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I was a Dane County Republican!
An inside look at the elephants in the room
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Credit:Pierre-Paul Pariseau

They are here, even if we don't admit it. They walk among us, invisible to the naked eye, members of a minority utterly foreign to us.

Some of them are afraid to be discovered. Their website is free of names, and even their leader tried to hide his true identity, fearing he would lose business if this were to become known. They are tricky to spot, reluctant to speak out, and when given the opportunity to speak, they are very, very mad.

They are the Republicans of Dane County, a small spot of crimson in a region overrun with blue.

Making fun of Republicans is a beloved tradition in these parts, like going to the Farmers' Market or taking offense at the student section at Badger games. But how many of us actually know any?

Last month, I set out to acquaint myself with as many local Republicans as I could by going undercover into the Dane County GOP. For weeks I attended the local party's events: I gave my real name, answered personal questions honestly, and tried to keep an open mind. Mostly what I did was listen.

What I found is that Republicans in Dane County are warm, generous, thought-provoking, and at times outrageously offensive - just like lots of other people I know.

But finding them was not easy. Local Republicans are, as I mentioned, not only scarce but secretive, and the only lead I had was to search the "Events" section of the local party's website,

It told me that "right-minded individuals" congregate on the first Tuesday of every month at Halverson's Supper Club, an old wood-paneled bar on the shore of Lake Kegonsa, for an event called "Pints and Politics."

I spent the day preparing, as any good journalist would, by stressing about wardrobe. What do Republicans wear?

Seeking answers, I called my most fashionable friend. The first thing she asked was if I own pearls and a handbag. "Republicans always have nice handbags," she said, the way you say things that everyone should know.

I had neither (I later bought some pearls at Target for $4.99), yet I drove to Stoughton anyway, aware that at any moment my cover might be blown by scuffed shoes and cheap earrings.

But from the minute I walked in the door, men and women were pumping my hand and asking how I was doing, the way you might be greeted at a church potluck. A volunteer asked me to join the party for a mere $30 annually ($50 for two - a steal!), and Bill Richardson, the local GOP's media coordinator and founder of The Great Train Robbery, an anti-commuter-rail website, introduced himself and showed me around.

The first thing I noticed was that Republicans sure do like to talk about money, which was new for me, seeing as I have none. Spencer Zimmerman, Dave Siitari and a number of other first-time County Board candidates speaking at the event all stressed that they are running for office this spring because of county liberals' overspending and government overinvolvement.

Siitari went so far as to compare the actions of local progressives to the deterioration he saw while working in the Soviet Union. "Liberals aren't looking at history," he said, "at what the loss of individual incentive and rise of big government implies."

Speaking at the event was the local party chair, Mike Herl. As Isthmus has reported ("Dane County's Secret GOP Chair," 11/13/08), Herl previously endeavored to protect his identity because of fear of repercussions to his business and his family.

At Halverson's, Herl addressed the gathering, encouraging conservatives on the fence to run for office. "I love Sean Hannity," he said, "and Hannity's saying that if you are a Republican in Wisconsin, this is the year to run. The tide is turning!"

After Herl finished, the woman sitting next to me asked, "Do you see the number of people here?" There were only about three dozen people, and at least half were candidates. "We should fill an auditorium. That's how angry people should be. That's how angry I am."

When I asked her what made her so angry, she said, "My husband started his business from scratch, and we have worked and worked for what we have...." Her voice rose and trembled. "If I hear one more time about 'distributing the wealth,'" she finished, slapping her hands on her thighs. "After all that we've done to get here!"

Look around and you'll see evidence of this outrage everywhere, from Tea Party conventions to WIBA radio. Republicans at every level of government are counting on it to help them reclaim seats in this year's elections.

But there is evidence to suggest that the roots of this anger are often vague, and at times downright contradictory. The government should cut the deficit but aggressively create jobs. The government is overstepping its bounds in the economy, even though a lack of regulation was at the heart of the economic meltdown.

And health care? Well, let's put it this way. In a survey in Massachusetts, almost half of the voters who voted for Republican Scott Brown in 2010 after having voted for Obama in 2008 weren't actually sure whether they thought the health-care bill was too much or too little. As James Surowiecki wrote in The New Yorker, "They don't know why they're against reform. They just are."

One major theme of my brush with local Republicanism was fear - fear of the "liberal cabal," fear that individual freedom is being wrenched away, fear that the very essence of our country is endangered. It was abundantly on tap at the "Pints and Politics" event, and at the annual Republican Party caucus held a few days later at City Center on Madison's west side.

The caucus drew several dozen people, less than a quorum, so no administrative business was done. But candidates and party officials used the opportunity to speak about the importance of this year's election.

Two mottos filled the air that morning: "cut spending" and "jobs, jobs, jobs." Though the turnout was disappointing, with pastries outnumbering people, passions ran high.

State Rep. Keith Ripp (R-Lodi) hobbled on crutches to the podium. He joked that his broken foot wasn't from "kicking someone's butt at the Capitol," to which a woman in back shouted "Why not?"

Local real estate magnate Terrence Wall gets a real kick out of collecting rent for Middleton office space from Sen. Russ Feingold, whom he's challenging in the fall election. Wall proclaimed to the audience, "Obama is going to bankrupt this country!"

In fact, none of the candidates seemed to think much of Democrats' business sense. "If we implement green jobs," Ripp said, "we gain 15,000 jobs, but there's a possibility to lose 43,000 jobs. And I'm not willing to do that."

It is the promise of business acumen that drives the gubernatorial campaign of Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker. The Dane County GOP officially does not endorse candidates until primaries are over, but posters for Walker plastered the walls at the caucus, even though one of his competitors, Scott Paterick, spoke.

Another recurring theme at the caucus was global warming. "Historic blizzards, 30 inches of snow, and they're talking about climate change?" said Kristin Lombardo, a spokeswoman for state Senate candidate Dave Westlake.

Among the campaign paraphernalia given out at the event was a bumper sticker that posed the question: "How Many Inches of Global Warming Have You Shoveled This Year?

Curiously, after my first week embedded in the GOP, Republicans started appearing everywhere. Call it synchronicity.

A pickup truck in a parking lot had a bumper sticker that read: "Proud to be a conservative." I saw another one on the Beltline: "RTA sucks." I even spotted 2nd Congressional District candidate Chad Lee at Target, pushing a cart of groceries with his wife.

It's hard not to like Lee, a 2001 graduate of Mount Horeb High and founder of Better Butler cleaners. (He is hoping to run against Rep. Tammy Baldwin, assuming he can prevail in a primary against Peter Theron, who ran unsuccessfully for this office in 2008.)

Charismatic and classically handsome, Lee is a born politician, and his campaign has attracted a large number of mainly young (and good-looking) supporters who may represent a new wave in county politics.

When I mentioned to one such supporter at Lee's campaign-sponsored happy hour that I had attended the county caucus, he gaped. "I'd rather shovel manure!" he said. "Those things are boring as hell."

Instead of attending staid party events, the energetic organizers of Lee's campaign are more interested in field organizing and barbecues. Indeed, among Lee's campaign workers, there is a tinge of resentment toward the local Republican Party, which has kept its vow of neutrality in their candidate's primary face-off against Theron.

"Can't endorse?" said one. "Have you seen what they're doing with Scott Walker?"

The Republican Party of Dane County has about 200 registered members, but an additional 500 people receive FACTS, the party's newsletter, and hundreds if not thousands more make financial contributions or volunteer for specific campaigns.

Between the energy of Lee's campaign and liberal Marc Gofstein's loss in the Sun Prairie primary for County Board, I started to wonder if local Democrats' dominance was slipping.

But Wayne Bigelow, head of the Dane County Democratic Party, is unperturbed by Lee and other Republican candidates. "They don't win races," he assured me in a phone interview. "Dane County trends Democrat." Bigelow believes that while Democrats may take hits on the state and national levels due to the recession, the county will remain solidly blue.

One of the problems facing our polarized political climate is that it is entirely possible to receive information only on topics that interest us and opinions with which we agree. If I had derived all of my news from the Dane County GOP, I might conclude that our local communities are run by socialists and that the time is right for a nationwide conservative revolution.

The same, of course, applies to the left. People on both sides throw around the word "fascism" as if it's candy at a parade, and the constant scrambling for the high ground while plugging our ears to the opposition is creating a political stalemate. We are, like Narcissus, enchanted with our own reflection.

In liberal Madison, it's easy to think of conservatives as gun-toting, gay-hating wingnuts who think radio host Vicki McKenna is an intellectual heavyweight and sanctify the gospel of Sarah Palin. To be fair, there are plenty of those, and I've collected a few of their comments for your enjoyment (see sidebar).

But there are also plenty of perfectly nice and intelligent people - people who went out of their way at GOP events to welcome me, and who just happen to have a drastically different perspective on the role of government. This gets lost when both parties paint the other as not only wrong, but morally abhorrent.

I started thinking about this at the Feb. 20 Lincoln Day Dinner, an annual county party fundraiser that, unsurprisingly, did not have a vegetarian option. At the beginning it was similar to other Republican events I had attended: full of speeches where men spoke so loudly into microphones that you could hear spittle hit the foam.

It would have remained just another evening in enemy territory had I not been sitting at a table with Jeff Waksman, a Ph.D. candidate in physics at the UW-Madison. I recognized him as the author of recent letters to the editor decrying the city's plastic-bag recycling law and pointing out the etymology of the term "teabagging." When I asked Waksman to clarify his position on the recycling law, it sparked a lively conversation.

"People assume that I'm not only against the recycling law, but that I'm against recycling," he said. "That's not true at all. I love recycling, but this law is stupid because it's unenforceable, and the Madison recycling coordinator even admits that. You can't go through people's trash. The whole thing was a waste of time."

And global warming? "It's complicated," Waksman said. He admits that heavy snow this winter doesn't mean climate change is a fallacy. "But the left did the same thing during hot summers," he noted.

I asked him why he thought there was so much confusion on the topic. "You'll find that most people, on both sides of the ideological debate, have no idea what they're talking about," he said.

I wrote to Waksman a few days after the dinner, and when I told him I wanted to interview him for this piece, he was understandably wary. "We've had very bad experiences with being misquoted by the media," he wrote back, but agreed to meet me for coffee.

As it turns out, Waksman is a Libertarian who has folded himself into the Republican Party of Dane County and supports, among other things, medical marijuana and equal rights for homosexuals. His social views may skew liberal, but he is staunchly against big government and believes in the inviolability of free markets. He is also dismayed by what he perceives as the county Democrats' inability to govern in a fiscally responsible manner.

"They act like it's paper money," he said, citing, among other things, the wastefulness of the proposed commuter rail plan. "No one is going to ride the trains. No commuter rail other than New York's has managed to take even 1% of cars off the road, and they've done that by slashing prices and operating at a huge loss."

For nearly three hours, Waksman confidently held court on subjects ranging from Keynesian economics to shore-land zoning. When I asked him if there are misconceptions among Madison liberals that he'd like to correct, he said, "We're people, the same as you. We feel bad when we see homeless people on the street. We want everyone to have health care. The issues are the same. We just have a different way of getting there."

The next day Waksman wrote to thank me, saying, "It's intellectually stifling to talk in an echo chamber." This is true for everyone, and liberals are playing into conservatives' hands if, as William F. Buckley Jr. wrote, they "claim to want to give a hearing to others, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views."

In a city that prides itself on its intellectualism and liberalism, it is arguably more important to become informed of the other side's point of view and engage in vigorous debate, for smugness rarely has the power to change an election, and underestimation of the opposition is a sure way to lose one.

I prepared to leave the Lincoln Day Dinner as the speeches were wrapping up. A woman I'd seen at almost all the Dane County GOP events followed me into the coatroom. "Did you have a nice time?" she asked. "I know you're new to the party and don't know many people yet, but I wanted to tell you how happy we are to have you around."

I was touched by her hospitality and thanked her, lingering in the back of the event hall to chat and button my coat. Onstage, the MC was telling the following joke:

"Al Gore, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama go to heaven. God addresses Al Gore first. 'Al, what do you believe in?'

"Al replies, 'Well, I believe that I won that election, but that it was your will that I did not serve. And I've come to understand that now.'

"God thinks for a second and says, 'Very good. Come and sit at my left.'

"God then addresses Bill Clinton: 'Bill, what do you believe in?' Bill replies, 'I believe in forgiveness. I've sinned, but I've never held a grudge against my fellow man, and I hope no grudges are held against me.'

"God thinks for a second and says, 'You are forgiven, my son. Come and sit at my right.'

"Then God addresses Barack Obama. 'Barack, what do you believe in?' He replies, "I believe you're in my chair.'"

And, despite myself, I burst out laughing.

Overheard at local GOP events, February 2010

"We are an endangered species!"

"My mother is dying of cancer right now, and they're trying to make her see a psychiatrist twice a year to try and convince her to die, to not take her medicine."

"I've been on a lot of cruises, and I can't tell you how many people, from all over the world, envy our health-care system."

"There are two people I really admire: Dick Morris and Karl Rove."

"Think about what these thieves are taking from you."

"Lord, help us use this opportunity to take back our branches of government."

"These immigrants are coming in and they have access to everything!"

"I'm tempted to put a sign in my yard that says, 'My President Lives in Texas.' Because he does. He's certainly not in Washington."

"Welcome to Madison, where the liberals are changing the world, one cappuccino at a time."

"We're reaching out to splinter groups, because at least they stand for something."

"Liberals and progressives think it's their right to mold us in their image!"

Question asked of Vicki McKenna:
"What is it like being the only sane voice on Madison radio?"

"The primary job of our government is to keep us safe. It's in the Constitution."

"As our friend Sarah Palin said, 'how's that hope-y change-y thing workin' for ya?'"

"Here's Dane County, which is typified by lunacy."

"Get out of the way and get people back to work!"

"Since global warming hasn't really been happening, they have to keep changing the name."

"Isn't it a great time to be a conservative?"

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