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The Top Stories of 2012

Wisconsin has another wild year

Dec. 19, 2012
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It seemed preposterous that 2012 could match the high drama of 2011 in Wisconsin. But we were proved wrong. This year had as many sudden developments, twists and turns, conspiracies and surprise endings as last year, which is really saying something.

Below is a review of the top stories in Wisconsin. How they’ll affect 2013 is anybody’s guess.


Wisconsin Goes Blue, The Capitol Stays Red

Wisconsin has a history of delivering majorities for Democrats who run statewide, whether it’s Jim Doyle, Herb Kohl or Russ Feingold. But our ability to vote for Republicans, such as Tommy Thompson in the ‘80s and ‘90s or Gov. Scott Walker in recent elections, has made Wisconsin seem to be a true swing state.

But 2012 called all that into question.

While Republicans had hoped that they could defeat Barack Obama here—even going so far as putting Paul Ryan on the GOP ticket to help deliver the state—the president won 1,620,985 votes to Republican Mitt Romney’s 1,410,966 on Nov. 4. Democrat Tammy Baldwin won a similar solid majority over Thompson, her Republican rival, in their race for the U.S. Senate.

Obama joins John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton and Michael Dukakis as Democrats who carried Wisconsin since the 1980s. And prior to Ron Johnson’s election in 2010, Wisconsin hadn’t voted for a Republican senator since 1986.

That said, Democrats didn’t fare as well in the state Legislature.

Although Democratic candidates won almost 200,000 more votes for the state Assembly, Republicans won 60% of the seats. Democratic candidates for state Senate also garnered more votes, but they lost their one-vote majority; now Republicans will have an 18-15 advantage in that chamber. Romney, who lost to Obama, won more than half of all congressional and legislative districts, too.

Chalk it up to new legislative districts, which are drawn every decade.

In 2011, Republicans and the private law firm Michael Best & Friedrich created new redistricting maps in secret. Although a federal court struck down two of the districts, finding that they unconstitutionally diluted the Latino vote on Milwaukee’s near South Side, the rest of them stood and were in place for this fall’s election.

The Republican-friendly map will be in place until the next U.S. Census is taken in 2020. Look for more statewide wins for Democrats in the next decade, but very tough going for them in these new, skewed districts.


Scott Walker and Paul Ryan Become National Tea Party Stars

The triumph of the GOP radicals in Wisconsin came to a head in 2012, when two highly ideological state Republicans—Gov. Scott Walker and Congressman Paul Ryan of Janesville—cemented their status as national right-wing rock stars and Fox News darlings. Walker, with the help of more than $30 million he raised primarily from out-of-state millionaires, won his recall election in June. Ryan capitalized on his personal chemistry with presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his highly publicized House budget to become Romney’s running mate, the first time a Wisconsin politician has ever made it on to a major party’s ticket.

It’ll be interesting to see how these two Wisconsin Republicans handle their growing fame—and their own ambition. Republicans lack a strong national standard-bearer at the moment and both Walker and Ryan surely believe that they’re viable candidates for president in 2016. But both will be stepping on each other’s turf to boost their fortunes. Look for them to cast (or dodge) votes to burnish their image as “reformers,” “straight talkers” and “nice guys from Wisconsin you can hunt and drink beer with.”

Can Wisconsin—or Walker’s and Ryan’s egos—handle the drama?


‘You’re Damn Right’ Tammy Baldwin Makes History

When Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin announced that she would run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Herb Kohl, many people—including those who would support her—thought that she couldn’t win. Although they loved her personally and admired her positions on tough issues like health care reform and tax fairness, they feared that the multimillion-dollar Republican and tea party noise machine would turn her into a liberal caricature and make her unelectable.

Happily, Baldwin proved her doubters wrong and won a decisive victory on Nov. 4.

Baldwin ran a smart campaign, worked tirelessly to win votes all across the state and never let her critics affect her.

She also was aided by running unopposed for the Democratic nomination while the Republican candidates tore each other apart in their primary race. A battered, broke Tommy Thompson emerged as her opponent, and Baldwin brilliantly and accurately skewered the former governor with the line, “He’s not for you anymore.” The conservative noise machine responded with an endless loop of Baldwin saying, “You’re damn right.” But, in the end, a majority of Wisconsin voters decided that Baldwin was “damn right” for them.

In January, Baldwin will take a seat in the U.S. Senate, helping to preserve the Democratic agenda launched during Obama’s first term. And while doing so, she’ll make history as the first openly lesbian U.S. Senator. Kudos to Baldwin—and fair-minded voters—for taking a leap of faith. We hope Tammy Baldwin has a long, productive career as a representative of a smart, savvy, tolerant Wisconsin.


Voter Suppression Efforts Fizzle

Republicans really tried everything they could think of to suppress the vote, didn’t they? Unfortunately, they aren’t quitting anytime soon.

In 2011, the GOP crafted the most stringent voter ID law in the country as a way to reduce nonexistent “voter fraud.” Thankfully, its ID requirement was put on hold because two judges found that it violated Wisconsin’s constitution. (And it wouldn’t do anything to prevent alleged voter fraud, either.)

Lacking a voter ID requirement, Republicans turned to good old-fashioned harassment to try to suppress voting among Democrats and minorities. Walker supporters tried to shame people who signed petitions to recall him. This fall, billboards were placed in minority neighborhoods to remind residents that voter fraud is a felony. The “anonymous family foundation” that paid for the billboards turned out to be major Walker donors, Stephen and Nancy Einhorn. Not surprisingly, Einhorn was rewarded with a major state contract.

Having failed to suppress voter turnout this fall, Republicans already are at work to deter voting in the future. Walker is being coy about ending election-day registration and incoming Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said he’d like to amend the state constitution so that voter ID could become law here. For the love of democracy, let’s hope they fail.


Is Chris Abele Out of Control?

When Chris Abele was elected Milwaukee County executive in a special election in 2011, voters wanted to put an end to the nonstop fights between the county executive and the county board. They were clearly fatigued by years of showboating by Scott Walker and pushback from the Lee Holloway-led board.

While Milwaukee County voted for change, they got more of the same.

Abele started off in a conciliatory manner by helping to put in place domestic partnership benefits—even though the progressive supervisors did the heavy lifting.

The honeymoon didn’t last long. Abele soon offered Walker-like county budgets, had high-profile fights with Sheriff David Clarke, and personally antagonized the board of supervisors, including Marina Dimitrijevic, the new chairwoman. All of it has added up to an out-of-control Abele who would have a “hissy fit” whenever he didn’t get everything he wanted, creating what is becoming a permanent rift between the second and third floors of the county courthouse.

Abele’s lack of boundaries was revealed in full when then-Supervisor Johnny Thomas was prosecuted for allegedly taking a bribe. Thomas’s prosecution was unsavory not only because he was innocent—as a jury decided in about an hour of deliberations—but because Thomas had been set up by Abele’s top aide, Patrick Farley, who wore a wire and lied to Thomas when he told Thomas that he was giving him a legitimate campaign contribution.

Even worse? While Abele has fired high-performing appointees like former Parks Department chief Sue Black and he’s had heavy turnover among his own staff that he himself hired, Abele continues to support Farley, who unsuccessfully tried to entice Thomas, damaged Thomas’s otherwise outstanding reputation and career, wasted precious tax dollars on a frivolous prosecution and sowed mistrust among county officials who feel they cannot speak to anyone in the executive branch without being recorded in secret.

Abele’s lack of judgment wouldn’t be such a big deal if it was merely contained to Milwaukee County. Although he’s denied it, his friends say he’s set his sights on higher office, which means that his actions and agenda will be colored by his ambition—and the ambition of his backers. In 2013, look for Abele to continue to serve the interests of the wealthy and pick fights with the board while calling himself a Democrat and paying lip service to Democratic causes.


John Doe Investigation Brings Down Walker Aides

In a normal year, the felony convictions of a governor’s former aides would be a huge story. But in 2012, the revelations and convictions resulting from the long-running John Doe investigation into Scott Walker’s county staffers and campaign is just one more headline.

While John Doe investigations are inherently secretive, what we do know is that Walker’s campaign and county staffers were working in lockstep when the law clearly states that they cannot combine their efforts. We know that his top aide, Tim Russell, has pleaded guilty to embezzling $20,000 from a veterans’ charity and that his business and domestic partner, Brian Pierick, allegedly tried to solicit a teen boy in Waukesha for sex. Another top aide, Kelly Rindfleisch, pleaded guilty to felony misconduct for the fundraising and political work she did while at her county job. Walker appointee Kevin Kavanaugh was convicted of embezzling from a veterans’ organization and is off to jail, too. Former aide Darlene Wink also pleaded guilty to a crime but is working with prosecutors. And railroad executive William Gardner pleaded guilty in 2011 to making illegal campaign donations to Walker, which forced the CEO to pay a whopping $166,900 in fines.

Then there are the John Doe revelations that haven’t resulted in charges—yet, at least. According to court documents, Walker’s campaign exchanged thousands of emails with county staffers during regular office hours. They were able to do so, prosecutors say, because Tim Russell set up a private router in his office, within Walker’s executive suite. Walker’s campaign staffers even held daily conference calls with his county aides and vetted all county press releases.

Walker has maintained that he’s not “John Doe” and that he hopes the investigation wraps up soon.

Chatter around town is that, contrary to Walker’s high hopes, the investigation will not wrap up soon. Remember the leaks about alleged bid-rigging? The FBI raiding former Walker aide Cindy Archer’s house? Those thousands of campaign-county emails that that the DA hasn’t released in full? If Walker was aware of his aides’ joint efforts, he could be in a lot of trouble in 2013.


Milwaukee Progressives Elected to Legislature

Milwaukee loves to hang on to our elected officials, even when it’s long past their expiration date. But longtime incumbents got knocked out by young, progressive Democrats in this summer’s primary races.

In August, progressive Democrat Nikiya Harris won the Senate seat formerly held by Spencer Coggs, who was elected City Treasurer this spring. Harris handily defeated conservative state Rep. Beth Coggs and others in the primary. Newcomers Mandela Barnes, Evan Goyke, La Tonya Johnson and Daniel Riemer all beat their more-conservative opponents in their Assembly races. Established incumbents Fred Kessler, Sandy Pasch, JoCasta Zamarripa and Josh Zepnick also outpolled their conservative rivals.

Adding to the progressive power in Milwaukee’s Democratic delegation, state Sen. Chris Larson was selected to be the minority leader in the Senate. Larson also backed the progressives who emerged victorious this fall, giving him a built-in power base. Although he’s still in his first term, Larson has been seen as the top Milwaukee rival to Sen. Lena Taylor, whose record is littered with controversial positions—favoring the mayoral takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools, school privatization, the Castle Doctrine and concealed carry among them—and who also supported many of the candidates who lost in August.

Milwaukee sent a merit- and value-based message to our elected officials. If you work hard during campaigns and stand up for the community’s best interests while in the state Legislature, you will be rewarded. But if you are not responsive to your constituents and you support causes that actually damage Milwaukee—say, school vouchers and reckless gun laws—then the clock is ticking on your term.


MPD Under Fire

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn swears that he’s not going anywhere. But a number of city residents wonder why he should keep his job, given the conduct of his officers.

It’s been a terrible year for MPD-community relations. News broke that a few Milwaukee police are alleged to have conducted or witnessed illegal strip searches. Video was finally released of police officers ignoring Derek Williams’s pleas for help as he died in the back of a squad car in 2011. They treated the mother and brother of the dying Darius Simmons disgracefully. Footage was released of a cop punching and dragging a handcuffed Jeanine Tracey. It hasn’t gone unnoticed in the community that the victims in these situations were African American, and when Flynn held meetings with some of the city’s black leaders, some felt that it ended up making the problem worse.

We recognize that Milwaukee cops have a very tough job. And we realize that there will be some rogue cops who cross the line. But we simply ask Chief Flynn to continue to work with his officers to help them become more aware of the impact of their actions on the community, especially when the cops are white and their victims are African American.


The Sikh Community Teaches All of Us a Lesson

The taking of any life is a tragedy. But the shooting deaths of innocent members of the Sikh temple in Oak Creek seems especially tragic, given the enlightened reaction of the victims’ friends and families. Instead of thirsting for retribution, the Sikh community asked for peace, prayers, compassion and support for affected families. In their darkest hours, our Sikh neighbors’ enlightened words and deeds taught all of us a valuable lesson.

We hope that Milwaukee becomes more Sikh-like in 2013.


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