Archive for the ‘Politics’ category

Who Speaks For Tech?

September 23, 2014

So if Wisconsin is trapped in yesteryear politics and economics, as I argue in the story posted above, the business group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce is the exemplar of this thinking.  Here’s how I began this related piece, also in Isthmus:

This is a problem.

The state’s most powerful business voice has conspicuously little contact with Wisconsin’s rising technology industry.

Wisconsin Manufacturing & Commerce, which claims more than 3,500 businesses as members, brags that “the success of the WMC government relations team in projecting and accomplishing a proactive business agenda has been second to none.”

Well, yeah. On the surface, WMC has never been stronger. The support WMC has thrown to small-government, pro-business Republicans has paid off big time, to say the obvious.

Wisconsin has a Republican governor, a Republican Assembly, a Republican Senate, a Republican-favoring Supreme Court and a Republican-dominated congressional delegation.

But critics say that WMC’s success is mostly in pursuing a savvy political agenda — not a savvy growth agenda. And the group’s legislative wish list tilts heavily to helping Wisconsin’s legacy manufacturers. The problem: These venerable corporate citizens usually burnish their bottom lines by adopting strategies that emphasize tax avoidance, lessened regulatory costs and dampened labor costs.

Do they add new jobs to the payroll? Not so much.

To read more, including how the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce has embraced the tech industry, please go here.

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When Politics Wasn’t So Nasty

September 16, 2014

I’ve written before about Gov. Pat Lucey remaking the Wisconsin Democratic Party and overhauling state government.  I jumped at the chance when WisPolitics.com asked me to cover a memorial service at the Capitol honoring Lucey’s accomplishments. Here’s a chunk of it:

…[I]t was Tommy Thompson, the state’s longest-serving governor, who seemed to capture the moment and draw the biggest applause. He started his speech by saying: “I’m a Republican.” Then pausing for dramatic effect, he added, “Pat Lucey was my friend.” 

In a booming, passionate talk, Thompson explained how he identified with Lucey because they were both Irish Catholic boys and the sons of small-town Wisconsin grocers. He said he kept Lucey’s official portrait hanging in the governor’s office, even though fellow Republicans were puzzled by it. 

“I kept the picture there, because I believed in the man. I wanted to show people the value of bipartisanship,” he said. 

Thompson, like Lucey, achieved some of his most important legislation through a politically divided Legislature. 

“It was the government of a different time, and it accomplished so much,” he said of the Lucey years. “These were civilized days when you could have friends on the other side of the aisle.” 

Democrats and Republicans could battle all day over a legislative proposal, he said, “but then we would go out for a steak and a beer.” 

The Capitol today is marked by “the politics of destruction,” Thompson said, “Pat Lucey never believed in that, nor did I.”

To read more, please go here. 

The Great Lucey Legacy

May 21, 2014

Former Gov. Patrick Lucey was the most impressive political figure I’ve reported on. His shrewd understanding  of the sausage-making of legislation was matched by a visionary yet practical program for redefining state government in Wisconsin in the second half of the 20th century. In November 2012, I reviewed the Lucey legacy for a column in Isthmus:

Governing from 1971 to 1977, Lucey merged the two university systems, enacted consumer protection laws, strengthened ethics provisions for officials, revamped campaign finance laws, shifted mental health treatment from institutions to community programs and, perhaps most importantly, retooled government aid programs to reflect the progressive vision: Poorer communities, especially their schools, should get more state aid than richer communities. Republicans howled at how Lucey threatened their low-tax enclaves.

Jesuit educated, Lucey saw the moral end in politics. Linda Reivitz, who worked in the Department of Natural Resources, recalls briefing Lucey on the pros and cons of a policy matter only to be interrupted when she veered into its politics. “He put up his hand and said something like, ‘Young lady. I will worry about the politics. You just tell me about the policy options.'”

Notes Jim Wood, another aide: “Pat knew you only walked through this valley once. Politics wasn’t about getting elected. It was getting elected to do something.”

To read  that column, please go here.

When Lucey died on May 10, 2014, at the age of 96, I revisited and expanded the column for a post on the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute website. In a nutshell, I argued that the Democrats need a leader like Pat Lucey:

     It was Lucey, stealing a page from the GOP playbook, who exempted manufacturers from the machinery and equipment tax as an incentive to re-invest in their plants and then removed business inventories from the property tax. All this was hugely beneficial to Wisconsin’s economic wheelhouse in manufacturing.

            In 1977, the Wall Street Journal surveyed Wisconsin’s economic success and proclaimed the state “the shining star of the Snowbelt.” Those days are long past.

           For most of the next 35-plus years Wisconsin’s economy has struggled under Democratic and Republican governors alike. The ferocious 1981-’82 recession laid waste to manufacturing in southeastern Wisconsin and triggered a fundamental economic decline that bedevils the state to this day. For sure, there was a brief boom in the 1990s. But the new century has been a bust. It’s May 2014, and Wisconsin still has fewer jobs than it did in December 2007, just before another ugly recession rattled the state’s economic foundation.

            For Democrats, Wisconsin’s fiercely contested but decisive swing to Republican domination suggests that the powerless liberals need another Pat Lucey. That is, a nextgen leader who understands the imperative of building a vibrant 21st century economy in a state mired in an Old World Wisconsin re-enactment of yesteryear’s political wars. Where is the Democratic leader who recognizes that unions, as vital as they once were, are all but a spent force? Traditional labor is crippled by hostile economic trends, while public unions are reeling as much from their own cupidity and stupidity as from the conservative pummeling.

To read more, please go here.

Mike Ellis, RIP

April 14, 2014

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.

Bring Back The Draft

May 27, 2013

Since today is Memorial Day, I’m going to dust off a nearly six-year-old Isthmus column in which I argued we should should restore the draft. Yup, everybody should serve their country. Here is an excerpt:

Former Gov. Tony Earl grew up in the postwar days of universal military conscription when everybody from Elvis Presley to Phillip Roth did a stint for Uncle Sam. After earning a B.A. from Michigan State and a law degree from the University of Chicago, Earl enlisted in the Navy for four years, from 1961 to 1965.

“It wasn’t a matter of whether you went into the military, it was when,” he recalls. “I had a couple of options: I could get drafted or I could join. I thought of the old line: ‘Join the Navy and see the world.’ I ended up spending better than two years in Norfolk, Virginia, which was not my idea of high adventure.

“But the military was filled with people in the same situation,” Earl says. “We all had to go. People weren’t necessarily crazy about it but you regarded it — this may sound high-minded — as part of your civic duty. You went. I think most of my peers felt the same way.”

Today, in an era of gated communities, privatized public services, Blackwater mercenaries and revived left wing suspicion of the military, the notion of everyone pitching in for the common defense is downright quaint.

Predictably, radio banshees like Vicki McKenna dig their talons into anti-war activists for protesting Army recruitment, but conveniently ignore that the leading Republican voices, as card-carrying members of the economic elite, also show their own personal disdain for military service.

The millionaire venture capitalist/presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and his five sons are a case in point. Not one has served a day in the armed forces. Yet candidate Romney seems quite willing as a would-be president to use other parents’ sons and daughters to enforce his bellicose worldviews.

Of course, graying boomers like me who avoided the Vietnam war belatedly realized how selfish people are when they let others do the dieing in times of war.

President Nixon, the ultimate political cynic, trumped the anti-war movement in 1973 when he ended the hugely unpopular draft, buying himself another two years of mass killing in southeast Asia.

Don Downs worries that the civilian-military gap is weakening the nation’s democratic fabric. On sabbatical from teaching, the UW prof is researching a new book on university life and the college-based Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

He notes that ROTC has traditionally been justified as a democratic mechanism to diversify an officer corps that otherwise would be dominated by insular service academy graduates. But he’s focusing his research on the other side of the equation: How the university experience is enriched by students being exposed to ROTC and by studying military history.

Like the social philosopher Christopher Lasch in his 1995 book, The Revolt Of The Elites And The Betrayal Of Democracy, Downs sees the upper class withdrawing from the common demands of citizenship, including military service.

“The elites are, in a sense, buying themselves out of certain obligations to the common culture,” Downs says. “Their attitude towards the military is symptomatic of that.”

Tony Earl agrees. “I don’t think it’s healthy at all,” he says. “When the elite of our society have enjoyed the benefits of society but disdain the military and regard it as more appropriate for people of lesser standing, they do themselves and the country a terrible disservice.”

To read the column, please go here.

(Not Really) Progressives

March 1, 2013

Politics is such a dismal swamp that I’ve tried to avoid writing about it in recent months. (You’ve been following my tech stories, right?) But the dispiriting news of how progressive stalwart Sarah Manski won a primary race for a Madison school board seat and promptly withdrew from the general election was just too much to take. Her name stays on the ballot, the other progressive candidate becomes the default winner, and the third-place finisher–a Latina whom progressives denounced as a rightwing flunky (evidence of this is sketchy)–is squeezed off the ballot for the April election.

Not a great day for democracy. I see a bigger problem with progressives struggling to deal with educational change and with independent leaders of color–notably, Kaleem Caire of the Urban League of Greater Madison– who do not toe the progressive party line. I write:

Like it or not, we’re in an era of change and choice in education. Extending public vouchers to private schools in Madison may be wild overreach by the governor, but Madison parents already have choices for schooling.

If they don’t like their neighborhood school, parents can open-enroll their child in any Madison school or even in a suburban district. They can pack up and move to a suburban district. They can enroll their kid in a public charter school like Nuestro Mundo. They can send their child to a private school. They can home-school. They can sign their kid up for one of the many online schools.

This is a good thing. As long as academic programs address state educational standards and meaningful accountability is in place, why shouldn’t parents be able to pick a school setting they feel best suits their child’s needs? More to the point, why shouldn’t the district’s response to the painful achievement gap demonstrate this flexibility?

Progressives struggle with this. In the face of the Walker ascendancy, they’re basically fighting a rearguard and probably losing action. They want to restore the old model that standardized education, tightly controlled alternatives, and protected teachers with an industrial-style union contract — and sadly also did a wretched job of educating black children. African American leaders like Caire are still expected to fall in line, despite the old system’s manifest failure.

Because he hasn’t, Caire is shunned. The latest instance is the upcoming ED Talks Wisconsin, a progressive-minded education-reform conference sponsored by the UW School of Education, the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, the mayor’s office and other groups. Discussion of “a community-wide K-12 agenda” to address the achievement gap is a featured event. A fine panel has been assembled, including Mayor Paul Soglin, but Caire is conspicuously absent.

How can progressives not bring the Urban League to the table? Agree or disagree with its failed plan for the single-sex Madison Prep charter school, the Urban League has worked the hardest of any community group to bridge the achievement gap. This includes launching a scholars academy, the South Madison Promise Zone, ACT test-taking classes and periodic events honoring young minority students.

But Caire is branded as an apostate because he worked with conservative school-choice funders in Washington, D.C. So in Madison he’s dismissed as a hapless black tool of powerful white plutocrats. Progressives can’t get their head around the idea that the black-empowerment agenda might coincide with a conservative agenda on education, but then clash on a dozen other issues.

To read more, please go here.

The Corridor Strategy For Development, Cont’d

December 10, 2012

Earlier this year I wrote a piece for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel arguing that the Milwaukee-Madison I-94 corridor held great potential for economic development in the 21st century. I expanded the piece and gave it more of a Madison focus for this Isthmus cover story.

This is the essence of the argument:

Simply put, that 80-mile I-94 corridor traversing Milwaukee, Waukesha, Jefferson and Dane counties could be the muscle and brain of Wisconsin’s 21st-century economic renaissance.

It also, I would argue, holds greater economic promise for Madison and Dane County’s prosperity than does the Thrive region, the seven largely rural counties surrounding Dane County that community leaders have identified as Madison’s cohort for growth.

Those four I-94 corridor counties cover less than 5% of the state, but have one-third of its population, 44% of its college graduates and almost 40% of Wisconsin jobs, according to the UW-Extension’s Center for Community and Economic Development. The synergy of a great transportation corridor connecting the state’s two largest metropolitan areas seems obvious.

Tom Hefty, the retired head of Blue Cross-Blue Shield United of Wisconsin, made that case 10 years ago when he tried — and failed — to convince Gov. Jim Doyle to adopt a corridor development plan as part of the state’s economic strategy.

The logic: Milwaukee is the state’s finance and commercial capital. Madison is the political capital and home to a world-class research university. Waukesha County is a teeming entrepreneurial beehive. Already a good chunk of workers travel back and forth along the corridor. Major educational facilities, including a rising UW-Milwaukee, prepare the workforce.

“You combine an academic powerhouse with a commercial powerhouse, and you get job growth,” says Hefty.

Do you think that Wisconsin’s languishing economy could use more jobs? The answer is obvious, but the politics here are deeply dysfunctional. Talk about Mission: Impossible. It’s not just Milwaukee versus Madison; their shared liberalism is abhorrent to conservative Waukesha County. Lambs will lie down with lions before the corridor politicians ever work together.

For that matter, Gov. Scott Walker’s successful effort to kill the $810 million federally funded train service between Milwaukee and Madison is just one more nasty episode in that endless grudge match.

But before you turn the page, here’s the thing: The corridor is coming together without these feuding politicians.

To read more, pls go here.


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