Archive for the ‘Milwaukee Magazine’ category

Why Milwaukee Needs Chicago

May 6, 2011

Modern markets don’t follow political boundaries…but politicians do. This  is a problem for Wisconsin in large and small ways. No more so than in  Wisconsin’s  war-like  competition with Illinois for economic development. I discuss the consequences in this column for Milwaukee Magazine:

In search of a better life, my parents decamped from Chicago in 1953 to 16 acres in rural Kenosha County near what is now I-94. I lived a happily hayseed childhood replete with a drafty old farmhouse, a barn, and a menagerie of farm animals and dogs.

My dad, who had been a two-fisted Maxwell Street saloon keeper, was not a gentleman farmer. He wound up working in a warehouse in Skokie, Ill., and commuted at breakneck speed for 25-plus years. (Thanks to a talismanic bumper sticker, “Police Deserve a Teamster Contract,” the cops let him fly by.)

Looking back, I can see that my parents were pioneers, part of that first wave of Windy City expats who moved north of the border but remained tethered to Chicago’s economy. Decades later, Kenosha County is counted in Chicago’s statistical metropolitan area; its biggest for-profit employer, tellingly, is Illinois’ Abbott Laboratories near Waukegan.

And not far from where I once fished for carp and bullhead in the Des Plaines River, the corn and cabbage fields are long gone, replaced by the LakeView Corporate Park. Its 75 companies employ 7,500 people and occupy 10 million square feet of warehouses and offices, according to LakeView’s president, Jerry Franke.

More than half of the companies relocated from Illinois.

“It’s all about transportation,” Franke says of the park’s I-94 location. “When we started here in 1988, LakeView was between two major urban areas [Chicago and Milwaukee], and now we’re in the middle of one big one.”

That brings us to Gov. Scott Walker, who earlier this year ripped into Illinois’ tax hikes and entreated flatlander businesses to “Escape to Wisconsin,” where he had just lowered business taxes.

It made for great theater, but also showed Walker’s cluelessness. He failed to grasp the essential fact of the southeastern Wisconsin economy: Chicago is not its competition. Chicago is its ticket to future prosperity.

To read more, please click here. [Once broken, the link has been restored.]


Taking Aim At Labor Law

December 16, 2010

With the earth seemingly crumbling beneath them, public employee unions are reeling. This post for Milwaukee Magazine sums up the surprising views of two guys associated with the Democrats and labor–John Matthews and Mordecai Lee.

The story begins:

Even as Governor-elect Scott Walker and his triumphant fellow Republicans are promising to get tough on Wisconsin’s public employees, some liberals are also raising questions as to whether the rules for public unions should change.

Former Democratic lawmaker Mordecai Lee and veteran Madison teachers’ union leader John Matthews are among those who, well before the November election, had been arguing for major changes in Wisconsin labor law – changes that could lead to more strikes and turmoil. They made their remarks in response to questions from Milwaukee Magazine.

Lee, a quotable favorite of Wisconsin media, is a professor of governmental affairs at UW-Milwaukee. He believes public employees shouldn’t have collective bargaining rights because of their ability, he says, to manipulate elected officials through political endorsements and campaign contributions.

“You have legislators, mayors, county executives, supervisors – all of them subverted by labor’s political relationships,” he says.

Matthews is the dean of Madison labor leaders with 43 years in the cause. He is equally provocative, wanting to legalize public-employee strikes and toss out the landmark mediation – arbitration law that brought labor peace to Wisconsin schools and local governments after the stormy illegal strikes of the 1960s and 70s.

Matthews is fed up with arbitrators settling contracts. “I’d rather have our fights on the street,” he says. “We’ll go and block school entrances. We’ll tell people they shouldn’t be taking our jobs.”

To read more, please go here.

Union Blues

December 8, 2010

Since the summer I’ve been thinking a lot about the diminished status of  public employees and their unions. This Endgame column, published in mid-November in the December issue of Milwaukee Magazine, is the first piece I wrote on  the troubled prospects for organized labor.

The column begins:

Too bad a ball-peen hammer wasn’t handy. If so, leaders of the embattled Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association might have walloped themselves over the head. Instead, they did something even more self-destructive, suing Milwaukee Public Schools for Viagra coverage of its members.

Union president Mike Langyel gamely defends the suit, saying Viagra is used to treat a bona fide medical problem. But even liberal supporters winced at the timing.

Here was a financially strapped school system struggling with an anticipated layoff of almost 500 teachers, and the clueless union was demanding insurance coverage of a sexual aid that could cost taxpayers more than $700,000 a year.

To read more, go here.

Assaying the Doyle Years

April 29, 2010

I wrote earlier on Gov. Doyle for Wisconsin Interest. Here’s a shorter take for Milwaukee Magazine, using mostly different sources. The critical conclusion isn’t any different though.

The column begins:

A decade from now, one can imagine a beaming septuagenarian named Jim Doyle sitting on a dais in Milwaukee as the former governor is honored for ushering in a bold new era of train travel.

He will be lauded for laying the tracks of a 21st-century Wisconsin economy. The KRM commuter rail he helped launch would have by then joined I-94 as one of the main streets connecting Milwaukee with the booming Chicagoland economy, drawing thousands of new jobs to Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha. And he will be celebrated for securing the breakthrough $810 million federal grant for his high-speed rail line, thereby creating the “I-Q Corridor,” as tech-booster Tom Still first dubbed it, connecting bustling technology clusters in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago.

Or maybe not.Such are the iffy prospects of a burnished legacy for a governor whose two terms were haunted by the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and distinguished by a leadership style that shunned risk and punted too many important issues.

Read more here.

The best and worst of the Legislature

January 3, 2010

I intended this site to be an aggregation of my recent writing, but never got around to posting my Milwaukee Magazine piece on the best and worst state lawmakers. It’s a year old, but I don’t think it’s lost relevance.

Federal spending: Wisconsin needs more

November 28, 2009

I examined the state’s dreadful record in securing federal dollars in pieces written for Milwaukee Magazine and Isthmus, my old paper in Madison.

Here is the  start of the Milwaukee Magazine column:

Too Pure for Pork

Our politicians do a wretched job of attracting federal spending to Wisconsin. Why do we let them get away with it? by Marc Eisen

Tuesday 9/1/2009

Here’s a story that tells you something about politics in Wisconsin: In January, Madison utility executive Gary Wolter was named the head of Gov. Jim Doyle’s stimulus office to work on securing federal funding. Within 24 hours, he was dubbed Wisconsin’s “pork czar” in repeated blog postings.

As Charlie Sykes pointed out, what could be weirder than fierce partisan antagonists like Democrat and liberal Ed Garvey and conservative blogger Deb Jordahl both sniffing their noses at Wolter’s appointment? Then again, even the whiff of “pork” gets proper Wisconsinites red-faced and indignant.

Take Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker. His initial response to federal stimulus funding made it sound as if the dollars were secretly dosed with smallpox, like those horse blankets the Army supposedly gave Indians in the 19th century. He’d have none of it! (Not, at least, until the County Board said otherwise.)

There’s something deep in the Wisconsin character, a Badger thriftiness and sense of political rectitude, that seems to recoil at the notion that politicians should bring home the bacon. No one understood that better than the puritan Bill Proxmire, whose long senatorial run was marked by his temperance crusade against government waste. Ever since then, Democrats and Republicans alike (take a bow, Jim Sensenbrenner, Paul Ryan, Russ Feingold, John Norquist, et al.) have anointed themselves with magical oils to protect the state from the corrupting influence of federal dollars.

They’ve been wildly successful. And that’s a problem. Wisconsin, as you no doubt know from first-hand experience, is mired in an economic slump. In per capita income and new jobs created, we badly trail some of our neighboring states. Ditto for economic growth. Meanwhile, we pay way more in federal taxes than is returned to us via federal jobs, research grants, aid to state and local government, and other programs.

The gap in fiscal 2007 was a staggering $5.6 billion, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. That’s right: We sent $5.6 billion more to Washington than we got back in federal spending.

Read more here.

Here is the start of the much-longer  Isthmus story:

State of chumps
Wisconsin has only itself to blame for losing out on its fair share of federal aid
Marc Eisen on Friday 10/09/2009

Todd Berry blames it on our genes. The president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance suggests the state’s chronic indifference to federal help is buried deep within our political DNA.

The Yankees who first settled Wisconsin, he says, “were suspicious of large, autocratic central government.” The Germans and Scandinavians who followed weren’t much different: They were “independent, hardworking, self-reliant…and suspicious again of a distant central government.”

I think the late Sen. Bill Proxmire — not genetics — is mostly to blame. But however you apportion responsibility, the legacy is the same: Wisconsin does wretchedly as a recipient of federal spending.

There are lots of bad measures to point out, but the key one is this: We rank 48th among the 50 states in federal aid, saved from last place only by Nevada and Utah.

This dreadful performance has a real-life impact on Wisconsin’s economic well-being. It means fewer jobs, poorer public services and a heavier state and local tax burden.

Federal spending in Wisconsin came to $7,132 per person in fiscal 2008, according to federal data newly analyzed by the Northeast-Midwest Institute. The national average was $8,904 per person — a $1,772 difference.

Do the math. Wisconsin’s population numbered about 5.6 million in 2008. Multiply each person by that shortfall and you come to $9.9 billion. That’s how much more money would have sloshed around the state economy if we had just hit the average for federal spending in fiscal 2008. Perish the thought we should score high, like Alaskans and Virginians.

Read more here.

Those Troubled Republicans

May 4, 2009

I wrote an Endgame column for Milwaukee Magazine’s April issue . Out of necessity, the piece was trimmed by a third to fit the allocated space. Editor Bruce Murphy did a masterful job of chopping off the words.  But here’s the full piece, which I think provides more explanation of why the Republican Party is in a world of hurt.

By Marc Eisen

Wisconsin Republicans are like the querulous uncle nobody wants to sit next to at a big family gathering. He’s the old bitter guy. The cranky one who expounds loud and sketchy opinions. The scold who picks a fight with his wife and his daughter’s girlfriend. The hothead who shouts at them: Go! Leave the table!

That’s your Republican uncle in 2009.

How he got that way represent a political cautionary tale. Because for almost 20 years, beginning with the rise of Tommy Thompson to preeminence, Republicans were the dominant voice in Wisconsin politics. They set the agenda. They drove the discussion. They attracted the best young political minds. That is, until the party began sliding into self-caricature and jihadism after Thompson left for Washington in 2001.

Last November Wisconsin Republicans hit rock bottom with the Democratic capture of the Assembly. This completed the rare state house trifecta of single-party control of the governor’s office, the state Senate and the Assembly. (And while we’re counting: Democrats occupy both U.S. senate seats and five of eight congressional offices.)

The party’s transformation from powerhouse to also-run is closely connected to its increasing preoccupation with ideological purity. The broad-based party of the early President Reagan—his celebrated “big tent” Republicanism–was essentially conservative but still had enough hooks for an awful lot of people to hang their hats, including disaffected Democrats.

Avowed Republican moderates like Scott Klug and Steve Gunderson held congressional seats in Wisconsin districts with pronounced Democratic sentiments. The unconventional Lee Dreyfus and his lieutenants briefly revived the party’s historic connection to La Follette progressivism. Thompson proved an unabashed big government activist who remade a failed welfare system and moved boldly to reform public education in Milwaukee.

But the Republican glory days have passed as the party has gravitated to social conservatism, revanchism (Sam Tanenhaus’ fine word to describe the hard right’s endless desire to roll back all social welfare programs) and an obsessive belief in tax cuts as the solution to, well, just about any problem in America.

None of this, of course, had much to do with how Tommy Thompson ran Wisconsin and became an immensely popular four-term Republican governor.

Despite coming out of the revanchist wing of the GOP in the Assembly (as minority leader, Thompson was known as “Dr. No” for opposing  pretty much anything the Democrats wanted to do), as governor he combined what Irving Kristol once described as “the reforming spirit with the conservative idea.”

“It was a total transformation,” marvels Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee political scientist who happened to be a Democratic lawmaker at the time. “I didn’t recognize Tommy as governor as the guy he was in the Assembly.”

As with Reagan, smart young conservatives flocked to Thompson’s side. Things were sooo different then.

In the age of Obama when even the sons and daughters of rock-ribbed Republicans joined his cause, it’s hard to believe that in 1984 President Reagan, in his re-election bid against Walter Mondale, carried two student wards on the perennially liberal UW-Madison campus.

But as Charles Franklin, the co-founder of and a UW-Madison political scientist explained, young people are inevitably “moved more by the current political winds” than older voters because they have no experience of earlier political events.

In 1984, it was the Democrats who they saw as tired, uninspired and mired in the past, while Republicans seemed like the party of change, optimism and achievement. That young people have largely abandoned the Republicans has to be one of the most telling signs of the party’s decline.

The 2006 election demonstrated just how dramatically the political gyre had spun in Wisconsin. The GOP brain trust, taking a page from the well-thumbed playbook of Newt Gingrich and then Karl Rove, chose to flog issues that would maximize the turnout of their conservative base. Scheduling a constitutional referendum to ban gay marriage on the November 2006 ballot seemed like a stroke of genius.

What better way to bring cultural conservatives to the polls for the Republican ticket? Not to mention to have a gubernatorial candidate, Mark Green, who embraced Wisconsin Right to Life’s fervent opposition to embryonic stem cell research at the UW-Madison campus.

But then something unexpected (by Republicans at least) happened. The referendum cruised to victory by a 59-41 margin, breaking the hearts of gays across Wisconsin. But Gov. Jim Doyle, an earnest but decidedly uncharismatic candidate, easily won re-election, while the Democrats picked up eight seats in the Assembly.

This was a sea change. Led by maestro Scott Jensen, Assembly Republicans had gained seats in the seven preceding elections, climbing from 41 to 60 members in the 99-member chamber. Tellingly, five of those newly Democratic seats were in college towns like Oshkosh and Platteville, where young people turned out to oppose the referendum and vote Democratic. Exit polling caught the sharp generational split–20-something voters opposed the gay-marriage ban 60%-40%.

Doyle, meanwhile, was untouched by the referendum’s passage and capitalized on the public’s overwhelming support of embryonic stem cell research. Surveys showed that seven of ten Wisconsin residents favored the research made famous by the UW’s James Thomson because of its potential for life-saving medical breakthroughs. Republicans, it seemed clear, had played the social-conservative card one too many times.

The problem: Wisconsin Republicans are increasingly defined by what they don’t like—gay people, illegal Hispanic immigrants, college professors, public employees, stem cell researchers, teachers, liberal-minded technology entrepreneurs, even trains—than what they stand for.

The constant carping and whining gets so old so quickly. No wonder no one wants to sit next to them at the family gathering. It’s hardly a recipe to attract young people to their side. Nor does groaning about a cigarette tax hike hold the least interest for a high-tech business owner worried about finding venture capital and the right code writers.

“I think the Republicans have locked themselves into a narrow box of what they think conservative means, and they haven’t done an especially good job of even defining that,” UW-Madison political scientist John Coleman told me.

“The more insular they are and the more they think they have all the answers, the worse off they’ll be,” he said.

Coleman thinks the Republican can turn things around if they wrap their core principles-–individual responsibility, limited but smart government, economic opportunity — into creative proposals for education and health care.

But like it or not, he said, Republicans also need to recognize that when the economy tanks and the public is gripped by insecurity they expect their elected officials to “do something.”

One certainly can imagine Tommy Thompson rising to the challenge, cheerleading the state and pulling in the best minds of business and the university to stake out a plan.

Thompson, in fact, would be a perfect example of what Tanenhaus described in a recent New Republic essay as a Burkean conservative -–a conservative so vested in maintaining societal stability a that he or she believe “governments were obligated to use their powers to ameliorate intolerable conditions.”

But the Thompson era is long gone, and so is his pragmatic approach to governing. As one of his former aides told me: Republican candidates confound the voters with an utterly paradoxical pitch: Elect me and I’ll oppose the government that works on your behalf.

It’s the revanchists who rule the Republican Party and who chase everyone else from the dinner table.

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