Thursday, July 30, 2015

COULD CHANGE IN MILWAUKEE CHAIR POINT TO NEW ELECTION TACTICS?

By Dominique Paul Noth


Lipscomb seems to have the votes
My educated guess is that, a few hours after I write this,  Theodore Lipscomb  will be elected new Milwaukee County board chair. On July 30 he seems to have the votes locked up against announced opponents and fellow supervisors Willie Johnson and Michael Mayo.

There are many reasons for my advance guesswork, but I go further.  This changing of the guard as Marina Dimitrijevic steps aside  is hardly a retreat in the face of money and GOP influence but the first salvo in winnable small ball,  girding for political and government battle to take Wisconsin district by district toward  progressive ideals in jobs, pay, equanimity and public education. 

That’s putting a lot of tea leaves and brave hopes  on a simple torch passing of internal leadership from one veteran supervisor to another in a technically nonpartisan situation.  Especially since it  will be largely interpreted in mainstream media  as a victory for the political gamesmanship of County Executive Chris Abele.

But it may actually herald a growing coalition against  him as well as conviction that,  in Milwaukee and around the state,  energy and ideas now must do more than ever against  bullying money – and brace yourself for some deep tactical surprises.

What prompted this speedy election on the board was that Dimitrijevic, while retaining her role as 4th District supervisor, announced that she was stepping down from the chair. This came after news she was being courted to be state chapter president of the Working Families Party.

Though often described as a minor “third party,” Working Families actually functions in many regions as a fusion party, pushing larger progressive principles but open to run its  own candidates or goad Democratic candidates and even the occasional Republican on social concerns.  Its growth has been as dynamic as the concerns:  higher minimum wage, public education, higher taxes on and less escape loopholes for the rich, jobs, health care, student debt crisis, universal paid leave,  smarter energy policies and environmental reform – you choose the order depending on locale and need. A popular agenda with teeth and a determination not to be distracted by personality sideshows.  

The party was founded in New York State in the late 1990s, and has now expanded to several other states, hoping to add a vibrant Wisconsin chapter at just the appropriate time, which seems right now.  It has sometimes run its own folks but often cross-pollinates.  It has not been without turmoil since like the civil rights movement it believes in pushing complacent citizenry into mass action. It seeks to apply pressure for candidates to honor their commitment to working families (often claimed but only sometimes followed through).  That determination sometimes creates conflicts with more cautious public figures.

Among the successes of its campaign methods are Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy and US  Sen. Chris Murphy, Oregon’s US  Sen. Jeff Merkley, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (who seems to now balk on some commitments),  New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio  and, in a famous case of bucking Democratic establishment politics,   feisty New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, who won in a landslide.


Jennifer Epps-Addison, already a familiar activist.
So their power in state elections should not be underestimated and in this state their prime movers include the new president of the Milwaukee teachers union, Kim Schroeder, and the ardent leader of Wisconsin Jobs Now, Jennifer Epps-Addison.

Dimitrijevic has not yet accepted the position as state leader, and that may affect the timing of how long she stays in her District 4 job. But it is clearly a sign that rather than turning to the most flamethrower progressive out there the Working Families has set its sights on a proven conciliator.

In earlier interviews, Dimitrijevic laughingly recalled that when she was first elected supervisor more than a decade ago as its youngest woman member ever, only she and Gerry Broderick could be categorized as leaning left.  Yet as chairman she has herded and often united a diverse crowd that defies the simplistic right and left labels into uniform advances on green technology, repaired finances, better health care, aging and transit initiatives – and frankly, a lot of developments including downtown construction that Abele likes to take credit for.  Yet Abele seems to have spread the myth of the board as interfering with what he calls progress and what many observers call his autocracy. 

Come April the state legislature will use Act 14 to cut the pay of county supervisors in half to $24,000 a year. The theory was that only rich conservatives could afford to take a full time job at part-time pay.  The opposite is proving true. So far vacancies on the board have been filled from the left and active middle, not the right. That may say something about who is willing to work hard for little money at public service.

It may also explain why Lipscomb is the obvious choice. He is regarded on the board as fierce for the people’s rights in county government, supportive of special hiring efforts for the inner city, aggressive on the board’s legislative power, stubborn on projects and prudent on finances, so he is likely to draw votes right and left, black and white.  

Lipscomb has troubled some progressives over his commitment to keeping the Estrabook Dam, which many believe is almost a family heirloom. Others see his support as listening to his district or opposing Abele’s love of vetoes. But his stand is opposed by major ecologists and groups like the Riverkeepers who frankly want to see the Dam blown out of the Milwaukee River. Today many supervisors who will vote for him say he should not expect their continued protection on this particular fetish. 


Dimitrijevic anticipated to take new role
Dimitrijevic may certainly be seeking a family supporting job but also an even more active role to change the political landscape.  She is used to a world where internal fortitude and diplomatic maneuvers are more respected than party labels. 

But unquestionably Abele and the state GOP had to know the roots of Democratic and progressive politics have been formed around the nonpartisan support achieved by many supervisors, and that was being attacked in offering them part time pay for a job that remains full time for the dedicated.  That is why Act 14 is clearly not about more efficient government but punishing resistance.

Dimitrijevic hasn’t said, but she may want to remove herself as  a lightning rod to reveal the depth of discomfort over Abele’s methods.  She knows the media liked to pretend it was personal. Now they‘ll know differently. 

Walker has helped make the time ripe for the Working Families change in Wisconsin, many of its leaders feel,  by exposing his  ineptitude and vanity to national scrutiny,  throwing Wisconsin to the wolves in his budget as he ogles the White House. 

In that atmosphere, Abele’s behavior moves from savvy to rancid. He  was actually elected county executive in 2011  to correct the tilted ship of Walker, with deep expectations he would listen to all sides of the issues.  But then out of impatience with democracy he adopted Walker methods, leading many in the courthouse, even  his own managers,  to refer to him as Walker-Lite.

Independently well-off because of inherited money, Abele was described to me  by a Republican business associate as “brimming with ideas I wouldn’t put a farthing behind.”  To be fair, some ideas may in desperation (fear of losing the Bucks)  be worth a gamble, though without more facts I sure wouldn’t bet on his county-harming methods of funding a new Arena – including giving away $8 million in land for a dollar a parcel because the pace of natural economic development  is not fast enough to keep the 1% engaged in Milwaukee growth.

But at least the worst ideas of Abele in that funding muddle were eliminated though we are still left with a $4 million a year hole for 20 years on the very county taxpayers he was supposed to protect. The county board hasn’t been left with much room to improve his meandering, nor has the Common Council, but both are looking hard.

Abele used his largesse to endear himself to the GOP and run rough over the Democratic Party establishment while advertising himself as a Democrat at heart because of his lavish support of LBGT causes, international feminism and Shakespearean arts. At least some Democrats are now skeptical not just of Abele but what claims  their party label permits.

His imperialistic manner offends several on the county board who might be in his ideological camp on key issues. They still want respect for their role -- and as long as he denies them that,  the board will become more combative. 

And in the last weeks Madison has come  under pressure from some well heeled conservatives to rein Abele in – they fear his loose cannon  as much as more liberal factions do. Many I'm told were connected to the Milwaukee Art Museum, which is working with the county board on an O'Donnell Park deal.

Once the state conservatives seemed willing to curtail  the legislative body of Milwaukee County in a manner they would not dare attempt in any of the other 71 counties (and they sure didn’t do for Walker). Claiming expediency but really hoping to nibble away at a Democratic stronghold, they gave much of the  power on land sales and regulatory oversight to Abele, not to the county board they regard as the area’s political base of active voters.

That seemed to work when he gave away Park East parcels for the Bucks. But there’s  a backfire in his understanding of complex federal regulations and in playing favorites in who gets first crack at the deals.  His authority isn’t sitting well with members of the business community who aren’t on the inside and know some regulations are needed to level the playing field.

As legislative experts dip inside the new Act 999, they sense Madison left the county board with more powers  than Abele  wanted, and opened the door to public hearings and  court actions that affect everything from Arena funding to arts funds to  Park East land sales. So there may be some provocative moves left for the county board if they pinpoint where Abele has been given too much control. 

“The public may wake up tomorrow to see their beloved airport privatized from under them without any say – that’s how extreme has been his takeover and so willing has been the state to lift the controls” noted Supervisor Broderick, who has long indicated he will retire in 2016.

Other observers have detected a pattern of capable outspoken experts unable to work with what one privately called “Abele’s Howard Hughes side.” The list is long – Sue Black, fired from running county parks and now heading Arizona’s park system under a Republican governor; several chiefs of staff and department heads; Frank Busalacchi, who still won’t discuss why he left a key county position after working with – and arguing with – Gov. Jim Doyle as head of the state department of transportation, and the interesting tale of  Terry Slaybaugh, the Mitchell airport director who within months scrambled back to his previous Dayton  job. All he originally told an interviewer was unhappiness at being “heavily managed by his bosses” at Milwaukee County.  A later orchestration by Abele’s office to blame the county board for his unhappiness has had few takers.

No wonder some conservatives are now asking for better controls on Abele, just as more progressives and moderates in Walkerland are open to new tactics and precise goals – and maybe even new party labels.


About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 


Sunday, June 28, 2015

EXPLORING WHY SCALIA’S DIATRIBES KEEP GETTING VERSE

It's no longer a case of assuming
What sends Scalia fuming
His mind gets unfettered
When others write better
His reputation entombing.

By Dominique Paul Noth
Final part of Kennedy's remarkable same sex marriage decision

The week of  June 22 was the worst of Antonin Scalia’s reputation on the US Supreme Court. He went  ballistic on the losing side of both Obamacare and same sex marriage.

The longest ensconced justice (President Reagan, 1986) -- self-proclaimed as the outstanding wordsmith of the right (Ruth Bader Ginsburg is generally so acknowledged on the left), famous for assigned decisions and caustic dissents laced with erudite  flights of fancy and  abrasive superiority -- Scalia has been tolerated and even taught in law schools for a gift of language and an insistence on textual interpretation.

Basically here’s his concept of originalism involving the laws and the Constitution -- they only say what they mean according to Scalia.  It is a sometimes laughable theory that underneath promotes legal attention to textual purpose -- extremely confrontational but lively fodder for debate.

Yet of late his excursions into musing pompous language and offhand  insults have come a  major cropper – tending to make the pinhead side of conservatism even more litigious  and sending even Federalist Society lawyers scurrying from knee-jerk Scaliastic acceptance.

Moreover, reason-based conservatives on the court have been writing rings around him by focusing on balancing values within the laws -- even turning his own interpretations against him.

Only Scalia and Ginsburg have earned operatic stature for their personalities and phraseology. But as her reputation for insight ascends, Falstaff has descended to buffoon arias of rage. 

Recently, comity thrown to the winds,  his invective was aimed at that Reagan White House  pup John Roberts (sure he’s 60 but Scalia is 79 and thought he had a new acolyte) who   regularly fails to succumb in deference to his elder (who wanted that chief justice job 10 years ago). 

Now Roberts is certainly no progressive’s ideal of  a justice. He’s hardly  free from obeisance to  the wealthy right or entrenched Babbittry. But in the case of the Affordable Care Act that might have actually helped. It was not just Obama backers but  the business community that saw financial calamity in undoing ACA despite some 56 times the House GOP voted to repeal it.  Wall Street needed a pragmatic jurist reaching logically beyond flame-thrower politics.
Roberts upholds Obamacare  and
again draws Scalia's wrath.

Roberts’  first decision in 2012 upheld the legislative legality of ACA as a taxing initiative. Then his second this June 25  wrote the clincher opinion that puts ACA beyond reasonable reach of congressional enemies.  As pundit Andy Borowitz laughingly pointed out in The New Yorker, Roberts’ opinion has forced  Reince Preibus and the GOP to search for a new anti-Obama myth to attack. 

Actually it wasn’t even close, 6-3, since Roberts was joined by the other remaining Reagan justice, Anthony Kennedy (1988), long regarded as a swing vote but ideologically more attuned with Scalia. In the first ACA case, he and Scalia were on the same side of the  constitutional  issue,  but last week they parted ways because it was an interpretation of the intent of the statute, and normally the conclusion was so inevitable it would be a petty waste of the court’s time to even take it up. Except ACA opponents anticipated that Scalia’s fondness for textual sleight of hand might bring other conservatives around.

But sometimes the justices agree to take a Hail Mary pass in order to permanently spike it. Kennedy joined Roberts in going to  the heart of the case, ignoring the Scalia attempt to isolate four words (“established by the State”) from the overriding language that the federal government had on a cabinet level authorized  “such Exchanges” including subsidies. In fact, Scalia’s selective lifting could only carry along Sam Alito and Clarence Thomas.

Roberts is a sturdy opinion writer but there was something more powerful than routine scholarship in his quotations from past decisions (“We cannot interpret federal statutes to negate their own stated purposes”) and in his straight to the point summation: “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.” 

But he couldn’t resist an ironic slam at Scalia’s dissent in the first ACA case that admitted  “without federal subsides the Exchanges cannot operate as Congress intended,” confirming even Scalia really knew what Congress wanted. 

In dissent Scalia was forced to "wholeheartedly agree with the Court that sound interpretation requires paying attention to the whole law, not honing in on isolated words or even isolated sections."  But falsely hone in he did and went linguistically childish because Roberts was using workmanlike accuracy to show him up. 

He demeaned Roberts’  reasoning with a disconnected fruity harrumph ("Pure applesauce”) and turned to old Scottish insults ("jiggery-pokery") that didn’t address diddly.  Prof. Ed Fallone in a  Marquette University blog has more brilliantly than any layman could explained how sound Roberts’ reasoning was and truer to the “ancient principle of statutory interpretation”  that Scalia keeps pretending to defend.

With a fetish for verbal diarrhea
That angry old justice Scalia
His colleagues to harm ‘em
Became P.T. Barnum
With hokum of hoary Anglophilia

Scalia’s manner became even more unhinged and personal the next day (June 26) when Scotus 5-4 declared a constitutional right to same sex marriage in the secular realm.

The main opinion came from Kennedy, who has shown previous sensitivity to homosexual freedom from government persecution. In 1996 he struck down a Colorado state amendment that classified  homosexuals “not to further a proper legislative end but to make them unequal to everyone else.” In 2003 he invalidated an anti-sodomy law that “involves liberty of the person.” In 2013 in a landmark case his opinion struck down key components of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and likely opened the door to gay advocates looking at the  hundreds of state regulations denying gays what one man one woman marriages were allowed.
Kennedy's eloquence comes
under attack

But even these advocates, I suspect, didn’t anticipate the reach,  breadth and power of Kennedy’s articulate validation. Calling marriage the “keystone of our social order,” he insisted that  "no longer may this liberty be denied" the homosexual community, as it was long denied interracial couples. He actually elevated the importance of marriage for all.

In this case, Roberts was on the other side, acknowledging the social value of gay couples (“Many will rejoice in this decision and I begrudge none of their celebration”) and suggesting that they might win his support as a legislator. But he insisted it was too sweeping a decision (reducing his brethren to “five lawyers” not jurists in his ire) and was  defying judicial caution and the lengthy traditions of only opposite sex marriage, even citing the values of the Kalahari Bushmen, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs to support his notion.

(That comment brought a swift response in Slate June 27  from a respected judge on the federal 7th District Court of Appeals who has been considered for the highest court, Richard A. Posner. Calling Roberts dissent “heartless”  Posner described the long history of social persecution suffered by the gay community and poked fun at Roberts’ example.  “Most of us are not convinced that what’s good enough for the Bushmen, the Carthaginians, and the Aztecs should be good enough for us. Ah, the millennia! Ah, the wisdom of ages! How arrogant it would be to think we knew more than the Aztecs — we who don’t even know how to cut a person’s heart out of his chest while he's still alive, a maneuver they were experts at.”)

Even Roberts had to acknowledge that “injustices” such as civil rights are often not recognized in their  own time. But he still fulminated about a major disruption in the social order by letting the court lead the people. One can imagine how such private contrary discussions on the court  invigorated Kennedy’s language throughout, thusly:

“Without the recognition, stability and predictability marriage offers, their children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser. They also suffer the significant material costs of being raised by unmarried parents, relegated through no fault of their own to a more difficult and uncertain family life. The marriage laws at issue here thus harm and humiliate the children of same-sex couples.”

In this era of economic, family and social pressure, the polls suggest nearly 43% of opposite sex couples are living together or  raising children without benefit of marriage, so soured have they become on the institution.  Seen in that light, Kennedy has done more to magnify the importance and special legal protections of marriage for all Americans.

That was missed by Scalia in a dissent so unbridled that  Roberts pointedly refused to sign aboard though he was on the same side.

Angered by Kennedy's eloquence
In poetic gay marriage defense
What emanates from Scalia
Is fury akin to Sharia
Ego offended by his own irrelevance.


Scalia railed at what he sarcastically saw as the majority’s presumption: “These justices know that limiting marriage to one man and one woman is contrary to reason; they know that an institution as old as government itself, and accepted by every nation in history until 15 years ago, cannot possibly be supported by anything other than ignorance or bigotry.”  Strange language given Scotus’ central role in settling issues brought before the court. Stranger still that it was not true unless talking about Christian countries.  It made it easy to interpret his tirade as more religious in nature than based on understanding of human rights  and the pain of denial, which clearly is what moved the majority to action.

Even religious and conservative leaders thought Kennedy rose to such memorable language  out of compassion and belief  in the power of the law to correct error. Not Scalia.
“The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic,” Scalia wrote of his Reagan colleague’s work, not thinking for a moment of how pretentious and egotistic much of his own writing sounds. “The opinion’s showy profundities are often profoundly incoherent.”
If there was any doubt that Scalia has strayed from
jurisprudence, dissents prove it.

Scalia seems upset by Kennedy’s phrase-making to the point that he “would hide my head in a bag” rather than write such stuff and even seemed to accuse Kennedy of being bought or catering to public opinion. What struck others as florid elegance became to Scalia a signal that the court “has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.”

It is a valuable sidebar to point out that chief justice Marshall (1801-1835) solidified acceptance of the court as the independent branch by pushing the politics of the times and conservative Story (1811-1845) didn’t just expand the property rights of rich white men he also vehemently opposed the slave trade. Part of their “disciplined reasoning” was stretching the norms of  society.

Scalia’s attacks on his colleagues for seeing the rights issue differently  reminded several devout federalists of the warnings of a Founding Father, Georgia educator Abraham Baldwin, who actually didn’t want the US Constitution to name the rights reserved to governments, arguing that "If we enumerate specific rights, then some fool in the future will argue that people are entitled only to those rights and no others."  

Scalia sure sounded like that fuming fool in his dissent especially when he suggested that the court should not defend anything other than rights regarded as “fundamental by every person alive at the time of ratification”  of the Constitution.  He also insisted that gay marriage eroded the rights of the non-beatniks (“One would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.”) and derided the majority justices for where they came from and where they go to church (six are actually Catholics). 

Incoherently this was his own  brand of  activism disguised as originalism, even insisting that it ought to take super-legislative action to change the civil definition of marriage, ignoring the expanded role government today plays in marriage rights.

Yet as nasty as many view his dissent, it was less brutal and close-minded than what sprang from Thomas. He suggested the damage done by the government to the LBGTs  who want to marry was grossly exaggerated. “All people have dignity,” he began, stating the obvious. “Human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.”

The view that government has no role in advancing human dignity is hard to swallow on any side.  But at least another dissenter, Alito, focused on a more frequent if ridiculous worry -- that religions that resist same sex marriages will be mocked into agreement.  The secular decision  “will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy,” Alito wrote. “In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women. The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent” – in other words intimidating churchgoers to give in.

Alito’s fear implies the religious will react violently or are easily swayed in their convictions. He suffers from horrible timing.  If nothing else on a different issue of terrorist massacre, the religious in Charleston have just demonstrated extraordinary charity, tolerance and forgiveness of a racist while peacefully insisting on their rights.

That is the analogy most people will see, not Alito's scare tactics. No wonder Kennedy believes we are mature enough.  Maturity vs. appeals to fear are becoming a determinative factor in American progress.  

The ruling reaffirms the freedom of religion, the value of marriage  and tells the government to keep its nose out of what couples can enjoy full legal recognition of marriage.

Scalia’s colleagues still rely on his First Amendment passion, particularly on issues he has long felt strongly about, such as the ambiguity in California law that sentences the convicted to longer terms than needed. So he was chosen to write that 7-1 opinion issued June 26 (California vs. Johnson). 

But it was a bone after the  enormous double whammy that left him pushing words around too loosely and way off target, insulting colleagues on the right even more than the left.

No wonder his  reputation for ferocity no longer scares people or carries that old ideological weight.

Once praised as a master word hustler
Scalia is commonly outmuscled 
He’s been left in a lather
And reduced to blather
Not once but twice out rustled 

With all apologies to Edward Lear

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com.



Monday, June 15, 2015

ALDERMEN MAKE COST TO MPS, IN-HOUSE OVERSIGHT ESSENTIAL TO FUTURE CHARTER SCHOOL DEALS

By Dominique Paul Noth

JS coverage rushed past the innovative scrutiny of
Ald. Kovac's winning ordinances June 11.
A five year moratorium on City Hall creating charter schools had become a symbolic cause of the Stop MPS Takeover movement and drew an overflow crowd of worried charter supporters and anxious MPS families to the June 11 hearing by the influential Common Council Steering & Rules Committee.

The only newspaper coverage of the hearing by Journal Sentinel missed the heart of what actually happened – a three to one victory for more scrupulous public standards and a deliberate set of barriers if not absolute halt to the creation of more city authorized charter schools. 

Nor did any establishment media touch the primary motive for tabling the moratorium proposal. 

Most aldermen thought that idea was too easy to reverse in future council votes and probably too aggressive a stick in the eye of the Madison legislature. The state, alas, has the purse strings and legislative authority to take away the Common Council’s power to approve its own schools. 

Not that the aldermen didn’t sympathize with or share the outrage at the interference from Madison by this constantly evolving Darling-Kooyenga K-12 hustle, whose autocratic motives and clumsy research leap off the pages of their original fancy brochure proposal. 

Except the Darling-Kooyenga hustle wasn’t in front of the aldermen. They just didn’t like the strategy of the ordinance author, Ald. Tony Zielinksi. Some also took Zielinski’s effort as overwrought opportunism to court votes since next April he faces a former school board member, Meagan Holman, who has sometimes supported charter projects.  They may agree on the bubble-headedness emanating from Madison, but local officials are touchy if proposed ordinances seem too obviously election motivated.

So without the charter movement crowd or the reporter much noticing, in two new ordinances sponsored by vice chair Nik Kovac the panel required the Charter School Review Committee (CSRC) to add to its evaluation criteria the financial impact on MPS of any new school considered. That puts the onus back on how the state uses taxpayer money for schools and forces the Common Council to acknowledge up front its culpability in MPS fortunes.

The committee also imposed controls that will shut down the often automatic financial spigot enjoyed by Howard Fuller and his Marquette University Institute for the Transformation of Learning. (Approved city charters almost routinely receive large federal startup grants.)

Look in vain inside the JS story for information about these major changes and even the rebuke to CSRC chair Jeanette Mitchell for not providing aldermen with better information. 

Quietly the aldermen had recognized that something needed to be done about the flawed funding formula that means every new charter it allowed was stealing money from MPS and fudging the income and population realities of the city.  Meanwhile the runaway train that is Wisconsin’s current government continues to expand the failed voucher and charter models. 

It may not want to be but City Hall is part of the problem.  Of the city’s 10 charter schools with more than 3,200 students, only its downtown Montessori exceeds expectations (as it did long before it was a city charter) while the others often fail expectations. 

Some converted from voucher schools because they would gain more taxpayer money as charters.  A few are sincerely meant with new ideas for teaching, but struggle with staff and accountability goals. Others are part of the trend of national chains selling lower-cost promises, a revolving door of novice low-paid teachers, babysitting video games masked as education and friendliness at the entrance steps while actually treating kids as a new profit center, yet all these still lag in academic performance.

No wonder many in the movement had come to think of city charter approval as a pushover.

Until June 11. To the surprise of many MPS advocates who regard the city as unsympathetic, the committee insisted on better results and higher scrutiny. (How can Madison attack that?) What they passed will make it more difficult for charter approval and probably force re-examination of previously approved chains expecting slam-dunk expansion. The decisions linked any further growth of city charter schools to performance and professional in-house oversight – something like MPS is doing with its own charter schools, including those that chart their own course and those that follow existing training and union pay standards.

It’s been little touted that Wisconsin’s most successful charter schools are the tightly monitored ones of both sorts run by public school districts. 

The simplistic pros and cons of the charter, voucher and MPS debate brought an abnormally high turnout for this hearing – but that doesn’t excuse how Vivian Wang's JS story  didn’t see the nuances or the undercurrents. That brought complaints about the story from elected officials. Several aldermen felt their shrewd attempt at balance was overlooked. They learned the hard way that the intellectual colors of past journalism have vanished and today’s Milwaukee newspaper, in terms of thoughtfulness, is printed in black and white.

City Clerk Jim Owczarski moved in
One new ordinance turns over to respected City Clerk Jim Owczarski and his publicly accountable staff the office duties once controlled by Fuller’s people.

Owczarski confirmed in an interview that his public officials will be “taking over the staffing of meetings, posting of agendas, taking of minutes, and will likely work on the custodianship of records.”  The Marquette institute will assist in the application and monitoring process rather than staffing or even holding meetings in its own space, something that the Common Council didn’t at first know was happening when it selected this Catholic university division as  review agent. It has only belatedly realized how many schools guided through the city process were connected to groups and conduits Fuller was part of. 

The city also pledged June 11 that all future meetings of the CSRC will be televised – and miked, which hasn’t always been the case. 

The aldermen are tightening up, demanding deeper better reports from a CSRC  appointed equally by the mayor and the president of the Common Council (with the comptroller adding a financial officer). Under departed council president Willie Hines, whose appointments still dominate, the process drew constant citizen complaints of being too obedient to Fuller’s power plays in the national charter school network. Marva Herndon of Women Informed noted she was hopeful after “years of fighting with them” because this new action acknowledges what her group wanted -- recognition that “the Common Council was responsible for the CSRC” and that the past process “was not transparent.”  

Ald. Michael Murphy in charge.
The new council president, Ald. Michael Murphy, cannot be regarded as an MPS or MTEA proponent. He is respected for a crisp studious air and an understanding of compromise politics. He has been criticized for not being tough enough on charter and voucher schools, such as backing away from a stricter ordinance requiring playgrounds at all elementary schools, preferring a milder approach. He even chastised a research minded advocate from a community organization for public education, Schools and Communities United, that “your interest does not lie in the improvement and proper supervision of charter schools but their elimination,” sternly reaffirming Murphy’s  legal obligation.

He may not yet realize he is protecting a vapid ordinance written loosely in the 1990s, but at least he’s trying to tighten the system around it.

Consider the wishy-washy mandate in city ordinances: “The proposed school will operate an education program that has a reasonable prospect of providing Milwaukee children a good education.” 

“Reasonable prospect”? That’s a low standard, hardly a match for the original vision of charter schools. That was to innovate on methods and specialties or, as former president Bill Clinton succinctly explained, “They’re supposed to do a better job educating students.”

But during the Clinton era the city set up shop with a definition that has stretched the meaning of “reasonable prospect” beyond reasonable recognition. The original ordinance didn’t require annual external accounting to the public but at least required an annual academic “scorecard” from the respected Children’s Research Center (CRC), a division of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. It still mystifies citizens that schools that didn’t score well or didn’t show advancement in the past were given multiple second chances by the city system, but it becomes clearer when you look at the limp wording of the original ordinance.

Now it’s Murphy fielding lingering complaints from parents and community groups about what even fellow aldermen call “abysmal” results and in philosophical musings he has demeaned the attitude that to benefit the minority community aldermen can let in schools with persistent low outcomes "because they mean well.”  

So the hearing revealed a new balance. Murphy wants the city to keep its power to create schools but seems troubled about the consequences, including punishing MPS with every new student and keeping alive several schools previously identified as laggards.  

Murphy on June 11 saw that both sides were primed for a prolonged debate over the Zielinski proposal with signs, children, speakers and more. The MPS parents and teens who arrived early for the hearing were somehow pushed to the back rows while the later-arriving T-shirt emblazoned Rocketship parents, middle school children and charter forces armed with green placards took the prominent rows before the cameras – a common public relations ploy of using children in the education debate.  But there were so many in both camps that dozens more were relegated to the overflow chamber down the hall (many muttered it was just the same as staying home and watching it all on the access channel). 

To the disappointment of the well prepared, Murphy shut down any public testimony (avoiding not just redundancy but the likelihood that the meeting would stretch into the evening). After minimal debate he sped to setting aside the Zielinski proposal – all with studious goodwill. These actions cleverly pulled attention away from the ordinances that vice chair Kovac had previously introduced and been smoothly passed. 

Murphy, as one wag put it, “runs a great railroad.” With brisk businesslike manner he made sure all aldermen had time to speak. It was an exercise in intelligent politics.  Even Stop MPS Takeover advocates were impressed at the positive results, crediting their “shovel and spade work,” as one put it.  “Dare I say hopeful?” one member told colleagues.

Clearly it is a different world from the Hines days and the Fuller rubber stamp even if it wasn’t the moratorium some wanted as they see all the out of town evils descending on MPS. But the demand for real proof of important educational gains deepened when the panel pulled back an outrageous but previously routine  request for a new five-year contract for the still on-probation King’s Academy, giving the new principal only two years to live up to her promises.

On June 14, even the JS veteran education reporter, Alan Borsuk, took notice, though buried near the end of a Sunday  Q&A “primer” for novices on what charter schools are and aren’t. (“Q. Are charter schools getting better results? A. Yes, no and maybe so.”)

But he offered the aldermanic cutback on King’s Academy as “a good example of how the idea is supposed to work.” 

In this era of gridlock where progressive Milwaukee is the obvious target of flailing  state government, there will be constant arguments about the best tactics for dealing with that Madison beast with the big teeth threatening further bites if local officials strike back.

MPS is the ugliest case, a farewell gift to Alberta Darling, presumed to retire in 2016. Despite bizarre acquiescence from County Executive Chris Abele buddying up to a beneficiary of his financial largesse, GOP co-sponsor Dale Kooyenga, this is still a horrible concept in new hair coloring

But it has spurred the search for citizen awareness, new strategies and even surprise attacks to deal with the power hungry who can’t be shamed or reasoned into looking outside their own bubble.

In its indirect assault on a small piece of the puzzle, the Common Council just took a tactical approach so subtle that the JS reporter on the scene didn’t notice. But the public should.

In the interest of transparency, Borsuk who did notice a bit continues as a Sunday columnist for JS but is now actually a senior fellow in law and public policy in a different division of the same university (Marquette) that employs Fuller as professor. It is also the campus where I have taught, organized events and am listed as alum. 

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com.


Monday, May 25, 2015

HOW MY MAY 6 STORY DISAPPEARED AND NOW REQUIRES THIS PREAMBLE

By Dominique Paul Noth

On May 6, before the state Democratic Party set up a May 15 deadline for people to become official party members able to vote June 5-6 at the Wisconsin convention to choose new leadership to replace Mike Tate, I detected a strange eruption on social media. It was worth writing about.

This was long before the attitude started twisting into ugly fabrications on top of what I saw as superiority harrumphing. It became so brutal that other media such as Urban Milwaukee took notice – and now I hear the JS in the form of columnist Dan Bice is poking around.

Some people were clearly bothered that I, a progressive in values, was criticizing the people who choose the next state Democratic Party leaders. I hope somewhere in the thousand or so who make the decision were not any so upset that my column, though picked up by wispolitics.com and quoted to its own purpose by congnidissidence in early May,  mysteriously vanished from search engines. I didn’t discover this until I returned this weekend from two weeks visiting family out East.

I have sought to restore the article under the original headline “Why Are Democrats Engaging in Purity Tests?” and am adding this piece as what ought to be preamble to anyone rediscovering my original, which I think readers without an ax to grind will see as commentary on the times not choice among the candidates.

Now the dispute has broadened and elevated into extremist ugly attacks. The media, which adore conflicts that sell papers, are now playing up the Internet dispute and even dragging in familiar political demons – in the form of the Koch brothers as a way to criticize Jason Rae and the questionable past of Chuck Chvala as a way of attacking Martha Laning whom he is rumored to support. 


Casual readers may think that  Laning in behind the Koch attack on Rae though she told me in an interview May 22 she is as mystified and outraged as he is and can’t imagine why Chvala’s apparent support of her has  led to a guy she doesn’t even know being blamed for some sort of dirty tricks campaign against Rae. 

The whole thing is actually quite laughable. It’s cocktail party sniping turned into the sort of Internet exaggeration that the Democrats whomever they choose will have to rise above to operate in future unity. All this seems much more about opinionated attitudes among progressive extremists and some proud Democrats offended by the sense of a friend being attacked, certainly not my intention if you read what I said and certainly not openly plotted by any of the candidates. 

It reveals how sensitive are people who have devoted time and fortune to those off-year campaigns and judicial candidates that the larger public is only now grasping the importance of.  But their slower awakening shouldn’t bar them from offering fresh help and ideas. Frankly the party regulars should be concerned about becoming hidebound. It is one of the paradoxes of our state that the GOP has survived so regularly though most of the state finds their values short-sighted.

Now the worries I expressed about social media loose lips have escalated. The media, determined to sell newspapers, sees a story in all this as a way to laugh about the failures of the Democrats and the party’s immaturity -- particularly since the immature Republicans are much better at maintaining a sense of goose-step control.  I have never quite understood why the goose-step is preferred in a democracy, but apparently the media thinks it is less laughable.

My column didn’t endorse anyone (I’m not even a voting member), but it raised what I still regard as serious questions about insider  politics and the need for Democrats to emphasize their difference from the GOP camp regardless of what they think it takes behind the scenes to raise money and  elect candidates.

I noted how even in nonpresidential elections half the voters support Democratic candidates while actual party membership is negligible, which means a very small group of insiders pick the various candidates.   I pointed out that many people support the principles, fear the party regulars are stuck in a rut and think of Democrats as the welcoming large-tent party.  This internal dispute comes at time when previously unreachable citizens are growingly disturbed at the GOP state machine.

So the column was just a warning, based on what I still regard as trivialities about how new candidates for leadership were being attacked and veterans were using their history of dedication and friendships to suggest they knew more and knew better.  I clearly upset people who have dedicated decades to political campaigning for Democrats they like, simply by warning that the Democrats should not look petty about degrees of progressivism or moderation and should discuss issues and pick candidates not beholden to party machinations but to what works best district by district. 

But apparently passions run high in Milwaukee and extremism thrives on both sides. Just ask editor Bruce Murphy of Urban Milwaukee, where I don’t do politics but theater reviews. I don’t always agree politically with Bruce but he pointed out a provocative but interesting blogger Aaron Camp who claimed that Nation Consulting, the public relations firm run by Thad Nation and for whom Rae has worked,  has the reputation of a major Democratic presence but some clients supported by groups that Democrats deeply dislike. 

Murphy also rightly labeled as “shadowy” Kingfishmke.com which picked up the Camp claim using the demonization of Thad Nation as a way to attack Rae. I have been tracking this suspicious faux news site since  the David Clarke election for a host of misguided stories aimed at “the growing uninformed, under-informed, and quite often misinformed” African American culture (their come-on, not mine), though the site is registered in Arizona and smelled suspicious from the start. But I thought it bad form to give another weird site with a rather insulting Amos ‘n Andy name any ink. 

To associate Rae with the Kochs was flat ludicrous to anyone who knows his politics, even more ludicrous than his supporters attempting to criticize Laning because she once worked in Target’s financial division.

And the Thad Nation attacks? I was somewhat surprised that a good journalist like Murphy and a would-be investigative blogger like Camp neglected to point out that public relations firms run by Evan Zeppos and Martin Schreiber have many Democratic friendly  clients but also clients like Nation Consulting that  some Democrats are not crazy about --  yet  no one accuses Zeppos (who worked for Dave Obey and other leading Democrats) or Schreiber (who was a Democratic governor)  of being Koch slaves or extending the guilt by association to anyone who works for some of their clientele. And these other PR firms have also worked for clients like ATT who want to control Internet lanes and yet are involved in supportive union employment or activities. 

It’s a complicated world in which Democrats have to work extra hard to explain they are pro-business that plays fair and compassionate with workers (which should be the ideal), while the GOP attempts to paint them as anti-business because they question the rapacity that drives too many corporations. It’s a world where the overly righteous on all sides can look like fools. 

Amusing, too, how when Murphy wrote about this and suggested some skepticism about Camp’s claims, he was immediately attacked for making fun of the disabled because Camp has Asperger’s syndrome, a criticism I suspect even Camp found stupid as must others who work through autism and prove  what some regard as a deficit can emerge as a gift. 

Incidentally, I know my May 6 column suddenly vanished since I sought it on several computers, but I can’t be sure if it was hacking. Never had happened before and my host, blogger.com, has failed to provide a clear explanation.

But I know it was there May 6 since so many sites picked it up and all have reported back how the link later vanished. (I have restored.) And I did field complaints from many Democrats who had a horse in this race (I don’t) and thought I was attacking their candidate, though I wasn’t.  I did want balance in the treatment of Laning and I wanted Rae to curb his own publicity methods and the behavior of some of his supporters. Now I feel he is the more injured party, but it could soon be Laning if she is blamed for someone else’s overreach. 


About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its famous entertainment Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

WHY ARE DEMOCRATS ENGAGING IN PURITY TESTS?

By Dominique Paul Noth


Who will replace Mike Tate? And has it become
too easy to blame him for everything?
There is something distasteful about what is happening in the internal mechanism of the Democratic Party label.  I personally prefer that label and argue that most of Wisconsin does, at least every US  presidential election for the last 30 years.

It’s those off-elections that are doing so much damage to the state’s reality and reputation --  and the Democrats’ failure to break through then is what  seems to disturb them the most now. They are now engaged on social media in the sort of purity testing of Democratic credentials I  traditionally associate with the Republican party machinery at its worst – the labeling people RINO (Republicans in Name Only) who are not  extreme enough in conservatism or otherwise trying to embarrass members to move further to the right to justify their credentials.

And this is coming at a  time when citizens who have voted Republican are questioning the  extremist behavior that has destroyed the party’s reputation for logic, an attitude of excess that has dominated that party’s state machinery. It is Republicans, both moderate and people who are rabidly conservative and resentful that they now have to run through some party gauntlet,  who are fighting back against their own governor’s state budget proposals.  Could it be the  Democrats who are trading places and eating their own  young?  I hope not but I’m worried.

The Democrats win statewide contests when most voters turn out. But  in 2010, 2014 and the summer of 2012 with only half the voters, the Republicans wrapped up the governor’s office and the two branches of the legislature – and are now indulging a self-destructive overreach as  a party.  Scott Walker believes he has deluded Wisconsin voters and hence the nation into thinking his inept policies ready him for the White House. He has left it to his own party to squabble among themselves on where to cut him back, where to double down and where to try to salvage their own election future against the growing tide of dismay from once certain Republican encampments.

The irony is that Republicans are trying to look like heroes restoring portions of stuff that should never have been cut this way in the first place.

Yet the Democrats aren’t jumping in to offer a legitimate alternative. A few are intelligently biding their time. Many are flat unsure at how to proceed. They are watching with some amusement a largely Republican do-si-do  toward and away from Walker.

Some of that resistance to Democrats in Republican enclaves  is social heritage and custom (what would my neighbors say?). Some of it is gerrymandering and superior money.  But some of that is Democratic confusion about how to speak to these voters – and what sort of image of anger over Walker vs. concern about progress for the state the Democrats are really conveying.

2016  looks like a Democratic year nationally given the circus the GOP is putting up to beat each other bloody in the primaries. Even in  Wisconsin,  “favorite son” Walker runs far behind likely Democratic candidate  Hillary Clinton in the polls.

Yet the state Democratic Party looks unsteady and has openly abandoned any sense of what it once promised, a genuine 72 county progressive attack on the failed Walker agenda.  Both the lack of money and the lack of confidence figure in, which is why state chair Mike Tate has taken such savaging.  Political operatives like baseball managers are the first to go when failure lands. May not be totally true or fair but it comes with the terrain.

The Democratic Party  will do well again in Madison and Milwaukee but pretty much is already conceding districts where the GOP has dominated but the voters are obviously unhappy.  (These citizens may not be ready to jump to the Democratic ranks but they are open to  a strong moderate voice willing to stand up to their own party’s confusion -- even in the special summer Waukesha election called to replace Paul Farrow in the state Senate.)

The Democrats are not ready to compete that early. In fact, there seems some question about whether they will be ready in 2016 given recent behavior.

Here’s how it works as they look to replace Tate.  Only formally registered Democrats, requiring a nominal $25 dues and signup by May 15 at wisdems.org, can choose new leaders. Even that is more limited than the first step indicates.  The new chair will be picked by about 1,000 attendees at the June 5-6 state party convention at Milwaukee’s Potawatomi Hotel & Casino (there’s a price break for early signups to the convention as well).

Think about that for a moment. A sliver of the millions that often vote Democratic -- and  generally put Democratic candidates within percentages of winning despite the money, geography  and influence advantages of the GOP – will pick leaders who in turn choose the next round of party label candidates in every county in the state. Sounds like a closed Palm Springs weekend party, doesn’t it?

In  the best of worlds, these chosen few whom a chosen few will decide about will consult with local affiliates. In the worst of worlds, they think they know best and decide in spite of local sentiment – and with indifferent consideration of community groups that are not officially Democratic.  I know, the Republicans behave the same way, but the Democrats need to be something more than Republican-Lite, a watered down Wisconsin beer.

Running for office can’t be totally open. It needs money, organization and knowledgeable veterans to facilitate an abundance of bickering voices.   Still, several times in 2014 dominating voices in party leadership or in places of power in the state legislature decided they knew best what candidates to run for Assembly or Senate.  And they were either wrong or certainly perceived as interfering with local pride.

Several progressive Democrats I know actually envy the lock-step discipline of the Republican machine. They really shouldn’t. It takes a genuine understanding of community to master how freedom and democracy are supposed to work together, not the goose-step view of politics.  Entrenched authority is not always the best authority.  The state convention June 5 might be forced to discover that, though it is going to cause a wrench in the complacency of past behavior.

The small selection process has a lot to do with how state voters perceive Democrats and why in this confusing era it is hard to motivate people to the polls who want fresh open and sometimes bold  vision and are given  stock salesmanship.

Money is a large factor in all these races and the Democrats are more prone to go cautious when looking at how hard to spend in areas of traditional GOP financial strength.  In 2014 that changed a broad attack philosophy into a wimpy selectivity around the state  that abandoned several candidates or even in some cases overruled local feelings.

This year all five candidates suggest a change in direction.  What else can they say? Looking from the outside,  I think three have a chance, including   two established insiders.  (And frankly insiders should not be automatically rejected because they represent tons of sweat and contacts and a love of party politics).

That’s why Joe Wineke told me he is back in the race. The party chair before Mike Tate feels “the party has slumped since my leadership.” Of course there are other factors  but he wants the Democrats to stop playing defense and attack. So does everyone else running, but Wineke has a track record and makes a shrewd insider promise that he will quit after one term if he doesn’t deliver more Democratic wins.


Jason Rae's supporters lead
the nasty remarks campaign.
The leader, though, in terms of inside endorsements is young Jason Rae who has groomed party connections for years and has close ties to influential PR team Nathan Consulting. He is a member and advocate for  the LBGT community (which also supports other candidates) and  according to rumor has strong ties to well-heeled sources like Chris Abele (who has officially stayed out of this). Rae has earned the backing of David Obey, Penny Bernard Schaber (with whom he’s running) and many other well-known Democratic names.

On the negative side, his supporters have gone on the attack against opponents in personal and disturbing terms on social media, where the party needs to go to attract new blood to its operations.  It has upset many traditional funders  of the party who told me they are flat disgusted with the tone of the attack – and rightly or wrongly are blaming Rae.  Perhaps to counter that he has used his future husband to promote his candidacy, almost as if daring anyone  who attacks him to realize they are attacking a gay leader (something I frankly had not even thought of till I got the newsletter using his logo from his significant other). 

His supporters (I don’t want to blame him without evidence) have made their main target a woman new to  many in the party, where Rae has been an activist for years. Yet in short order Martha Laning  has earned endorsement from many union groups, progressive leaders such as Kathleen Vinehout and Sandy Pasch (and Rep. David Bowen, who is partnering with her)  and certainly from the groups that are encouraging strong progressive Democratic women to seek office (2016 looks like a good year for that, doesn’t it?).

While all the leading candidates want to change the party’s messaging methods, she has gone even further in trying to break the old mold, calling for new fund-raising tools and what many regard as a business savvy model of candidate recruitment, training and outreach. She also knows how to pump up a crowd.

Is Martha Laning being attacked as the
new face in town?
Yet Laning has also told me her  primary purpose right now is to reach the 1,000 attendees  at the convention who will decide the new leadership. I suspect that has made her candidacy particularly unnerving for those familiar Democratic families and circles who have controlled the party decisions for years.  They want new blood but maybe not right here and now.

I’m an outsider looking at this.  The rivalries may smack some as typical  politics. But this isn’t public politics, not when only a thousand crowded into one room will decide. It’s not quite the smoke-filled room of past political machines,  but it sure doesn’t look as open as the Democrats should in a state so deeply gridlocked where they are trying to draw a contrast with the GOP machine.

These are all interesting candidates. Each represents in some ways different skill sets, different experience and different allegiances bound by the same general principles. Except, what are those principles?

I am frankly sickened by some of the games going on in trying to knock down candidates.  Rae is under attack for his affiliation perceived or otherwise to  Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who strikes many as a Democrat in pocketbook only. I certainly have attacked his behavior and reported how his own desires sometimes have put him at odds with fellow Democrats and in troubling alliance with Republican mouthpieces.

Call me Pollyanna, but I tend to lean to the importance of the heart more than the pocketbook, but I have to acknowledge the importance of the purse string. So I’d still rather try to influence people I don’t agree with than throw them into the dust bin whether they have money or not.  I just think, when dealing with the rich and powerful,  all candidates should simply  make it clear they are not beholden to the money sources, an area where  I think the Republicans have fallen down. I’m waiting to hear from the Democrats, and it’s time for candor.

Rae’s supporters are attacking Laning for what I regard as trivialities. Like almost everyone who votes Democratic in the state she has only been a formal member of the party for  a few years.  Anyone who runs for office under the party label must join, which she did in a senate race in 2014, but I can name several long-term party members I wouldn’t vote for even if  they were running against Scarface.  It’s what a person stands for, and how they will stand, it’s what you glean from  lifelong principles that should count, not ridiculous opposition research twisting partial statements from years ago, which I detest  when either party does this.

Similarly she is being attacked for once working in Target’s finance division.  I hate Target’s anti-union videos required for all new floor workers and have actually shared these with union lawyers and in national stories. 

But I do know union shoppers who consider Target a more acceptable alternative to Wal-Mart.  And on the grounds that Laning is being attacked, must we  drum out of the party all the Steelworker and other union members who work for Koch Industries like Georgia-Pacific? The Kochs are virulently anti-union in public but they contract with unions for their quality and bottom-line profitability.  Because the Kochs are hypocrites must I regard everyone who keeps the family fed as a similar hypocrite?  This may be the sort of excessive progressive purity that makes the party so hard to sell to many in Wisconsin if you just listen to the most defiant lefties of the left, who risk sounding like the opposite pole of the righties of the right.

Similarly, Rae supporters have attacked Laning for not being strong enough on the minimum wage, because she fought for $10 an hour when Obama and others did before the movement settled on what she also supports, $15 an hour.  She is being penalized for not anticipating the elevation even though $10 is still disliked by the  Wisconsin GOP. We’re arguing about how to get there not getting there.

Another curious distinction is the TPP (the trade agreement that is splitting Democrats before the details are revealed, or perhaps because so many details are known to the business lobbyists and not the  affected workers).  Some candidates feel it is necessary to state opposition to the trade pact with Asia in any form, like GOP’s Mike Huckabee is opposed to any deal with Iran that doesn’t outlaw nuclear power in perpetuity.

If we make opposition to TPP a requirement of party membership – when it is likely that Clinton, Sanders, and even Elizabeth Warren may object now and support later – we are getting a bit over the top, and I speak as editor of Milwaukee Labor Press for more than a decade and someone with considerable doubts about the trade bill on my own.

From my view, at a time when the citizens are looking for intelligent and truly fresh thinking, the Democrats need to avoid acting like a private club in deciding on leaders. It bothers me that all five candidates aren’t getting together now on the larger principles they agree on, even talking quietly before the convention on who are the best candidates to field in every district in the state, and inviting more groups in to help them look to the future. 

It could well be that some moderate Democrats and even people leaning toward the TPP may prove interesting candidates in certain districts.  It could be that the central positions of the party platform are in a state of flux,  fortunately more limited flux than the Republicans.  

The Republican presidential circus is trying to pretend diversity because they have three minorities, one black and one woman already running for president, yet each is simply a variation on the same right-wing cloning and hardly reflective of where their ethnic or gender base stands in terms of policy, much less diversity.  The woman doesn’t support equal pay, the minorities don’t support a path to legalized citizenship and the black thinks Obamacare if akin to slavery.  The last thing Democrats need to do is pretend diversity based on the exteriors and not the interiors. That is the danger of the selection method.

If ever there was a time to feel that the Democrats were really the big tent party, this is it. Yet they seem to be engaged in the pettiness we associate with the frat house, a hazing or induction ceremony as it were.  The chant on the bus may not be as derisive as recently occurred in Oklahoma but that sense of  “we know what a progressive is and you don’t”  is unseemly. How can Democrats say in one voice the party needs everyone to trust each other to succeed and then behave like this?  


About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its famous entertainment Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com.