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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 52.0° F  Fair
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Let the healing begin
Parsing the results of another ugly, unenlightening election

The spring elections are over and the establishment, such as it is, won. Kathleen Falk survived a (mean-) spirited challenge from Nancy Mistele, who accused her of endangering public safety, threatening the environment with commuter rail and strangling puppies in their sleep. One of those is made up.

In statewide races, Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson was elected to her fourth 10-year term, despite my Isthmus article, which said nice things about her conservative rival, Randy Koschnick. ("It was, in my opinion, the best article written on this race," Koschnick wrote in a thank you note. "I appreciate your intellectual honesty." Aw, shucks.)

And in the race for state school superintendent, inside operator Tony Evers trounced outside agitator Rose Fernandez. He was backed by teachers unions, she by radio talk-show hosts.

The only real upset was that Madison Ald. Brenda Konkel was beaten by Bridget Maniaci. But even here, the winner was the establishment candidate, backed by Mayor Dave and two of his predecessors, the Madison police union and, quite possibly, the entire cast of 30 Rock.

As usual, the various races provided more heat than light. But there was something refreshing, maybe even hopeful, in that the candidates who hurled the nastiest rhetoric did not prevail.

Mistele the Pistol was especially fiery. She sought to peg Falk as a danger to the community, far more focused on aspiring to higher office than doing her job. Last week Mistele sent out a mailing that said nothing about herself and didn't even mention her first name. It was entirely a hit job on Falk.

Nor was the incumbent free from this tendency to demonize. Falk campaign manager Melissa Mulliken told Isthmus that Mistele "began this campaign by accusing Kathleen of having murdered two people."

What Mistele actually said was: "Kathleen Falk's poor judgment cost a couple of lives." I consider that a pretty outrageous statement, and denounced it as such. But Falk's handler still felt the need for distortion, to make it seem worse.

That's the nature of electoral campaigns. They're ugly and unenlightening. They bring out the worst in people and accentuate the worst aspects of our political process.

Candidates are not content to build themselves up; they tear each other down (admittedly with the complicity of the press). Take the state school superintendent race. When asked in an Isthmus article about rival Evers' edge in terms of experience (he's spent more than three decades as a teacher, principal, district superintendent and high-ranking administrator in the state agency he hopes to head), Fernandez had this to say:

"Tony Evers has a lot of experience. He has experience watching MPS fail generations of Milwaukee children as he stood by watching. He has experience ignoring parents, experience being intimidated by innovation, experience in doing everything WEAC tells him to do. He has experience as part of the business-as-usual, big-bureaucracy status quo."

Yikes. Does he have any experience strangling puppies?

The problem with such overwrought rhetoric is that its harmful effect extends beyond elections. Evers will take over the task of setting state education policy after being pegged as a menace to public education. Falk will begin her fourth term as county executive seen by some as an enemy of the people.

It's not for nothing that much of the public views politicians as idiots and crooks. That's how politicians are forever painting each other, as they struggle to stir a somnambulant electorate.

Let's take a step back and a few deep breaths. Let the toxins excrete from our body politic. The elections are over. Now we can get serious about politics again.

Let's begin by asking why, in a time of economic crisis and widespread insecurity, voters opted to side with incumbents and other candidates with establishment support.

It probably isn't that they're happy with the way things are, or even that the incumbents inspire a great deal of confidence.

My guess is that there's been, to some small but significant extent, an erosion of the power of political messages based on accusations. Voters are quite willing to believe public officials are incompetent and corrupt; what they've ceased to believe is that their opponents will be an improvement. Consider it progress.

Obviously, incumbents and challengers have one thing in common: They believe, perhaps with good reason, that voters are stupid. That's why candidates spend nearly all their campaign cash on commercials, geared toward people so shallow and uninformed as to be swayed by them. And in fact, the candidates who run the most ads usually win.

Maybe next time we could skip the election and just tally the fundraising. That might improve the process, and cause less damage overall.

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