Thursday, April 16, 2015

US MEDIA DIFFERS ON STATE PERSONALITIES FROM A (brahamson) to W (alker)

By Dominique Paul Noth


In local media she's defying the voters. In national media
Shirley Abrahamson is defending US Constitution.
How the nation sees events in Wisconsin and how our local media sees them can be bizarrely different. 

Those who know Scott Walker up close and personal will find the oddest discrepancies. His image and methods have worn down state citizens while the fever of presidential politics allows those far away -- and even media chains in the state trying to attract national readership --    to let him elevate  himself as a typical Midwestern evangelical Eagle Scout. Just don’t ask state residents how most Midwesterners, Eagle Scouts and evangelical churchgoers react to that self-promotion.  Their language will blister your ears.

However he paints himself around the nation, even Republican officials in the state are now in open rebellion against Walker, a circumstance largely unreported in national media as is his drop in popularity polls.

It’s revolt over his two-year state budget. Almost half the GOP legislature is now complaining about his excess leanings toward the nation’s Tea Party primaries, behavior that is crushing their own re-electability. It’s not part of presidential politics so it isn’t much noticed.

It works the other way, noticing things that local media is blinded to.  I didn’t expect much reaction outside Wisconsin -- or outside the Internet blogosphere, in fact -- to my story about Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s federal lawsuit to retain her role as state chief justice until her term ends in 2019.

But my story has attracted thousands of readers at my own blog and broad national attention and even reprints.  

Except for those publications whose FAX machines are tied to the right-wing’s extension cord such as the Wall Street Journal, the national viewpoints are more balanced about her case.

With only a few exceptions, the Wisconsin media has treated her lawsuit as the sour grapes of old age trying to thwart the will of the electorate. 

On April 16 another notable independent exception to the state media hatred chimed in. Respected journalist Bruce Murphy wondered aloud as I do why this one feisty woman whose stubborn legal opinions have carried such weight for decades is suddenly the target of the biggest names and money in the right-wing to demean her while removing her.  

Her enemies keep saying it is the will of the people that she be gone. That sounds so honorable – until you recall how often these voters have been duped, issue-stampeded into opinions that were later overturned as unconstitutional. (And there are several more likely overturns waiting in the wings.)

It may not matter to the angry state GOP, but I question whether that electorate on April 7 reflected the intelligent judgment of the state, especially when you consider a “no” vote wasn’t spelled out as a defense of her authority (no is always a hard choice on this sort of ballot question that sounds like housekeeping) and that the “yes” vote only won by under 50,000 votes.

Do the real numbers not the percentages. Only some 800,000 people voted on both sides out of a potential pool of 4.4 million!  The winning side needed that $600,000 ad buy by the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) to survive. I also sadly admit the disinterest of the broader public allows this sort of nonsense to occur regularly, but I won’t concede that the way American democracy now operates is the way it should operate.

WMC is a trade group small in actual numbers but financially powerful and influential on the right and in advertising money to support the media. It had to pay several dollars for each winning vote. WMC has long pretended to speak for the people but keeps getting dragged into court because of its profit interests. Its sophisticated legal teams long to tip the makeup of the courts. Think about it. If they had a chief justice willing to bend the entire appointment and education process in their favor – well, the media may call it the will of the people. I call it something much nastier. 

No legal mind in any camp would dare predict how it will all turn out in Western Wisconsin federal district court, where the lawsuit starts. As it is, many progressives complain to me that the US court system has already been soured to the right out of the Democrats’ eagerness to compromise.  But there is at least a profound difference in evaluation as most state pundits sound off against her while the national press concedes that only in federal court can she gain remedy.

I was frankly shocked doing my interviews how much respect in all legal camps there was for the astuteness of her case. I expected that from progressives but not from conservatives who don’t always agree with her. But they seem to value the quality of her legal thinking. They even seem to think democracy works best when all sides of an argument are presented. And they are frankly amused at how Abrahamson’s easily anticipated lawsuit seems to have left her opponents flatfooted and outwitted in the early stages.

Just look at how strident their arguments have become and just look at the well-known chatter monkeys they brought in to pelt her with nuts. 


The silliest of the right-wing such as Orville Seymer
try to step into the Abrahamson case.
It’s not just the worst of the right-think. It’s even those disliked on the right for always intruding as if they speak for the party and taking credit for results they had little impact on. Enter Chris Kliesmet and Orville Seymer of Citizens for Responsible Government, who have long been credited as henchmen for Walker when he was county executive and sure credit themselves as leading forces in the recall movement. Reporters now say they puffed themselves up and apparently even Walker is annoyed at how they keep patting themselves on the back.

Their attempt to intrude on the Abrahamson case was funded by one of the nation’s most self-inflated mendacious national groups, Citizens for Self-Governance.  Dig around a bit and you discover a big John Doe target attached to this attempt to invade  the Abrahamson case -- Eric O’Keefe, who worked simultaneously for Walker and the Wisconsin Club for Growth and is irate that he is even being investigated for illegal coordination.

He is the subject of impending high court action on the John Doe probe. So while presenting themselves as ordinary “citizens against Shirley” these people and their funding machinery are hardly a disinterested party. 

In the John Doe cases, the majority of justices have already ruled that there will be no oral arguments either private or public, despite press objections that the public deserves to know the issues.  Abrahamson called such refusal of oral hearings virtually unprecedented and “alarming.”

“If federal courts can manage to maintain public oral argument and access to briefs in cases implicating national security concerns, then surely this court can manage oral argument in the three John Doe cases before us,” she wrote in dissent, another example of the sort of analysis and reasoning the conservative justices don’t want to be bothered with. The goal of all this anger against her is clear. It has nothing to do with blocking the will of the people but with impeding the WMC.  If they can’t shut Abrahamson up they seem determined to muffle her reach by removing her as chief justice.  

Still, the humorist in me wishes Federal Judge James D. Peterson had not so quickly and dismissively rejected this CRG effort to intrude. He was legally right. But the conflict of interest the CRG (Crazy Rightwing Goofs in my shorthand) brought to the case was juicy for a journalist. The mere presence of the monkeys would have revealed the hidden purpose.  When their lawyer said Abrahamson was trying to protect “an entrenched political class” I thought at first that must be the WMC, it’s the only entrenched political class in the real world. Then it was clear that in their world this was the motive for what even conservatives describe as the Get Shirley amendment – She’s a liberal. Crush them all.  Welcome to the new American democracy.

This will be a long legal chess game and arguments on paper don’t always reflect the actual goals. It was no surprise to the Abrahamson camp when Peterson almost immediately turned down her request for a temporary injunction, because she included that request to speed a discussion and has. The law won’t even be initiated until April 29 and the court wants to give both sides a full hearing April 21.  But Peterson inserted a warning. He would hold off “absent some showing that defendants are moving to implement the amendment immediately” – such as trying to elect another chief justice.  “I have made no determination of the merits of plaintiffs’ case,” his writ emphasized. 


Judge James  Peterson
Peterson also identified the real issue:  “Justice Abrahamson does not challenge the validity of the amendment, but she seeks a declaration from this court that it must be applied only prospectively, by which she means after her current term expires in 2019. She contends that under well-established principles of legal construction, the amendment cannot be implemented retroactively, by which she means before the expiration of her current term.”

If irate GOP and media editorials didn’t understand the case, he sure clarified it for them. She is not attacking the voters but defending her rights under the US Constitution.  That’s why “the editorial‘s legal argument would be thrown out in any court in the land,” said a Minnesota judge when I shared the JS editorial that praised her in one breath and then told her to give up.  “How can they concede that Abrahamson is a brilliant jurist and then say they doubted she had legitimate federal issues? Whatever the ruling it is a federal case.”

“This reflects the political nature of our society,” one law professor told me.  “We keep expecting the courts to rise above politics but the pundits keep invading these constitutional cases with political attitudes. Do we want the judges to rise above the politics or succumb to the pressure?”

Because of her lawsuit, her opponents have been forced to shift the ground of their attack.  At first a key argument was that voters in 2009 didn’t even know she was chief justice. Now that the lawsuit has provided proof that she was “Wisconsin’s chief” in virtually every ad and story at the time, they say those voters did know but had no right to their expectations. Yet they can’t find a single voter from six years ago who even contemplated this change.  

The opponents now argue there was no consideration of a delayed time frame of when the change would start though it’s common legal courtesy to grandfather in an incumbent. But in truth they did worry about it. Several GOP legislators recall there was fear that changing the rules in mid-term raised a constitutional dilemma. (Even Walker seemed to realize a problem because an amendment can’t change salaries and the chief justice earns $9,000 a year more than her peers.)

“It was clearly vindictive against Abrahamson,” several observers told me, including some Republicans whose glee has evaporated as the reality of her defense sinks in.

The shaky quality of the opposition is actually exposing the real purpose, but few in or out of the state have picked up on an amusing sidelight.  Peterson got the case because in 2014 the US Congress wanted to rise above the appearance of pettiness in judicial politics, a concern that seems to be evaporating in both D.C. and Madison.

But in 2014, Peterson was Wisconsin’s first beneficiary from a new congeniality to break the slow pace of filling court vacancies. In this state there was a frustrated nominating committee process where lawyers from the left and right agreed on candidates for a vacancy. Their candidates are forwarded to the state’s two senators, Republican Ron Johnson and Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who pick one and forward that name to the White House. 

The process was smooth sailing when the two senators were Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold. It’s still smooth in other states even where the senators are of opposite parties. But it has been a sore spot rubbing Johnson. Anything approved by him for President Obama makes his supporters break out in a rash. 

Choosing Peterson broke the logjam and both senators took to the Senate floor to praise him as a respected expert on intellectual property rights and a shareholder in Madison’s Godfrey & Kahn.  The new relaxed cloture rules in the Senate also helped to speed him to fill a long vacancy on the western Wisconsin bench. 

On reputation, politics will play no part in his decisions. But I suspect he must find this situation amusing. His  first big case involves the state supreme court and was brought by Wisconsin’s most famous jurist whose legal writings are regularly used as teaching tools at the University of Wisconsin. It’s there he earned three law degrees culminating in a Ph D. in 1986.



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 and movies at domsdomain.


Thursday, April 9, 2015

ABRAHAMSON SPITEFUL? SHIRLEY THEY JEST! BECAUSE INSIDERS SAY SHE’S LIKELY TO WIN OVER TIME

Shirley Abrahamson in 2009 campaign photo. Her ad literature emphasized Wisconsin's Chief
 even in radio ads for a 10 year term.
By Dominique Paul Noth

When most of us lose an argument, or an election, there is a tendency to lash out in spite – and an equal tendency on the part of media to expect that any lawsuit after losing an election will just be sour grapes.

Wisconsin just witnessed a prime example of expecting the petty and being outmaneuvered.  A novice political class in power that lives on the petty and a media that expects pettiness now look ridiculously na├»ve. They forgot that Shirley Abrahamson is a principled shrewd cookie who relies on the slow pace of the courts rather than pumped up pressure of legislative politicians.

No matter which party was in power over the last 40 years, Abrahamson brought a devotion to judicial temperament even as the Wisconsin Supreme Court around her got nastier. She never indulged as her opponents do in public tongue-lashing or throttling– and she wasn’t spiteful April 8, just a shrewd stubborn chess player executing her backup plan.  Maybe that’s what really drives them crazy. 

Both the GOP and much of the media tried to paint her lawsuit filed in federal district court a day after a statewide ballot decision on April 7 as the desperate act of a sore loser caught in a rigged partisan game, rather than seeing how long it had been in the works, what it really was and how on pure grounds of constitutional rights it is likely to succeed eventually through various appeals, according to practically every legal expert I interviewed.  Even liberal commentators presumed the April 7 chief justice vote was a victory for the GOP – until Shirley struck. And she may have struck deliberately before injury to freeze action against her as she works her case through the courts.

I asked a D.C. based lawyer who has represented corporate clients before the US Supreme Court for his opinion and he emailed me: “I’ve long ago given up on guessing how federal courts will rule, but Abrahamson is on such firm and gently delivered constitutional footing that I suspect she will keep the chief justice title long after your Scott Walker has departed from the political stage.” Her current term expires in July of 2019.

I contacted Madison based lawyers on all sides who had won cases in state and federal courts and they pronounced the Abrahamson argument to retain her title until the end of her term as “strong and finely argued,” “a veteran jurist who hasn’t lost a step,”  “solid case,” and “more than convincing on legal principles” – and that last one from a lawyer who has often argued the other side of her decisions.

They also noted she had brought heavyweights into the battle. The lawsuit was filed April 8 on her behalf by the D.C. based Center for Constitutional Litigation and its president, Robert Peck, one of the nation’s experienced litigators and legal scholar on key issues.  

Several who don’t agree with her politically praised the acumen of the argument and now say they had warned the GOP and its Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce legal strategists to stay far away from “even touching Shirley’s reputation.” 


Abrahamson on the bench in  recent session.
“When they sold this to other Republicans as a chance to dump Shirley, I begged them to reconsider,” said the lawyer who regularly works for WMC clients and the state GOP.  “She is going to kill them if there is a hint of retribution in their actions.” 

To a limited degree the lawyer succeeded – there is no “do it now”   language in the resolution, which also never names her and never openly told voters it would affect her status. But that has let ferocious right-wingers complain that she is not obeying them with her lawsuit.

During the campaign the GOP thought they would beat her down by turning loose the big money ad buyers to falsely equate seniority (which all US institutions use) with royalty and even a cartoon crown to suggest promotion by experience is anti-democratic.  That was the purpose of the $600,000 from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce needed to squeak the resolution through by 431,954 votes out of 824,295 cast statewide. 

Her lawsuit argues that, while avoiding telling voters  the real target in a nifty bit of linguistic evasion,  several of the named defendants among other public officials and legislative analysts had openly speculated that the “amendment will apply retroactively and be implemented immediately against Abrahamson.”

Her federal suit seeks to halt any such effort as a violation of the US Constitution and asked not only for injunctive relief but a temporary restraining order (now denied because the law is not yet in force) to prevent other justices from trying to feather their nest. This looks like another legal maneuver though  characterized by the right-wing and the readily duped media as sour grapes. 

Two veteran journalists came up with the same “Wow!” about hearing the details and wondering why so many of their colleagues hadn’t even read her lawsuit before attacking it. “She takes no prisoners, does she?” they said in almost exactly the same words and tone.

I then shared with several notable litigators in and out of the state the typical media editorial that the suit was simply a loser’s last-minute spite. “BS” said one. “This was in the work for months if not years.  She must have been lying low a long time getting this ready.”

 “This is a good case,” another wrote back. “Tell the JS to stick to reporting, not political commentary.  They’re out of their league.“

“Why should she give up?” said Atty. Lester Pines, a notable successful lawyer on a range of criminal and civic issues. “This amendment was directed at her personally. It had nothing to do with good public policy.”

Others argued that she moved quickly so as to get a quick blockage in federal district court and gather evidence to prove injury, and if the GOP attempts to appoint a new chief justice that could be the evidence she needs, lawyers argued. Sure enough, the federal court blocked her initial move within hours saying she had to wait for injury and allow new evidence to gather. Which keeps her central case alive and the next move on the chess board difficult for the state GOP.

Misreading the purpose and the unfolding maneuvers, similar hate Shirley reactions came when TV and radio audiences, mainly of WTMJ, suggested bluntly in comments and phone calls after news stories and diatribes that at age 81 in the face of the voters, Abrahamson should just “roll over and die” (direct quote) and accept the will of the people.

“They apparently don’t live in the real America,” one state judge told me, hardly a liberal. “If something the people vote in proves an error, if something in the state constitution is ruled unconstitutional” – the judge could have been referring to the recent US dismissal of Wisconsin’s marriage amendment – “they may not like being overruled by the constitution but it is the law.”

Abrahamson is not defying the voters but the ambiguity of the amendment. Her lawsuit seeking federal injunctive relief is a calculated response to a threat that was hovering since 2013 over two legislative sessions before going to the voters without ever officially circling her name or discussing the timing of any change.  That allowed the GOP to publicly argue that it was not about Shirley but privately tell big business supporters that it would take her down.

Several legislators cited state Sen. Tom Tiffany as one example of a politician assuring the press and centrist lobbying groups it was not about Shirley while assuring WMC supporters it definitely was.   And sure enough he has continued that game, flying in the face of the historical record that reveals voters in 2009 knew darn well they were re-electing a chief justice until 2019. 

Even their own right-wing commentators took their leaders to task for not admitting this was the “Get Shirley” amendment. Now the GOP has to admit to their bankroll they have failed to even dent Shirley. In any event she has a full voting power on the court into July of 2019. The balance of power has not shifted at all with the easy re-election of Justice Ann Walsh Bradley and even if Abrahamson doesn’t win her case as many think she will, she has made it clear that, come hell or high water, she ain’t going anywhere.

Abrahamson at a legal forum
Whatever system Abrahamson herself may prefer is not the aim of her case.  Wisconsin has chosen its chief justice from both parties over 126 years based on continuous longevity in office. Other states do. Others don’t. Many now appoint rather than elect justices. In Wisconsin April 7 the voters changed the process so that every two years the sitting justices pick a chief among themselves. That doesn’t change the conservative-liberal tilt of the court but it does muddy collegiality rather than improve it as voters were told.

The chief justice is paid $8,000 more a year as hardly an honorary title. She is administrative head of the entire complicated state court system, working with court director, staff, chief judges and administrators for continuity of programs and methods.  Hardly something likely to be enhanced with a revolving door of chief justices, unless you are a special interest frequently  in court like  big businesses looking to disrupt any opposition.

The chief justice promotes volunteers, public assistance for those without attorney, interpreters, family and children courts’ public understanding, education programs and legislative-judicial seminars plus encouraging outreach.  Even those ticked off by her progressive beliefs acknowledge that Abrahamson has provided a broad experienced grasp of the duties and future needs. 

Rotating the fate of justice among conservatives assumes their politics make them collegial and it sure hasn’t.  Law clerks current and former have stories to tell. The WMC’s chosen heir as chief justice, Patricia Roggensack, “can be a more difficult piece of work than Shirley ever was,” one told me.  Michael Gableman is openly scoffed at by his colleagues as a lesser intellectual who needs “simple things explained to him at length.”  David Prosser is seen as an unpredictable gadfly “bouncing off the walls of procedure.” And so forth.
  
“Be careful what you wish for,” one Democratic legislator laughed. “They may soon come to admire Shirley’s ability to wrangle rattlesnakes.”

And her ability to seize on legal holes in regulations and publicity postures as she just did.   Such as the continuing argument that Wisconsin voters didn’t know what they were voting for back in April 2009. 

As the lawsuit details with evidence, “Wisconsin’s Chief” was a central statement in every piece of campaign literature and even in ads run on conservative talk radio. “Fair. Independent. Wisconsin’s Chief” was the slogan and voters would have to be living in a cave to not know they were choosing the chief justice for the next 10 years.

Her campaign committee was called the “Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson Re-election Committee,” and the tagline “Wisconsin’s Chief” was everywhere.

“It was clear that a vote for her was a vote to continue her in the office of chief justice,” the lawsuit details. “She campaigned extensively and expended substantial resources for re-election on that theme of continuity in the chief justice position and would not have sought re-election if there was a question she would not continue in that role.”

This is only one basis for the argument that taking away her title would violate Fourth Amendment protections that a state legislature or even state voters can’t remove.

Any trickery on the voters happened April 7 when her name was not on the ballot and the voters were sold a mixed bill of goods – but not in 2009.  It is the voters’ own fault, some say, if they are ignorant or deluded, but how far should the sheep let themselves be sheared? Naming it the Get Shirley amendment might have increased support by 10,000 votes in our current political gridlock but it could have also aroused 50,000 votes in opposition to such rank ageism against the state’s most admired jurist, once in contention with Ruth Bader Ginsburg for a seat on the US Supreme Court, according to Bill Clinton historians.  In fact her win for a fourth term in 2009 earned huzzahs for Wisconsin across the country. 

The closeness of the vote suggests many did catch on, but many didn’t. It still took $12 in ad expenditure for every winning vote to succeed against grassroots efforts for a no vote. Many voters told me they were unaware of the implications of voting yes (“I thought it was just good housekeeping,” one told me.)

$12 for each vote to concoct a winning margin with puny turnout?  Hardly a come-on for taxpayers to give more money to WMC projects.  And this case also confirms why JS PolitiFacts with all those easy pickings out there remains a journalistic laughingstock. 

PolitiFacts called it mostly false when Abrahamson supporters said a vote yes would “take the choice of chief justice away from the people" because the term “chief justice” in never on the ballot and, writer Tom Kertscher argued, “there's no way to know how many (voters) felt that way (in 2009), since there was no actual vote on who would be chief.“

But if he had dipped into the literature of the times and even the newspaper’s own archives as the astute Abrahamson did for her lawsuit, the phrase Wisconsin’s Chief or chief justice haunted every appearance or reference. It’s an insult to say the voters didn’t notice, though there is much anecdotal evidence that on April 7 many did not even think they were voting to dump Shirley.

There are now two roadblocks to instant change for the GOP. One has the first name Shirley. The other is the US Constitution. 

“They knew this lawsuit was coming and it would be formidable – how could they not?” noted Atty. Ann S. Jacobs, president of the Wisconsin Association of Justice whose debate on these issues with Rick Esenberg for the extreme right is still available on WisconsinEye. Esenberg echoed that “who knew they were voting for chief justice” argument now debunked in the lawsuit.

Going to court to uphold basic US constitutional principles is an unusual change of behavior in Wisconsin politics. But it sure helps the public identify who the real chief justice is.


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 and movies at domsdomain.


Friday, April 3, 2015

WILL NATIONAL MEDIA EXPOSE WALKER? DON’T HOLD YOUR BREATH

By Dominique Paul Noth

Veteran reporter Michael Isikoff tweeted this Wisconsin
State Journal cartoon to promote his expose of Walker
campaign funding, but will this be the opening salvo of national
media takedown of  Walker's behavior?
While interviewing six dozen folks for a series of national outlet stories about how right to work (for less) was going over in Wisconsin, I was struck again and again by contrary reactions from people who want Walker gone (now including many former supporters).

One reaction was the skepticism if not outright cynicism of union leaders over all this belated national interest in the shenanigans of their governor.  The other reflected an optimistic contrast and came from citizens and dyed in the wool progressives delighted in that national attention. They were convinced that finally some top drawer investigative talents would flood in to expose Walker’s failure as a governor and knock him off his presumptive presidential perch. 

And sure enough, national media has flocked to the story – and sure enough the cynical union leaders were also right. 

The national media did explode but, with only a few exceptions, the sort of details that attracted them were not how bad his reign had been for Wisconsin or even the new revelations about the obvious pay for play within the money he had garnered in past victories.  No, it was headline statements and mirthful delight in this anti-Jeb threat from the Midwest, another media puppet to add to the string of outrageous conservative failures that dance through the primary landscape and fill broadcast and print space, stretching 15 minutes of fame into several days of anchor glory.

It’s a temporary fever since no extremist politician in these extremist primaries amounts to anything. But it sucks the air out of the media room for now.

Sure, the national reporters feeding cable news and far-flung newspapers were having fun along the way demonstrating Walker was the latest ass in the Herman Cain mode for suggesting he was ready to handle ISIS because of experience in handling citizen protesters, or dodging a simple yes or no on evolution in London, or bluntly stating that having been an Eagle Scout prepared him for the White House.  But they didn’t even have to visit Wisconsin to scoff since he unleashed such pomposity as he was raising money in locations far from Madison. 

They also had fun with his flip-flop and then flop-flip and then back-flip to deny any flip on immigration policies, ethanol, and wait-for-what-he-says tomorrow.  To careful readers or listeners it did clarify how he decides positions based on political convenience.

But again, that’s hardly news to Wisconsinites. As one GOP legislator who worked with Walker way back in the Assembly reminded me:  “Even then, Walker was a creature of expedience, a stoker of political trends not a true believer. If you want to see an avid unbending social conservative, look at (Assembly Majority Leader) Robin Vos, who clearly is waiting in the wings for Walker to leave.”

That fits. Walker opposed Vos’ right to work push when he needed worker support for the governor’s race – than gladly pushed it himself when needed for his extreme conservative image in running for president.   Once the US Supremes agreed the Wisconsin amendment defining marriage to exclude gays was unconstitutional, he shrugged off what he had once forcefully defended. 

He’s doing the same by promising continued harshness on Obamacare. But look more closely at what Walker said April 1 to a conservative gathering. He would oppose IF the high court opposed, which is looking more doubtful.  It’s typical Walker. Principles be damned. It takes an act of court or Congress to make up his mind.  

He supported the Pence folly in Indiana but then  blamed the media for overreacting even when other conservatives hinted that it might have been too broad and  divisive a move  -- something as overly broad and uselessly divisive as,  say, Walker’s attacks on union workers in Wisconsin. Few in the national media made that obvious connection because they know so little about Wisconsin politics and Walker’s methods.   

They did better after the US-led coalition of nations reached a preliminary deal April 2 with Iran to prevent nuclear weapons, chuckling at Walker’s insistence in interviews that he would “blow up” any deal that allowed Iran nuclear power even if our allies supported it.  

Fun with such stupid generalities is unavoidable. But mainly for their own ratings the media has played up his self-portrait as an obstinate maverick or even worse a  typical grit and guts Midwesterner,. They have no idea how that angers genuine gritty Midwesterners to see their entire milieu shriveled into a narrow-minded social conservative with a habit of letting his staff do the jail time while he feigns ignorance.  Yet television audiences mainly heard Walker portray himself without question as salt of the earth pastor’s son who crawled under the pews at his father’s Baptist church in Iowa without apparently understanding a word of the New Testament.

The media let him exaggerate even his shrewdness as a politician. His maneuvers with money and political machinery do fit that crafty Yankee opportunist image. Who would be proud of that outside a 19th century colonial novel?

So in effect the national media for its own purposes was buying into his lines of defense without looking as deeply as Wisconsin residents had hoped for.  Such as his “victories” over Big Labor. Well, Labor hasn’t been Big for decades and the media is now complacent in letting that  shrinking mostly white and aging right wing swoon over a bully beating up on the little guy because the little guy is the only residual collective money left  for his opponents. This is not exactly a celebration of the American Dream that the Fourth Estate should be playing cheerleader for.

What should be a negative is also becoming a positive -- winning three non-presidential elections in four years. Think of the timing and the volume of votes. Wisconsin has gone Democratic for president since 1984 and even as favorite son Walker already lags the most likely Democrat in the polls by 15 points.

Wisconsin brings enormous presidential election turnout in November – 70% of the state’s 4.4 million voters in 2012. In Walker’s wins in 2010, that special recall in the summer of 2012 and again in 2014, turnout was some 55% at best and a little over 2 million voters for both candidates split close to  half. The first race was pretty tight, the second he gained a bit because of media resistance to the concept of recalls plus unlimited funding (under the recall rules) for a threatened governor that gave him a 40-1 funding advantage.  The last was against a political unknown who actually seemed close for a while until the weight of money, false advertising and social conservative fear kicked in to give him a 6 point margin.  That’s an accomplishment but hardly something that the national media should be writing up as runaway success.  But I could only find one national story that suggested Walker’s electoral ability was far from impressive. 

This article may sound like a putdown of Walker, but it is more about whether the media will start telling the truth about him beyond concern for making money from a “Twenty One” rigged game show wonderkid.  This is also why so many union leaders I’ve talked to are so cynical.  So far it has been hard to find national stories that detail the disasters that have put Wisconsin 40th among states in job creation and lagging its Midwest neighbors broadly and the national average terribly. The scope of Walker’s failures from education to conservation, and his coziness with robber barons,  should be low-hanging fruit for investigative journalists.

As one New York newspaper man emailed me, if only Wisconsin was geographically close to big media centers like New Jersey is.  That governor, Chris Christie, is already fading in the presidential sweepstakes given in part the massive coverage of his state’s fiscal failure, his tinkering with hurricane money and Bridgegate, Yet each “scandal” is harder to pin down than Walker’s heavier hand with a lighter body.

“If Wisconsin was located where New Jersey is, Walker would have been a goner months ago,” said my friend.

Despite their growing presence in Wisconsin, only a few national outlets such as Bloomberg and the Washington Post are really thinking about digging around. Many are still relying on the local media – in fact, pushing them to look harder and feed them the goodies.  They don’t yet know that readers in this state have been waiting for years. 

Mike Isikoff
If there is a nationally recognized and honored muckraker to dig out misbehavior in politicians like Walker, the hidden connections between him, the rich guys and his administrative machinery, it is Mike Isikoff, former lead investigative reporter for NBC, a gadfly to Clinton to Bush to Romney and master researcher for  national publications now chief investigative reporter for Yahoo News, where Wisconsin gave him a gem.   

Yet only Rachel Maddow of MSNBC caught the full flavor of what he uncovered about Wisconsin’s richest citizen John Menard and how the public hadn’t known  about the money for Walker or why. Menard, the largest offender of Wisconsin environmental regulations,  had secretly given $1.5 million to Wisconsin Club for Growth to support Walker’s  recall defense – and then gained favorable treatment from Walker’s DNR and tax credit coffers.  

Now billionaire Menard  has  played tax credit roulette with other governors (though for less money)  and runs such a powerful hardware chain that he  is accustomed to favorable treatment and acting above the law.  But once the DNR cared about the environment more than political pandering, and back then it handed Menard record fines and even caught him hauling hazardous waste to his own home trash rather than dispose of it according to regulations.

Readers can draw their own conclusions about the timing of all this Walker kindness to one of his biggest financial  supporters within months of getting the money  -- and they have.  But though Isikoff is a national media name it was the local media that followed up --  including Urban Milwaukee re-chronicling the  findings  and several media outlets resurrecting the great Bruce Murphy 2013 story  regaling readers with Menard’s sexual misadventures in court and the ugly side of friendship among the very rich.

The sort of links  Isikoff uncovered between money and alleged pay for play may soon disappear if  the media doesn’t get cracking. He dug it out from the largely neglected remaining files  of the John Doe II probe.  The furious rich who gave such largesse to Walker are arguing their rights to privacy were invaded by prosecutors (who turn out despite their claims to have been heavily monitored and  bipartisan). 

We may soon never know the truth for ourselves.  The Wisconsin legislature is desperate to cripple future John Does that might investigate them. WMC and Club for Growth hope that even before that the conservative dominated state high court will remember who funded their campaigns and kill the current  investigation and bury any further document release.  

It sure seems a footrace right now between the cynicism about national coverage the union leaders fear and the scrutiny that many hope national attention will finally bring to the Walker operation.  Anyone want to make a bet on the winner?

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 and movies at domsdomain.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

PASCH, MATC AND COUNTY UNDONE BY ABELE’S PERSONALITY ISSUES

By Dominique Paul Noth

While angry platoons of Milwaukee residents testified for hours March 20 at Alverno College before the legislature’s joint finance committee, pleading not to let the new two-year state budget take Milwaukee to the cleaners, they were quietly being taken to the cleaners that same morning by their own elected county executive, Chris Abele.


When Sandy Pasch joined Spencer Coggs (left) and MPS
 board chair Michael Bonds in 212 to speak against
Glenn Grothman’s bill seeking more control for his region
 over the MATC board, little did she realize that her
own county exec, Chris Abele, would reach over time to
 do a Grothman and lock her out of a seat on the board.
This was a separate meeting of the new selection committee for the nine-member controlling board of the Milwaukee Area Technical College, which still draws more than 90% of its student population from Milwaukee County but now faces a Madison imposed hurdle -- 50% of the choosers are the executives of Washington County (though it has only 1% of MATC students) and Ozaukee County (8% of students). 

The intended balancing wheel on this mandated appointment committee was Milwaukee’s  county exec, Abele, and its chairman of the county board, Marina Dimitrijevic, who promptly nominated (and fully expected Abele to agree)  the most highly regarded and legislatively experienced  health expert in the state,  Sandy Pasch, also a nurse and former professor. 

Instead he went out of the way to go with the Oz-Wash choice --  a previously rejected manufacturer, Mary Isbister, whose Gen-Met company in Mequon  had been written up in the New York Times Sunday magazine as the poster child of ignorance about the “skills gap” in workforce training and whose past interest in MATC was locked to the needs and wage limitations of her metal fabrication company ahead of  the diverse needs, rounded humanistic education and creation of good working citizens demonstrated by MATC over a century.  Gen-Met hasn’t changed much in its attitudes since that 2012 story. They are currently seeking 2nd and 3rd shift welders in the $9-$18 range.

There are heavy political undertones in Abele’s decision which we’ll get into, but the runaway criticism is administrative blindness – turning his back on the constituency and ideals of public service of the county that elected him, while refusing to hear anyone who disagrees.  Or in my case, giving justifications that don’t stand up to journalistic investigation. 

Community leaders not directly connected with the MATC issue are troubled if not aghast.  Influential attorney and public defender Peter Goldberg commented: “In the best of all worlds, an appointment such as this should not be measured by partisanship, though his role as Milwaukee County Exec would seem to favor his filling his slots with county people, or why else give him those appointments?”

“Inferentially,” Goldberg added, “Abele is following in the steps of his predecessor, Scott Walker, hoping to move on to higher office by using his constituents quite literally as stepping stones.”

“It’s a tragic situation,” commented Candice Owley, a national vice president of AFT and a leading education voice in the nursing profession. “Not just for nurses but for health technologists of all kinds.  MATC has added thousands of success stories from all walks of life and corners of the community in these fields.  Future achievers are being denied the guidance and understanding Pasch could have brought to the board.”

Curiously, Abele’s penchant for secrecy and refusal to listen to the community at large was taken to task in a recent Journal Sentinel editorial concentrating on the enormous 39% wage increase he gave his health chief Hector Colon while other county workers are fighting for any bump.  But to this date the JS has ignored this MATC story though it is an  even more telling example of Abele’s stealth technique.  

If he had supported Pasch for the MATC board  and the Oz-Wash crew had still resisted, insiders on the law tell me,  there would have been a public fight. The final decision might have been dominated by GOP legislators but  many of them respect Pasch’s worth from six years in the Assembly despite being in opposite political camps. It certainly would not have been a story that crept under the media radar as it has now.

In an interview with me March 24, Abele defended at great length his social record at the county despite what he characterized as opposition from the county board and his support of programs like Family Care, where he is forceful in opposing any state cuts. He accused his opponents of the same secret dealings he has been accused of, asking why the media didn’t criticize the county board for the secrecy of its planning --  seeing little difference between their legislative process and his executive authority.

Well there are certainly no saints in government, but Abele’s defense of why he kicked Pasch to the curb (“I genuinely admire her,” he told me) fits a vindictive pattern that the media until recently has not noticed or at least not much written about.

He’s even been protected by a media assumption that it is the county board, pension protection and greedy county workers that are standing in the way of Abele’s goals. Turns out his  manner and methods have lots to do with the resistance.  Treat people like drek and don’t be surprised if you get drek back.


Though it already has sufficient manufacturing representatives,
 Abele helped put on the MATC board Mary Isbister,
a forceful proponent for her vision of vanity welding shops 
When he told me in a phone chat that Isbister was active in MATC affairs and had given equipment to the MATC Mequon campus’ $3 million welding program, experts there said not so, though she is an experienced advocate for her company view of employment. What Abele saw in her compared to what she is doesn’t match, but this also fits a pattern of defense beyond facts that other elected officials shared with me off the record.

“He’s a nonstop defender of everything he does  so when he says you agree with him, all you remember is you couldn’t get a word in edgewise,” one told me.  “He’s doesn’t know how to handle a no,” said another.

I told Abele the only possible justification I could see for his embrace of Isbister over the better qualified and more needed Pasch (there are plenty of manufacturers but no health experts on the MATC board though the School for Health Sciences is one of the major attractions for 47,000 students) was an excess of weird goodwill to surrounding right-wing counties or a desire to oppose the contentious political climate by embracing its contentious attitudes. 

None of that, he said. “I checked  Mary out and talked to others.  I will hold her accountable to build the strongest most robust workforce.“ 

Leaving Isbister’s sincerity aside, none of his defenses of her activities checked out with the Mequon campus, where he claimed Isbister had provided equipment and supported its programs. 

He sounded surprised when I informed him of legions of public evidence running counter to his evaluation of Isbister. 

That much quoted Sunday Times story revealed in 2012 that Eric and Mary Isbister (he CEO, she president) are proud that out of more than 1,000 applicants they only accepted  25 and then quickly reduced that to 15 to start as welders at $10 an hour, rising to $15 after mastering the company machines and “ethics.” Their selection  process happily eliminated anyone with experience or sympathy for a “union type job.”  Perhaps the same attitude is now in store for the MATC board.

The NY Times story on the myths around workforce development concludes with ridicule aimed directly at Gen-Met and its ilk, for concocting a skills gap and pretending that $10 an hour would solve it. Stung by the national ridicule, Mary Isbister took to forums to offer a defiant rebuttal. Now that she’s on the board, Abele despite his statement to me has no power to hold her accountable. 

Given the money he inherited and his willingness to wield it against opposition, given his readiness to go to Republicans in Madison to get his way when opposed by the county board, few outside that angry board are willing to speak openly about how they really feel – except the county unions who are immediately blasted as biased.

“If you want to get something done, why pick a fight with Abele?” I heard this from many elected leaders, community activists and Democratic and Republican powerhouses in interviews, few willing to be quoted by name but eager to share opinions.

“He’s sitting pretty,” one told me.  “Just enough support on the left for his social programs and just enough belief on the right for  his tax cuts.”

““What does wining a fight with Chris Abele get you?” asked a municipal leader. “Just a target on your back. He’s a leader who can’t handle no. If you want to get things done, don’t give him a reason to get in your way.”

His defenses of Isbister also failed  because he had just abandoned all of  Milwaukee County and its diversity to tilt the balance on the  MATC board toward the right-wing ideologues who have long been part of the state power base. Their attitudes toward depressed wages put  Wisconsin near the bottom of states in job creation, even before March 11’s “right to work for less” law as it has been branded. But pretending to create more low paying jobs rather than raising up wages – the false purpose behind RTW – is certainly not the vision the electorate chose Abele to represent, though it is the vision Isbister embodies.

This welding wage scale is not a casual debate to young people interested in a tech future. The Gen-Met procedure has an odor of cultural conservative judgment day.  No one knows how many of the applicants truly had the smarts or interests as 98% were rejected and hence no reasons are specified in public databases.  How many minorities?  How many women? How many were rejected for smoking weed at age 16 or having a child out of wedlock?

In the deeply troubled economy of the recent past, welders were often the first let go, so it is hard to attract them to a career that seems unreliable, unstable  or low paying as they mature. 

Yet today in even lagging Wisconsin,  the economy is stronger and those proficient at combining welding with new technologies can now quickly earn more than $36,000 a year as a median wage ($30 an hour in nearby West Bend). The profession has advanced in sophistication past burning two metal pieces together in the garage or on basement pipes. The aim of MATC education is to provide in effect a chauffeur’s license for welding processes, not an excuse for individual companies to expect the taxpayer to absorb specialized house training methods for specific low wages and customized  machinery.

Meanwhile the courses at MATC without partisanship have been benefiting both union and non-union companies alike, startups in new technology and businesses both big and small, concentrating on training not inbred extremist attitudes.

Taught by an American Federation of Teachers faculty, many with practical work experience, it features courses and divisions in such areas as liberal arts, culinary skills, health fields, green, water and solar technologies plus various manufacturing certifications. It retains a remarkable 95% of its graduates in Wisconsin. It emphasizes a collaborative integrated education model not just in work skills but the whole human being.  One result are thousands of alumni and an aggressive faculty determined to defend MATC’s methods.

Those who speak with or about their conversations with Abele say things like “He doesn’t know how to deal with middle class people.” 

As one department head in the courthouse put it (“off the record otherwise I’d be fired”), “In both social and political allegiances, his true colors are now  fully showing.”

In our interview, Abele blamed such views as criticism from those who dislike his policies and he argued he knew  they were good policies “so I no longer care about groups with name  tags.  I only talk to real people.”

Those unhappy with the MATC decision say it is far deeper than Pasch and more about Abele’s hidden motives and bull-rush manner. There were other candidates waiting in the halls who, as one observer said to me, “should even have been acceptable to the other counties who might balk because Pasch once ran against their own Darling (Sen. Alberta Darling).”

She was referring among others to Wauwatosa’s Joyce Harms of Veolia, the waste water treatment company that already works with MATC, MPS, WRTP and other major community worker development organizations.

“If we look to the future, MATC needs more than another ‘we need more welder types for our profit plantation,’” the angry observer said.

People at MATC have other fears.  It’s little noticed but the  RTW law eliminated some $35 million in annual training from union security deals where employers rely on workers to give up some of their pay to elevate their expertise. The legislature refused to consider more money for tech colleges, but someone is going to have to pick up the slack – tech colleges at taxpayer expense?  Also, the board to this point has resisted getting into the toxic charter school approval environment. Isbister as well as Abele have indicated support for the voucher charter privatization movement. 

Dimitrijevic and others are too respectful of civility to engage in calling Abele’s choice  deceit. When contacted for comment, all Dimitrijevic would say for the record:

“I was proud to nominate an exemplary, female leader, Sandy Pasch. She would have brought much-needed healthcare experience to the MATC Board, leadership critical to help train the next generation of healthcare professionals.”

But let’s add a political reality. If anyone were to hold a political grudge against Pasch, it would be Dimitrijevic since the influential  Pasch supported her winning opponent in last August’s District 19 primary, now Rep.  Jonathan Brostoff.  She didn’t hold a grudge.

But Abele also had a candidate in that race who lagged far behind. He then ran his own campaign manager against the Pasch backed candidate for her own seat as she retired, then supervisor and now Rep. David Bowen.  As a leader in the Assembly, Pasch also opposed his power grab against the county board. And she  opposed that sneaky legislative hiccup in 2012 about endangering the MATC board with a selection process that eliminated school district leaders. 

This was a bad law led by then state Sen. Glenn Grothman who has now been sent by his right-wing base to lead the Republican joker deck in the US House, which apparently needed more extremist card-handlers given the defeat or absence of such dealers in the ridiculous as Allen West and Michelle Bachman.

On the MATC bill in 2012, massive negotiations and protests ensued and resulted in a modified statute that seemed to keep Milwaukee secure with a protective half representation.  Few anticipated that Abele would abandon his own constituency.

The good news may be that if it took three years to nibble away at a core of Milwaukee’s strength, progressive defenders can chomp right back in future elections.  But for now the right-wing element is biting harder.


2011 – Obviously happier times when new County Executive
 Chris Abele supported Sandy Pasch in her campaign and
 used her to help make his bones with progressive Democrats.
  The friendship and the bones have eroded.
Carrying a grudge against Pasch is not only in Abele’s playhouse – it fits a long pattern of not playing well with others.  He has taken to surrounding himself with sycophants since he has become infamous for his inability to work with strong knowledgeable personalities who may disagree with him around the edges – as Pasch did in offering improvements to his county mental health bill.

The talented innovative Sue Black, now hired by a Republican governor to run Arizona’s parks, was fired by Abele without explanation.  Frank Busalacchi, who used to work well and combatively for years with Gov. Doyle as head of state DOT, left the county because he couldn’t work with Abele. There have been many such departures. There was hope for a while that Abele would open both drawers on his desk, liberal and conservative, and bring fresh air and balance to county issues.  No longer.

On Facebook he is two-faced or even three-faced given the nature of social media.  On his personal page he features photos with friends and the famous and references to his charitable works.  On  his two county exec pages he promotes his public appearances and takes credit for parks and skating rink activities as if there were no county board or municipal governments involved.

Using his GOP contacts in Madison who are happy to stick it to Milwaukee, he has successfully reduced the power of the county board in appointments and oversights, a treatment of the legislative arm that would not be dared in any other county.  It is no wonder that fellow politicians are skeptical of his methods and purpose.

Early support for LBGT causes, for international women’s rights and financial largesse from his inheritance for many Democratic candidates have kept him in some good graces. (Interestingly enough he early leaned on Pasch to introduce him to Democratic movers and shakers.)

But don’t ask past beneficiaries how they feel about his current policies and methods.  I did and they either punted or said harsh things off the record. After all,  they have to work with the guy. 

As one Democratic Party wag put it, “He may not be a good Democrat but his bankbook still is.” 


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 and movies at domsdomain.