Legislature could break free from the tentacles of the special-interest groups. Then we could solve problem number one: bad budgeting.”

Now Ellis is warmed up, laughing and cracking jokes to his aides, looking Elvis-like beneath his sunglasses (a youthful swimming accident overexposed him to chlorine and makes him sensitive to bright lights).

Zeroing in on integrity issues, Ellis wants to merge the state’s election and ethics boards (“two toothless giants,” he sniffs), strengthen their powers, and let them root out trouble. “Legislators need to be afraid of something,” he says.

Then Ellis comes to the heavy lifting — restructuring school aid and local government finance. This is a policy area that typically sends lawmakers heading for the exits. This stuff is too hard, too complicated, too freighted with political dangers for the sound-bite rhetoric of the legislative leadership.

But Ellis is in his element. Long ago he was a teacher, and he delights in the exposition as he sketches out his Equity in Education Act, which would create a statewide levy to finance K-12 education, with add-ons for certain kinds of students and a facilities building commission reviewing capital projects.

“A kid in Crandon should get as good an education as a kid in a property-rich district like Neenah and Madison,” Ellis declares.

When it comes to shared revenue, Ellis would dump the current system and give local governments more latitude to decide what taxes to impose and services to provide. Real poor communities, he adds, would continue to get state aid.

Suddenly, Ellis looks up. “Jesus, I got a platform!” he exclaims, winking at staffers Mike Boerger and Kurt Schultz. “Where do I get the yard signs? I just came up with more goddamn good ideas than you’re going to hear out of Walker, Doyle — what’s that other guy’s name? — yeah, Green, him too.”

The full column can be found on the WisPolitics.com archive: http://wisopinion.com/index.iml?mdl=article.mdl&article=2158

In January 2006, I wrote a web post for The Daily Page (the Isthmus website), commenting on Ellis’ decision to not challenge Doyle. Here it is in its entirety:

Mike Ellis: No guts, no glory

Big surprise.

State Sen. Mike Ellis, the Neenah Republican, said last week he wouldn’t run for governor next fall.

Too expensive, he told the Appleton Post-Crescent. He needed at least $9 million to take on U.S. Rep. Mark Green and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker for the GOP nomination.

But the real reason is more mundane. Mike Ellis (umm, how to put this politely) is a big wuss. He lacks (umm, how to put this politely) the guts to put his principles to the test. Instead the veteran lawmaker, 64, will probably seek another four-year term in the Senate, which puts him in line for an AARP commendation, a free cup of Sanka, and increasing irrelevance.

Look at it this way: Ellis has already served almost 24 years in the Senate. What possible attraction, other than force of habit, does four more years provide? The guy has chosen to give up his shot at greatness

It’s a real shame. On paper, Ellis is darn near the perfect gubernatorial candidate, someone who could pick off the legions of Democrats disgusted with Gov. Jim Doyle’s lack of leadership and the legions of Republicans horrified over their party’s descent into the cloud cuckooland of rightwing politics.

Old-timers at the Capitol will tell you that Ellis is the smartest lawmaker around. School finance, local government finance, criminal justice and more—Ellis can rattle off detailed plans that would spin the heads of Walker and Green.

Campaign finance reform, of course, is Ellis’ signature issue. For years, he’s been aligned with the good-government types, trying to lessen the steely grip of special interests on the machinery of state government. The recent convictions in the Capitol corruption investigation only highlight the need for a let’s-clean-up-the-mess candidacy that Ellis alone could run.

You would have thought that Ellis would have jumped into this mile-wide opening. But no, he claims he couldn’t raise the money for a statewide run. Oh, baloney. That’s a fig leaf for his wussiness. Time and again, Ellis has failed to reach out statewide, and across party lines, to build a reform coalition.

He could have been a contender.

Instead, he’s a footnote.

Nothing changed in the next eight years. Play Taps for his demise.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Would Dig This

Posted March 8, 2014 by meisen
Categories: Divertissement, Education, Tech, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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The tech world’s hard split between information technology  and biotechnology is perplexing.  Despite their kindred values, these really smart people seem to live in parallel universes.  I found myself puzzling over this last year while attending the International Bioethics Forum sponsored by Promega’s  educational institute. Despite a stirling assemblage of speakers on the nature of creativity, none of those brainy ITers seemed to be present.

Perhaps this year’s topic at the forum will draw some venturesome folks from the software world. Here’s how Promega founder Bill Linton describes this year’s convocation:

When we recently talked, Linton explained that the annual forum always picked topics — What is the nature of life? What is the nature of death? — in which the answers weren’t settled. “Sometimes people would leave with more questions than they came in with,” he says with a laugh.

This year’s forum — “3.8 Billion Years of Wisdom: Exploring the Genius of Nature” — promises more of the same. Nothing conventional, but an examination of the “many beautiful examples of life forms accessing information that we simply cannot explain, but call ‘instinct,’” as the promo material says. It runs May 1-2 on the Promega campus.

This is the fifth year the forum has burrowed into consciousness. “There are different points of view of consciousness in nature and taking it a step further — not just of consciousness, but also of intelligence. Does the very embodiment of matter, particularly as expressed in life forms, exhibit a form of intelligence that doesn’t quite fit the human definition of IQ?” Linton asks.

“Nature seems to have evolved with the ability to combine intricate, amazing complexity in ways that are astounding and that we don’t understand,” he adds. The great controversy, he continues, is whether evolution is a blind, random process that sometimes produces advantageous mutations. “Or is there something else happening that is not totally blind randomness?”

This question certainly stopped me in my tracks.

Linton points to the statistical unlikelihood of a light-sensitive organ like the eye evolving in nature eight or nine times from completely different origins. “The fact is, it seems like nature wants to enhance its ability to take in sensory information, and then do things with that information. Some people say that the nature of the universe is trying to find a way to ask the questions: Who are we? What’s out there? Why do we exist?

“In a way, when we ask those questions, it’s nature [expressing] itself, because we are a product of this natural process. That’s pretty amazing for nature to have brought in this element of consciousness.”

The forum runs May 1-2 on the Promega campus in Fitchburg. To read more, please go here.

An Economy for the 21st Century

Posted February 26, 2014 by meisen
Categories: Development, Tech, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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The past few years almost all of my writing has focused on documenting the rise of Dane County’s technology industry. This cover story for Isthmus begins:

This is the big question: How far can Dane County ride Epic’s success?

Done right, we’re talking about the foundation for Dane County’s 21st-century economy being built on the medical software industry: lots of good-paying information technology jobs that fuel an expanding housing market, a glittering downtown with hip restaurants and music clubs, a rising tax base to fund new community services and a lot more resources to deal with the serious problems of poverty.

Call it the “Epiconomy.” Madison advertising executive Andy Wallman, who coined the name, should trademark it. “Epiconomy” nails the fact that Epic now drives the Madison area’s prosperity.

Founded in 1979 by its mastermind Judith Faulkner, Epic Systems Corp.is the world leader in the burgeoning health-care software market. The privately owned Epic has 6,800 employees at its Disney-like headquarters in Verona and recorded $1.66 billion in sales in 2013. The company is renowned — notorious, say its critics — for hiring only the smartest young people and working them hard. Salaries for these twentysomethings range from an estimated $60,000 to $100,000 a year.

More are coming. Lots more.

“They could have as many as 10,000 employees by 2018,” says Madison planning chief Steven Cover, who was among top city officials briefed by Epic’s chief administrative officer Steve Dickmann in mid-January. (The media-shy company declined to be interviewed for this story.) Epic expects to add 800 positions a year for the next four or five years, Cover notes.

“They have an international operation that is growing very quickly. This will fuel their continued growth,” he says.

As heartening as that message is, the good news doesn’t stop there. Epic will continue to run its worldwide operation out of its nearly 1,000-acre Verona complex.

“There won’t be a European headquarters,” says Cover. “Their international operation will be staffed and operated from here.”

It’s big news that Epic will not decentralize its operation with regional headquarters. But for Dane County, the even larger payoff hinges on the answer to that opening question: Will Epic’s success give birth to an even larger health industry?

To read more, please go here.

I’ve written on Epic over the years.

For my 2002 story on how Epic wound up in Verona, please go here. You’ll see that back then the campus was valued at only $45  million.

Here’s another story from 2002 that describes how real estate speculators cashed in when they sold Epic the land for its new campus.

This cover  story from 2008 cited Epic as an example of “green sprawl”.

Here is a timeline up to 2008 that details Epic’s growth over the years.

This column from 2010 details how strikingly ignorant city leaders were when they lost Epic to Verona.

And here a mayoral candidate Paul Soglin talks about his Epic regret .

John Kinsman Remembered

Posted January 22, 2014 by meisen
Categories: The Progressive, Uncategorized

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John Kinsman,  Wisconsin farmer and social justice advocate, died  yesterday (Jan. 20, 2014), at the age of 87. In my life in journalism, he  ranks with Jim Graaskamp, the great UW-Madison  professor, as the person I’ve admired the most. John was a classic Wisconsin progressive. He battled for the rights of the weak and the dispossessed all his life, sometimes traveling to the far ends of the world. Somehow he also managed to raise ten kids with his wife Jean,  and  run a small farm near Lime Ridge in central Wisconsin.

Here’s what I wrote about John in a 2012 story in The Progressive Magazine:

On a winter afternoon, Kinsman is just another Wisconsin farmer as he walks his 150 acres. He and Jean bought the worn-out, rock-strewn farm in the early 1950s not far from where his parents farmed. An early run-in with chemical pesticides put Kinsman in the hospital and converted him to organic farming. He points to the results.

Here are the pastures on which he rotationally grazes his milking herd of thirty-six Holsteins, the forested hills where he’s planted, literally, tens of thousands of trees, and the stand of fruit trees and bushes he’s grown around his house. And that patch of cacti—the prickly pear—was no exotic transplant but a stubborn native remnant from a warmer geological age in Wisconsin. Sort of like Kinsman himself.

Kinsman is a fourth-generation Wisconsin family farmer. His grandmother Samantha, who died at the age of ninety-seven in 1944, saw General Ulysses S. Grant when he visited Sandusky, Wisconsin. His dad was a “dyed-in-the-wool Republican who would vote for a dog if he were a Republican,” he says with a laugh.

To read more, please go here.

Music Worth Hearing In 2013

Posted January 2, 2014 by meisen
Categories: Music

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I see a lot of music, and for the past eight years have written an annual  overview of my favorite shows for Isthmus’s online face, TheDailyPage.com. My musical interests cover the waterfront — jazz, country, opera, rock, classical, and weird experimental stuff. So 2013 found me reveling in  Leonard Cohen, Renee Fleming, Cyndi Lauper, Muhal Richard Abrams, Buddy Guy, Jeremy Denk, Jon Dee Graham,Tosca and a lot more.

Here’s one example:

A tribal storyteller
Jon Dee Graham & the Fighting Cocks, Kiki’s House of Righteous Music, July 6

I missed what I’m told was this Texas legend’s euphoric show at the Orton Park Festival this summer. But, here in his record ninth performance at Kiki’s intimate basement concert venue, Graham could not have been better. He is a slashing elemental guitarist who might as well have been forged in a Gary, Ind., steel furnace. But for all his storied ties to rock ‘n’ roll (he played in the True Believers with Alejandro Escovedo, recorded albums with John Doe and Exene Cervenka, and is a three-time member of the Austin Music Hall of Fame), Graham is something more important: a tribal storyteller. He gathers his listeners around the campfire to tell harrowing stories of danger and depravity and finally — this comes late in the night — songs of redemption and love. Yeah, we’re talking catharsis straight out of the old Greek playbook.

How he does this night after night is beyond me. Graham sings songs and tells anecdotes of divorce, drug abuse, mental collapse, car crashes, impoverishment and greasy music industry executives. Yet he ends with those songs of renewal and even innocence. I’ve seen Graham countless times over the years and have repeatedly written about him in these recaps. I can’t get enough of the guy. He gives travel tours of hellish places we all want to avoid but sometimes encounter.

You can read the story here.

Because of the design parameters of TheDailyPage.com, the sidebar was pasted  onto the main story. Here’s how that secondary story would read if it were presented on its own:

Here and there in 2013 music

Sometimes I stumbled into really sweet musical moments in 2013. After a night at the Madison Symphony (Nov. 15), I stopped for a nightcap at Tempest and found the under-appreciated singer Alison Margaret holding court with a little band that included piano stalwart Dave Stoler and a new-to-town flugelhorn player named Paul Dietrich, who’s definitely a cat to watch.

I met friends at Mickey’s and became the 2,384th person to discover its neat music scene. On this night (Nov. 13), Mali native Tani Diakite was leading a jam and playing his banjo-like kmele n’gone before a happy crowd. Following a Nov. 16 Milwaukee Symphony concert, I strolled late-night into Alchemy to find a packed house cheering on the last set of adventurous guitarist Fareed Haque. And what a pleasure to hear the world-class alto player Richie Cole (July 9) sitting in with Ben Sidran during Sidran’s summer salon at the Cardinal Bar.

All great stuff, for sure. But here’s the problem. None of these shows had a cover. Or even a prominent tip jar. That says something bad about Madison: We’re too cheap to pay even $5 to see a local band, even if it’s led by an international artist like Sidran. I’ve written before about this rinky-dink behavior. The good news is that the Madison Jazz Consortium has hired a program coordinator, bassist-about-town Nick Moran, to work with local musicians and venue managers to come up with steps to make a working musician’s life something better than a beggar’s existence.

From cabaret to hellbilly: Can you imagine a hellbilly like Hank Williams III meeting suave cabaret singer Steve Ross? Well, that’s not going to happen. But I thought of the speed-metal country scion when Ross encored with my favorite Cole Porter song: the sublime “Let’s Do It” (Nov. 21, Capitol Theater). The night was now complete for me just as it was when Hank3 (Oct. 30, Barrymore Theatre) sang the spookiest song in the canon of that other great American songwriter: Hank Williams. My ears ringing from the hellaciously loud sound mix, I packed up and left wondering how Hank3 processed the knowledge that his grandfather was dead in the backseat of his Cadillac one month after he released “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive.”

The Bebel Gilberto fiasco: Easily the most reviled show of the year was Brazilian singer Bebel Gilberto’s erratic performance at the Capitol Theater (Aug. 10). Who knows what her problem was? She talked too much, fiddled with her mic, wandered off the stage, and just didn’t maintain the flow. Just a quirky show? I don’t think so. I saw the same temperamental behavior on display last year at a New York club.

But here’s my bottom line: As damaging as this behavior is to her career, I’d pay money to see Gilberto tomorrow. And the day after tomorrow. She’s a great singer, capable of mesmerizing stagecraft and her smart updating of the classic bossa nova and samba sound with an electronic sheen is irresistible, even if she isn’t.

A lesson from Ben Sidran: Ten years late to the game, I finally read Ben Sidrans autobiography, A Life In The Music, and was mightily impressed at his insights into a musicians life and art. As a college rocker in the early ’60s, he writes, “I discovered the power of laying down a simple groove and watching people step out of themselves. It’s what happens when you take your heartbeat and project it into a room full of people. When you get into that hypnotic space, a lot of magic can happen.”

Oh yeah! This is the glory of the People Brothers Band. The eight-piece soul band led by exuberant singer Teresa Marie honored the groove at the Harmony Bar (Sept. 7). This joyous troupe had a big crowd up and dancing. The magic was happening. (The band returns to the Harmony on New Year’s Eve.)

In contrast, the indie group Wild Belle did not honor the groove at the High Noon Saloon in September. I was curious about the brother-sister team of Elliott and Natalie Bergman. Their music has a swaying reggae-afrobeat thing, and lead singer Natalie is a promising talent with beguiling traces of the cat-like Eartha Kitt in her voice. (Elliott led the band and was quite the figure: He looked like a medieval prince in a smoking jacket.) But, boy, their set never built any momentum. Each song seemed to clock in at 3 minutes and 45 seconds, followed by 60 seconds of puttering around on stage.

Disappointments: In the bummer column: The Surrounded By Reality collective, the presenter of so many provocative free jazz concerts in recent years, faded away, and the Wisconsin Union Theater, for so long the premier music presenter in Madison, retrenched and lowered its community profile. The ongoing renovation of the theater has prompted the UW venue’s noble series to retreat to smaller, less accessible spaces on campus instead of stepping up and booking, say, the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center. I understand there are financial issues in play. But was painful to see how small a crowd the great pianist Jeremy Denk drew to the shabby setting of Mills Hall. Even worse was the embarrassing failure to provide a raised stage for the Gerald Clayton Trio in the flat floor DeLuca Auditorium in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. (My email query on what happened was never answered.) Both concerts were among my favorites of the year, despite the staging.

Kudos for the Milwaukee Symphony: Finally, Im a subscriber to the Milwaukee Symphony and am gobsmacked by its excellence. No offense to the Brewers and Bucks, but the symphony is Milwaukee’s preeminent big-league institution. Here’s hoping that its recent financial retrenchment doesn’t damage programming. And more to the point, that the belt-tightening prompts Milwaukee’s deep-pocketed donors to step forward. The Milwaukee Symphony is a benchmark of Milwaukee’s greatness, and that struggling city needs to protect it.

One more thing…here are my previous roundups: 2012201120102009200820072006.

You Must Remember This

Posted December 6, 2013 by meisen
Categories: Tech, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus, Uncategorized

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In this story for Isthmus, I examine the Oct. 16, 2012, complaint issued by the federal Food and Drug Administration against the Madison manufacturer of a memory supplement  called Prevagen. The feds say that unverified claims have been made on behalf of the various Prevagen products, and  that makes them not supplements but “unapproved new drugs.”

The manufacturer, Quincy Biotechnology, has taken steps to deal with the FDA warning, but denies that its flagship product is being marketed as a drug. The FDA says that–14 months after the warning was issued–the case is still “open.” But Quincy President Mark Underwood reports that the regulators are satisfied that Quincy has resolved all problems.  No word from the FDA on that.

I write:

Today, Prevagen is available at more than 20,000 retail locations, including Walgreen’s and CVS drugstores, and it’s sold online as well. Inc. magazine says Quincy’s annual revenue has grown 234% from 2009 to 2012 — from $5.3 million to $17.8 million.

Graying baby boomers are driving the demand.

“People are desperate to believe in something, because they don’t want to get Alzheimer’s,” says Dr. Cynthia Carlsson, a UW-Madison Medical School geriatrician and memory researcher.

Underwood denies that Quincy is targeting Alzheimer’s patients. “There are five million Alzheimer’s patients, but there are 80 million baby boomers. As businesspersons, we’re much more interested in helping the 80 million baby boomers long before they have any diseases of dementia,” he says.

Alzheimer’s, however, is not a disease of age, according to Dr. Mark Sager, who is the principal investigator of the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention. This well-regarded longitudinal study of adult children of parents with Alzheimer’s is trying to detect the early markers of the disease.

“People think Alzheimer’s is a disease of aging,” he says. “But it’s a disease of a lifetime that only becomes evident in older adults.”

Sager says Alzheimer’s manifests itself for both genetic and environmental reasons, much as a person’s genetic propensity for heart disease can be exacerbated by smoking and lack of exercise.

“We find that diet, exercise and lifestyle — stress, for example — are all associated with Alzheimer’s,” says Sager. “If you’re overweight and don’t exercise in midlife, you have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s later on. “

Sager, who runs the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute, says it does not recommend taking Prevagen “primarily because there’s no evidence it does any good.” He suggests people worried about Alzheimer’s would be better off adopting the Mediterranean diet, which he says has proven benefits.

To read more, please go here.

Hearing Out The Tech Center Skeptics

Posted October 28, 2013 by meisen
Categories: Development, Tech, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

Tags: , , , , ,

StartingBlock Madison, the proposed tech home for an incubator/maker space/etc. could prove crucial in growing the downtown startup scene. That is, if it’s built and financed smartly. In this Isthmus column I look at  the arguments made by skeptics who question the $15-20 million it might cost to build the complex at the old Mautz paint factory site.

[Tech leader Matt Younkle  says:] “When you look at this kind of money, you have to ask how many startups could you invest in for that? You really have to start asking questions about the profits and cost of that kind of capital. I think the community could do this on a leaner basis.”

Joe Boucher, a tech industry attorney who chairs the city’s Economic Development Committee, worries about StartingBlock’s proposed location, which is a mile from the Capitol Square. That’s too far away to catch the downtown buzz the tech crowd likes, he feels.

“These kids want to be within two or three blocks of the Capitol for practical matters,” says Boucher. The Mautz site “is just a little too far away for 25-years-olds. I know it sounds crazy, but they don’t want to go out eight or 10 blocks — a mile out on East Wash.”

He adds: “If they don’t hit the sweet spot on location, they better hit the sweet spot on everything else — the quality of the building, the cost of the rent. That has to be perfect.”

Craig Stanley, a commercial real estate broker with Broadwing Advisors, shares Boucher’s concern. He can’t see why tech companies would lease market-rate space on East Wash for $18 per square foot when they could pay the same rate for space one block off the Square and be moments away from five cool restaurants.

Stanley says he likes the concept of StartingBlock, but adds, “I don’t see the demand to fill the space.” The veteran broker describes a very soft downtown office market with high vacancy rates. Overall it’s at 17.2%, but even higher at 21.2% for the class B space StartingBlock would offer, he notes.

To read more, including the rebuttals from project advocates, pls go here: http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=41227

And for an  update over the Mautz site negotiations, pls go here: http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=41243


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