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Sunday, October 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Fair
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Once more, with feeling
Doyle should seize his second chance to be a progressive leader

Like a second marriage, a second term can represent the triumph of hope over experience. So it is with the voters and Gov. Jim Doyle. For all his admirable resistance to the excesses of a Republican Party gone wack-job right-wing, Doyle was, in his first term, a pronounced disappointment.

Sure, the governor coped with a near-impossible budget deficit. But he was so intent on parrying GOP assaults and shoring up his reelection chances that governing seemed to become a distraction to the real work of his administration.

The damage that Doyle visited on state operations has not yet been fully plumbed, but there is reason to worry. From Transportation to Administration to Natural Resources to Health and Family Services to the state housing authority, I hear the same story time and again, about the cluelessness of Doyle appointees and their almost Nixonian suspiciousness of civil service staff.

Still, Jim Doyle has room to move in his second term. The Republicans were rebuked at the ballot box, and Democrats won the state Senate. And Doyle, who has suggested he's not inclined to seek a third term, is freer to take the sort of political risks that he studiously avoided in his first four years.

He could begin by settling up with Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. The big business group he assiduously courted for four years blasted him with a reported $1.5 million in tawdry, negative campaign ads.

'Hey, no hard feelings,' Doyle should tell WMC prexy Jim Haney, 'but if you don't like what I'm doing over the next four years, you can kiss my royal Irish ass.' Then, what else might this freer, legacy-minded governor do?

First, there is an overwhelming need for a fundamental reconsideration of tax policy and how the state funds local governments and K-12 education, not to mention the UW System. Spackling over the widening financial cracks will no longer do the job.

Elsewhere on this page, a cross-section of Wisconsin worthies offer suggestions for the Doyle agenda. To a surprising degree, their ideas hold together as a sort of progressive vision for Wisconsin that many Democrats and Republicans, not to mention Doyle, might support if they listened to their better angels. My own views about the chances of a Doyle turnaround are less sanguine.

Nobody should kid themselves. Unless the governor learns from his mistakes, little will change. Wisconsin's reputation as a fulcrum of high-minded policy innovation may linger in a few quarters, but reality will be far more mundane.

Nothing more exemplified Doyle's distance from governing than his pledge in the 2002 campaign to reduce what he perceived as the state's bloated workforce by 10,000 or so employees.

The promise was a stroke of political genius, planting Doyle to the right of his three Democratic primary competitors and allowing him to attract moderates and disaffected Republicans. But in terms of governance, the promise was pure disaster.

'It was the dumbest thing that he could say,' a veteran governmental manager told me. 'The chances he could accomplish this reduction were slim to none unless he was willing to shut down a department.'

It's an open secret that Doyle had no plan to remake state government, nor did he hire the kind of people who might have translated his sound-bite frippery into reality. Instead he brought in his political apparatchiks, who offloaded the work to costly and questionable consultants.

Some of the ugliest moments happened in Transportation, where an eye-opening internal study found that consultants were costlier than state employees. Longtime DOT legal counsel James Thiel was sacked for releasing e-mails concerning the suppressed study to a reporter ' an object lesson for other state employees to always protect the governor's interests.

How battened down is the Doyle style?

Former Madison Police Capt. Cheri Maples is one of the few insiders willing to talk openly about Doylean dysfunction. A 20-year veteran of law enforcement with a law degree and a master's in social work to boot, Maples was exactly the sort of reality-tested progressive you would expect the Doyle administration to recruit.

But once onboard to run the parole and probation division in the corrections department, Maples found her hands tied by her political overseers. Her memos and speeches were screened by the secretary's office. Contact with the press had to be cleared. Worse, innovation wasn't encouraged in what she dubs a 'fear-based' environment.

'Everything was designed to protect the governor from any potential bad publicity and risking his reelection,' she recalls. 'It was insane. If you're so concerned about these details, how can you see the big picture?'

Blocked from charting a new course for probation and parole, Maples quit after nine months and took a job as an assistant attorney general under Peg Lautenschlager. 'Peg never let her political ambitions get in the way of doing the right thing,' Maples says approvingly.

Maples' story illustrates one of the very worst legacies of Doyle's first term ' his painful failure, after 16 years of Republican governors, to tap into the small army of progressive-minded technicians and thinkers waiting in academia and government for a chance to retool state policy.

You name it, and they were there ' for transportation, economic development, human services, taxation, corrections and more. Doyle had virtually a government in exile waiting his call, and he chose to largely ignore it.

'What depressed me the most,' Maples notes, 'is that many of the liberals and progressives in the department said they were better treated by the Thompson administration.'

She isn't alone in that insight. 'You may not have agreed with Tommy and his people, but they would let staff develop policy alternatives and argue them,' says a recent state agency retiree. 'They were open for information. The Doyle team didn't want to hear from the professional staff on what their options were. Basically, they cut themselves off from a lot of expertise.'

All fingers point to Susan Goodwin, Doyle's remote and secretive chief of staff, as the problem. I don't know if the closed-door, us-versus-them style of the Doyle administration is her idea or if she's simply doing the governor's bidding. Whatever the case, Doyle suffers for it.

Even his friends can't get in the bunker.

'If Susan Goodwin passed me on the street, I wouldn't know who she is,' says state Rep. Tamara Grigsby, one of Milwaukee's bright, next-generation leaders. 'I've tried to meet with her, tried to talk to her. But she isn't at all accessible. She's part of the problem: She isolates the governor.'

One assumes that Doyle's new term will bring personnel shifts in his team. Some folks will move on to the private sector to cash in on their connections. Others will take new jobs in the administration. Let's hope Susan Goodwin is among the job-changers.

Jim Doyle needs to kick open the doors, throw open the windows and look to the horizon. How will he leave his mark on this state's future?

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