Monday, March 24, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

A recent column explored the basic civic duty for voters in participating in the April 1 election – but also attacked in passing how Sheldon Lubar, the Greater Milwaukee Committee and other business allies of County Executive Chris Abele are putting more than $100,000 behind marketing a one-sentence resolution that clears the field for them while sounding like cost savings. 

They can get away with this because most citizens have never read that ballot sentence (given at the end of this article) and how it doesn’t touch the existing odorous essence of Act 14.  Media commentators should be all over this deception but remain disturbingly silent on the eve of the vote.

The resolution is  actually a pretense to fool the citizenry  into thinking the common man and woman – the voters – are as important in Madison as the big bucks lobbyist machinery, which has already put most of Act 14 in place.  You’ll hear the resolution will encourage diversity on the county board, which is deeply false. The board is already brimming with “citizen legislators” representing all political stripes and colors, elected by citizens to give all 18 districts in the county responsible representation, with civility required under parliamentary rules. 

Nothing in this question promotes more good people to lend their abilities for a better county. The only people who could afford to run for office and work for pennies if the resolution passes are members and cohorts of the 1% pretending to an interest in public affairs.

It is unlikely that low turnout voters, stumbling into these issues for the first time, will prove adept enough to resist the marketing blandishments.  Many are on fixed incomes and resentful of public employees for having not much but more than they do. 

The Madison majority and their business allies are really eyeing a weaker less attentive county board and a more powerful executive from a comforting white bread background of wealth and privilege.  (Of course, if the next county executive is more attuned to raising up the ordinary working family by emphasizing living wages, more balance in growth opportunities and more public transit, then the people now backing Act 14 will be the first to scream about excessive power.  In any case, it’s not a thoughtfully worked out law.)

You’ll also hear that the salary cuts that can’t start until two years from now are speeding process (!)  in county government. That’s demonstrably not true either. The salary cuts looming in the far distance are the tip of the Act 14 iceberg that is already causing the Good Ship Democracy to founder.

Much of this enterprise is not about salary but how to use the lure of reduction to rob citizens of balanced representation and provide a lopsided insider track for the county executive and his financial allies. Madison has chopped into the economic, audit and legal oversight that has actually kept Abele out of regulatory trouble and kept the taxpayers involved in the process.

No doubt the situation before Act 14 was hardly ideal. It could frustrate both citizens in need and developers who want public land or contract approval more swiftly. But balance among the branches of local government and measured open discussion also have saved the taxpayers from throwing away their money on unproven promises. It’s belatedly rescued them, or encouraged behind the scenes negotiations rather than blunt and costly confrontation. The pace of democracy can seem snail-like, but it is a Vladimir Putin dream of autocracy to drown the baby of cooperation in the toilet. 

Supervisor Broderick sees a goldmine for
lawyers on all sides.
Cutting salaries to force part-time status  is part of this  myth of cost-saving. In actuality,   lawyers are sharpening their pencils as Act 14 paves the way for legal challenges, delays and court action, actually elevating the expense of county operations because of ethical rules about how many eyeballs from different branches of government must approve transactions.

Lawyers contacted echo that  observation. As does Supervisor Gerry Broderick, who always intended to retire in 2016 and would be unaffected by the ballot language, though he feels  the board has already been hamstrung by Act 14. 

“Huge costs for the public will unpeel like layers of an onion,” Broderick predicts.  “This is really a full employment act for lawyers.” 

The business community has pushed for Act 14 since last summer -- but not out of altruism. They are conditioned for profit opportunity, expecting quicker access to parks, transit and other contracts. But managerial acumen is different in profit-free government, just as society’s most capable “job creators” are not the people behind Act 14. If you examine these old-fashioned trade groups and their public statements, they have a quite fuzzy record on cutting-edge best practices, tight budgeting and embracing proven principles of government cooperation, particularly the report card “A” grade of “working well with others.”  So whatever the excuses,  Act 14 has become a walking exercise in divisiveness disguised as cutting through red tape. 

There are 71 other counties, many run by Republicans, that would secede from Wisconsin rather than let the Madison legislators treat them as they have been intruding on local control for the state’s only First Class City (legal definition), largest economic engine and biggest voting bloc.  But the Madison chambers, perhaps because the Democrats are still in charge,  are  always eager to stick it to Milwaukee, the subject of a dozen bills this session alone. Whether rural envy, suburban rivalry or just general ignorance of urban problems, Act 14 has emerged as Exhibit A, hastily written and stabbing in broad thrusts at the complex revenue environment. 

It tells Milwaukee’s 750,000 county residents that Big Brother knows best, that none of you are worth a full time county supervisor.  Doesn’t matter that most of these 18 supervisors put in 60 hours a week reading proposals, attending meetings, fielding neighborhood complaints, holding forums or jawing with the communities they live in.   The Madison legislature decrees this is all unnecessary and asks the voters to lower the barely reputable annual salary of $50,000 to an insulting $24,000, in effect mandating the job as part time no matter what the locals may think, need or want. It’s known as undermining the voice of the people and then blaming the people for doing it.

How they came up with $24,000 confirms the depth of the insult.  That figure is the  per capita average of everyone in Milwaukee County – nonworkers, workers, retirees and on  and on.  So no effort to raise the population out of financial doldrums, to close the gap between the haves and have-nots, just bring county elected leaders and their families down to the lowest denominator.  No discussion of worthy ideas to combine services, no forums among the many local agencies and municipalities, just broad demeaning strokes. 

Salary changes to prior law must be approved by voters, and can’t start until the next election in 2016. But even these pay cuts are a useless gesture in size in a $1.2 billion county budget, in contrast to thoughtful frugality.

The resolution deliberately wounds the younger talented public servants on the county board. They regard their jobs as a career and will never have enough money to campaign against this attack. 

There’s always natural turnover on the county board (four supervisors are likely to retire anyway in 2016). There are already three lawyers on the board thankfully willing to do double duty – and one, Patricia Jursik, has become crucial in exposing the legalistic and procedural weaknesses of Abele’s appointees.  Two current supervisors  are now lead  candidates for other public offices with more job security. A conservative board member could augment his income if he becomes mayor in Franklin, gaining $20,000 in salary and expenses.

But the majority on the board are parents with children at home, many small children, relying on their income. Most are in districts mandating full time service and devotion. Many are minorities truly representative of their communities, not offshoots from traditional family income. 

Moreover, and this must particularly gall Abele and his business allies,  the board has been quite unified in recent years, progressive in ideas, and regularly overrides Abele’s attacks on its scrutiny.  Ironically most on the board agree with many of his goals – but balance heavy-handed tactics with diplomatic outreach.  Abele is not famous for sharing toys or taking advice. Ask some of the strong managers he either fired or encouraged to leave such as Sue Black at parks and Frank Busalacchi at transportation.

You can honor business advice as he clearly does, but still admit their lobbying arms support Act 14 because they smell an opportunity to get faster hands on county park land, transit contracts and cheaper standards for contracted workers. Those pesky questions from the county board about his department picks or actual operations should actually be welcome by the exec as part of open democratic government.

A funny thing. The real harm of Act 14 is not on the ballot. It’s already been done. It changes prior laws that don’t require voter approval. So it reduced the term of an elected supervisor to two years from four.  It prevents the current board from acting against any Abele appointed department head – an action the board has rarely taken except for cause.

The county exec’s authority is increased over all county agencies and in  all contract negotiations. Where the board once had review authority, that is taken away – it must deal only with his approval. While the corporation counsel was once “required” to work with the board, now the board “may use” the counsel, a massive change in accord and representation that will spur greater hires by all sides of outside lawyers at taxpayer expense. Madison stepped in to address an ongoing counsel dispute and clearly has concocted a new one.

The talented support staff of the county board has been cut back, causing an exodus of experienced monitors and investigators. Abele’s staff and agency heads  remain largely political appointees not proven professionals. Several have never previously worked in county government.

While there used to be no statutory limit on tax levy expenses for county board operations, these are now limited to .4% of the levy. That may cripple travel but it largely cripples oversight.  The state’s own neutral legislative analysis confirms how radically Act 14 transfers authority to the exec from the board.   Of course, the board could still use its legislative power to choke the exec’s authority, but it apparently won’t be as vindictive. 

All that’s on the ballot is what the state  constitution leaves to the voters --  cuts in salaries and benefits for supervisors starting in 2016. County historians will point out that while the board has been ponderous at times,  it has also been a much needed  check and balance on the executive – in fact, major abuse, corruption and misjudgment of  county finances stemmed from the executive and his political appointees. Sometimes the board went along to the community’s detriment. Sometimes they stepped in to rectify mistakes, which is mainly what Act 14 cuts into.

New Supervisor David Bowen
 demonstrated immediate enterprise
Abele’s sense of remoteness from the needs of the community is likely to be exacerbated. The most prominent example was something freshman Supervisor David Bowen sponsored to veto proof majority -- raising the minimum wage for county employees and those working for businesses contracted by the county to $11.33 an hour. That’s hardly a fortune (most workers, especially union ones, get more), though you would think it was a fortune from the panic engendered  in Madison, Abele’s office and among business organizations. They all used the same doomsday analysis that flies in the face of actual results reported from around the nation.

Initial attack came from a bill in Madison seeking to prevent any municipality from doing better for its citizens in minimum wage if government money was involved. It was  aimed not only at existing laws that  have proved quite successful in Dane County  but quite specifically to thwart Milwaukee’s effort that could instantly benefit more than 2,000 low-paid Family Care workers. 

TV screenshot of protest in front of Abele mansion.
A handful of  level-headed Republicans blocked that move, but Abele plodded on.  He vetoed the increase, using that Walker-Lite projection of select higher tax costs five years down the road. That prompted dozens of low income workers March 13 to picket in front of his Lake Drive mansion waving shoes and encouraging him to walk in theirs. 

A few days later the board overrode his veto, citing the contrast between lip service about helping workers (a slap at Abele) and actual action (a self-compliment for standing firm).

Act 14 is emerging as yet  another example  of Abele’s distance from community needs. It seemed particularly cruel and callous legislation to cripple dedicated families to $24,000, unworthy of a nominal Democrat and dismissive of attracting quality talent to the county that might argue with him. Abele’s actions have prompted simplistic psychological analysis that only a billionaire’s son could act this way, someone unfamiliar with poverty or with the daily struggle to support a family.

That viewpoint, while clearly overwrought class analysis, is becoming harder to refute. He may give financial support to LBGT causes, international feminism and select local candidates eager to work with him.  But what counts more with citizens is the argument that he can afford such abstract gestures while the common folk who have kept charity organizations like United Way alive are doing so with dollars they can’t spare.

The rhetorical contrast is telling. Sympathy has gone over to the workers who picketed the remote figure behind the brick wall on Lake Drive and to other Abele’s critics who interpret his history at the county as trying to bully the entire sandbox. His actions don’t comfort observers who held out higher hope for him.

Since Act 14 has already done so much damage, does that  mean that a vote “no” is a waste of time? Hardly.  First it is a clear slap to the behavior of both Abele and the Madison GOP for preempting local discussion, control and quality talent.  It rebuffs the attitude of Lubar and the business community that they can buy votes, though they’ve become quite good at that.

Most pundits  expect the resolution  will sail through. If so, that is more a comment on public ignorance about the complexities in a $1.2 billion budget where property taxes don’t even cover a third of the needs. 

What Act 14 takes away is the scrupulous monitoring, the multiple eyes and rounded approval mandated in the complicated mass mixing of federal and state revenue.  Even experienced politicos can be taken for a ride by such requirements. 

Witness what just happened to Willie Hines, longtime president of the Common Council, the city equivalent of the county board.  If ever there was an astute insider of the requirements of government regulation, Hines was it. Yet when he resigned for a higher paying job with the housing authority, even Hines ran afoul of federal conflict of interest rules.  He had to resign and will probably sit for months hoping for a federal waiver.

The county budget is full of similar thickets. The Madison fashioners took a fleeting stab at trying to anticipate the complex rules, but on track record alone their perception is dubious.  The legal community and scholars of revenue monitoring expect Act 14 will cost taxpayers a bundle. So if fairness doesn’t sway voters, economic common sense should.  

The actual wording requiring intelligent citizens to vote no:

“Shall that portion of 2013 Wisconsin Act 14 which limits the compensation of members of the board of supervisors of Milwaukee County other than the chairperson of the board and chairperson of the finance committee to receipt of an annual salary of not more than the annual per capita income of this county, which in 2012 was $24,051, and which limits the compensation of the chairperson of the board to  not more than 150 percent of that amount and the chairperson of the finance committee to not more than 125 percent of that amount, subject to limitations and adjustments specified by law; and which prohibits supervisors from receiving any compensation or benefits not specifically authorized or required by law become effective in this county on April 18, 2016?”

For 10 years the author, Dominique Paul Noth, served as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press until its demise in 2013 and continues to freelance to many publications as well as write for his own websites. A professional journalist since the 1960s he has won multiple cultural and political journalism awards and for nearly two decades was film and drama critic before serving as  senior editor at the Milwaukee Journal.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

I spoke during the week to several citizens I regard as knowledgeable and attuned to public affairs. Not a one knew there was a statewide spring election April 1.

It’s also amazing how little attention has been paid to this quiet contest in Milwaukee County  except  for one horrible sentence – a partisan GOP invasion from Madison appealing to the voters’ crassest instincts. Otherwise,  April 1 is just the sort of benign election the citizens say they want . . . and then ignore.

To make people aware of the least typical part of the ballot --  that one sentence and its siren call to their Silas Marner instincts --  Sheldon Lubar and other business allies of County Executive Chris Abele are spending more than $100,000 to pump up attention, ignoring the central purpose of this nonpartisan spring affair.  Many other notable local figures deride Lubar’s fund-raising plea as a sham but aren’t similarly spending money on TV and radio ads to encourage a campaign for a more responsible no vote.  “We believe the Madison GOP and their allies have wasted enough money to buy the voters,” one city elected official told me.

Despite the big money push, the sensible public should vote “no” on this sentence  -- but is that likely to happen? Most people simplistically believe that any cut in salary and benefits to public workers, even their own elected representatives, has to be a good thing. They don’t get it.  (Could the Greater Milwaukee Committee be wrong?, they ask.  Could MMAC’s hired guns be motivated by something less noble that what’s good for the people?) They haven’t grasped that voting “yes” will probably cost taxpayers far more in wasted money and lost services than any puny short-term pretense of savings.

Attention to this  ballot sentence has also pulled  April 1 away from its nonpartisan purpose. The spring election should remain built around dedicated local service, normal turnover in office and essential judicial and neighborhood oversight.

Granted, in the years when the spring elections drew high turnout, even the judicial races  could swim in ideological dog whistles. But this year the choices are fortunately  based on civic duty not Pavlovian howls. It’s what we say we want from elections – decent committed public servants without personality bickering, Neanderthal attitudes and partisan gridlock. Yet we only go to the polls in big numbers when there’s lots of that bickering and insulting sound-bites.  That’s why everyone expects the turnout this April 1 to be dismal, just as they regard the only salvation for the state in November to be presidential-year-like high turnout to restore Wisconsin to long-lost comity.

The countywide people races involve a couple of respectable judicial newcomers. There’s also a couple of suburban mayoral contests (Franklin and South Milwaukee) and something residents of city District 15 in the heart of Milwaukee don’t even know – April 1 is their primary to choose among the five names on the ballot and a couple of more write-in hopefuls to come down to the two runoff survivors to replace Willie Hines on the Common Council April 18.

My next article will expose in depth the horrors of that lousy  ballot sentence -- and I mean lousy, both in intention and grammatical construction; I doubt even Meryl Streep could read it aloud intelligently  (check it out yourself at the end of the article).  It’s time the public explored the underlying realities of Act 14 that are not on the ballot and that voters can only correct in November with a new Madison legislature and governor.

But for now let’s deal with the nicer stuff, rather than wallow in the shameful intrusion.

All county voters should be happy they have two mature nonpartisan candidates to pick from for Milwaukee Circuit Court Branch 32. Both have served as court commissioners, sort of mini-judges for small claims and family disputes. 

Laura Gramling Perez,
preferred candidate for judge
My personal nod goes to the most experienced (senior commissioner) and personable candidate, Laura Gramling Perez, and not just because my kids went to the same high school, Rufus King; her sister played soccer with my daughter; her brother is a good friend of one of my sons, and her parents, retired municipal judge Jim Gramling and lawyer Susan Gramling, are longtime acquaintances.  (Though that knowledge of the family commitment to public service sure helps.)

But, as strangers now meeting her can attest, she is also proving the most approachable and articulate candidate (both competitors keep crossing paths at public gatherings).  Laura Gramling Perez has also been endorsed by the broadest coalition of legal minds I respect.  The clincher is her casual act of conscience that too much of the media has been using as a negative. She signed a recall petition against Gov. Scott Walker for all the right reasons of concern for good government and more money for education.   A simple act of citizenship is being used against her.

Her opponent is also respected and quite likeable with a similar philosophical bent. I’ve met Cedric Cornwall several times.  In their forums and literature they share similar legal values and concern for an honest rounded voice for the community. No matter who becomes the new judge, no one has reason to throw a snit fit.

Unopposed Janet Protasiewicz destined
for county bench
The other new judge will fill a seat vacated by the early retirement of Charles Kahn – and I wrote about how the county dodged a partisan bullet in the race for Milwaukee County Circuit Court Branch 24 and why the new judge will be the unopposed Janet Protasiewicz.

Protasiewicz is actually a highly regarded middle of the road prosecutor who lives in Franklin. None of the other candidates solicited last November-December to face her this time by the Scott Walker money machine could find any reason to take her on. 

None of these contests will inspire high turnout, though involved citizenship should. Perhaps the emerging advertising blitz will fool more of the public to participate for the wrong reasons. But let’s not confuse slick marketing with intelligent government. Just start asking why the establishment business community is so eager to get the voters to ignore the civic purpose of April 1 and focus on one sentence -- and the one resolution that allows them greater speed in getting their hands on county land such as parks, on county contracts with private companies and on quicker dispersal of county-owned assets. 

Car dealers call it “looking under the hood.” If voters do, pundit applecarts will be overturned by the sound of a resounding “no.”

More next column, but for now just weigh the sentence no one knows and why voters should oppose its blatant attempt to unbalance representative democracy.

“Shall that portion of 2013 Wisconsin Act 14 which limits the compensation of members of the board of supervisors of Milwaukee County other than the chairperson of the board and chairperson of the finance committee to receipt of an annual salary of not more than the annual per capita income of this county, which in 2012 was $24,051, and which limits the compensation of the chairperson of the board to  not more than 150 percent of that amount and the chairperson of the finance committee to not more than 125 percent of that amount, subject to limitations and adjustments specified by law; and which prohibits supervisors from receiving any compensation or benefits not specifically authorized or required by law become effective in this county on April 18, 2016?”

For 10 years the author, Dominique Paul Noth, served as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press until its demise in 2013 and continues to freelance to many publications as well as write for his own websites. A professional journalist since the 1960s he has won multiple cultural and political journalism awards and for nearly two decades was film and drama critic before serving as senior editor at the Milwaukee Journal.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Photos throughout article
By Dominique Paul Noth

On March 11, I attended a Lenten service. It was supposed to be about untying those emotional knots that block natural empathy to our fellow humans, not the similar political knots strangling our state. But, forgive me, Lord, it is hard to keep those separate.

During the service, a friend recounted her experience with a mother of young children who, despite her impoverished circumstances, was willing to help out at a Saturday food pantry. Afterward, the friend offered to drive the mother home with two sacks of groceries, rather than seeing her and one young son struggle with such burdens on foot for 30 blocks.

On the drive the friend learned firsthand about the mother’s escape from an abusive relationship and the fight to raise several small children after being evicted from her home. Then she saw firsthand the mother’s walkup apartment, its gloomy stairway, its tiny kitchen with no stove, the refrigerator with a door hanging off the hinge.

At least the hinge matched the broken door to the bathroom. Inside, the tub was filled with laundry. The drying laundry was hanging in a living room barren of any furniture. Three young children emerged from the bedroom squealing with delight to see mother and the visitor. 

We all feel a psychological mix when faced with poor broken families – compassion versus the desire to flee lest the contagion of poverty affect us. That desire to flee lost out this time to finding a way to talk with and support the mother and children.

I suppose in Madison the dominating legislators would describe the visitor as having made the wrong choice. Given the legislative bills they are rushing through, they would say she should have rebuked the mother for accepting a hand up rather than toughening up to the demands of the marketplace and contemporary living. She should have told the abused mother  just shake off the consequences, shape up and not act the victim – in other words, don’t tell your story, just pretend it never happened.  They might bend because the help was from volunteers but they certainly would stiffen their attitude if the government dared display such compassion, though it clearly can do far more to help.

These dominating rulers, I fear, would not understand that such poverty --  such a fight for her children’s education, such combat against the diseases lurking in neglected buildings -- has grown far beyond one family into thousands of state families. It has become all too typical and shameful in the richest nation in the world. Nor would the rulers confess that their policies – deliberately concocting “losers” in the free market system -- bear any blame for the growing desperation in rural and urban Wisconsin, now affecting so many who, not through lack of desire, lack opportunity to find a living wage or a helping hand.

We would all like to push this suffering away from us and just hide in church on Sunday, rather than admit to empathy and guilt. But the failures are happening right here and growing. It is not in some Third World far away or affecting children caught in the wars of Syria and Africa. 

Sen. Carpenter was slapped down for
questioning Lazich’s lack of inclusion.
Pushing it all away does seem the current ideological defense dominating Madison. Why, they would probably ask there, didn’t this visitor from the food pantry give the mother a stern lecture about the opportunities of the free market?  Why focus on some idiotic Lenten message of mutual sorrow?  How dare she worry that unthinking policies and selfish behavior had anything to do with the problem? It is that sort of attitude of indifference that led Democratic Sen. Tim Carpenter to recently call out GOP Sen. Mary Lazich for a divisive election bill (while she quickly accused him of being racist before he finished his inquiry into just whom she “hated.”)

And it was assuredly the air of superiority that bothered so many when GOP Sen. Leah Vukmir, caught on tape, asked the hundreds of school professionals, crowding into the state Capitol to speak on behalf of students, how many were being paid by the taxpayers to be there (most were on their own dime) as if she couldn’t understand anything but wages driving such concern for children.

The visitor telling her story at services certainly failed the message that would have come from such elected officials as Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, economic leader in the House, nominal Catholic and physical fitness buff. He could have cribbed another story that it would have been better to put the donated food in a brown paper bag so the children would  feel their mother really loved them enough to make them lunch, rather than relying on the charity of strangers or the policies of a  caring government.

Eloise Anderson at a 2012 Milwaukee hearing
with angry inner city child care workers.
Of course, it did turn out that Ryan’s brown paper bag story was a fabrication and that the message he drove home at CPAC (the annual Conservative Political Action Conference) was an even more insulting  fabrication --  that the brown paper bag tale  pinpointed the difference between economic self-reliance and government handouts. He said the paper bag sadness was told directly by a child who disliked free federal school lunches to Eloise Anderson, Scott Walker’s secretary of health and human services. She recounted it as happening to her at a congressional hearing run by Ryan.  Eloise Anderson has now confessed (it’s good for the soul) to cribbing the story from a book actually written years earlier by an advocate for free federal school lunches and having nothing to do with any of that ideological hypocrisy. 

Anderson, whom I have covered in the past, is also famous for nuggets of advice to poor women, such as the best way to get out of poverty was to marry well, or to give up child care for jobs in manufacturing, which are hardly abundant under the Walker administration.

(Can I call Ryan a plagiarist? What is the term for cribbing a story from someone who cribbed the story and both passing it along as genuine with a false message?  It certainly fit right into the Rand Paul book of plagiarism to impress libertarians and right wingers at CPAC.  There must be some word for this in the English language other than “nonsense.”)

At least the same day I was attending the Lenten service about compassion, Gov. Walker, the son of a preacher and former Eagle Scout, did explain to the press the most pressing issue facing the state, so pressing that he wants to call back at taxpayer expense a special session of the legislature to make his most pressing law take effect before he faces an election in November.

Democrats gathered March 7 in support of Mary Burke
 at Ambassador Hotel. From left: Supervisor David Bowen,
city treasurer Spencer Coggs, US Rep. Gwen Moore,
 Burke and state Rep. Mandela Barnes.
Could that pressing issue finally be jobs?  Well, no.  Of course, Walker went way overboard in his campaign promise in 2010 of creating 250,000 jobs in four years.  But all campaigning politicians go overboard, though few ride such jackasses so long and hard. He believes in a free market and surely knows that a governor doesn’t create jobs, just the atmosphere to create jobs, like his likely opponent Mary Burke did from 2005-2007 when she was the state’s secretary of commerce. 

At this point under real math, Walker is falling probably 170,000 short of that job promise though he makes it sound a bit closer by madly counting every gain he’s not responsible for. Economists credit the general rise in the national economy (sshhh, under someone named Obama, whom Walker never dare mention). Yet even with his inflated job numbers, Wisconsin still lags its immediate neighbors and the national average badly, just as its combination of taxes and fees lay unmovingly in the nation’s middle range.

No, it can’t be jobs that are so pressing, because Wisconsin keeps shedding jobs– American TV gone, Tramont closing, Hutchinson dropping 140 and so forth. The states that are gaining in economy are mixing tax policies with civic, transit, education and cultural improvements and actual ability as administrators, something other governors can lay claim to in both parties.

Leah Vukmir with her frequent bill writer,
Scott Walker.
Walker speaks a glib game, promising a tax cut after the election by accepting as certainty a higher level of tax revenue than first predicted.  So he takes $1 billion from education, but now adds back a few million and looks for praise. That IS glib.  But if that’s deceptive, we should discuss the transit bottleneck that his policies have created, the hiring ineptitudes, the accusations of fraud at his commerce agency, the continuing John Doe probe he wants to put away before more supporters go to jail.  He has tons of campaign money, but now those mysterious rich outsiders are desperate to stall the John Doe investigation until after November. It’s as if Al Capone, sued for tax evasion, countersued the government for investigating his guilt.

No, at least Walker in the Lenten season has identified the most pressing issue facing the state. It is putting a restrictive voter photo ID law in place before his November contest against Burke, though similar hasty laws have generally been declared unconstitutional in courts around the nation and though there is no evidence of the sort of voter fraud the law addresses.

But court action takes time. So just like the attempts to block the John Doe probe seem mainly a delaying tactic to make sure nothing comes out before November, perhaps Walker is hoping that a voter ID law can’t be challenged successfully before November if the legislature is foolish enough to go along (they already restricted weekend voting).  Or could this just be a warning shot aimed at conservative state justice Patricia Roggensack, who has expressed reservations about the way his first voter ID bill was written?

It all does suggest that Walker has calculated the nonpresidential year turnout. The 60,000 or so poor, student, minority, disabled and elderly voters who will find the costs, rules,  time and inconvenience too enormous to overcome  -- well they might spell the  difference between loss and victory, so tight has the race already become (tied in latest GOP-leaning poll).

Now there are some residents, clinging to the myth of tax cuts rather than the reality of bigger potholes and slower service, not yet convinced that Walker is all about getting elected again and single-minded to that goal rather than caring anything about them.  So far nothing has changed their minds – not those embarrassing emails revealing his shallowness, nor those weird bills attacking local authority, nor his cuts in education, nor the attacks on local taxpayer flexibility.

How about today? The governor proclaims the state’s most urgent need is solving an invisible problem by limiting poll access to likely opponents of his policies in the nick of time to help him get re-elected. Voter photo ID, to quote him, is “the only real thing I thought that was pressing.”

Is the emperor that arrogant or just that naked in his desire for new clothes in the presidential contest of 2016? Of all the problems the state is facing, that is it?  

He announced it during Lent, a time for reflection. So reflect.

For 10 years the author, Dominique Paul Noth, served as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press until its demise in 2013 and continues to freelance to many publications as well as write for his own websites. A professional journalist since the 1960s he has won multiple cultural and political journalism awards and for nearly two decades was film and drama critic before serving as  senior editor at the Milwaukee Journal.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

It was as if Walter Mitty had just morphed into the Incredible Hulk. 

Tony Evers
Tony Evers is known for diplomatic gentleness and nonpartisan schmoozing, a principled educator heading the influential but studiously nonpartisan Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI). He always seems willing to go beyond required politeness to work with all sides of the political gridlock, cooperating with Gov. Scott Walker on such things as new third grade testing models, dropping in on public and charter schools alike across the state to compliment and even hand out awards and grants to dedicated staff and programs.

He was the epitome of cooperation in late February attending an education conference to bring school administrators and employees together. And then in palpable anger he waved around a Wisconsin State Journal story about Senate Bill 619. It was the sudden GOP move to disembowel Common Core.

These were basic standards he (and he thought Walker) along with 45 other states had been moving forward for years to institute as a basic benchmark in K-12 student accomplishment.

"As soon as I saw this, I gasped,"  Evers told reporters about the legislation, especially when it had the backing of Walker and other Republicans who three years ago had stood by the Common Core initiative to raise Wisconsin’s benchmarks. "If we thought the Common Core state standards were political before, this ratchets it up about 1,000%."

And that was one of the nicer things the mild-mannered Evers said. He is now taking full advantage of his bully pulpit status through video, speeches and interviews to sound the alarm, reveal the sham, fight for the children and discuss the dangers of elected officials running wild on the whims of political fortune to control academic progress.

“In these hard economic times the last thing we need to do is send a message that Wisconsin is stepping backwards,” he warned the state Senate, which is trying to whizz the bill through with only one public hearing scheduled March 6. “We’re going to be a national embarrassment.”

He avoids discussing the anatomical contortions that allowed Walker and the GOP to slap him on the shoulders one second and stab him in the back the next, opposing something they supported until Tea Party pressure and national secret funding networks got to them.

What particularly angered the state superintendent of schools, acquaintances concede, was not just the turnaround of Walker – who everyone now knows sniffs the political winds before deciding what he believes in – but how Walker actually used the bill’s senate sponsors, Leah Vukmir and Paul Farrow, as stalking horses for his own power grab. It was Walker’s staff that actually wrote this bill, the media revealed. 

“Senate Bill 619 is a partisan takeover of the bedrock of schooling: the standards that describe what our kids should know and be able to do in each academic subject area,” Evers says to all who will listen. “Every parent and educator should be alarmed.

“This bill would hand over what is taught in our schools to partisan politics. Beyond the Common Core, are we ready for our legislators to debate and legislate academic standards related to evolution, creationism, and climate change . . .  (Will) they take up the science standards? What about topics like civil liberties and civil rights, genocide, religious history, and political movements when they take up social studies? All of this and more is on the table with this proposed legislation.“

While sponsors of SB619 suggested Evers was being farfetched and alarmist, he is supported by legal analysis confirming that under the bill the legislature could add any amendment or change in education standards it wanted, including any or all those specters Evers raised. In addition the makeup of the board would immediately impose arbitrary and still unknown conditions on every public school in the state.

Walker gets appointees despite track record

SB619 would take the authority to set standards for K-12 education away from the state agency, DPI, empowered to analyze and monitor the results and review funding.  In actual operation, the bill gives the majority power on a 15-member board to the GOP controlled legislature but really to the governor, whose record in such political appointees hardly comforts the citizenry.  Eventually, the purse follows the power.

Walker gets to fill more positions than Evers to the misleadingly named Model Academic Standards board proposed – and though private voucher schools would not have to follow the standards, this board must include the parent of a child in a private voucher school.

“This bill is craziness,” said Evers.

“Our children’s education will be subject to the whipsaw of elections every two years when one party or another is in power. Educational standards are meant to set a foundation for learning. They are not supposed to change every few years. “

Evers’ anger was just warming up:

“As a grandfather of school-age children, I am concerned for my grandkids and for all of Wisconsin’s children. Please don’t hand over what is taught to the politicians. To do so will relegate our kids to a future that is neither college nor career ready. Rather, our children’s future will be decided by whatever ideology is represented by the political map. This is wrong. Senate Bill 619 is wrong.”

His view about the bill is supported by newspapers, even those that once backed Walker, by educators public and private, a formidable alliance of state school experts, and even by many people who have questions about Common Core itself. “What happens,” asked Eau Claire Leader Telegram Editor Don Huebscher in a Feb. 25 editorial, “to a society when those we entrust to educate our kids no longer are trusted by politicians, who then take it upon themselves to assume that role? Best practices to teach math, history and reading shouldn’t be political, but if that is what we’ve come to, heaven help our country.”

For parents, Common Core remains confusing

Evers’ main problem in raising the alarm is simply this: Most of the public and most parents don’t know what the heck Common Core means. Nor how carefully it was promulgated – yes, it took big money from the Bill Gates Foundation  -- and that even supporters think it is a work in progress on how to nudge students to the finish line.

The public has become an easy victim of the loudest voice game -- the big money and sound-bite simplicities that have dominated the airwaves, because most of what the public has heard about Common Core is false. 

One prominent falsehood:  Common Core is a federal government takeover of local schools. Actually it was developed at state levels and below by educators from academic coalitions with foundation support, input from practitioners and a big push from governors and school leaders. 

It sets standards as to where a student should be in areas like writing and math at the end of each grade, providing  outlines of plateaus and an assortment of measuring and training suggestions to help get there, with more to be added as results come in.  Not everything is yet there, and teachers are indeed complaining about too much reliance on testing.  Now SB619 has them complaining even more that their doubts are being used by opponents to try to scrub the whole thing.

Right-wingers, in an amazing illogical reinvention of the how long Common Core has been in the works, say that since Obama’s team now also supports Common Core, it was always a secret takeover plot by that socialist animal -- that is unlikely to be a veiled reference to Microsoft founder Bill Gates.  Their logic sounds unhinged -- but then again, aren’t we now debating SB619?

Common Core requires more commitment to training and retaining teachers, a core element in great education in every successful country, along with parental-teacher exchanges and long-term commitment by school districts and others wielding the money to stay the course.  Could that be what has caused the surge against it?  Fear of spending money on teachers and classrooms to explore a variety of approaches tailored to your child?

More heavily touted falsehoods will likely be included in Madison testimony March 6, though this is a PG rated hearing. So it is unlikely to let bill proponent and frequent lecturer on the horrors of Common Core, Duke Pesta, an English professor at UW-Oshkosh, go full bore as he did in his video claims to the John Birch Society -- that Common Core is a Trojan horse (no awareness on his part that Trojans is a company that makes condoms) to impose national sex rules as students advance into high school. His interpretation of the guidelines will come as quite a surprise to those academic drudges who formulated Common Core and never knew they were so sexy. 

But Pesta in a blitz of data may well argue at the hearing, as he does on radio, that Common Core will eliminate home schooling (well, maybe bad home schooling) and is an attack on the largely Christian values emphasized in home schooling.  Except, of course, it could likely encourage good home schooling by offering best practices and precise goals for each kid.  All it demands is verifiable results before moving the child on to a new level.  

Simple discussion vanishes in rhetorical heat

“That’s what disturbs me so much about all this folderol,” one public school official told me, off the record because of concerns about stepping outside the job in talking to the press. “Parents don’t realize that Common Core is simply an agreement on the levels to shoot for. If a school can get there through proficiency rather than massive expenditures in new technological gizmos, fine. So it actually caters to different financial levels and circumstances in raising all boats.”

Yet the falsehoods, taking advantage of parental ignorance, have become legion.  While Common Core imposes more rigorous goals than current Wisconsin standards, its foes suddenly say the higher goals are not high enough.  But it’s really about common sense -- “how high a kid in second grade should be able to count to before advancing to grade three,” as one teacher explained to me.  

Another false criticism relies on jingoistic patriotism, once used to justify slavery as a state’s pride.  But this time it is an appeal to Wisconsin rah-rah over its neighbors. Assembly majority leader Robin Vos has been particularly naked in this appeal. “I want us to not be the same as Michigan, Illinois, Iowa,” he told reporters. “I want our kids to be at a greater level of learning.” That ignores that higher learning is what Common Core does while SB619 simply lets more argumentative voices and unscientific views in – what Vos describes as “stakeholders” --  to muddy the waters, backtrack the progress and stall the future.

The biggest game is to equate doubts about Common Core from the left with the efforts on the right to eliminate it.  

Flexibility doesn’t get much attention

Emilie Amundson, state DPI leader
That false equivalency “drives me crazy,” admits Emilie Amundson, director of Common Core standards for DPI, who has been working for three and a half years with school districts that, under SB619, would have to start over from scratch. She has carefully explained the myths that Common Core would take away local control, pointing out that each school board has the statutory authority to adopt any set of standards, inferior or superior. But nobody believes a district would willingly choose an inferior set of standards.  “You want to encourage the good,” she said.

“We have school districts taking the tack of buying new material and equipment (software, special furniture, I-Pads and the like) to help them achieve the standards,” Amundson points out. “But there are others doing it on their own” -- with meetings, self-evaluations, trial and error teams. “There’s not been much attention paid to the flexibility allowed.”

But that flexibility, she concedes, requires attention to teacher training, plus district persistence and parental-teacher networking. 

The national criticism on the left focuses on going slower and not letting politicians take the sort of control from educators that SB619 represents in Wisconsin.  Progressives were taken aback by the zeal of corporations and politicians to embrace Common Core and suspect that was greed more than concern about kids. That strikes many observers as excessively partisan.

But still, hovering out there is a multi-billion dollar testing, textbook and software industry. There clearly is a temptation that lazy or uninformed officials will leap for expensive new tools when they don’t have to, because that makes Common Core easier in interpreting the standards while applying for grants and awards. 

Does Common Core threaten charter marketing?

The conservative rich right-wing and charter networks are pushing for SB619 because that would eliminate Common Core in total.  Could it be a threat to the way they raise money and gain attention and followers?

Common Core requires fresh focus on the ratio of teachers to students, on long-term commitment to becoming better teachers, on retention and advancement in practical proficiency, not just to what marketing language and goodies generate enthusiasm among unsuspecting new parents. 

Many cost-saving charter techniques – such as one teacher to 50 students and new software in place of human interaction, or throwing more special needs children into public schools that have the specialists – attract municipalities with the temporary chance of reducing education outlays while sounding modern and engaged.

But if time proves that this clone marketing is an education loser, that these cost-savings contradict the proven applied benchmarks within Common Core, there goes the excuse for existence of many charter juggernauts, and there goes much of their heavy financial backing.

“It’s something to think about,” said a state K-12 official.
Diane Ravitch
Progressive critics of Common Core, including nationally known and respected Diane Ravitch, famous for switching out of the conservative pro-privatizing doctrinaire because of her research, worry eloquently that Common Core has been embraced by so many corporations and politicians nationally because they see profit more than education. Think about that -- Ravitch opposes Common Core as too profit tempting and right-wingers want to drop Common Core as not profit-minded enough!

Caution is not condemnation

Her concern is that Common Core was not field tested as it raced across the nation. So her issue is not with the standards but -- will they work?  Ravitch doesn’t want Common Core to rely on expensive high stakes testing to measure student progress, and she thinks the US Department of Education’s embrace furthers the suspicion of a federal intrusion that demands higher testing levels to win grants. She is not alone in worrying that, for too many politicians, accountability equals testing. 

But her  attitude is caution not condemnation: “I will remain open to new evidence. If the standards help kids, I will say so. If they hurt them, I will say so,” she concluded one essay on Common Core.

“Progressive educators are bringing up valid concerns,” said Amundson.  “The concern about high stakes assessments through testing are particularly crucial in Wisconsin due to our increasingly politically charged environment in the wake of Act 10.  But my feeling is we are steeped in Common Core and just have to spend more time wrapping ourselves into and around the standards for the sake of our children.”

What is crystal clear to Evers, and to parents who actually study the issue, has been clouded even in sympathetic press reports.  For instance, the Journal Sentinel, a proud past supporter of Walker, blasted the SB619 in an editorial recalling the “unfounded rumors that Common Core standards could lead to such alarming tests as retinal scans, fingerprint scans, blood-pressure cuffs or posture chairs for kids. There also have been allegations that the federal government coerced states into approving the standards. Nonsense. These are merely scare tactics meant to arouse fear.”

Yet the same newspaper ran an opinion piece opposing  Evers’ stance on SB619  without identifying the author, Kim Simac, as a Republican operative, Tea Party proponent and failed candidate.

Somewhat nutty, too, was the anti-democracy reaction of Sen. Paul Farrow, a sponsor of the SB619, who demanded Evers’ resignation for daring to speak up against the majority party’s leaders, meaning him.

Another Republican legislator was blunt with me, off the record, of why he thinks Evers will lose the publicity battle. “Sure, we are sticking our nose into the education tent,” he admitted. “But the taxpayers are going to be more concerned that Obama is sticking his nose in. That’s the card we’re playing.”

For 10 years the author, Dominique Paul Noth, served as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press until its demise in 2013 and continues to freelance to many publications as well as write for his own websites. A professional journalist since the 1960s he has won multiple cultural and political journalism awards and for nearly two decades was film and drama critic before serving as  senior editor at the Milwaukee Journal.

Monday, March 3, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

There are times when the attempt to make political hay out of fairy wings becomes amusing. Can we pause and acknowledge that it is Republican Bill Kramer who is facing ouster from his own Wisconsin colleagues, taking refuge in a treatment center for now, after accusations of sexual misconduct with two women in D.C. 

The GOP defense, such as it is, is that he has always been the Rob Ford of state politics, called out by many in his own party for years  as just a step away from political and criminal disaster when drink loosens into groping.

But the Republicans voted him in as majority leader in the Assembly!  They forced women in the legislature to deal with his lean-in manners and remarks.  Others  in the GOP may have ranted in private and tsk-tsked in public but  still put Kramer in a ramrod position of authority. Female colleagues are now openly discussing how uncomfortable his remarks made them feel when forced to work with him in the chamber.

So the Republicans concede he should be driven out and  a Democratic Assembly leader dared to link his behavior to the majority policies and criticize the belated lame excuse that he was one of their weak ones.

Rep. Pasch
"Allegation of a Republican leader sexually harassing multiple women while raising money for his caucus is yet another reprehensible example of Wisconsin Republicans’ callous treatment of women in our state,”  Rep. Sandy Pasch said in a statement.

“Equally shocking is that this abhorrent and possibly criminal behavior is being spun by Republican pundits as  a ‘teachable moment’ and has ‘an element of tragedy’ for Republican politicians. The ‘tragedy’ and ‘teachable moment’ here is that this disgraceful behavior has been a part of Wisconsin Republicans’ culture and actions for far too long.” 

The “teachable moment” and “tragedy” reference was to comments by radio gabber Charlie Sykes, who  started his written piece as the neglected Cassandra of the GOP, remembering how he had warned fellow Republicans about the ugly side of Kramer.  Yes, he opines, he could see this gathering cloud of disaster as Kramer roamed the floor, pumping arms and other things, rubbing shoulders for votes.  Sykes  immediately used that as a disclaimer to attack Pasch as unknowing, even as Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice attacked her as playing politics.

Once again, Pasch must be pondering if this was a serious attack by either pundit or just a way to sell papers or fill air time. Or was it  just typical kneejerk political  reaction to a pretty simple and accurate observation about how women feel in the face of the GOP legislative blitz against them?  Remember,  Kramer was often chosen by his party to engineer the bills on the floor.  What a choice!

If Pasch can be characterized as some sort of feminista  overreacher,  because of her observations in writing, even as  the GOP tries to distance itself from its choice of leaders, who can blame her sympathizers for seeing this as yet another typical  chauvinistic bullying of any woman who sticks her head out of the kitchen. 


It’s hard to get much sillier than the March 3 testimony of Supervisor Deanna Alexander in defending two bills in Madison  preempting any living wage ordinances that involve government money.  Assembly 750 and Senate 626 would prohibit local governments from dealing with any business that doesn’t pay a living wage.

Deanna Alexander
She was joining a deliberate slap at an ordinance  passed 12-6 by the Milwaukee County Board – a veto proof majority with Alexander along with County Executive Chris Abele in opposition. But the bills she supports wouldn’t just prevent higher wages for some Milwaukee workers. It would decimate cities like  Madison that have proudly applied a  living wage standard and have workers who would immediately be  forced lower if paid in any part by government money.

Now look at her argument. She doesn’t like that the living wage ordinance for Milwaukee exempts employers who agree to a mandatory union contract. But how obvious!  They should be exempt because the union contract would automatically be high above the minimums.  Would it be so bad if that condition created more unionizing activity?

Her other reason is money. Desperate to see the new standards are Family Care workers paid with some government money – and far below living standards – to aid the elderly and disabled in their homes. The county board ordinance would help about 2,500 such workers – and that does require the state to pay more money in about five years, more money than Family Care now has in its reserves.

In other words, this is a valuable service but Alexander doesn’t think  taxpayers should pay the fair freight, though it is so easy with advance planning. The citizens, she says, rather than put pressure on the government to pay fairly, are so penurious and selfish that they would rather take living wages away from hard workers than spend a penny more way down the road.

Is that what our society has become? It is apparently what Alexander wants it to become.

For 10 years the author, Dominique Paul Noth, served as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press until its demise in 2013 and continues to freelance to many publications as well as write for his own websites. A professional journalist since the 1960s he has won multiple cultural and political journalism awards and for nearly two decades was film and drama critic before serving as  senior editor at the Milwaukee Journal.