Note: The following opinion piece by former editor Marc Eisen appeared in the February 28, 1997, edition of Isthmus.
You have to wonder about Nancy Mistele: She's turned a political victory into a personal defeat, and she has no one to blame but herself.
While Mistele succeeded in crushing a bid by the Madison school board to lift the cap on its spending, she beat the Feb. 18 referendum in a way that showed her to be a combination sourpuss and win-at-any-cost zealot.
The fix was in from day one, we can now assume. How else to explain Mistele raising only $200 through January to oppose the referendum if she didn't know all along that "the boys" would magically appear and fund a last-minute TV barrage?
District Attorney Bill Foust will decide if Mistele should be charged for the apparent delay in reporting a $15,000 contribution to her committee from American Family Insurance, $10,000 from East Towne and West Towne malls and smaller amounts from the Farm Bureau, the state Realtors and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.
The smart money says she'll be absolved, but that shouldn't fool anyone that something nasty didn't go on. "You come as close to the edge of the law as you can, but you don't break it," a political consultant tells me. "I do it myself," because, he explains, in campaigns the end always justifies the means.
The public has grown used to the brute logic of big money in congressional and legislative campaigns and inured to the lavish smash-face TV campaigns that result. Now we see it deployed in something as purely local as a school referendum.
Mayor Paul Soglin, who has been fading quietly into retirement, reappeared like the lion of old when he realized it. The sudden appearance of the big-money players in a school election was one of the worst things he'd seen in 30 years of Madison politics, he stormed.
"If people are naive enough to think that this is just one isolated incident, they've got another think coming. This is big, this is hardball. These people are playing for keeps," he fumed on the eve of the referendum.
"They're going to use outside money, and they don't care, because they know if they can buy the television, that talks louder than any criticism," he declared.
The bizarre thing is that Mistele didn't have to nuke the referendum to win.
I spent several hours listening to her spiel a few weeks ago, and was impressed with the former school board member's argument. Clearly, Mistele had a good case for opposing the maintenance referendum--even supporters must have paused at her uncontested assertion that approving the $6.9 million spending increase would prompt the district to lose another $4.3 million in state aid.
Madison voters probably would have rejected the referendum on that basis alone, if she had run a traditional campaign.
But Mistele, who has a bottomless disgust with the board's liberal majority, apparently arranged for the last-minute big-money backing. This was not just overkill but dumb. Why would she want to reveal herself, when the news of the donations finally got out, to be a tool of the economic elite? Why didn't she try to organize grassroots opposition?
The fact of the matter is that conservatives, despite all their big talk of representing the taxpayers, are blowhards. They can't deliver the goods when it comes to the Madison schools. A year ago, when their arch-demon Carol Carstensen ran for reelection, they didn't even challenge her. (And the other seat passed from one liberal to another.) This year, with three seats on the April 1 ballot, the conservatives have only one serious candidate on the ballot, Tom Ragatz, and he's no sure thing against Deb Lawson.
These are people who can't compete electorally, so they try to buy themselves a referendum.
Mistele's role in this is almost sad. In so many ways, she's an exceptional figure: Bright, sharp, determined, telegenic, she might be the next great conservative hope...if she didn't fight like a pit bull.
More than two hours into our interview, I realized with incredulity that she hadn't said a single thing good about the Madison schools. Not a word about the SAT and ACT scores, not a word about the Merit scholars, not a word about college placement, not a word about the favorable national press. Not a word about the many good teachers. Nada.
It was as though right down to her tippytoes she was incapable of conceding anything at all positive about the Madison schools. Everything was horrible, and she was the avenging angel of the taxpayers.
Well, maybe she was on the referendum. But I have to wonder how well such a dour, never-give-an inch approach plays on the broader canvas of Dane County politics. Not well, I think. Her obsessive style casts a shadow over her chances to move up the political food chain, either to the state Senate seat Joe Wineke is abandoning or the congressional job that Scott Klug is leaving.
In fact, running against a zealot like Nancy Mistele could be the Democrats' secret hope.