Wednesday, December 17, 2014

GOT YOUR CITY PROPERTY BILL? CATCH THE LIE ON MPS?

By Dominique Paul Noth

I seem to  have  a higher standard of truth than either  the current Wisconsin government, whose bureaucrats deliberately  throw up one barrier, or the Milwaukee city government, which has  never forcibly challenged that barrier for what it is -- an offense to honesty.  

Such willingness to dissemble became visible to all city of Milwaukee property owners on their year-end tax bill – that so-called 2014 Combined Property Tax report.  Prominent in a graphic tearing apart a dollar bill to show which units of government cost the most,  it assures you that city services are only 34 cents on the dollar, the county only 17 cents, the sewerage district (MMSD) 6 cents and the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) a mere four cents. 

But the No. 1 villain of the tax levies according to the dollar  breakdown is MPS,  the Milwaukee Public Schools at 39 cents on the dollar, supposedly 5 cents more than the city. 

This is the first piece of dishonesty brought to you by Comptroller Martin Matson, responsible for the information. Because it actually should be the city first (and only cunningly is that suggested in an inside tiny green chart on comparative tax rates). Deliberately putting the MPS first on the more prominent dollar bill piles on for the taxpayer those news and right-wing reports orchestrating the attitude that MPS is a failure.

In reality that’s a hard sell considering MPS top high schools are among the best in the nation and serve as  national models. It becomes an easier sell if you neglect as so many reporters do the extreme central city poverty, the displaced populace, the persistent pockets of runaway unemployment and then blame the schools and their struggles with reading rates for all that – as opposed to recognizing as many national experts do that MPS is actually rising against a horrible tide and doing better in broad terms than its opposition.

Add in the constant chorus that the number of students within MPS keeps shrinking while the system seems the No. 1 growing cost to property owners, thanks to Matson’s misleading dollar bill, and you’ll understand why so many swallow the hype and think as deserved comeuppances all the efforts to weaken MPS, take over its buildings and attack its veteran teaching corps. 

Except it’s an economic lie, a P.T. Barnum myth that puts a price tag on children as a way of attacking their most devoted professionals. In the current environment, where penny counters rule, the misconception on the tax bill on who gets the most property tax revenue carries ugly weight.

I hate to attack Matson who is known for general accountability competence, except this is an example of how fidelity to tradition is not the same as honesty.  It’s a damnable lie when you consider all the politics and the funding cuts as well as the ignorant attitudes standing in the way of public schooling. MPS is far from perfect, but now your friendly property tax bill has magnified the partisan bullying.

Part of the success of the lie is a defective state education funding formula  compounded by an antiquated Milwaukee property tax method conceived in the days when most families with kids owned homes and the property tax seemed a fair way to pay for the third of the costs the state’s income tax  didn’t cover. 

Except today’s state is not even paying two-thirds of K-12 public education as once promised.   In Milwaukee, more and more parents with kids live in apartments or rent houses from landlords. Home-owning retirees who once valued the schools their now grown kids attended are paying for the schools on fixed incomes surrounded by publicity that makes them question the value of that outlay, which hits them in a lump at the end of the year. So that bill can stir anger at the schools -- especially if people don’t know what they’re paying for and don’t recognize how accounting tricks have created a nearly $100 million slander against what MPS is actually costing taxpayers.

Looking at the language and largest graphs within the bill, the home owner thinks the levy cost for MPS has grown 1%.  It  actually dropped 0.6% in one year.  What actually has grown by 8.5% is  the levy for a hidden school district, the second largest school district in the state,  the voucher program. And since Madison makes sure those costs can be fobbed off on MPS, which never sees a dime, it is MPS that looks poorly run and overly expensive, not the voucher school program, known as the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).

MPCP is  actually the sixth unit of local government on a tax bill that only reports five  units.  About 20% of what is blamed on the MPS it never sees, thanks to bureaucratic accounting finesse in Madison. 

If this was about truth it would be the city of Milwaukee that would lead the cost figures  in the  levy parade and MPS would drop to second place. The voucher school district known as Milwaukee Parental Choice Program  would be tucked into any pie graph  just behind Milwaukee County and ahead of the MMSD and MATC.  Nor has the state added a single dime in a year to the High Poverty Offset Aid used to sell the voucher program in Milwaukee though state tax credits and offsets have reduced the MPS portion of the so-called MPS levy.  

In fact that entire dollar bill dissection would have the city first at 34 cents, followed by MPS, the county and the MPCP. 

To put it another way that would spell it out for the bean counters, the city’s tax levy has gone up a modest 1.2% since 2013 (and the city has been a responsible steward of the public money)  but the MPS, listed as rising 1% in costs, actually dropped by .06%. It was the MPCP  that actually went up 8.5%, so while MPS is spending less this year it looks like it is spending more.

But it is the city that creates this bill and furthers the illusion that does an injustice to reality.  

The false arithmetic that allows this was concocted in Madison fine print but has been encouraged by the misnamed “school choice” organizations, several led by chamber of commerce lobbyists living outside the city and by former felons like Scott Jensen and Katy Veskus.


There are several consequences  of this deception, but the foremost dupe is the state taxpayers. Many  still believe the state income tax  is funding the voucher school program, but the legislature made sure counties outside Milwaukee wouldn’t face such a “voucher tax” burden (they would have rebelled).  In fact, $56.3 million a year – much more than a quarter of the statewide voucher  program – comes directly from the Milwaukee property tax.

City taxpayers are the second dupe, and you can’t help wondering if the city’s laziness in fighting the state bureaucrats on this is also a bit of PR. Agreeing to the lie allows the city to appear only the second highest cost on the bill as opposed to the first. 

MPS has long been angry at this dissembling, and frankly the city leaders agree in principle, especially a sympathetic city treasurer, Spencer Coggs. Or so he personally assured me.  But so far the city has only taken feeble feints to correct the impression, despite negotiations by MPS and others.  It will take pressure from the mayor and common council to change the internal thinking.

Two years ago MPS got the city to at least insert a yellow slip inside the bill, outlining in small print the technical facts, including that “MPS is the only school district in the state compelled” to include in its levy tax money it doesn’t get. That was a baby step toward full transparency.  The yellow slip, one of several inserts in the mailing, states flatly that MPCP gets $56.3 million this year from city property tax payers and that MPS sees none of that.

But more prominent and larger  on the bill is that dollar bill deception and the list of tax levies in a three-way green foldout  that fails to mention MPCP in any fashion. The city has refused to correct the major explanation, with curious debates about ink and paper costs and the need to change a state subset regulation, or even saying the public would be confused by sunlight.     “The voters aren’t economists,” one city bureaucratic told me to justify the evasion – a curious echo of the thinking of the GOP senators who claim that they can’t believe in climate change because they are not scientists.

The political reality seems the city doesn’t want to go to bat on this one. They have enough trouble with Madison on many other fronts. So why should the city fight to correct a property tax lie involving the public schools it once tried to take over? Indeed why own up that the city is helping spread the falsehood rather than tackle the business types and voucher-charter conduits the city works with?  

Incidentally, the press on the right constantly conflates voucher schools, which can be religious, with charter schools, which by definition are public schools free of following some rules. But most charter schools in Wisconsin are run and monitored by public school districts, certainly the good ones untainted by scandal, something most advocates of school choice don’t emphasize.

Yet influential choice organizations have also fought acknowledging the lost levy unit on the Milwaukee property tax bill, in confidence the Madison legislature will resist spelling out the true cause of excess education costs – and the city won’t readily tilt against chambers the city does business with.   The era of Don Quixote is long past.

Meanwhile academic researchers and investigative reporters -- even at newspapers friendly to the voucher movement – may be changing the landscape and force politicians to get on board before they are burned. It may be time the city stood up against the false crowing that a voucher school education only costs $7,210 per K-8 student and $7,856 for high school – note how that cost to the state taxpayers has crept up over the years and no one knows the full expense – compared with some $11,000 for MPS students. The comparison is another part of the deception of school choice, which attacks criticism of its own figures with its  own set of misinformation.  

The cost differences are questionable because of all the clever ways most voucher schools have cherry-picked students and dumped the most expensive special needs children – emotional, cognitive and disabled – back on MPS and its highly trained specialists. The prize-winning experts have begun digging around as the government should have at all the hidden money and grants the voucher and independent charter movement has been receiving beyond taxpayer support to justify cost figures and weak results.

Factual evidence is growing that the school choice movement is aswim in less accountability, more corruption, nepotism, untrained or rapidly departing teachers and hidden funding from people with an ideological agenda who could quickly abandon these schools and neighborhoods for greener pastures. 

There are sincere people in the voucher movement and the independent charter movement who believe their experimentations contain values, especially religious values parents cling to, and that on grounds of morality and discipline they can make a good case for their programs if you accept the dressing and don’t check under the hood for long-term results.

It is honest “choice” trumpeters, hardly liberal in leanings,  who admit disgust at how the voucher school movement and the privateer advocates can’t separate a moral noble purpose from the  fly by night operators and  questionable funding sources that dominate exposes on rip-offs and failures. In conversation if not in public, they worry that it is wrong to not fight it out directly on accountability scores, student success  and apples-to-apples funding. 

But making their case on merit requires openly discussing the costs of different sorts of schools and comparing results, which brings us back to an honest tax bill.

If the city, even down to its tax mailing, blocks understanding of how education is funded and where your hard-earned money goes, it destroys the reliable financial measurement that should be the cornerstone of good Milwaukee government.  For the mayor and common council to allow this sort of deception on the very tax bill they produce  has become a yellow stain that raises questions about their own integrity and guts. 

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


Friday, November 14, 2014

BAD DEEMED BETTER THAN BLAH – ANOTHER LESSON FROM NOV. 4

By Dominique Paul Noth

This columnist has been surveying a range of unnoticed results from the Nov. 4 election including how the Democrats lost but Obama’s values seem to have won even in red states. I know this flies in the face of the harrumphing of John Boehner, but the facts support the president’s caution that, while the election in a few states cost his party Congress, it does not reflect the policy direction of the people.

But one  conclusion from Nov. 4 stands out so boldly that both major parties must admit it.
Bad action was clearly preferred to no action. Or the interpretation of inaction.

The GOP had a Teflon shield in the form of attacking the White House.  From the Democratic side that was strange.  For instance, when Nancy Pelosi was Speaker of the House, she sure acted, running the chamber to good effect and not always along partisan lines.  In fact, when Boehner took over, he only got things done when he turned to Pelosi for action with her votes.

Not recently. His sense of being torn between traditional Republicans and Tea Party members became a Beltway joke. But the Democrats had the Senate. And while Democrats interpreted their own failure to act as the Boehner blockade, the voters took it out on the Senate.

Staying with existing action seemed the way to go in state races. In Wisconsin Mary Burke lost even getting about as many votes as Scott Walker did the first time around, so this is still a split state.  But there was no relief for the many citizens  who fear that inept management was rewarded because of his familiarity to voters and his more established political machinery pumping up the popular myth of cutting taxes without explaining the profound cuts in basic services such as education and safety. Temporary pocketbook gains won over job stagnation and warnings about the economic disaster in the near future. 

But Scott Walker did act and while it may turn out silly action, it seemed appreciated by the voters over taking a risk on even  intelligent sounding unknowns led by a lesser known.

In states like Ohio and Michigan, the devil on hand was preferred to the potential unknown – even where there was good evidence that the economic, social care  and human rights record of the incumbents was  mixed or generally wrong for the future. But those governors are  not that hard to swallow if you are not directly affected –- such as living in Detroit --  and don’t look around the corner. Few were peeking around that corner to the point of changing their votes. 

Brownback of Kansas may be proof of
bad action surviving.
Nowhere was this stubborn clinging to forgiving “them good ole boys you growed up with” clearer than in Kansas.  It was 10 years ago in his best-seller that Thomas Frank outlined chapter and verse how voters rejected their own economic benefits to keep electing leaders with harmful fiscal visions.  This year it finally looked like even the Dorothys in Kansas were ready to surrender to the lessons of “What's the Matter With Kansas?” Polls indicated that the devastating tax disasters of GOP Gov. Sam Brownback had outraged Republicans and independents and were going to cost him his office.  But even Brownback won, proving that Kansas was still  not ready to abandon its audacious inept hero, much like Wisconsin won’t abandon Scott Walker despite growing evidence.

Citizens in all these states now  have to cross their fingers for the next four years and hope the benefits outweigh the damage.  It is also likely that new GOP majorities may feel overly emboldened to engage in worse practices while even many of their supporters hope they cool it.

The third of America who voted Nov. 4 didn’t seem concerned if it was local GOP misbehavior that made their family income  squeal like pigs – to borrow the horrible phrasing of successful GOP senate candidate Joni Ernst, the hog castration queen of TV ads in Iowa (who soon will face her own duplicity on Obamacare, which she opposes while supporting the popular Obamacare expansion of Medicaid in her state). 

The voters decided in many races that economic misbehavior can’t be caused by their friendly local GOP.  They agreed with those pounding television ads and the subtler tilt of media coverage over the years.  It’s like FOX keeps telling us.  It all had to come from higher up, right? All the failure, echoed the big money boys and the hedge fund paranoids, stemmed from that guy in the White House, not anything those nice Republicans did in your community. It worked even better if the Democrat on the other side tried to defend himself by stepping way off from the president since the voters seemed to dislike him.

Obama refused a joint but accepted a beer with Hickenlooper .
But Democratic candidates who openly ran away from Obama – Grimes in Kentucky, Tennant in South Carolina, Pryor in Arkansas, Nunn in George, Hagen in North Carolina – went down, and those who relied on social ideology rather than action, such as Colorado Sen. Mark Udall,  lost.  Yet in Colorado, the larger issues of women’s rights were supported and the NRA attack on a Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, not only didn’t stop his victory, but cost them the seats of two rabid NRA GOP supporters.   Indeed, Hickenlooper (who won by larger margins that many expected) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire demonstrated that standing up for the president was a winning course. Local issues predominated in races where those who stood by Obama lost, mainly newcomers like Burke or party changers like Florida’s Charlie Crist. But local issues worked against Republicans in surprising House races.

Another lesson is reflected in those  completely mistaken predictions in Kansas – the polls were askew everywhere. It was flat screwy given the amount of space and air time devoted to these polls.  Races called close weren’t, some called close were but not in the ways anticipated. Some races conceded by pollsters to the GOP proved rare bright spots for the Democrats (Hickenlooper and Gov. Dan Malloy in Connecticut, who both clung to Obama policies), and some races  thought no contest at all became squeakers (Democrat Sen. John Warner in Virginia). It was like looking at a Google map on a fading flickering smart phone.

In a nonpresidential year local politics are hard to measure.  But it sure made the media blather both left and right look foolish and maybe will wake up journalists to more caution about off-year polls in the future. 

Running against Obama worked in Senate and House races to a ludicrous degree of rhetorical excess.  By my count of TV ads, some 70 sitting Democrats were attacked for being the “deciding vote for Obamacare,” an impossibility except for those who do not believe in either science or math.

But what is wrong with the Affordable Care Act? That is the formal name for Obamacare and scores much higher in the polls as ACA  than Obamacare, which also tells us something.  If you ask voters who oppose it, they don’t know why, except that it is complicated.  In fact it is supported in most states where the GOP won including Kentucky.  And the complications of the law, history tells us, were mainly to win Republican votes in Congress.

Even on TV, McConnell pretended it wasn't Obamacare.
If you ask candidates they deepen the ridiculous. It’s not just Ernst in Iowa attacking Obamacare while quietly supporting its Medicaid expansion.  Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in an otherwise gracious and politically savvy victory speech, espoused some nonsense even for his supporters –- that the voters clearly rejected the excise tax on medical devices. Huh? Did anyone know they were voting on that?  
Despite Mitch at full croak the small tax  doesn’t cost jobs and the ACA has increased volume for medical devices and should bring in $29 billion over nine years that otherwise would have to be offset by other federal revenue. So this is yet another backdoor way of attacking the careful balance of paying for health care.

And then Mitch threw in another left-fielder --- claiming his GOP majority was universally pushing to lower the highest corporate tax rates. You know, the one no business is paying. That also sidestepped that Obama had been pleading with him to reform the tax code (though Obama wants to lift the free tax ride for oil and gas companies as well, and they are Mitch’s big money machine).  This reminded observers that the heart and soul of Kentucky’s Obamacare is the very successful Kynect, and Mitch tries to pretend it’s just a website, knowing full well it would collapse without the ACA.

McConnell simply interpreted GOP victories to fit the pet projects he had promised his financial supporters.  It is a wallow in Mitch hollow, not a citizen need.

Frankly, I have asked voters, and they are hard-pressed to explain, what is so offensive about the ACA, unless they believe the hysteria over pending job losses, and the fabrications around higher costs to health care even though realities are moving the other way.  I am coming to the conclusion that these GOP voters are simply like helmet-opposing motorcycle riders who don’t want any regulation telling them to  do something because it’s  better for themselves and the people driving alongside them.

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 its still operative archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as pieces at his Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 


Thursday, November 13, 2014

GOP USED CARICATURE TO WIN BUT NOW FACES REAL OBAMA

By Dominique Paul Noth

Obama Nov. 5 put the election in perspective.
Facts and figures pouring in a week after the Nov. 4 election are putting some balance to what was clearly a debacle for Democratic candidates in many states – which deservedly is causing major political strategy rethinking in Wisconsin and around the nation.  

But simultaneously the election proved there are factually correct reasons why President Obama is unbowed in the direction he has outlined for the nation.  If anything he has risen above the petty politics of party and electronic media. 

He was much maligned by talking heads on both sides for stating that while he was not on the ballot his values were. Stupid of him to point out the obvious, and the pundits roundly attacked that as political error. But they are result merchants married to political outcomes for the purpose of ratings not value outcomes important to the nation’s long-term development. The cable channels are also devoted to promoting short-term panic, and relishing how his opponents can pile on the panic. 

A little time has already brought some perspective on the weirdest paradoxes of this election. Attacking Obama worked for Republicans in red states. The technique elected people who will fight him tooth and nail in Congress, and this will harm many essential elements of national progress from filling administrative appointments to useful steps toward the future as the GOP wastes time investigating closed chapters of the past. 

But in those same states in ballot questions separate from party personalities, his values or general progressive values won again and again, statewide and in key regions. 

Much higher minimum wage (resounding even in red states), rejection of personhood, gun reform measures, not giving corporations the constitutional free speech rights of people, marriage redefinition, legalized marijuana, reducing criminal penalties for minor violations, paid sick days, and on and on. 

At the same time both parties (obviously Democrats more than Republicans but basically anyone who has the law explained to them) support continuation of basic tenets of the 
Affordable Care Act and intelligent immigration reform including a path to citizenship.

If anything many elected Republicans are distancing themselves from the constant calls to repeal Obamacare (same deal, different name).

These successes on the ballot and in respected polls were in much larger percentages than the individual appeal of candidates and even among voters traditionally from conservative and Tea Party camps.

The initial reaction of right-wing drones on social media to this article is probably that only an Obama devotee could respond this way to an election loss, but that is why Republican diehards are just as mixed up as Democratic diehards. This election requires rethinking on both sides. Just what do the terms conservative and liberal mean to any modern electorate?  Because it’s changing. Progressives can no longer wrap themselves in a mantle of beliefs without action and conservatives can no longer assume that platforms of the past have any resonance today.

Obama’s agenda, however, is going to pay an enormous price if as many suspect the GOP refuses to change, and so far Republican leaders clearly won’t.

The biggest loser Nov. 4 may have been Mother Earth given the events of November 12. A major leap forward in addressing man’s climate emissions is running afoul not just of GOP climate change deniers now in charge of major committees, such as James Inhofe.  The bigger enemy is the deliberate selective memory of GOP leaders who resisted any previous action on mankind’s role  using the excuse that China would never go along with major reductions.  But now that  China has made a major deal with Obama that the world’s two largest climate polluters will work together for 16 years, the GOP is sure to forget it ever made such a condition.

Given such ridiculous behavior on a climate issue even most Republicans and certainly business leaders want action on, look for speedy improvements in Obama’s poll numbers. If climate deals don’t do it, he has handled Ebola and the Mideast issues with far more maturity, control and without the hysteria of his opponents.

Statistics defy the glee taken by Republicans who will probably move hard to block the president and also defy the attitude of many Democrats and even of many progressives (not the same thing) that the voters will wake up and vote them back in when they realize the GOP now has more excuses for obstructionism.  The voters are saying something else and it is not good for any side.

This was an election revealing vast indifference to the electoral process even among those who voted on past legacies – and now those legacies are changing and even their votes reflect that.  Citizens who have righteous indignation over political inaction, no matter who is given the blame right now, may jump another way in the near future, so knee-jerk is their frustration.

Cynical it may be to bring the nation’s progress down to every family’s personal feelings, but that is what is winning at the polls – not clean air and green energy in general but can I get a job even if my grandchildren may be harmed by the methods? Not tax relief in the long run, not intelligent economic development, but what do I get for my piggy bank right now?

There is more faith in standing by opinions that are loud in an echo chamber rather than intelligent.  There is not much faith anymore in speaking up about values in the abstract if you don’t humanize what you actually are getting done.  There is a tendency to believe people who are acting boldly without questioning what in the world they are doing. At least they are doing something and talking about it. 

The failure to stand up and holler hurts. The Democrats’ candidates wound up looking jaded and out of fashion in strategy. The Republicans controlled the rhetoric and packaging so that even their most extremist candidates didn’t sound that extreme on the trail and were seldom challenged (but that may not work long either with a larger more balanced electorate). The GOP congressional opponents were spending more time trying to sound moderate to attract independents or “hey I’m not an Obama stooge” to comfort swing voters – and that struck everyone as inauthentic. Authenticity, even mentally challenged authenticity, seemed to have more impact.

In Colorado, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall has been a successful and quite likeable champion on intelligent energy policy and legislative action but he spent his campaign time talking grimly about the danger his GOP opponent represented to women’s reproductive rights and the environment.  Well, women’s rights haven’t yet lost an inch in Colorado and clean energy is still supported. But sober reliable Udall went down to defeat against a more charming personality who spoke in generalities and was never nailed for deception. 

It would be hard to make a case for progressive advances in a gridlocked world against hugely funded ad campaigns pounding away messages of failure and fear of the future, even if those attacks are exaggerated.  But it’s much harder if you don’t attack and correct the lies. 

Consider. 78% of the voters in some polls say the economy is bad and drove their choice. (This is about the same percent of voters who think addressing clean energy is a big winner for the US, ironically, which they link to addressing climate change as Obama has just done.)  Yet official unemployment has dropped from above 10% to below 6% in six years and Wall Street is at a record high.  The stagnant economy so many feel stems from the wage gap between the richest and the middle earthers, also a record that the wealthy have refused to address. Bush didn’t attack this. Obama has but he is the guy in the White House who is set up by corporate advertisers to get the blame.

He has fought for infrastructure and jobs plans, reduced the yearly national deficit by two-thirds and helped created a mind-boggling 4.7 million jobs in the wake of the Great Recession, to name just some highlights. But he’s sitting there as he was in 2009 when the Bush destruction took hold and he got blamed for it.  Obama is also aloof in manner, not one of the glad-handing politicians the US is used to and rigid on his own vision, probably more conservative than most Americans realize. Since he doesn’t play the mea culpa game with the public or the media,  it is even more convenient than usual to blame the president.

Every week for a year, it seems, Obama has been on the campaign trail urging the GOP to end their opposition to help him help the middle class with national programs, inviting their ideas, yet they used Nov. 4 to focus not on the country but on reducing the forces he needs to change things.  Was it belief that he is indeed "the other"? Was it frustration? Willful ignorance? Conviction that if Republicans were in charge they would despite contrary evidence do better?  All of the above, probably.

And curiously enough, his stalwartness in the face of such excess behavior has been  a vindication of his attitude toward  Nov. 4,  a determination to put his ideas for the country ahead of politics. The failure to recognize that and just to criticize him wholesale should not please any thinking citizen. It raises deep questions about the historic knowledge and modern education on issues of citizens, especially citizens who are driven to the polls at midterm more by brand than understanding. They exist in both parties.

Obama said he heard clearly from the third of the country who voted --  and please note that the Democrats still got about 47% of that vote --   but also heard the two-thirds who didn’t. That remark Nov. 5 may not have been politically astute to the TV commentators since he said aloud something that contradicted what they had been preaching – that this was a GOP mandate. Hardly, Obama was saying. He had the temerity to say he could live with a Republican majority in both chambers without kissing their, er, ring – after all, he wasn’t getting much done the way it had been.

But Obama was showing sound understanding of America. Nationwide, 36% of eligible citizens voted Nov. 4, compared to 58% for president in 2012. Beyond that, only 12% were voters under 30 and 38% were voters over 60 – doubling the actual eligible demographic percentage in those age ranges.

Not to excuse the foolishness of so many Democratic campaigns, particularly those candidates who ran away from the president and particularly the lack of playing up the very progress that the opponents pounded into the ground – the economy. There will be considerable discussion in both parties about how to proceed but the election was a reminder that midterm votes are not the nation speaking but the machinery. This is why politics is a profession and how you sell the sizzle is often more important than the taste of the steak.

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 its still operative archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as pieces at his Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 


Sunday, November 2, 2014

JUST IMAGINE IF FABLES HAD BEEN ABOUT WALKER!

By Dominique Paul Noth

It’s just days before the election.  Journal Sentinel reveals that a county maintenance worker remembers Scott Walker standing over Tim Russell’s shoulder in the county exec’s office  as he installed that secret network router for emails and telling the now convicted Tim, “Are you sure the messages won’t be found?”  

Now that would be a believable tale about the illegal out of sight mingling of county and political worktime and deception -- a bombshell, in fact, confirming what many think went on, unlike the current fiction involving family leadership discussions 20 years ago at Trek. 

Except it would be  laughed away by reputable journalists – especially if revealed six days before the election. Surely no reliable newspaper would publish so obviously political a ploy.  That would be the “unleash the dogs” whistle for electronic media and other newspapers to slip their moral traces just because the “reputable” paper did.  The state’s largest daily, JS, couldn’t repeat something that nasty without verification and break the basic covenant on Page One taught in journalism schools– could it? (It now admits it did , calling the canards it repeated about Mary Burke “criticism larded with hearsay, innuendo and sexist overtones.”)

Or what if a “credible source” --  credible in that he went to Marquette University in 1988  and took the same classes --  stepped  forward with “firsthand” accounts of how Walker dropped out because of failing grades and pending disciplinary action.

Six days before an election?  Maybe those wacky  leftist blogs would run it, and force the wacky rightist blogs to pay attention. But let’s  not anyone pretend that it’s journalism. 

What about  six months before November 4? The responsibility remains to verify however tempting, just as the late tough-as-nails legendary editor, Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post,  made a stab at getting the real Watergate story  months earlier but decided he would rather see Nixon re-elected than rush in without unchallengeable facts. 

Claims from the distant past get intense scrutiny and skepticism all the time.  Did the source have ties to the  opponent, even a major party position? An ax to grind for being fired?  Had he pretended to be a fake from the other party to force an unneeded primary contest on voters? (I just flipped the realities, describing in Walker reverse the people in Walker’s camp  who spread those hoary tales about Burke from  20 years ago).

With him the media wouldn’t dare but with her they not only would but did.  Other journalists now think JS broke with standard journalism practice to preserve their flagship role among E.W. Scripps newspapers. They don't follow the money but it sure is all about money. What does an outstate company care about a new governor who only wants to do the grit hard work of making Wisconsin better? Keeping Walker alive would put JS and his pretenses of national office in the headlines and sell more papers. 

So it’s not just me  saying this rush without evidence – and burying that it was without evidence --  was irresponsible journalism,or crass indecent attacks on a candidate and un-American to the sense of fair play. Editorials and new endorsement of Burke from unexpected corners are becoming a stampede and even more establishment outlets tell me they would be blasting away at JS except for their own  “try not to think of green elephants” rule – they don’t want to repeat dirty tricks even in excoriating dirty tricks so close to an election.

It’s the same rationale of trained temperance that gives reporters special legal protections and led the US Supreme Court, with considerable dissent, to keep in place a voter ID law in Texas  it may later rule unconstitutional. The court held off even on a “poll tax”  because it deemed Oct. 18 too close to the election! Yet JS put the Burke canard on Page One Oct. 30.

My first invention about Walker sucked you in for a minute, didn’t it? Because many do think this is close to what happened at the courthouse. But no eyewitness has ever stepped forward  and the timing six days before an election would put it out of bounds. 

The second invention, 26 years later,  is credible only for those legions of Walker haters  who haven’t, as I did, culled the archives at Marquette and know many folks just dropped out and still carved fine careers, though few dared to then put themselves as competent to be  in charge of public education funding.  I also know a hyperactive youth full of  unseemly political excesses and deemed “unfit to govern” in a campus newspaper (Walker) shouldn’t be damned forever by hormones. It sounds good and it sure fits  a pattern,  but it’s amateur psychology to see the parent’s behavior in the antics of a child. 

But never underestimate the power of wishful thinking disguised as stories.  And never confuse constant presence in the public eye and glib friendliness toward easily seduced reporters with their having  real knowledge of what lengths a politician can descend to.

Who really is the mystery  candidate here?  The believability of my fables confirms Walker  is actually the most poorly vetted candidate in this race since no one has dug out a lot of known  holes in his history much less the workings of his inner circles and what promises he has made to the sometimes secret and certainly corrupting millions pouring in at the last minute to protect him from likely loss. (Why is Macau and Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Addison dropping another $650,000 into state  GOP coffers  in the last week? Is he, not Walker,  deciding on a Kenosha casino and how many decisions are really rewards for excess support?)

The observer in me says most voters have already made up their minds and won’t pay attention to this smear job, except to remember that this  was a newspaper that was once honored in the profession.  (Wait till the Columbia Journalism Review or the Pulitzer committee gets done with them!). But combine the dirty trick with the weather forecast (election day is the only day of the week expecting heavy downpours), it clearly  was intended to put a likely lead for Mary Burke in question. It's always harder to walk in the rain down rural roads or central city streets than drive up to the polls in a Mercedes.

Despite the attacks,  Burke is neck and neck or slightly ahead in the UW Madison polling model. (I’ve written extensively about how the bouncing poll numbers are getting too much attention, but if you want to pay attention anyway, she’s doing pretty good.)

My fabrications have more credibility than the virus infected on Mary Burke, but my larger point is simple. If this had been attempted as a last minute smear of Walker, both his friends in media and journalists who know the rules would have refused to play along or even evoke the lame excuse that it’s out there in crazy land so they have to repeat.

JS pounded the biggest nail it could find  into its own coffin. The former employer I once admired  is shredding its reputation as it trims down its veteran staff and ponders selling its legendary home.   

Smell a rat abandoning a sinking ship?  That compels responsible citizens to search for other sources truer to the rules of objectivity and opinion and more open about their purpose. Whether just independent, community oriented or roundedly liberal, or defiantly alternative,  they are all looking more honest today. And this may be why there are now so many of them, many using former JS employees as disgusted as I am.

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 its still operative archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as pieces at his Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 


Thursday, October 30, 2014

WHO’S ON FIRST? AND WHAT’S THE NEXT BALLOT QUESTION?

By Dominique Paul Noth


While attending two crowded social events last week, one nonpartisan and one a political fund-raiser, people in the crowd pressed into my hands and pocket a set of instructions outlining how to vote on the five advisory questions on my two-sided ballot November 4 in Milwaukee. 

Curiously their advice – one no and four yes -- matched my own. So at first I thought there must be considerable information out there about the opportunity to express the opinion of voters. And then at other events and outside City Hall during early voting, I ran into squads of citizens unaware of the issues and particularly confused by the nonbinding state referendum.

That’s the one that needs a No but is language tricky. It sounds like a sensible change to the state constitution – until you look under the hood as state Sen. Fred Risser did.

There you will find traps in prohibiting using the state transportation fund for purposes other than transportation. That sounds noble except that “transportation” is not defined. The use of the fund would be determined by bureaucrats doing the bidding of the party in power.

There is some history there -- including excessive attention by the DOT to highway building and double-decker or multiple upon multiple lanes regardless of pushes for variety. Another part of that history is Scott Walker’s refusal of $810 million in federal money to make Wisconsin part of a national train network (isn’t that transportation?) to be paid by the nation’s taxpayers, not the state’s. He turned down big money and big numbers of permanent and temporary jobs that have now gone to other eager states.

He used the political pretenses that trains would cost the state a fortune in maintenance (untrue) and that no one but Democratic politicians wanted economic development along the tracks or an alternative way to get to Madison.  (Have you been stuck on our clogged highways lately?)

Raiding the transportation fund, which comes from the gas tax and vehicle registration fees, for other government services has been criticized by Mary Burke though it was done after she left the commerce department of onetime boss Jim Doyle. Of course no politician today discusses what would have happened to taxpayers if he hadn’t raided the fund during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

She didn’t agree with it then or now, but Walker is unconscionably still trying to make it (five years later) the economic centerpiece of his argument against her!

He doesn’t mention his worse methods of filling the hole in the budget that Doyle faced (Walker has shrunk shared revenue for schools and communities and borrowed money more heavily than any previous governor) – methods that will leave his likely successor, Burke, with a $1.8 billion structural deficit.  (Maybe what we really need is a constitutional limit on how much the state can borrow!)  This question is an easy no.

The other four questions get a yes and are only in Milwaukee County as an expression of the voice of the people. A disgruntled voice right now.

A lot of media has scoffed at the few thousand dollars cost of the referenda. Why should we pay attention to the voice of the people? It’s just an expression of opinion without the force of law. Just a waste of time and money hearing what people think because the legislature and judges may ignore it anyway.  They have before. (Yes, only to see ballot advice overwhelmingly advanced by Milwaukee voters grow into a national movement.) 

The Milwaukee County referenda are listed as four questions. Question 1 has already passed in several communities – basically that corporations are not people and should be treated differently than the living breathing citizen. 

It advises changing the US Constitution to block the worst consequences of Citizens United in a way that can’t be reversed. The question asks for an amendment to say: “Only human beings, not corporations, are entitled to constitutional rights, and money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.”

The wording is careful and legally cunning, expressing what human beings and corporations are entitled to in different ways and defending spending on politics but allowing elected officials to decide limits, so all quarters are protected but put in distinct separate places.

I’m reluctant to add to the Bill of Rights, but this one is necessary given the excess and disrespect the current situation has caused for our electoral process, and given the current Congress that squabbles even over ideas both sides agree on. So I am all for yes.

And yes as well on Question 2 to accept all federal funds for Wisconsin BadgerCare, which means the expanded Medicaid that will save billions of dollars in 10 years and cover thousands left in limbo. 

TV viewers will note how the ads for Walker continue to mislead on the Affordable Care Act, perhaps to halt public demands like this. The ad examples don’t hold up, not even if they pound on you in high volume. Even that so-called lie of the year in 2013.  Obama should have qualified more accurately when he said “If you like your health plan you can keep it,” because he didn’t grasp that thousands of people liked lousy health plans that didn’t fill the ACA bill – or had never used them and were shocked when they were being taken away or changed wholesale by heath insurance companies, which did read the fine print in the law.

But the truth is that most people in both parties appreciate the benefits of Obamacare as long as you don’t call it Obamacare, and if you examine the particulars you’ll see that the rising costs of health care are slowing and that most middle class families are widely helped.

But Walker turned down the expanded Medicaid coverage by the federal government under the ACA, ignoring that throughout history the federal government hasn't reneged on its Medicaid promises and partnerships with the states.  Walker is doing pyrotechnic dissembling claiming that people at or below the poverty line will still be covered by BadgerCare (the state Medicaid) and that everyone else can go the federal exchange even though they don’t make enough money to meet the requirements – by my estimate some 60,000 working people and even by his some 30,000.

His refusal to take the Medicaid money is painfully cruel as well as fiscally stupid, and the people have a right to say so on the ballot.

Yes as well on Question 3, urging the state to raise its minimum hourly wage to $10.10 -- not quite enough to live on but an important step in a better economic direction for low income families and  a major multiplier for local businesses. 

And yes also on Question 4, which is to some degree a “tit for tat” by the county board in reaction to County Executive Chris Abele.  Coming from a wealthy business background, he was apparently frustrated with the give and take compromise of the US democratic process. So Abele reduced the power of the county’s legislative arm by turning to Republicans in the Madison legislature to concoct Act 14. That limited the authority of the largely progressive (but debate minded) county board, giving more control to him, and even convinced voters there were financial savings in reducing the supervisors’ wages starting in 2016 to part time rates even if their duties in many districts remain full time.  

Curiously a Republican hope and a Democratic fear behind all this may be backfiring.  The Democrats argued that only independently wealthy Republicans could afford to take these still influential positions at $24,000 a year.  But it is turning out that a lot of progressive community activists or recent retirees – or pretty active Democratic politicians – are  more willing and able to work for the public interest in these nonpartisan workhorse jobs, and Abele may face an even more progressive and united board in the future.

It is already proving so this Nov. 4 for residents of District 5 with noted progressive activist Charlie Fox, a busy retiree, competing against a one-time county employee, Martin Weddle,  hired by former opponent Lee Holloway, both running for a vacant central city seat.  And in the spring there are more openings as David Bowen heads to the Assembly and David Cullen takes over as county treasurer. The biggest hardship is that younger people just building their finances may be lowballed out of service.

These are the consequences of GOP support for Act 14. Another is the advisory question on the ballot that would also save taxpayer money and should provide a more efficient operation, coordinated staff and fewer spitting matches. 

It’s as if the supervisors are saying: OK Abele, if that’s the game, let’s let the people in on it. How about saving big money and stop all those big fights over nothing? That would be the hope from putting an elected professional manager in charge to focus only on what is good for county citizens. 

It is a bit of payback but the idea of a professional administrator has long been in the air.  It lets the people enjoy progress with less combative movement using a legislative process and checks and balances protected from the explosive personality-driven current situation.  If Abele wants to use his money, the thinking goes, to support candidates and issues he likes, he will be more successful as a private citizen and there would be less tension in local politics and less running to Mama (the Madison legislature) to solve basic county policies. It would more often present a united front to the legislature. 

Abele didn’t intend to become the perfect example of the value of what is admittedly a radical structural change but the county has now suffered 12 years of Walker’s maneuvers and Abele’s maneuvers,  built around financial and insider influence rather than openly discussed ideas.

Personally, since Abele has given tons of money to important political causes, I found it odd and somewhat distasteful when he was openly booed at major Democratic Party gatherings, but the people who turn out every four years for the nonpartisan elections to the county board are quietly the grassroots street-level backbone of the local Democratic Party bringing district diversity and variety to the table. He cut into that with Act 14 for his own benefit and has brought out hostility toward his methods. The upshot may put money back into its proper place in politics (see county Question 1).

Recall that when Abele was first elected it was seen as a breath of responsibility and non-partisanship after Walker, who always had his eye on higher office and to heck with civilities.  Abele campaigned on being willing to listen to the best ideas from experts and all sides. Instead there has been a revolving door of talented people he couldn’t work with -- including Sue Black and Frank Busalacchi -- and they quietly or loudly disappeared when their opinions didn’t suit his.  A professional manager would have listened to the advice.

Abele has since funded his own candidates for public office, many opposing sitting supervisors --  and all lost Aug. 12.  He has been so personal and harsh (without consultation) in how he spends his money on campaigns that he seems to have insulted voters and politicos in the process. Witness the costly ad blitz portraying David Clarke as a deformed cartoon in a cowboy hat. He may have been, but Clarke used those attack ads and the historic ugly portrayal of African Americans to survive when common sense examples would have done him in.

Question 4 asks if the voters would like to see Milwaukee County “transition its management and administrative functions from an elected County Executive to a professional County Administrator.” 

Recognizing that the motives may have roots in politics, this is still a Yes vote.

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 its still operative archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as pieces at his Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

LATEST MARQUETTE POLL ANTICIPATED AND PREDICTABLE


Mary Burke is supported by hardworking public figures (left to right):
 unopposed new Assembly member David Bowen, city treasurer and former senator Spencer Coggs,
 US Rep. Gwen Moore, Burke and Rep. Mandela Barnes.

By Dominique Paul Noth

Before the last Marquette poll came out October 29 I discussed in a broadly read article the inevitable swings in polling, its history and limitations and why journalists rely so heavily on its selective statistics – and why Journal Sentinel leans so hard on determining and trumpeting the Marquette University results.

My article may been an accidental prelude why the latest poll flies in the face of previous polls and no longer admits up front what the pollsters did a week ago – the top Wisconsin races are too close to call in a nonpresidential year.

I couldn’t if I had intended lay the ground more clearly for an unbelievable sudden swing to put Scott Walker ahead in front page JS articles  (seven points among self-reporting likely Republicans  while still virtually tied among registered voters,  an estimate much lower down in the article).

It was almost telegraphed in the patronizing JS editorial and panel discussions among pollsters and opinion makers about Mary Burke’s gains back to even  or slightly ahead a week earlier in the previous Marquette poll.

I still don’t know who will win, but these new results could backfire on the Walker devotees as well as on the private Jesuit university I went to and taught at that receives so much of its funding for such enterprises from rich conservative Catholics, some of whom dislike the new pope as a secret progressive radical.

How that funding would survive a poll revelation that the public actually prefers Burke -- well, I'll leave that to your imagination.

The surface aim might be to discourage turnout for Burke but could rebound into complacency in the Walker camp and fresh determination for proud Mary.

The poll is also curious for now putting Brad Schimel back on top of Susan Happ for AG by numbers previous polls had obliterated a month ago. But that might reflect public belief in the TV ads that have reduced the contest to a war of top cops simplicity – and it may rely on that tired canard among phoned voters that men must be tougher than women.

Still, the desperation in the Walker camp is palpable as are his naked pleas for more money to beat back the Burke tide.

It does come down to what even the polling experts confess -- not just turnout but who turns out their forces best. It should remind every citizen that all applecarts are upended should the general public rouse from its midterm ennui and show up in numbers neither side can anticipate.

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 its still operative archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as pieces at his Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

LOW ROAD OF TV’S TOP COP ANTICS MAY HIDE WHY HAPP IS BEST FOR AG

By Dominique Paul Noth

Susan Happ and Brad Schimel during Mike Gousha's AG debate.
Every worry I had about the race for attorney general has erupted in nasty ads and Internet posturing a few days ahead of the Nov. 4 election to determine the second most important position on the statewide ballot.  

In August, assessing a strong Democratic field and liking Susan Happ (though criticizing that politically required need to flash her  toughness in TV ads)  I preferred Jon Richards (who is now working hard for Happ). My reasoning was precisely because of what has since happened.

The AG is a massive managerial position not only setting the tone of law enforcement fairness but working closely with other states’ attorneys general to save taxpayers’ money with combined efforts on consumer fraud and corporation misbehavior, something past Wisconsin AGs have been good at and the current AG has booted away given his political leanings. But the public only sees the “top cop” not the broader requirements

The last thing this office needs is playing politics with the law, yet the Republican view, expressed openly  by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, is that Republicans need to win state offices to control the voting apparatus – in effect, rigging the laws in their favor, which is why an independent AG concerned about the citizens not either party becomes essential.

Has fictional TV image taken over AG race?
An AG requires devotion to the nuances of both the state and US constitutions, administrative ability and diplomacy even more than courtroom experience. The open-minded intelligence to deal with larger principles of law, plus competently working with people in trouble and agencies responsible for a labyrinth of rules, are far the most important qualities. But you’d never know it from the TV ads that cater to that Ca-POW! “Law and Order” simpleness.

I feared that if the contest was simply two DAs going against each other, the ads would center to a ridiculous excess on “top cop” generalities – television bites lying about who is tougher on pedophiles, who has convicted more people and who has the largest ad money to pound those side issues to the point where the real needs of the job were obliviated. Since it was already clear that a male DA from Waukesha, Brad Schimel, was going to be unopposed on the Republican side, I worried that even a talented DA from a smaller population county, Jefferson, would face a well-heeled partisan overreach and have to respond in kind.  If the TV audience could be fooled by false emphasis on “soft on crime” (both are DAs with strong courtroom results), could the voters be far behind?

Much of that happened. Schimel has also disappointed observers for first giving lip service to his distaste for partisan ads attacking prosecutors he respects, such as Milwaukee DA John Chisholm, and exaggerating charges against his opponent, but then he backed those same anti-Happ ads even in debate and now has been called out correctly for an ad suggesting she turned a bomber loose when he’s actually in prison after the feds stepped in to take over the case.

TV viewers may wonder if the AG candidates
 are creatures from horror movies.
So the Schimel camp is flat inventing things and the Happ advertisers are pounding too hard so that the poor public, confronted with ads from both sides during sports events, can’t tell one from the other and think that both candidates are “The Creature From the Black Lagoon.”

It would be even worse, except that the Democrats are fortunate that their candidate has become known as above partisanship (she won in GOP territory) and has spoken against the gutter politics in both parties as out of context and out of la-la-land. She is also proving deeply capable on the more important legal, administrative and diplomatic sides, with a great record of success in convictions and a calm measured presence in the debates.  She actually drew the top votes in all races Aug. 12.

But sure enough, party hacks have taken over the airwaves and since few voters watched the debate, the race has been dominated by this extremist advertising message about imagined corruption and pedophilia.

Schimel could be in growing trouble.  Happ is a surprisingly personable candidate who quickly tied Schimel in the recent polls. The citizens may start realizing that both are comparable in the top cop department, that women are as tough as men (he’s subtly playing that gender thing up) and he badly falters in debates on what is really needed in an AG -- an independent voice.

Departing partisan AG JB Van Hollen
The two candidates still are largely unknowns fighting for an open seat after the error-prone party vassal J.B.  Van Hollen decided not to run again, perhaps reading the tea leaves that his GOP partner in collusion, Scott Walker, was facing a tough road and realizing that higher legal authorities were circling in on his series of bad and partisan decisions.

Appeals courts and even the US Supreme Court have already done so. He was rebuked over a voter ID bill that tried to disenfranchise thousands of voters, which he had endlessly sought to defend at taxpayer expense.  Then there was his desperate legal appeals against freedom of marriage (which is what the so-called gay rights decision is really about). Then, despite federal orders to let the state courts decide the legality of the John Doe investigation into excessive campaign coordination (which by basic principle he should have supported), he keeps trying to block it.  These go beyond interpretation of the law to playing politics.

Only settlements in the face of hovering failure prevented him from having the courts slap his wrists again in that bizarre attempt to defend state Sen. Leah Vukmir from releasing her email exchanges with ALEC.  

Yet Schimel has made clear that he thought Van Hollen was the ideal model and he will be happy to follow in his footsteps. That is the obvious conclusion of the Happ-Schimel debates. Happ is clearly the most competent candidate on the high road of what an AG does. 

Schimel spent a lot of time in debates reminding viewers of his resume, his Christian family, and love of tradition, but came across as a foot soldier to the governor he may no longer have rather than the Christ I am sure he is clinging to.

Both candidates sought to downplay partisanship on the air and couched their differences in courteous legalese. Happ went out her way to dismiss the attacks in ads on both sides that involve who is hard or soft on crime since there are so many intermediate factors that make those accusations ludicrous.

But there was a political bias that can be detected in the record involving Schimel and it has to do with political support. He let Scott Jensen plead to less than prison while his critics say that passing on a felon  would never happen with a bigwig from the Democratic Party. He refused to pursue Rep. Joel Kleefisch, the looey’s husband, for helping a wealthy constituent write a law that would lower his child support payments. 

Happ is likely to stand independent from both parties (there is already a disagreement between her and Mary Burke about how to handle first-time drunk driving offenders) and focus on enforcement guidelines free of partisan taint. Schimel revealed that partisan outlooks would dominate his ideas of the AG office. 

Happ has impressed
I like Happ’s constant view of the AG’s office as an ethical center of justice, offering legal advice to the legislature and other agencies if they have strayed from constitutional principles. Under Van Hollen and given the pronounced views of Schimel it would take higher court corrective reversal should Schimel be there to continue the Van Hollen pattern.

Schimel has gotten into trouble again and again in this campaign – not just with loose lips saying he opposed minimum wage increase because he wanted fast food workers to “get a real job” (even national columnists have jumped all over that one and for standing behind his party’s platform even when it runs afoul of both the law and economic realities.

In the debates he indicated he preferred to defend the state legislature over the US constitution, though obliged to do both. He went so far as to say it is the purpose of the AG to protect the state against the only enemy he sees – federal overreach.   Yet the AG oath swears to uphold both the Wisconsin Constitution and the United States Constitution, so there obviously can be intrusion from both directions, and there are clauses in the state constitution that are now apparently  illegal under US Supreme Court decisions.

Objectivity cuts both ways. If some gun haters stampeded the state voters into banning gun ownership, the AG should not defend that since it violate US law.  But Schimel, asked an “if” question  in a TV interview,  said while it was personally distasteful  he would nevertheless feel obliged as AG  to defend a voter majority opposing interracial marriage had that happened.  That opened a specter of going along with state majority opposing any visitors from West Africa or seceding from US health care laws, both patently unconstitutional. How hard would he fight even if his party backed the “distasteful”?

The actual case that scored strong points for Happ in the second debate is the AG’s responsibility to defend a state agency from private lawsuits unless he or she sees a constitutional infirmity, which Schimel could not name. But there is a GOP infirmity about defending the Government Accountability Board (consisting of retired judges from both parties, by the way, approved by the legislature and recognized outside the state GOP as restoring nonpartisan decision-making to election operations). 

Happ nailed Schimel who couldn’t find a reason (echo of Van Hollen) to defend the GAB, but there is one. The GAB has angered Robin Vos and the GOP state machinery by making even-handed decisions following the law. 

A surprise for me is how popular Happ is with voters – to the point that some leading Democrats have a side bet who will get the most voters in winning, Burke or Happ. Frankly, I don’t think state voters are that aware of this contest.

I do worry there is still a gender preference in law enforcement in the public mind, somehow thinking men are stronger than women in addressing crime. But Happ is so quietly confident and authoritative that I doubt she still needs to play up the Harley-riding, hunter-loving side of her image (though she clearly thinks it doesn’t hurt).   She is plenty tough and more attuned to what the job requires if the public can get past false expectations. 

There is a larger underlying issue– and the candidates don’t have to play up politics for the voters to realize it is there.  If Burke wins, she will need an independent AG as opposed to someone who tries to keep Walker’s ghost walking the hallways.  If Walker wins, he will need a check, albeit a minor constitutional check which Van Hollen wasn’t and Schimel won’t be, on his monarchial tendencies.

In either scenario the choice has to be Happ. 

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 its still operative archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his own pieces at Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com