Archive for the ‘Politics’ category

Gov. Walker At One Year

January 7, 2012

Madison Magazine was nice enough to ask  me to write an assessment of Gov. Scott Walker’s first year in office. Here’s how it begins:

On Nov. 19, 1955, the modern age of conservatism began with young Bill Buckley publishing the first issue of his new magazine, National Review. Famously, Buckley said in the mission statement that the magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop” to the liberalism that had dominated American government for the first half of the twentieth century.

Almost fifty-five years later, inspired by the same beliefs as Buckley, Gov. Scott Walker stood athwart Wisconsin history and yelled Stop to a century’s worth of progressive policies, as he announced his plans to break Wisconsin’s public employee unions as a way to rein in government spending.

The move ignited a cataclysm of protests that remain unabated today. And they helped frame the three paradoxes that mark Scott Walker’s tumultuous first year in office.

Go figure…

  • For years, Scott Walker had been a likable and gifted politician—a conservative rock star who could convince Democrats to vote for him for three terms as county executive of decidedly liberal Milwaukee County. Yet today, after pursuing a political agenda that is either remarkably courageous or spectacularly suicidal (maybe both!), the affable Walker finds himself dangerously underwater in the polls, disliked by most Wisconsinites and blamed for the state’s political turmoil.
  • Even if Walker is ignominiously recalled from office in 2012, he seems certain to be judged by historians as a transformative governor who changed the political DNA of Wisconsin. In short, public employee unionism will never be the same after Scott Walker, even if liberals sweep to power at the Capitol.
  • Walker is an unabashed pro-business governor who has proved surprisingly inept on key development issues. Bereft of savvy business advice in his inner circle, this corporate cheerleader fumbled the crucial venture capital issue, wasting months, and seems prisoner of a simplistic eighties-style of economic thinking. Meanwhile, his brash pledge to oversee creation of 250,000 jobs in his first term could be the petard on which his own political career is blown up.

Make no mistake: the paradoxical Mr. Walker is difficult to explain. The old Kris Kristofferson line —“He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction”—comes to mind.

Count me among the people who underestimated Walker….

To read more, please go here.

I also asked a cross-section of  Madisonians to offer their advice to the governor. Here’s what they had to say.

Former UW-Madison Chancellor had more to say than most people, and  this is it.

New Media And The Capitol Protests

September 18, 2011

I like writing about media. This piece for Wisconsin Interest, the triannual political journal I help edit, examines how new media  drove the Capitol protests and its coverage. The piece begins:

The revolution came to Madison in February, but not the one you think.

Sure, Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to roll back a half-century of labor legislation and the ferocious liberal backlash were earthshaking events. But the outcome of this epic struggle awaits a last act.

No such uncertainty marks the digital revolution. New media played a crucial role in both organizing the Capitol protests and in covering them. The digital future arrived on the wings of text messages, cell-phone photos, flip-camera videos, Facebook posts and Twitter tweets.

Several thousand words later, I end by saying that while  the mechanics of politics has been transformed by new media, the nature of the our politics hasn’t been changed at all.

The rise of social media has had little impact on the polarization of American politics. No middle-of- the-road, “third way” movement has been texted into public consciousness.

If anything, the new technology has been deployed in the revival of a grand old creedal fight. Surging conservatives are rolling back 50 years of liberal Democratic programs in Wisconsin and even challenging the Progressive and New Deal shibboleths of earlier generations. New media has been conspicuously agnostic in this war, equally available to the left and right.

The irony is that the epochal rise of digital media may wind up triggering Gutenberg-like changes in our culture and economy, in the transmission and creation of news, and in the very nature of our intimate communications. But in the substance of our politics — well, not so much. At least for now.

To read the full report,  please go here.

10 Years Ago

September 9, 2011

I was touring the White House with my wife and youngest daughter on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists began crashing planes. I chronicled my experiences for Isthmus, where I was editor. Liberty was on my mind. I wrote:

For anyone who loves civil liberties, these are scary times. Our Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure has already been compromised by 30 years of deprecations from the War on Drugs and past terrorism scares. Check your civil liberties at the metal detector. The palpable horror of the Sept. 11 assault will only create a greater demand for the authorities to control and command our lives.

But absolute security and a free society are incompatible. Our liberty is threatened as much by a thousand pinpricks to our privacy and free movement as it is by a terrorist’s bomb.

You can read the column here. Readers hated it. You can read their imprecations here. I responded:

 One of the defining characteristics of Americans is an unabashed belief in personal liberty (the wildly radical “pursuit of happiness” proclaimed by Jefferson). Beginning with the oppressive Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, history shows that the most frontal assaults on liberty occur during times of national emergency. I offer no apology for sticking up for civil liberties.

Of course, the terrorism of Sept. 11 was a hellish, fiendish deed. A thousand writers have said it better than I ever could. My comments were deliberately confined to my firsthand observations, small and large, about security in Washington before and during the Pentagon bombing and how civil liberties may suffer in the aftermath. That’s it. I offered no profundities. My modest contribution is as a guy who’s already bothered by the excessive security measures of our age. My fear is that things will get worse — our privacy will shrink, our autonomy will be curtailed. All in the name of protecting us.

Public Workers As Civic Workers

August 10, 2011

Last fall, before Gov. Scott Walker lowered the boom on public employee unions, I wrote about the hard times coming for public workers.The links appear broken for my Milwaukee Magazine stories, but here’s the cover story that appeared in Isthmus.

I returned  to the topic for this Isthmus column, making the case that unions need to retool their game to prosper in the 21st century. Here’s how I framed the issue:

Simply put, sympathy for battered union members doesn’t mean support for the old union agenda. Gallup and Pew polls show a sharp decline in union favorability ratings. And Walker was right when he said that unions can selfishly manipulate the political system to enrich themselves…. He was also right to think the union agenda can be at cross-purposes to the public interest. Walker’s mistake — to his and the state’s detriment — was to fumble the fix.

That leaves an immensely important question still unanswered: Can a meaningful public-employee unionism emerge in the 21st century?

I  argue:

Unions need to embrace merit and high-quality performance as core values. They need to lighten up on work rules, as Joel Rogers, the head of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, says. They need a mission statement focused on public service.

Follow this link to read more.

Who Should Lead Madison?

March 28, 2011

With a new conservative governor openly hostile to Madison’s liberal ways, the city is entering a  dangerous time.  See my earlier column on the city’s economic challenges.  (This one too.)  Big trouble is coming.

This is why the mayoral election on April 5 is hugely important: Madison needs exceptional leadership. Here’s how I sized up the candidates for Isthmus:

When Paul Soglin is asked why he’s running for mayor once again after two earlier stints in office, he cites his love for Madison and tells an anecdote involving his wife, Sara, who encouraged him by saying “You’re happiest when you’re mayor.”

Soglin, who’s 66, will always be known as “Hizzoner da Mare” to several generations of Madisonians, and a good case can be made that he and the mayor’s office were a perfect Zen pairing. Like the bow and the arrow, “Soglin” and “mayor” were oneness in action for 14 years.

But those were different times. Whether Soglin, who was mayor from 1973 to 1979 and again from 1989 to 1997, still casts enough of a spell on Madison voters to oust incumbent Dave Cieslewicz will be decided April 5.

Cieslewicz, who wears the sobriquet “Mayor Dave” as comfortably as Soglin did “Hizzoner,” has his own claim to the city’s zeitgeist. He’s playful, philosophical, progressive and politically pushy in a way that perfectly captures Madison’s bourgie-hip liberal style.

But after eight years in office, Cieslewicz, 52, has suffered the usual dings and dents of a long incumbency, having angered some early supporters to the point that they see the old guy Soglin as a fresh opportunity.

This is quite a turn of events.

To read  more, please go here.

A Troubling Change At City Hall

February 4, 2011

My reportorial interests of late have focused on economic development and the role of public employees. In the case of Tim Cooley’s resignation, the two came together in this column for Isthmus.

In government, bad news often comes on Friday afternoons, in hopes it will be lost in the weekend shuffle.

So it was telling that as the long Martin Luther King Jr. weekend began on Jan. 14, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz’s office released economic development director Tim Cooley’s resignation letter — a mere two weeks’ notice.

Every City Hall employee knew the significance of Cooley’s announcement: His two-year probationary period was ending in February, and he was leaving before the ax fell.

Cooley’s departure is bad news on several counts. Most tellingly it revealed that, nearing his eighth year in office, the mayor has yet to put together a sustained jobs-growth strategy.

To read more, please go here.

Madison Needs Jobs

December 27, 2010

In this column for Isthmus, I argue that the  tough times for public-employee unions  means tough times for Madison and Dane County unless the community makes itself more welcoming to business expansion.

Among the points I make are:

… economic development should be front and center in next spring’s mayoral and county executive elections. The candidates need to be grilled on their philosophy and proposals.

Yes, philosophy. Much of Madison’s problem is attitudinal. For a whole host of venerable liberal reasons, Madison can be hellish on business.

The problem, says business consultant Kay Plantes, is that too many Madisonians don’t connect the dots. “They don’t see the unintended consequences” of their good intentions.

Give a proposed business expansion the third degree in terms of a lengthy and costly review, and the firm may head to the suburbs with its jobs.

“That’s why we’ve ended up with so much urban sprawl,” says Plantes. “It’s bad for transportation, it’s bad for the environment, and it’s very bad for the Madison school district.”

To read more, please go here.

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.

The Contortionists On The Train

September 15, 2010

Both the proposed  Madison-Milwaukee train line and the Dane County commuter rail  project are close calls, but in this Isthmus column I argue both are worthy of support.

Here’s how the column begins:

Local politics, lately, are kind of like a funhouse mirror. Everything is weirdly distorted.

Take the recent push to force a commuter rail referendum on the November ballot. Advocates say the public must vote on whether to impose a half-cent sales tax for transit purposes. Fair enough, but just one problem:

How can you have a meaningful vote on a plan that doesn’t exist yet?

Well, you can’t. But that’s probably the point. Those advocates — including my friend the blogger David Blaska — seem to fear a real referendum on a fully spelled out transit plan. My theory: They’re afraid they’ll lose….

For more. please go here.


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