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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Fair
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Wisconsin's leadership deficit
It rivals the loss of jobs as a state crisis
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In May 2006, the Harvard Business Review published a study examining just what the heck corporate second bananas did. Authors Nathan Bennett and Stephen Miles admitted it was kind of weird what they discovered about chief operating officers, the guys who serve under the company chief executive officer.

There was no template -- "no constants" -- for the job from firm to firm. Instead, they found no less than seven different core COO roles, everything from "the executor," to "the change agent," to "the mentor." Their study would be marvelous reading for insomniacs seeking a powerful sleep aid, though be forewarned that these scholars failed to anticipate Wisconsin's great innovation in COO-dom -- the chief operating officer as "the political apparatchik."

That would be Ryan Murray, 30, who in July was named by Gov. Scott Walker to be the chief operating officer of the quasi-public Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., the state's principal jobs promoter. (Paul Jadin is its CEO.) Murray's resume shows him to be conspicuously devoid of any private-sector experience, but well schooled in the political arts.

Murray studied political science at UW-Superior and Macalester College (no degree is noted), and then blazed like a meteorite from the 2004 Bush-Cheney presidential campaign through multiple Republican legislative offices to a series of senior positions for Walker, culminating as director of policy and legislative affairs.

I tried and failed to contact Murray to see how his immersion in politics made this young man so knowledgeable about business and economic development. Knowing his type, I'll bet that Murray is exceedingly smart, highly political, a razor-sharp tactician (indeed, a reputed author of Act 10), and a tireless toiler on behalf of his benefactor. Of course, an ordinary person might ask how the backrooms of the Capitol prepared him to master the difficult chemistry of job creation. But that would be a dumb question!

Murray is utterly representative of our ruling class of politicians and their satraps who spend their lives in political campaigns, government sinecures, lobbying and policy advocacy until it all flows together in a seamless, remunerative world of wonder. Some fascinating people come out of this overheated terrarium. (Take a bow, Tammy Baldwin, Paul Ryan, Gov. Walker, Russ Feingold, Tommy Thompson and all the rest of you lifers in the never-ending political game.)

If only they knew how to lead our state in these perilous times.

For a good decade, Wisconsin's economy has stagnated and declined. Even the end of the Great Recession in 2009 brought no real relief.

The ugly truth is that the Wisconsin workforce has shed 164,500 jobs from the pre-recessionary high in December 2007. That's almost a 6% decline, according to a fine, detail-rich report from the Center on Wisconsin Strategy.

But the situation is even worse, given the state's population growth of 2.8%. COWS estimates that another 81,000 jobs are needed to keep the newcomers employed.

Wisconsin's total job deficit? 245,900 jobs.

Just as bad, wallets are noticeably thinner for almost everyone. COWS focuses on four-person families and finds over the past decade that annual income has dropped from $84,500 to $76,000.

Note that conservatives often bash the Center on Wisconsin Strategy because its leaders -- Joel Rogers and Laura Dresser -- are advocates for progressive economic strategies. But the center's reports pass the ideological blood test. COWS was just as hard on Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle during his lackluster eight years when the Wisconsin economy first slid into the ditch.

And that brings us to the most discouraging fact of all: Wisconsin's leaders -- not just Democrats and Republicans, but business and labor, city and county, even university and tech school leaders -- have been depressingly ineffective in getting us out of that ditch.

We have a leadership deficit in Wisconsin, not just a jobs deficit.

Scott Walker is the biggest disappointment. For a Republican who promised to focus "like a laser beam" on job creation, he has produced bupkis. His campaign saturated the airwaves with brilliant ads at the close of the recall election touting the 20,000 jobs created in 2011. This blew away earlier jobs data that showed a loss. But bupkis it remains.

At the Walker rate, it will be freakin' 2020 before the state returns to its 2007 jobs peak. This is a dreadful prospect! So it goes for a governor who fumbled an all-important venture capital bill. And who, after embracing the smart idea of streamlining the state's commerce department, saddled it with a political agent devoid of relevant experience.

As for the Democrats, well, avert your eyes. Their embrace of the recall blew up in their face. It strengthened the hand of the unpopular Walker, while binding the party to a declining union movement. Does anyone remember that the Democrats once had a pro-growth wing led by an outstanding governor named Pat Lucey?

Like the unions, Wisconsin's all-powerful business lobby is anchored in yesteryear. The power players are mature legacy companies from the last century. Research shows that these companies don't add a lot of jobs. Their game is cutting taxes and regulations (and often their workforces) to boost their bottom lines. They will not build Wisconsin's 21st-century economy.

Dare I say it? Wisconsin desperately needs a new generation of leaders.


Marc Eisen is the former editor of Isthmus.

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