Usually, introductions of speakers are so mundane there's little reason to pay attention, much less take notes. By the time I realized what Mark Miller, the Democratic state senator from Monona, was up to, he had already pulled the pin on his grenade and rolled it slowly toward its target, Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen. I started writing it down but I only got the first part. I later had to have Miller reread his statement from a folded piece of paper in his pocket.
The occasion was a three-hour seminar on the state's open meetings and public records law held at the Monona Community Center. It was the last of five such seminars the AG's office has held this year throughout the state, and the best attended. The room was packed to capacity.
Van Hollen was present to provide some opening remarks and to praise the several hundred audience members for their interest in learning more about the law in this area. But before he had a chance to speak, Van Hollen had to stand silently through Miller's introduction.
Miller began by noting that Van Hollen, a conservative Republican, had defied some peoples' hopes and quelled others' fears by decisions made early in his tenure. This included issuing an opinion that the state's ban on partial birth abortion, a cause célèbre among conservatives, was not constitutional. Miller also gave Van Hollen credit for refusing to use his office to "harass" Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.
Then he pulled the pin.
"You can imagine my disappointment," Miller told the audience, "when the attorney general initiated a lawsuit against the Government Accountability Board that in my opinion was entirely consistent with Republican efforts to suppress the vote in the upcoming election."
A shocked murmur rippled through the room. Van Hollen, taking the podium, made no mention of what Miller had to say. I listened respectfully to Van Hollen's competent and thorough opening remarks, then chased after Miller to ask why he used this occasion to publicly criticize the attorney general.
Miller said his point was that Van Hollen had disappointed both Republicans and Democrats. But his actual message was that Van Hollen disappointed the Republicans by refusing to do the wrong thing and disappointed Democrats by agreeing to do the wrong thing.
This fall, Van Hollen filed a lawsuit against the Government Accountability Board, charging that it was being insufficiently vigilant in the checks it was making of voter registration records. Van Hollen said his purpose was to prevent voter fraud, but critics say his true purpose is to make it more difficult for some citizens, namely Democrats, to vote.
Van Hollen is co-chair of John McCain's Wisconsin campaign.
Last week, a Dane County judge rejected the lawsuit, challenging Van Hollen's standing to bring it and saying nothing in federal law required the kind of checks he thought the GAB should be making. Van Hollen has promised to appeal.
Miller told me afterward that the Legislature was very careful to insulate the Government Accountability Board, a new state entity that blends the functions of the former state Elections Board and state Ethics Board, from political influence. Republicans, he noted wryly, were especially wary giving greater influence to Van Hollen's Democratic predecessor, Peg Lautenschlager. But the lawsuit, he said, looks to him like an effort to taint the board's mission with a partisan political agenda.
"It feels like there's a coordinated effort on the part of Republican officials to suppress the vote," he said. He called this interference "entirely unacceptable."
Van Hollen left the conference before I could ask his thoughts. His spokesperson, Bill Cosh, did not immediately return a phone message.