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The Disappearing Governor

Aug. 19, 2009
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Even before Gov. Jim Doyle announced he would not seek re-election, it was starting to become obvious he was ready for a career change.

As I reported a month and a half ago, Doyle’s gratuitously anti-Milwaukee budget vetoes intentionally alienating African-American legislators and the only Latino legislator didn’t make sense if Doyle had been planning to run for re-election.

In 2002, Doyle’s organizational strength in Milwaukee County against former Milwaukee Congressman Tom Barrett was his secret weapon in defeating both Barrett and Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk for the Democratic nomination to take on weak Republican Gov. Scott McCallum.

It was a complete reversal when Doyle went out of his way this year to veto budget provisions personally inserted by Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor, state Rep. Annette Polly Williams, state Rep. Pedro Colon and others to reduce criminal justice disparities, connect poor folks with jobs, improve transit and make it easier for immigrants to get driver’s licenses.

Then, just last week, Doyle jumped into the middle of another Milwaukee issue that put him at odds with many local elected officials. Doyle expressed support for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett appointing the next superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools.

Doyle’s support came as Barrett proposed seizing control of MPS and replacing the elected Milwaukee School Board with a board appointed by the mayor.

There has been no public groundswell in Milwaukee for the idea of the mayor running the public schools. Indeed, there’s been very little public discussion of the idea at all. So far, most discussions have taken place behind closed doors in private meetings hosted by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, which appears to be the primary proponent of the idea.

While Milwaukee’s corporate leaders make sure their own children receive every educational benefit in well-funded private and suburban schools, they have never made increasing educational resources for city children in MPS a high priority.

We have yet to hear any local elected official, except the mayor, express support for a mayoral takeover. And the governor’s support almost immediately lost any value it had when Doyle decided not to run for re-election.

A mayoral takeover would require a change in state law to abolish the locally elected school board and transfer power to Milwaukee’s mayor. It’s doubtful a lame duck governor would have the political clout to pass such a radical change, especially with strong opposition from the city’s Democratic legislators.

Office Up for Grabs

Of course, Doyle’s announcement that he’s not running throws a whole lot of other things up for grabs as well, including the governor’s office.

Over the next few months, the jockeying among potential candidates in both parties probably will be the only thing that really gets done politically.

On the Democratic side, the obvious names to mention are those of Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, Congressman Ron Kind from La Crosse, Dane County Executive Falk and Barrett.

The fresh candidates, of course, are Lawton and Kind. Lawton would be helped tremendously if Doyle were to leave office early to take an Obama administration appointment or some other job. But even if Lawton became governor, she would probably face a primary challenge. Wisconsin politics is such a backward boys’ club she would have to prove she could win. There already are plenty who underestimate Lawton just because she is an attractive woman.

Personally, I’m betting Lawton will emerge as the strongest candidate and 2010 will be a Democratic year as Republican extremists continue their meltdown.

Kind is a conservative Democrat now aiding and abetting Republicans watering down President Obama’s health care reform. As Barrett and Republican Congressman Mark Green can attest, transferring popularity within a single congressional district to a statewide race is difficult.

Falk would have been a strong candidate if she hadn’t been the only Democrat to lose statewide when Doyle was re-elected in 2006. Even worse, running for state attorney general, Falk was defeated by Republican J.B. Van Hollen, the epitome of an empty suit politician.

Barrett, after missing his best shot to become governor in 2002, found a comfortable position as Milwaukee’s amiable mayor. Instead of running for other jobs, Barrett apparently will advocate that other elected officials be eliminated and their duties turned over to the mayor of Milwaukee.

On the Republican side, which of the major candidates—Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker or former Congressman Mark Neumann—will benefit the most? My guess is neither.

Without incumbent Doyle as a candidate, Republicans probably will work even harder to get a stronger candidate than either Walker or Neumann. Walker has the baggage of exacerbating the financial disaster of Milwaukee County with his extreme conservatism and Neumann has negative charisma.

Congressman Paul Ryan, a handsome, personable right-winger, might prefer to wait for a shot at a U.S. Senate seat, but he will be under increasing pressure from Republicans to seek their nomination for governor.


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