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Democrats Vs. Democrats

Oct. 28, 2009
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Humorist Will Rogers summed it up a long time ago when he said: “I don’t belong to any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

It was just last November that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama scored a resounding victory in Wisconsin, winning 59 of 72 counties. That rout helped Democrats win control of the state Assembly, giving them control of both houses of the Legislature as well as the governor’s office for the first time in more than two decades.

What a difference a year makes.

Instead of taking advantage of a golden opportunity to rekindle the progressive politics of Wisconsin’s dimly remembered past, Democrats now appear hell-bent on tearing apart their own highly successful coalition.

The Obama landslide in Wisconsin won a combination of more urban, suburban and rural counties than in any other state in the nation. It created a power base from which Democrats could conceivably dominate state politics for years to come. Instead, starting with a series of anti-Milwaukee budget vetoes back in July, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle began blowing apart the successful Obama coalition.

Doyle vetoed a local sales tax negotiated to rescue Milwaukee County transit that was approved by voters in a referendum.

The governor also went out of his way to veto job funds for Milwaukee, benefits for immigrants and criminal justice reforms that were personally inserted into the budget by state Rep. Annette Polly Williams, state Rep. Pedro Colon and state Sen. Lena Taylor.

While Milwaukee Democrats were still trying to figure out how a Democratic governor expected to get re-elected after giving the back of his hand to the state’s largest city, Doyle made the surprise announcement that he didn’t.

A news leak apparently forced Doyle to announce earlier than he’d intended that he would not seek re-election. If Doyle had waited longer, of course, he would have given his party even less time to scramble to find a candidate.

Not Done Dividing

Doyle wasn’t done dividing Milwaukee Democrats, either. He publicly announced his support for Mayor Tom Barrett’s attempt to take control of Milwaukee Public Schools and eliminate the locally elected school board. It’s a proposal the majority of the city’s Democratic legislators oppose.

To say the campaign has been handled awkwardly is an understatement. But a joint appearance by Doyle and Barrett a week ago threw gasoline on what already was a flaming controversy.

First, you had two of the state’s most prominent Democrats adopting the Bush administration tactic of barring from their political speeches any citizens who disagreed with them.

A group of about 30 opponents of the mayoral takeover picketed outside before the appearance of the governor and the mayor. They included MPS parents and community activists who had organized grassroots support in the past for Obama, Doyle and Barrett.

A wall of Milwaukee police officers prevented anyone who publicly disagreed with the takeover from entering the building to hear Doyle and Barrett.

Police also barred Michael Bonds, the president of the Milwaukee School Board, from the press conference where the elimination of his elected position was being discussed.

There was one major news development that came out of the joint press conference. Unfortunately, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which editorially supports the mayoral takeover, didn’t bother to report it.

At community forums, Barrett has argued that a principal reason for the takeover would be to position Wisconsin to receive hundreds of millions of dollars for public schools from the U.S. Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” program.

Barrett said Wisconsin could possibly receive as much as $300 million statewide and as much as $120 million of that could come to MPS.

At their joint press conference, Doyle slashed those expectations dramatically. He suggested a more realistic figure for the state might be $80 million, which could mean only $10 million or so for Milwaukee.

With an MPS budget of more than $1 billion, whoever is in charge of Milwaukee Public Schools won’t be funding any dramatic transformations with a relative pittance Wisconsin is considered a long shot to receive anyway.

Opponents of the mayoral takeover already criticize Doyle and Barrett for being eager to jettison a democratically elected school board in a lust for one-time money from the federal government.

Now they’re pointing out just how cheaply the governor and the mayor are willing to sell out voters.

What’s most disturbing is that the political leaders and activists fighting each other in Milwaukee are all Democrats.

Without even a consensus on the Democratic candidate for governor next year, Doyle seems strangely eager to destroy the successful coalition that consolidated Democratic power in Madison last November.

It’s never a compliment to say a governor’s final term was the pinnacle of his party’s success. That means he left it teetering on a precipice and everything went down hill from there.


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