Wednesday, May 6, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its famous entertainment Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  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

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