Summing up an entire year in a few words is never easy, but it is possible. 2002, for instance, was the same backwards as forwards, which kind of described it: How we stepped forward from the shock of 9/11 only to step back into McCarthyite suspicion and the march to war. 2005 was the year of the disaster, with Katrina ravaging New Orleans and tornados ripping through Wisconsin. And 2006 was marked by outrage, both real and manufactured. Mostly manufactured.
So how can we sum up 2007? What is the zeitgeist of a year that saw both the release of Arthur Bremer and the re-arrest of O.J. Simpson? The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and the sputtering of conservatives that global climate change is a liberal hoax? The plummeting of Bush's popularity to historic lows and the utter failure of Democrats to appear more likable?
The year's most heralded commentary issued from New York Times' scribe Frank Rich, who scolded the public for being "Good Germans" with regard to official abuses - torture and war crimes - that can no longer be denied. "Our humanity has been compromised [while] we stand idly by."
But think about it: Isn't Rich being nave? Does he really believe that if citizens demand it, people in power will stop behaving badly?
A far more honest assessment can be found in Katha Pollitt's new book of essays, Learning to Drive. "People might be excited by their personal future," she writes. "I still feel that sometimes; I get a little thrill wondering which tulips will come back next spring. But when they think about the future in general, they're scared."
That's it, in a nutshell. 2007 signaled the end of optimism, the dissolution of trust in better tomorrows. That doesn't mean hope is dead - we know it springs eternal - only that the challenges are oppressively great.
We need to maintain our spirits as best we can. Hence we present Isthmus' Cheap Shot awards - an annual feting of accomplishments great and small. Mostly small. Let's wrap things up here, and come out strong in 2008, putting our shoulders to the wheel.
Underachiever of the Year: Jim Doyle
Wisconsin 's governor began his second term with a mandate to lead from a solid electoral win and Democratic control of the state Assembly. Heck, Isthmus even gave him a handy to-do list (11/16/06). Yet he remained the same overcautious, uninspiring, do-little guv, spurning his promises regarding gubernatorial power and waiting until December to make a weak push for campaign finance reform. A recent release captured his true priorities: "Doyle for Wisconsin will be hosting two [fund-raising] events. There are several levels of membership to the Governor's Circle: $500, $1,000 and $2,500. We are accepting individual, PAC and conduit contributions." But of course.
Deadest Horse: Campaign Finance Reform
Each stomach-turning election and criminal indictment seems to bring fresh talk that true reform is on the horizon. Politicians like Jim "$16 million and counting" Doyle all vow to do their part. Guess what? They're lying. They'll never willingly torpedo a system that benefits them. Making promises is all they intend. Getting booted from office is all they deserve.
Do As I Say, Not As I Do Award: Annette Ziegler
The GOP-connected Washington County judge purchased a state Supreme Court seat this April, despite disclosures about conflicts that led to her being fined (with a possible light tap on the wrist yet to come). She could have run a classy campaign and won easily, just by spending more money and having more special-interest backing than any judicial candidate in state history. Instead, she played dirty, portraying her rival as a werewolf and, worse, "a Madison immigration lawyer." Asked by Wisconsin Interest what lessons folks could draw, she offered: "I hope they learned that a positive campaign is a good one to run, especially in the judiciary." Now that's chutzpah!
Most Fatuous Hero: Tom Nelson
This Democratic state rep from Kaukauna drew national media attention and praise by vowing to stay in the Assembly chambers until a budget deal passed. He even heaped accolades on himself, in an op-ed piece The Cap Times ran under the headline "Why I Did It: Somebody Had to Show Up for Work." Conveniently, Nelson began his heroic stand on Oct. 18, 108 days after the budget was due and one day before a deal was reached. Do you suppose he knew the gig would soon be up, that his colleagues had dragged things out as long as possible, all the while collecting bribes from special interests? Boy, are you cynical.
Con Artists of the Year: AT&T
The telecom giant set up a front group to run ads urging the public to back a statewide cable TV franchise bill, falsely claiming this would promote "competition." It lied in portraying foes of the deal as supporters. It sought to obscure the bill's devastating impact on public access and governmental channels. It spent boatloads of cash on lobbying and campaign contributions, at one point putting the state Democratic Party chair on its payroll. And, in the end, it got the legislation it paid for. Now all that's left is for those cable prices to come tumbling down....
So Sue Me Award: Frank Lasee
Last year, the Republican state rep from Bellevue proposed that teachers and other school officials carry guns to keep everybody safe. The year before, he hatched the bright idea to declare open season on feral cats. This year, he decided it would be great if the state stopped funding the UW Law School, because "We don't need more ambulance chasers." We don't need more idiots in the Legislature, either, but that's never stopped him.
Biggest Boondoggle: Voter Registration System
After three years and $23 million, Wisconsin's federally mandated system for managing voter lists has one tiny flaw: It doesn't work. A recent audit found that 1,500 voters were wrongly flagged as ineligible in November 2006,
and it' unlikely the kinks will be worked out before next year's elections. At long last the state has broken things off with Accenture, the Bermuda-based software vendor that's pocketed the dough. But the real villains are the state officials who ignored critics in inking and defending this rotten deal.
Oddest Special-Interest Group: Police Dogs That Bite
Under our system of justice, no surprise, law enforcement officers enjoy broad immunity from civil liability and often catch breaks on criminal matters too. This year, the Legislature passed and the guv just signed into law a bill that extends immunity, of sorts, to their dogs. Assembly Bill 52 exempts law enforcement dogs that bite people from quarantine requirements, so long as the animals have been immunized against rabies and are "performing law enforcement duties" at the time. Think of it as taking the crime out of bite.
Bugaboo of the Year: State Hospital Tax
"No new taxes!" is the kind of mindless mantra embraced by politicians who think, with some justification, that the electorate is stupid. It was still shocking to see GOP state lawmakers engage in budget brinkmanship to block a hospital tax that the Wisconsin Hospital Association supported, because it would have brought $575 million in new federal funds to Wisconsin. The only downside was that more poor people would have received health-care coverage. That and the lost opportunity for grandstanding.
Diogenes Award: J.B. Van Hollen
When, as a candidate last year, Wisconsin's attorney general promised to put aside his personal beliefs and follow the law, folks were justifiably skeptical. He has, after all, likened reproductive choice to homicide and claimed terrorists are training in Wisconsin. But as AG, Van Hollen has refused to bend the law to attack abortion, affirmative action and Democrats, and shown admirable commitment to the state's tradition of open government. His one big misstep: Trying to shut out reporters covering this fall's mass murder in Crandon. News flash for J.B.: When a law enforcement officer kills six people with a government-issued firearm, the media have a right to ask questions.
'Et Tu, Brute?' Backstab of the Year: Senate Dems
Having won back control of the state Senate last year, the Democrats set out to show how little they could accomplish. Then, when the budget finally passed, after months of bickering, they met in secret to oust their majority leader, Judy Robson. So instead of being able to claim they used their new power to achieve some success, the Dems made it clear that they failed, in their own estimation. It's hard to say when the Dems look worse - when they're not in power, or when they are.
Innocent Bystander of the Year: Georgia Thompson
Actually, it was last year that this state civil servant was successfully prosecuted by U.S. Attorney Steve Biskupic for allegedly rigging a contract. This year, after she served four months in prison, a federal appellate court noticed that she'd done nothing wrong. "How in the heck did this case get brought?" wondered a U.S. Justice Department official. Hmmm. Biskupic was under pressure from Republicans to go after Democrats, and his bosses in Washington had considered giving him the boot. As Isthmus reported (5/18/07), he repeatedly tried to squeeze Thompson into implicating the governor and others. How did this case get brought? Take a wild guess.
Lamest Crusade: Wisconsin State Journal
Madison 's morning paper practically threatened to hold its breath 'til it passed out if state Sen. Fred Risser didn't advance a state constitutional amendment to rein in the governor's veto power. It ran an editorial rebuke for more than 50 consecutive days until Risser did what he promised he'd do all along - schedule a hearing with plenty of time and then vote in favor. All this for a reform that leading critics of the guv's veto power hope is defeated, because it would only limit, not end, the ability to concoct laws the Legislature never intended. Will the State Journal get gutsier in 2008? Don't hold your breath.
Justice Delayed Award: Scott Jensen
All of the lawmakers snared in the 2002 Capitol corruption scandal dragged out their cases for years, but this former Assembly speaker is setting the gold standard. After being convicted of multiple felonies and sentenced to 15 months in prison, Jensen has won the right to a new trial - that is, new opportunities to drag things out. Now he'll be able to argue it was okay for him to break the law because others had too. Try that the next time you get stopped for speeding.
Surrender Monkey of the Year: Dave Cieslewicz
Despite his landslide reelection, Madison's mayor did more retreating this year than the British at Yorktown. He pulled the rug out from under the Water Utility director he tried to rehabilitate. He tossed in the towel on trolleys, undercutting the media's ability to make bad puns about his streetcar desire. He had to retool the job of economic development czar after the business community pounced on his pick. He caved to overblown concerns about crime by using a one-time windfall to add 30 new cops, setting up a future tax hike that will have folks asking whose dumb idea this was. Maybe he can just back down again.
'Hey, Whatever Happened to...?' Award: Ray Allen
Total number of items mentioning the Madison mayoral candidate in The Capital Times, Wisconsin State Journal and Isthmus between Jan. 1 and April 17, two weeks after he garnered 38% of the vote: 135. Total number of mentions in these papers since: two. Um, make that three.
Thanks for Being There Award: Dorothy Conniff
This isn't a slam or putdown, but what we used to call a "Not Shot." Conniff retired this year after 30 years with the city of Madison, many as head of its Office of Community Services. She was the city's first child-care specialist and oversaw the growth of its accreditation program. Countless children and families have benefited from her insistence on quality care. And everyone in Madison owes her thanks for having the courage, time and again, to stand up for what she believed. Happily, she didn't pay for this with her job; it's how she earned it.
Biggest Cop Out: Noble Wray
Madison 's chief of police was asked, in the aftermath of a certain notorious rape case (mentioned a few times in Isthmus), to draft a policy to reduce or eliminate the use of lies and coercion on individuals who report being victims of sensitive crimes. But the policy he came up with this February still expressly permits police to use deception, with no additional oversight - for instance, a rule that supervisors must be consulted or the session videotaped. No wonder Wray likes to talk so much about trust-based policing. His motto: Just trust us.
Security Breach of the Year: Madison Police Department
This fall, Madison Police Detective Jeffery Hughes crashed his car after removing heroin from a police storage locker - one of at least 10 such withdrawals - while seemingly in a "daze" and "high." Afterward, the MPD changed its rules to require a supervisor's consent to remove drugs, guns or money from storage. What, nobody thought this was a good idea until then? No wonder these jobs are so coveted!
Public Enemy No. 1: Bob D'Angelo
The former Overture Center director got hit this fall with a 39-count indictment, facing up to 652 years in prison and a $70,000 fine, for...what? Gunning down a church full of schoolchildren? Plotting to blow up the United Nations? Nope, it's for allegedly running two side businesses out of his city office and cheating on his income taxes - crimes so heinous no one has ever committed them before. D'Angelo even allegedly had city workers - do not let children read to the end of this sentence - flag rummage-sale ads so he could buy used books and CDs. D'Angelo has pleaded not guilty and remains free on bail. Is anybody safe?
Least Sympathetic Victim: Arrogant Ironman
Every September, these monuments to self-accomplishment flood into town to show how tough they are. This year's cast included a competitor from Washington, D.C., who after swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 more and then running a 26.2-mile race told a local couple he encountered to get out of his way. That led to his being punched in the nose. The assailant is now facing multiple criminal charges - further proof, if any were needed, that the justice system is not about justice, at least not the poetic sort.
Crime Fighters of the Year: Dane County District Attorney's Office
These folks complain constantly about lacking resources for vital functions, like putting away killers and rapists. Then, this year, the office pressed felony charges against a Madison man for passing a joint at a pro-pot rally. After much wrangling, the guy got a noncriminal conviction and small fine, which is what should have happened all along - except, arguably, for the small fine. Prioritize, people!
Most Selfless Religious Leader: Robert Morlino
Madison 's bishop stirred a fuss last year when he ordered churches to play his screed against stem-cell research and gay equality and threatened any priest who dissented with "serious consequences." But this fall, he told the State Journal his true purpose was purely altruistic - to relieve priests "of the responsibility to defend marriage" and avoid the need to "investigate" those not willing to back a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions. What a guy! Let the canonization begin!
Most Obnoxious New Trend: Non-Naming Rights
This fall, a group of UW-Madison alumni gave the Wisconsin School of Business $85 million - the largest single gift in the UW's history - expressly to keep the school from selling its name to the highest bidder for the next 20 years. After that, it can presumably become the Acme Death Gel School of Business or the Hint of Lime Tostitos School of Business or the Geico Fifteen Minutes Could Save You Fifteen Percent or More School of Business - unless some other rich alums cough up more cash. Here's our two cents: How 'bout just letting public institutions remain public?
Freedom Fighter of the Year: Russ Feingold
Once again, the Democratic senator from Wisconsin has done us proud, standing up to the Bush administration on Iraq, torture and the erosion of civil liberties. While other politicians consult pollsters for their positions, Feingold heeds his sharp sense of right and wrong. Often, that means he's the Cheesehead who stands alone. As someone once said of Fightin' Bob, "What guts he's got."
Low-Profile Award: Kathleen Falk
The Dane County executive didn't lose any bids for state office this year. She didn't become embroiled in any bitter controversies. She didn't make any notable missteps or public gaffs. She just did her job, quietly and competently. That doesn't make for a good cheap shot, but it's sort of nice to see.
Best Rant: 'Sound Off!' Caller on Winter Woes
We're not huge fans of anonymous venting, but a caller to The Cap Times' "Sound Off!" line in early December pounded one out of the park: "You people complaining about your driveway ends getting plowed in need to shut up and quit your whining. Seriously, what are they supposed to do? Make some magical plow blade that differentiates driveways from curbs and throws the snow accordingly? Or should they carefully carve out each and every driveway in the city?... Heck, why don't they just plow your driveway for you while they're at it? It's winter in Wisconsin. It's not going to be absolutely convenient for you." Hip, hip, hooray!
Self-Aggrandizer of the Year: Jim Woodward
Meriter's new president and chief executive officer has decided that one of the best things the hospital/health behemoth has going for it is himself. And so he's made "Jim Woodward, president and CEO of Meriter," central to Meriter's ad campaign. Who does this guy think he is, George Dreckmann? Note to Jimbo: Nobody gets the warm fuzzies thinking about health-care administrators.
'Giving 110%' Inane Sports Quote Award: Travis Beckum
The Badger tight end clinched this fiercely competitive category with his remark following the UW's 38-17 loss to Ohio State, as quoted (accurately, we trust) in The Capital Times: "There's no doubt, that anybody on this team thought we couldn't win this game." You can say that again. On second thought, don't.