2008 was the year of the comeuppance. George Bush and the Republicans discovered the downside of getting the nation into unpopular wars and bankrupting the economy. Wall Street paid a price, albeit in taxpayer dollars, for being reckless and irresponsible.
The state of Wisconsin found itself gazing into the maw of a $5.4 billion shortfall due to tax and spending practices that pretty much everyone knew would cause eventual disaster. (And still it managed to act surprised!)
Disaster reigned. And rained. Mom Nature went on one of her tirades, unleashing a deluge in June that caused rampant flooding throughout the Midwest and stirred fears that Lake Mendota could someday pull a Lake Delton.
The Capital Times suspended daily print publication after 90 years; the State Journal was likewise forced to cut staff. Mayor Dave had to pull the plug on his major housing initiative, which had the notable drawback of not working. The Overture Center found that investing in the stock market was maybe not the best way to build a stable endowment. And the Concourse Hotel nixed live jazz, telling its musicians that, in a survey, hotel guests ranked jazz "low on the overall bar experience." Ouch.
It was that kind of year, delivering a series of kicks to the head. That makes Isthmus' annual Cheap Shot Awards, which aspire to do the same, perhaps a bit redundant. But life goes on, and so must we.
Loser of the Year: Michael Gableman
Yes, the undistinguished jurist from Burnett County got elected this spring to the state Supreme Court, ousting the eminently more qualified but unfortunately black incumbent. But Gableman did it in a way that tarnished his reputation and that of the court. His "nonpartisan" campaign was run by GOP strategists and bankrolled by big biz. One of his ads was so dishonest it drew protests from judges and misconduct charges from the state Judicial Commission. The response from Gableman - a.k.a. Fableman - was to challenge the rule against lying by judicial candidates as an infringement on his freedom of speech. His win would be Wisconsin's loss, again.
Wolf in Sheep's Clothing Award: J.B. Van Hollen
In 2007, his first year in office, Wisconsin's Republican attorney general defied predictions that he would seek to advance a partisan agenda. No one is saying this anymore. He's had messy public tussles with staff, raising criticism that he's politicizing the agency. Then he signed on as co-chair of John McCain's Wisconsin campaign and sued a state agency to force additional voter-registration checks, which looked for all the world like a GOP suppression ploy. A judge threw out the case. Hmmm, who else runs the risk of being thrown out?
Worst Excuse for a Politician: Jim Doyle
For a while there, it looked as though our only governor would soon have no more excuses for being a perennial underachiever. Democrats have seized control of Washington and the Wisconsin state Legislature, removing the political explanation for his failure to lead. But then, Doyle's deus ex machina arrived in the form of a multibillion-dollar state budget deficit and a global financial meltdown, putting the kibosh on bold new initiatives that weren't his style anyway. Can you believe how lucky this guy is?
Way to Grow Some Award: Governmental Accountability Board
When the state Ethics and Elections Board merged last year, the smart money was that two do-nothing agencies would become one agency that did even less. But the Government Accountability Board surprised everyone by presuming it had the ability to reform Wisconsin politics, by regulating issue ads designed to sway elections. Of course, such efforts face long, hard fights; but for now, the agency has given state residents reason to hope.
Best Crusade: Wisconsin State Journal
Madison's surviving city print daily bizarrely became a Pulitzer Prize finalist over its lame campaign last year to mildly curb the guv's veto powers. This year it took on a meatier issue: reform of the state's system of selecting Supreme Court justices. Instead of letting governors pick most of them, interspersed with ugly contests bankrolled by special interests, the paper is calling for merit selection, where applicants are culled by a nonpartisan panel. Don't think it's a good idea? Just watch the high court election we're likely to have next year.
Justice Delayed Award: Scott Jensen
The former state Assembly Speaker has gotten this award in years past, and may get it again in years to come. He was charged way back in 2002 with multiple felony counts of misconduct in office. He's sought every possible delay, and managed to overturn a conviction and sentence he could have finished serving by now. His circuit court file alone has nearly 300 "court events" with no retrial date set. Years back, we suggested Jensen is trying to wear prosecutors down. Maybe his real goal is to outlive them.
Realist of the Year: Dave Cieslewicz
A good mayor needs two things: vision and corrective lenses. Mayor Dave's a trailblazer who knows enough to turn back when he gets lost. He acknowledged the failure of his low-income housing plan, and resolved to try other things. He accepted the defeat of a parkland sale by a committee he handpicked to green-light the deal. He put down the saber he was rattling about a bus fare hike, after threatening to disband a committee if he did not get his way, which he hasn't. Note to Dave: Your most precious political asset is your reputation as someone who doesn't do stuff like that. Besides, you aren't a convincing bully.
Most Hapless Agency: Dane County 911 Center
Let's review: In April, the center mishandled a call from UW student Brittany Zimmermann, 21, who was subsequently murdered. It tried covering this up, and its director, Joe Norwick, misled the press, setting the stage for his eventual resignation. It missed the import of another call reporting a possible sighting of a suspect in another local murder. (By the way, Madison had 10 murders in 2008, an all-time record.) And, in November, it failed to send help in response to reports about an escalating confrontation that ended with a man being beaten to death. All in all, it was a year that can hardly not be improved on.
Worst Trend: Police Secrecy
Madison Police Chief Noble Wray likes to talk about trust-based policing, which often comes down to police telling the public, "Just trust us." The cops have kept a tight lid on information about recent murders, even regarding things that affect public safety, like the fact that Zimmermann's murder involved forced entry. They also kept mum about how her mishandled 911 call involved screams and sounds of a struggle. No one has made a convincing case for all this secrecy. They don't have to; they're the police. As Tom Petty says, "It's good to be king, and have your own way."
Rodney Dangerfield Award: Kathleen Falk
Perhaps it was the Dane County executive's press conference on the 911 Center controversy that most reporters walked out of before it was through. Or maybe it was the largely ho-hum reaction to her long-promised initiative to take on the most sacred of local cows - our culture of heavy drinking. Or the lack of praise she received for managing to increase spending on public safety, human services and conservation in a skin-tight budget year. But somewhere in 2008, it seemed that Falk had become 100% mojo-free. With conservatives smelling blood and Nancy Mistele announcing plans to run against her, she needs to reclaim it, and fast.
Most Heartless Capitalists: Wisconsin Management Co.
This fiercely competitive category was clinched by this Madison-based firm, which initially rebuffed efforts to let the fiancé of slain UW student Brittany Zimmermann out of the lease for the apartment where the murder occurred. But the company did back down after a flurry of negative publicity. It probably considers this an act of charity.
Cruelest Miscarriage of Justice: Audrey Edmunds Case
Early this year, a state appeals court, citing new medical evidence, overturned this former Waunakee resident's conviction for killing an infant in her care. By then she'd spent 12 years in prison - one year shy of her full sentence - all the while credibly protesting her innocence. The Dane County Attorney's Office of course refused to concede that it had obtained a wrongful conviction, which now seems obvious. Then it cruelly waited three months after the state Supreme Court declined to take the case to say that it would not retry her. Edmunds' attorney clucked about the prosecution's "lack of humility"; that's not all it lacked.
Most Heroic Person: Lorraine Cook
This 52-year-old Madison woman, knowing there was a warrant out for her arrest, hid from police after being beaten in early January. But when she was raped a few days later, she decided to report it, out of concern for other women. She was taken from the emergency room to jail, and ended up serving about three months; the DA's office misread the police reports and decided not to prosecute her alleged assailant. With a justice system like this, who needs criminals?
Parents of the Year: Lou and Debbie Marino
What could be more awful than having one's child murdered, suddenly and senselessly, in the prime of his life? For the parents of Joel Marino, 31, who was stabbed to death at his home in late January, it was the sense that not enough was being done to find his killer and keep others safe. So they pushed police to pursue every lead; and, whether or not the police needed pushing, they did track down a suspect and make an arrest. The Marinos had good reason to be proud of their son, and he of them.
Worst Veterans Affairs Program: Wisconsin Dells Police
These boys in blue allegedly made two Wisconsin National Guardsmen, who served repeated tours in Iraq, lick what appeared to be urine from the ground to avoid a citation. The cops say this was the guardsmen's idea, which did not keep them from being disciplined, and later sued. Ah for the good ol' days, when our veterans were only spat on! (Yes, we know these stories are mostly apocryphal, but it did happen to anti-war vet Ron Kovic at the GOP convention in 1972.)
Man of Mystery Award: Dane County GOP Chair
The elected head of our local Republican Party is one shy guy - so shy he's tried to keep his name secret. Group spokesman Bill Richardson says it's because "the very far left" would bollix up the chair's business dealings should his GOP role be revealed. Local Republicans, he attests, live in constant fear: "Their cars get keyed, all the time. Their homes are painted with obscenities. Things are burned into their lawns. Their kids are scared half to death." As Dave Barry would say, we aren't making this up. But someone is.
Most Selfless Public Servants: UW Brass
You have to admire the public spiritedness of Biddy Martin, the UW-Madison's new chancellor. She was hired this June at a starting salary about $44,000 less than what she made at Cornell in 2005-06. Martin is making just $437,000, a mere $110,000 more than her predecessor. Meantime, UW System President Kevin Reilly got a $73,000 raise but vowed to give most of it to a scholarship fund; that leaves him with only $341,000 a year. Gosh, just think: These folks are tightening their belts for you!
Ex-Journalist of the Year: Ellen Foley
The Wisconsin State Journal's now-former editor, hired in 2004, was good for the paper, breathing new life into its musty bones. She presided over a period of great change and perhaps a bit more turmoil than she'd bargained for. It was an uncommonly tough year for local journalists, and perhaps especially for Foley, who's bravely chronicled her husband's battle with cancer in an at times bone-chilling blog on CaringBridge.com. Now she has a job at MATC and wants to write a book. No doubt she'll do both well.
Pontius Pilate Award: Robert Morlino
Madison's Catholic Bishop is a culture warrior with real power, which he's used to threaten priests, peg Madisonians as immoral, and prop up a notorious Army school for killers. This year he allegedly pressured a contractor to divulge confidential information, leading to a lawsuit, and forced out a church worker for being gay, prompting a backlash from church members. He also declared that the use of contraception was directly linked to pornography, infidelity and - get this - sexual abuse by priests. As the Church Lady might say, "How convenient!"
Double Your Standard Award: WISC Channel 3
Madison's preeminent news station proved it had a big heart this summer when it hired former lawmaker-turned-lawbreaker Chuck Chvala to comment on state politics. Why should a felony conviction of misconduct in office hold a person back? But then it showed zero tolerance to African American sportscaster George Johnson, cutting him loose for crudely mouthing off to some cops during a traffic stop, which, last time we checked, is not even a crime. We're all for forgiveness; now how about a little consistency?
Lee Dreyfus: The red-vested one, who died in his Waukesha home in early January at age 81, left a legacy as rich as his personality. As Wisconsin's Republican governor from 1979 to 1983, he signed the nation's first state law barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; later, he became a wise elder statesman for the GOP. Dreyfus will long be remembered for describing Madison as "[a certain number of] square miles surrounded by reality," even if no one remembers how many square miles he said.
Milt McPike: The former principal of East High was not just loved, he was beloved. When he died last March from a rare form of cancer at age 68, he drew the kind of praise most politicians would, no pun intended, die for. For nearly a quarter century, McPike helped his school and its students reach their highest potential. His influence will extend far into the future.
Rebecca Young: She's difficult to describe, because she was so many things: a wife, a mother, a lawyer, a County Board supervisor, a school board member, a seven-term member of the state Assembly, a state official, a tireless advocate for women, children and the environment. But none of that captures how extraordinary Becky Young was - how smart and resourceful and kind. She died this November from cancer at age 74.
Tedd O'Connell: It's ironic that this Madison newsman is often remembered for having trained his camera on an encounter between Fidel Castro and a Madison delegation only to later discover there was no film in it. For most of his life, and all of his 15 years at Channel 3, O'Connell was fully loaded, hardworking and fair, an emblem of reporters who were trusted because they were trustworthy. He died in August of cancer at age 69 at his home in Green Bay.