It was a terrible year for Wisconsin. But that makes it a great year for Cheap Shots, our annual shoutout to dubious distinctions in public affairs.
2011 saw an uptick in shameful behavior among political players, from lying to cheating to physical violence. When one Supreme Court justice grabs another by the throat, when the governor considers planting troublemakers among protesters, when doctors hand out fake sick notes to their political allies - well, all you can do is weep. Or laugh.
In other words, read on.
Don't Blame Me Award: Supreme Court Justice David Prosser
Much-investigated Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman accepted free representation from a law firm, then failed to recuse himself when that same firm argued cases before the Supreme Court. Would you be surprised to learn that he mostly voted in their favor?
It says a lot that fellow Supreme Court Justice David Prosser still manages to beat out the ethically challenged Gableman for a Cheap Shot award this year. During last spring's Supreme Court race between Prosser and JoAnne Kloppenburg, it emerged that Prosser had called Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson "a total bitch" and threatened to "destroy" her. Prosser explained that it was Abrahamson's fault, not his. Her conduct had "caused" his outburst.
In June, Prosser put his hands on fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley's neck during deliberations over the collective bargaining law. This wasn't his fault either, but Bradley's, he said, since she approached him angrily during an argument. And really, what can one do in such a situation besides grab a colleague by the neck?
Something tells us Prosser will blame Isthmus for calling him out in this blurb. Did he bring the ridicule on himself? No, it couldn't possibly have been his fault.
Loose Lips Sink Ships Award: State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald
Republicans put forward many noble reasons for their collective bargaining law, carefully refraining from using the words "busting unions." The state was "broke"; government needed the "tools" to balance the budget, etc. But State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald caused a stir when he let slip the real reason on Fox News: giving Republicans a better chance of winning elections.
In a March 9 interview with Megyn Kelly, Fitzgerald said, "If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you're going to find is President Obama is going to have a much difficult, much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin."
As Gov. Rick Perry might say: "Oops."
Mixing Politics With Medicine Award: Anti-Scott Walker Doctors
As demonstrations at the Capitol began in February, a few Madison doctors handed out hundreds of sick notes to public workers right on the street, so they'd have an official excuse for missing work. "I'm a Doctor, Need a Note?" read one quack's sign. The state Department of Regulation and Licensing, UW Health, the Medical Examining Board and the Wisconsin Medical Society decried this breach of professional ethics, and Walker supporters rightly used it to make the protests look sleazy. What's up, docs?
With Friends Like These Award: Overzealous Protesters
The Capitol protests were widely hailed for their civility - except in partisan outlets like Fox News, that is, which exaggerated instances of misbehavior. Some protesters, however, seemed determined to give Fox more ammunition. There's the guy who poured a beer on Republican Rep. Robin Vos. The ones who chained themselves to railings in the Senate chamber. The ones who cornered state Sen. Glenn Grothman. The signs comparing Scott Walker to Adolf Hitler. The death threats against Walker. The public workers who turned in fake sick notes (see above).
By year's end, Democrats in the Legislature were tiptoeing away from these supposed "allies."
'Funny, You Don't Look Like a Democrat' Award: Republicans
It was hard for Republicans to maintain a faade of integrity when they ran six candidates posing as Democrats in last summer's recall elections. The idea was to trigger primaries for otherwise unopposed Democratic candidates, thus delaying the general election and giving Republicans more time to campaign.
In November, Republicans faked it again when a Walker supporter filed a recall petition against the governor a couple weeks before the Democrats planned to start their own recall drive. The idea, presumably, was to give Walker extra time to raise money. And Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he hasn't ruled out running fake Democrats again in the recall elections.
You'd think a major political party would try to avoid having its name associated with the word "fake," wouldn't you?
Poll Tax Award: State Department of Transportation
Republicans spent the year busily installing roadblocks to voting. They passed a law requiring citizens to present photo identification at the polls, all in the name of combating voter fraud - a problem, by the way, that had been practically nonexistent in Wisconsin. The law turns voting into a bureaucratic nightmare for those without a state driver's license, as they have to obtain some other approved form of photo ID. Coincidentally, many of those people are students and minorities, who tend to vote for Democrats.
In a memo, the Department of Transportation's Steve Krieser told employees at the Department of Motor Vehicles to stay mum about the availability of free voter IDs if customers didn't specifically request them. Hey, why make voting easy when you can trick people into thinking it's complicated and expensive?
You'd Make a Lousy Appraiser Award: Mike Huebsch
In March, Huebsch's Department of Administration announced that the protests had done $7.5 million in damage to the Capitol. That number sounded outrageous, and it was. Historic preservationists later set the damage at less than 4% of $7.5 million - $270,000, all in accelerated wear and tear rather than vandalism.
But $7.5 million is the figure that went out in national news reports, and it's the figure still cited in articles all over the web.
Stick It to Madison Award: Rep. Steve Nass
The La Grange Republican is known for his hatred of Madison, but he topped himself in August when he charged city officials and local law enforcement with misconduct regarding the protests.
"There is no debating that Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, Sheriff Dave Mahoney and Police Chief Noble Wray made significant decisions to ignore the appropriate duties of law enforcement and instead directly encourage a specific partisan political outcome during this government crisis," he wrote.
Nass refused to support state reimbursement of the city and Dane County for their security costs. One wonders what he would have considered "the appropriate duties of law enforcement" in these mostly peaceful protests. Pepper spray? Nightsticks? Tear gas?
Hello, I Must Be Going Award: Biddy Martin
After only 2 1/2 years as UW chancellor, Martin beat a hasty retreat last summer, taking a job as president of Amherst College. She had stirred up controversy by collaborating with Gov. Walker on a proposal to split the UW-Madison campus from the rest of the UW System, and just a few days after the proposal died in the Legislature, Martin announced her departure. It all happened so fast that state residents didn't even have time to say "don't let the door hit you on the way out." She didn't.
Clueless in Fond du Lac Award: Former state Sen. Randy Hopper
We think Hopper missed English lit class for the discussion of playwright William Congreve's line about love gone bad: "Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned/Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned." Otherwise, Hopper might have known that living with his mistress while facing a recall effort would have consequences. As it was, Hopper was not home when protesters arrived at his Fond du Lac home to assail him for his support of Gov. Walker's collective bargaining bill. But his estranged wife was. She enthusiastically volunteered that her husband was living with his young girlfriend in Madison and pledged to sign the recall petition against him.
Hopper eventually lost to Democratic challenger Jessica King, who garnered 51% of the vote.
Most Incompetent County Clerk Ever Award: Kathy Nickolaus
Who waits nearly two days to announce a mistake in the official tally for a hotly contested statewide race? That's right - Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus. It looked like challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg had eked out a win over Supreme Court Justice David Prosser until Nickolaus called a news conference to report that she had failed to include the city of Brookfield's votes in unofficial totals reported on election night.
But she escaped with barely a slap on the wrist. An investigation by the Government Accountability Board found Nickolaus - a former Republican operative who had been involved in election mishaps before the Supreme Court fiasco - innocent of willful misconduct but likely bad at her job. Or, in the more tactful words of investigator Tom Verhoff, her error appeared to be "an honest mistake or ineffectiveness."
Fits of Passion Award: Rep. Gordon Hintz
Days before the protests started in February, the Oshkosh Democrat was cited in a prostitution investigation of an Appleton massage parlor. Once the union battle took center stage, Hintz worked to redeem his reputation, scoring support when a video of an impassioned speech he made against Walker's bill went viral. But those passions got the better of him only a few days later when he shouted "You are fucking dead" at Republican Rep. Michelle Litjens during a two-day-long debate in the Assembly.
There must be better ways to let off steam.
Pro-Life Wisconsin's Latest Tool Award: Rep. Andre Jacque
Even Mississippi voters rejected the latest assault by extreme activists on legal abortion, but that didn't stop freshman Republican Rep. Andre Jacque from introducing a so-called personhood amendment to the Legislature. The proposed bill, which would establish a "right to life" in the state constitution and define a fetus as a person, is a top priority for the anti-abortion and anti-birth-control group Pro-Life Wisconsin. Wisconsin Right to Life, however, is not on board.
If it's too restrictive even for Wisconsin Right to Life, it probably won't be long before Gov. Walker wants in.
Most Unneeded But Inevitable Law Award: Concealed Carry
With the GOP sweeping all branches of state government this year, it was only a matter of time before Wisconsin became the 49th state to allow residents to carry concealed weapons. Under the law, permits are granted to individuals 21 and older who undergo training and pass a background check showing that they are not felons. Concealed carry is now allowed in most parts of the Capitol, including the Assembly gallery, where cameras and cell phones are banned.
Darn! How will we be able to do concealed-carry check-ins on Facebook when watching our lawmakers in action?
Quiet as a Mouse Award: Jim Doyle
The former two-term governor hasn't made a peep since leaving office in January. Not every former office holder feels compelled to blog, but it must be hard to maintain silence when your entire legacy is being systematically undone by your GOP successor.
Of course, Doyle did make the wrong call last November in voluntarily halting the high-speed rail project in the face of opposition from then governor-elect Walker. So maybe quiet's not a bad strategy after all.
I Know a Guy Who Knows a Guy Award: Young GOP Cronies
Every victorious officeholder dispenses appointments and bureaucratic jobs as patronage, but the Walker administration has transformed this routine form of government corruption into a career path, lavishing sinecures on youthful hacks. There's Valerie Cass, the girlfriend of Randy Hopper (see above), who got a $12K raise over her predecessor at the Department of Regulation & Licensing. And there's Brian Deschane, the young son of a major Walker campaign bundler, who received a $64,728 per year job with the same department, and then upgraded months later to an $81,500 per year job in the Department of Commerce, despite having no college degree and two drunk driving convictions.
No Comment Award: Sen. Ron Johnson
Few Wisconsin Republicans are fans of the media. Standard operating procedure is to avoid talking to anybody except reporters who have shown a clear conservative bias. Case in point: Gov. Walker rarely comments to the media but has given lengthy interviews to the obscure right-wing Lakeland Times in Minocqua.
But the state's freshman U.S. senator, Ron Johnson, goes even further to avoid speaking with the press. An Isthmus reporter made several attempts to contact him for a phone interview but received no response, even though Johnson was planning a trip to Madison the next month. Isthmus learned of it when the county's Young Republican group proudly announced that the senator would be speaking at their fundraiser. Johnson, no doubt, would have preferred the group keep its mouth shut.
Least Imaginative Use of Money Award: Jerome Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland
The philanthropist couple provided the money to build the Overture Center, but when they look out the facility's window, they apparently don't like the city that looks back. So they have proposed demolishing half of the neighboring 100 block of State Street, perhaps Madison's most beloved and historic block. This might be excusable if they'd proposed a bold architectural statement, but instead, they want to build an ugly glass office building with a plaza the public won't be allowed to use, the sole purpose of which is to clear a better view of the Capitol. The structure would be right at home on the Beltline or University Avenue.
How to Lose Friends and Not Influence People Award: Paul Soglin
Nobody knows Madison government better than Mayor Soglin. But you'd think the guy would have learned a lesson about getting along with others - especially the one about honey vs. vinegar - by now. After winning his third stint as mayor last spring, Soglin wasted no time pissing off members of the Common Council. The mayor was all too eager to pass judgment on decisions the council had already made, most notably the Edgewater Hotel redevelopment and a plan to restructure the Overture Center. Of the Overture plan, Soglin told The Capital Times: "The best I can do is just wait for this to crash and burn. It is going to be pretty horrible."
Council members, of course, could read between the lines. Soglin was hoping for a disaster so he could say, no doubt with a smirk, "I told you so."
Meet the New Boss Award: Common Council
Madison alders have done a lot of whining about how Mayor Soglin is difficult to read and doesn't communicate with them. But when he took office, hardly any of them bothered to sit down with him to talk about his priorities and meet his staff. Pick up the phone - it's not that hard, folks.
Cruelty to Animals Award: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Comedy Central's satirical news show isn't usually noted for causing harm, other than to politicians' feelings. But on Feb. 21, The Daily Show's John Oliver appeared on the Capitol Square with a camel, presumably to spoof the claims that Wisconsin's uprising against Scott Walker was similar to Egypt's uprising against Hosni Mubarak.
The idea of trivializing the state's distress in this way seemed cruel and stupid. And speaking of cruel and stupid, who treats a camel like this? Isthmus blogger Jack Craver caught sickening video footage of the animal getting tangled in metal barriers and falling to the ground. Oliver told Craver to turn off his camera, hoping to avoid embarrassment. Nice try.
Most Bizarre Rant Award: Bridget Maniaci
After her pet project, the Edgewater Hotel redevelopment, lost most of its city funding in the 2012 budget, Ald. Maniaci gave an awkward, nearly incoherent 10-minute rant from the council floor. Taking the unusual step of standing - which alders never do during debates - Maniaci railed against the forces that killed the project, portraying wealthy developer Bob Dunn as part of the 99%. "The suppression that I have seen in this process, and the twisting of arms, and the threats, is not a government that I'm proud of."
But her critique could have easily described the process Dunn and former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz used in getting the project approved in the first place.
Money Is No Object Award: Fred Mohs
If any one person is to blame for the protracted agony that is the Edgewater Hotel redevelopment project, it's the hotel's neighbor, Fred Mohs. Mohs certainly wasn't the only guy to hate the plans to build a new tower at the site. But unlike others, Mohs had the funds to take the fight to court, delaying the project long enough so it could be killed. At first he said he merely wanted an objective outside opinion on the Common Council's decision to override the Landmarks Commission. But when the court ruled in favor of the city, Mohs pushed his case further and further, all the way to the state Supreme Court.
Look on the Sunny Side Award: John Nichols
The Capital Times columnist offers political analysis from an unapologetically left-wing point of view. He showed no interest in maintaining even a semi-detached stance during the protests, instead rousing the masses with a bullhorn at the Capitol. Certainly, there's a place for the activist-journalist, but at times it was uncomfortable to watch someone of Nichols' stature turn into a cheerleading spin-meister.
One glaring example was the column he wrote following the Democrats' failure to take back the state Senate in the summer recall elections. While reasonable observers on the left acknowledged this as a disappointment, Nichols breathlessly agreed with a Democratic staffer that the recalls were "an epic victory." One would expect such hype in a party press release, but not in an analysis by a newspaper columnist who ought to have at least one foot planted in reality.
Tropical Props Award: Fox News
National news networks parked their satellite trucks around the Square, cutting to shots of the protests in between updates on Charlie Sheen and Casey Anthony. Fox News, the leading employer of Republican presidential candidates, aired violent "Union Protest" footage with suspiciously non-native palm trees in the background while Bill O'Reilly bloviated about the Wisconsin demonstrations. The upshot: Palm trees became an icon for protesters, with inflatable specimens planted on the snowy Capitol lawn and 2-D versions screenprinted on T-shirts.
Beavis and Butt-head Award: Dane County Republican Party spokespersons
Written by man-children Jeff Waksman and the now-departed Blake Gober, local GOP party press releases this year were often unintentionally hilarious. One declared that Judge Maryann Sumi "shops at organic gourmet food shops run by leftists," and another sarcastically endorsed Tammy Baldwin for U.S. Senate. Heh heh.
The tittering continues on Twitter. On the @danerepublicans account, Waksman engages in puerile flame wars on a daily basis and does little to promote party candidates or events. Then there's Gober, who tweeted that "a #libtard just told @VickiMcKenna that it wasn't the #wiunion's fault they ruined the Special Olympics Event." Heh heh.
Here's a hint, bros: We're laughing at you, not with you.