Gov. Scott Walker has kept Madison in the national spotlight the last couple of years. But in terms of notoriety, he got stiff competition in 2013 from Matthew Hurtado, who opened the Snuggle House as a "touch therapy" provider downtown.
National news media and others blamed city red tape for the business' demise, despite the fact that the Snuggle House was up and running for three weeks before its abrupt closing. The conservative Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin even called out Madison for meddling with capitalism. The upside, wrote David Fladeboe, state director of AFP-Wisconsin, is that the incident shone "a spotlight on the perils of government-controlled markets." Let's hear it for laissez-faire snuggling!
While objections to the Snuggle House were fueled by the suspicion of bad behavior, Walker, in his new book, Unintimidated: A Governor's Story and a Nation's Challenge, alleges a string of actual bad behavior from his opponents in the Act 10 fight. The potential 2014 presidential candidate takes special aim at corrupt union "bosses" and the dirty, smelly protesters who occupied the Capitol. Or, as he put it in his book, the "unwashed humanity."
Now it's time for our own list of bad behavior. As always, this rundown of 2013's low moments is woefully incomplete due to space constraints. Please don't hesitate to add your own nominations in the comment section below.
Keep Christmas in Wisconsin
There is no war on Christmas in the Badger State. Quite the contrary -- our governor can't get enough of it. Scott Walker's office sent out no less than eight updates about the Christmas trees in the Capitol Rotunda, governor's conference room and executive residence, starting in mid-August with a news release seeking the donation of a balsam fir tree for the Capitol.
On Oct. 13, the governor asked for tree decorations to fit with the theme of "Wisconsin Traditions." On Nov. 6 the governor's office reported that the tree ornaments were due soon, and on Nov. 13 that the guv and first lady Tonette Walker would be cutting down a Christmas tree for the governor's conference room. The excitement reached a crescendo in two separate news releases on December 5: The governor had lit -- and trimmed -- the Capitol Christmas tree! Hallelujah!
The Scott Walker Empty Stocking Fund
Walker is all about Christmas, except when gift-buying among the faithful might mean less for his campaign coffers. The governor suggested in a fundraising letter that parents make campaign contributions instead of buying their children gifts on Black Friday: "Instead of electronics or toys that will undoubtedly be outdated, broken or lost by the next Holiday Season, help give your children the gift of a Wisconsin that we can all be proud of."
Walker said he had nothing to do with the letter, and his campaign fired the worker who allegedly did -- after it was reported that she had also posted derogatory comments about Latinos on her Twitter account. Um...Merry Christmas?
Go Mukwonago Honkies!
As part of their systematic overhaul of recent Democratic reforms, Republican lawmakers this year overturned a 2010 law that provided a process for forcing Wisconsin schools to change their Native American team names, which have been deemed racist and discriminatory by Native Americans and others. The Mukwonago Indians, however, refused to budge, and Republicans followed up with a bill to make it harder for race-based monikers to be changed. Under the bill, a complainant now needs to gather signatures of 10% of the residents in a school district before a name change can occur. Currently the Department of Public Instruction is required to hold a hearing on the race-based nickname based on a single complaint.
Gov. Walker signed the bill, citing First Amendment protections. Once again, Native Americans have reason to wonder about the American Constitution.
The children are our future...NRA members
Despite the mass shootings at schools in recent years, Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R-Oconomowoc) thinks more guns might be the answer, hence his proposal to allow anyone with a permit to bring a concealed weapon onto school grounds. "Eighteen other states say conceal-carry can carry on school grounds," he explained. "Wisconsin is not one of them. It's time to talk about whether that's a safer alternative."
For some reason the idea didn't gain much traction, and he pulled it before a committee vote. Now that's what we call a safer alternative.
The lawsuit over redrawing congressional and legislative districts to favor Republicans cost Wisconsin taxpayers $2.1 million. During the protracted legal battle, Republican lawmakers neglected to turn over documents sought by the plaintiffs, and GOP legislative aides acknowledged deleting some of those documents. A federal judicial panel also found that two Assembly districts on Milwaukee's south side needed to be redrawn because they violated the voting rights of Latinos.
Nevertheless, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) blamed the cost of litigation on those who filed the suit. "The fact the liberal special interest groups sued us added to the cost," he said.
Got that? Future corrupt power grabs will be much less expensive if nobody complains.
A coup on the court
It apparently doesn't matter that Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who has served on the Wisconsin Supreme Court since 1976, remains a popular figure around the state and is known nationally as a brilliant jurist. She leans liberal, so Republican lawmakers want her dethroned. In a shameless move, Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) authored an amendment to the state Constitution to change the way the chief justice is chosen. Since 1889 it has been based simply on seniority, but under Tiffany's amendment, the chief justice would be elected every two years by the justices on the bench. And just coincidentally, four out of the seven justices lean conservative.
All hail Chief Gableman?
School board spoiler
It's still not clear why Sarah Manski, an attorney and dedicated social justice activist, ran for Madison School Board if she knew she might soon move out of state. As the top vote-getter in the February primary she knocked Ananda Mirilli from contention but soon after pulled out of the race, leaving runner-up T.J. Mertz as the de facto victor. Instead of taking responsibility for her actions, Manski compounded the damage by saying that board member Marj Passman had told her it would be okay to run even if she had to withdraw later. Passman vigorously denied having said anything like that.
Shortest political career ever.
Do you see what I see?
Capitol protester Damon Terrell was tentatively charged with battery to a Capitol Police officer -- the most serious charge since police began issuing tickets at the Solidarity Sing Along in September 2012. Capitol Police spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said in a statement that Terrell had "refused to leave and actively resisted officers" when placed under arrest. But multiple videos showed Terrell backing away from officers before they grabbed him and threw him to the floor.
A month after Terrell's arrest, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne declined to press formal charges, telling Isthmus, "We had some questions and we didn't believe we could reach our burden."
To put it more plainly: That was one trumped-up charge.
Open for incompetence?
Gov. Walker's elimination of the state's commerce department in favor of a quasi-public job-creation agency was key to his plan to make Wisconsin "Open for Business." Unfortunately, things have not gone smoothly at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. A Legislative Audit Bureau report in May found that the agency "did not consistently follow statutes" or its own policies when making awards. Auditors also found it did not have sufficient policies in place to administer or track millions of dollars in grants and loans, and no policies for handling delinquent loan amounts.
And that was just days before public information officer John Gillespie resigned after WKOW's Greg Neumman reported that he owed the state $36,047 in back taxes. Another free-market success.
A report released by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families confirmed that Dane County continues to be one of the worst places for racial disparities in the country. One of the shocking stats: 54% of black Dane County residents lived below the poverty line in 2011, compared to 8.7% of whites. We've got some work to do, folks.
Scandal in Suderville
It's hard to know where to start with this one. Former Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford) worked with his GOP colleagues to quietly insert a provision in the state budget for a $500,000 Sporting Heritage Grant. The language was so specific it essentially ensured that the grant to train and recruit people to hunt, fish and trap would go to one organization: United Sportsmen of Wisconsin Foundation. The group has ties to Republicans and little experience in training people to hunt, fish and trap. Gov. Walker ultimately directed the Department of Natural Resources to rescind the grant after it was discovered that the leader of United Sportsmen had been cited for a hunting violation and that the group had misrepresented its tax-exempt status.
It was an embarrassment for state Republicans, who really should watch themselves what with Walker eyeing a run for president and all.
Who's afraid of a little identity theft?
Not only did the state Department of Justice release the personal information of Capitol protesters (including, in some cases, Social Security numbers), but state officials never apologized and continued to insist they did nothing wrong. The material had to be released, claimed DOJ spokeswoman Dana Brueck, because it was part of a court record. "What was released was released through discovery, which is required by law," Brueck told Isthmus at the time.
Identity thieves nationwide applauded the decision.
No journalists allowed
As in 2011, Republicans controlled the Joint Finance Committee for the 2013 budget deliberations, so there wasn't much they wanted that they didn't get. They were hours from simply sending the budget to the Legislature for certain approval when committee co-chairs Alberta Darling and John Nygren introduced an omnibus motion that, among other things, called for kicking the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism off the UW-Madison campus.
The move brought widespread condemnation from around the country, overshadowing any other discussion about the budget for several days. It proved a political albatross for the GOP, and Gov. Walker ultimately vetoed the provision. Sounds like somebody didn't check in with the chief on this one.
Leading sheep to property tax 'relief'
It was clear early on that Gov. Walker's property tax relief plan would deliver little to taxpayers while at the same time creating a new deficit. It was equally clear that he and his party would waste no time trumpeting these alleged savings in ads for his reelection. While it was expected that Republican lawmakers would fall in line behind the measure, what was in it for Democrats? Some did protest, but 26 nevertheless voted for the bill.
Apparently there is no bucking the conventional wisdom that voting against tax relief -- imaginary or not -- is political suicide. Sound-bite politics 1, reason 0.
He cares so much it hurts
Gov. Walker announced in February that he would reject millions of dollars in federal funds available under Obamacare to expand Medicaid. He said he anticipated there would be criticism. "Some people will portray this as not caring about people," said Walker, as reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I think it's just the opposite. I care too much about the people of this state not to empower them to control their own destiny."
Fast-forward to December and a report by the Commonwealth Fund, which found Wisconsin stands to lose $1.8 billion in 2022 for rejecting these funds. When did controlling one's destiny get so expensive?
Wait, what's your job title?
As head of the city department of Planning & Community & Economic Development, Steve Cover is supposed to make sure that all development here happens the way residents want it to. But Cover horrified many people last February when he said it was okay for the city to approve the Iota Court development in the Langdon Street historic area, even though the project went against the recommendations of his staff and the recently approved Downtown Plan and called for the demolition of three buildings that contributed to the Langdon Street National Register Historic District.
"I think in our staff report our recommendations are correct, but I look at them being technically correct," Cover told the city council, which approved the project. "Will [approving the project] result in the loss of historic district status? Absolutely not. Will it set a precedent? Absolutely not."
Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway was not amused: "I'm really deeply disturbed and very disappointed to hear that our head of Planning & Community & Economic Development essentially dismissed a plan that took us four years and at least multiple tens of thousands of dollars to produce."
Turning a blind eye
In June, Madison Police Chief Noble Wray petitioned to have Officer Stephen Heimsness terminated from the force. Heimsness had been in the news for killing Paul Heenan the prior November, but Wray was seeking to fire him for allegations of policy violations that happened before the shooting. Using the department's computer message system, Heimsness made a lot of off-color comments that showed him not handling the job's stress terribly well. He went on numerous rants against his coworkers and residents, such as: "I'm ready to go on a shooting spree up in dispatch." In another: "I'm going to kill somebody. Dispatch, coworkers, who ever."
Sadly, nobody on the force appears to have raised concerns about Heimsness' behavior -- until he shot an unarmed man and officials took a closer look at his performance. Few people would dispute that police officers have a tough job. They're called on to deal with situations nobody else wants to. And they often get no love for doing so. You'd hope they would at least look out for one another for signs that the job might be getting a bit too much.
Male Chauvinist Troll
UW-Madison student David Hookstead is the proverbial BMOC -- bro mouthing obnoxious chauvinism -- who thrives on being the center of attention, especially if it's negative. Mission accomplished, dude!
Every legend-in-his-own-mind takes on a nom de guerre, and for Hookstead it's "The Creator." That's the handle he adopted as founder of UW-Madison Confessions, an online gathering place for students (or not) to anonymously fish for "likes" and comments with their deepest, darkest banalities. The fad swiftly attracted a host of participants, and with them came controversies, including the kind instigated by jokes about date rape.
Hookstead really trolled his way to widespread notoriety in the fall, though, when The Badger Herald published his letter to the editor arguing that "'rape culture' does not exist." That predictably went viral. National media piled on, with New York magazine mockingly dubbing Hookstead "the future of men's rights."
I am woman, hear me roar...for an abortion
Republican lawmakers once again made restricting women's access to reproductive health services a priority this year, and for good reason. We're in an era of prosperity and need more children! During debate on a bill that requires women to get an ultrasound before having an abortion, state Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) harked back to the heady days of peace, love and understanding with this recollection: "These abortions became popular in the '60s. It was almost the thing to do. You needed to get one of them to be a woman."
Who knew Lazich rolled with the popular girls back in the day?
Woo Pig Schadenfreude
This one goes to Bret and Jen Bielema and extreme Badger fans. As 2012 wound to a close, UW football head coach Bret Bielema suddenly resigned from the team after accepting the top spot at Arkansas. It came right before a third consecutive Rose Bowl appearance, where he could have had a chance to redeem UW's previous two losses in Pasadena. Bielema was never as beloved as Barry Alvarez, and sniping about his departure started immediately.
Once the new season started this past fall, though, the bad feelings were well on their way to becoming a grudge. The "Woo Pig Sooie" cheer and other elements of Arkansas culture came in for some mockery, and Wisconsin sportswriters diligently stayed on the Bielema beat. That's all fair game. But then Jen Bielema dropped her infamous #karma tweet, crowing about a Badger loss; and Bret took a tumble at a pregame rally a couple weeks later. At that point, the gloves came off.
The Razorbacks proceeded to lose every game in their SEC conference schedule, and Bielema -- no, make that the Bielemas -- were treated to weekly beatings in sports radio, blogs, social media and bar-side seats spanning the Badger nation. Sure, the schadenfreude felt good, but it will have long reached its sell-by date by the time the Badgers play on New Year's Day. It's time to let it go.
What open records law?
Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) invoked a rare -- perhaps unprecedented -- defense when sued by the Center for Media and Democracy over the release of documents related to her participation in the American Legislative Exchange Council. She argued she is immune from lawsuits while in office and therefore does not have to comply with the state's open records law. Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, also a Republican, came under blistering criticism for taking this tack as Vukmir's legal counsel.
It is indeed a strange choice. The AG's office is statutorily charged with enforcing the state's open records law. Can you say "conflict of interest"?
Nice work if you can get it
Rep. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), chair of the Assembly's education committee, is known for his hyperbolic attacks on public education and educators. But he might have gotten one thing right when he called it a "scam" that Bettsey Barhorst, the retiring president of Madison College, would continue to receive benefits and her full salary -- $88,000 over 19 weeks -- to be an on-call consultant for new president Jack E. Daniels.
If Daniels asked Barhorst a dozen questions over that period, she'd be earning over $7,000 for each answer. If we had a chance to ask her a question, it would be, "How does one land a gig like this?"
Faking it down the middle
Leave it to TV host Stephen Colbert to nail it -- pasting a photo of tea party hero Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) over his gym-rat glamour shot of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) after Ryan helped broker the December budget deal to avoid another federal shutdown. In this political climate it doesn't take much more than working across the aisle to make an extremist look like a RINO.
But don't be fooled by this notion of a moderate makeover for Ryan. As House budget committee chair, he had to broker the deal. It was his job. He didn't have to like it. And really, he doesn't. In an interview with Fox News Sunday on Dec. 15, Ryan praised the tea party and advocated for a right-wing ransom on the next debt-ceiling vote, which could happen as early as February: "We're going to meet in our retreats after the holidays and discuss exactly what it is we're going to try to get for this."