At one point during our interview, state Sen. Glenn Grothman makes a startling claim: "I like Madison. It's enjoyable being here. You like being here around the young people and the variety in restaurants."
Praise for Madison may be the last thing many people expect from Grothman, a longtime Republican lawmaker from West Bend. He's one of the biggest thorns in the city's side, at turns confrontational and dismissive. He's emerged as a major defender of Gov. Scott Walker's budget agenda, against howls of protest from within the Madison community.
For those struggling to understand the mindset of Wisconsin's new Republican majority, which in just a few weeks has thrown the state into crisis, there is no better specimen to put under the microscope than Glenn Grothman. He is everything his party has come to represent: thoroughly ideological and lacking even the slightest inclination to self-doubt.
And yet, Glenn Grothman is a likable guy - intellectual, friendly and quirky.
After learning that I had majored in history at the UW-Madison, Grothman gave me a history book to keep at our first interview (Intellectuals, by Paul Johnson) and spent much of our second interview preoccupied with finding me another book he thought I had to have (America Alone, by Mark Steyn). The baggy corduroy suits he favors and the academic terms he drops (bourgeoisie, leftist, demography) would be a good match for a UW sociology professor.
On Tuesday, as he tried to enter the Capitol, Grothman was surrounded by protesters shouting "Shame!" According to a Cap Times story, state Rep. Brett Hulsey, one of the angriest Democrats in Wisconsin, came to Grothman's defense, telling the crowd, "This guy and I disagree on everything, but we're friends. This is a peaceful protest. You need to back away."
The crowd did ease off and, afterward, Grothman told the paper he was never really worried: "They're loud, they'll give you the finger, and they yell at you, but I really think deep down inside they're just mostly college kids having fun."
It was vintage Grothman. The guy gets a big kick out of being seen as the enemy. He gets along well with agitators because he's one himself.
Consider Grothman's eruption over having a hard time driving into work after a major blizzard in December 2009, when he called for a state takeover of the city's snow removal and salting policies. "This is what happens when you have a city with politicians whose base is people who walk to their job at the co-op," Grothman said at the time.
For Grothman, hyperbole is simply one of the many tools he uses to get people's attention and advance his cause. He tries, as much as possible, to refer to his colleagues on the other side of the aisle as "leftists," not as liberals or even Democrats. And Grothman's take on state worker benefits and rights makes Walker look like a wimp.
"It's a compromise," he's said of Walker's plan for curbing the power of public employees, which he feels does not go far enough. "If it were up to me, it would have included police and firefighters. In fact, I don't know why they [public employees] need collective bargaining at all."
Such inflammatory talk has prompted Grothman's fellow Republicans to put him in his place - as the Senate's assistant majority leader. He's a guy they want out there, fighting their battles.
"Sen. Grothman represents an important constituency within the GOP that deserves to be heard," says UW-Madison professor Charles Franklin. "His comments show that this part of the party is represented and respected by the party leadership."
State Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) puts it a bit differently, but with an underlying sense of awe.
"Glenn Grothman doesn't just drink the crazy right-wing Kool-Aid, he is the one making it," says Pocan, who served in the Assembly with Grothman for six years. "He's a true believer. He's a far-right activist who's smart and knows how to make conservatives stand in line for more."
Guardian of values
Grothman, 55, was born in Milwaukee but grew up mostly in Mequon. He attended the UW-Madison, first for his bachelor's degree in accounting and later for law school. He practiced as a tax and real estate attorney in West Bend for 10 years until his election to the Assembly in 1993.
In 2004, Grothman saw a chance to move up the totem pole and seized it. He challenged fellow Republican Mary Panzer in the primary for his Senate district, attacking her for being pro-choice and for stonewalling on the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a concept to limit taxes pushed by conservative groups across the country. Grothman beat Panzer by a margin of more than three to one and was reelected in 2008.
Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has ripped Grothman for an undistinguished career, saying he's "been in the Legislature for 17 years and his only notable accomplishment is authoring an amendment that sullied our state constitution by denying people of the same sex who love each other the right to get married."
Grothman does not take credit for the same-sex marriage ban, which current Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald authored, but he has no problem being associated with it.
"If people adhere to the tenets of Christianity, the acceptance of that sin [homosexuality] will not be the norm," he says matter-of-factly. "How society deals with it is going to determine to a certain extent how much that lifestyle flourishes, and it should not flourish."
Asked why polls show that acceptance of homosexuality has steadily increased in America and Wisconsin, Grothman responds that the education establishment and entertainment industry are teaching children values that conflict with their Christian upbringings.
"I think the colleges of education are of a leftist bent," he says. "I think the teachers union is of a leftist bent, and I think to a certain extent their ideas are pushed on the teachers [and later students]. And it's what's taught in the culture - movies, TV."
Grothman believes these same forces of leftism - the teachers union, the media - are keeping many Wisconsinites in the dark on Walker's controversial budget repair bill. His mission is to lead them back to the light.
"I think most people in the state are conservative," he says. "If I sit down and talk to them they'll be on our side."
As Grothman sees it, conservatives like him are not only "more thoughtful," they are guardians of the values of our founding fathers, who wanted America to be a nation of individual freedom and limited government. He thinks it's been too long since these ideas have gotten the respect they deserve.
Although Republicans controlled the governor's office and the Legislature throughout much of the 1990s, much of the power lay in the hands of moderates, including Gov. Tommy Thompson and legislative leaders like Panzer.
"[Thompson] felt that BadgerCare [a state health care program serving low-income residents] would be a greater legacy for him than [welfare reform]," he says. "If you look, government spending went up an awful lot when he was governor."
He is not likely to have the same grievance with the current governor.
"When Gov. Walker was [in the Assembly], you probably had eight or nine assemblymen who were considered the conservatives," says Grothman. "Maybe 10 or 12. And Scott and I were always in that 10 or 12 together." (Indeed, Walker and Grothman both voted against the pension increases for state employees that Thompson signed into law in 1999.)
And yet, while Grothman spends most of his time on the far right of the political spectrum, he occasionally takes stands that would earn him applause at many a Madison co-op.
For instance, he was a proponent of payday loan reform and supported Democratic legislation that capped interest rates on the many short-term lenders throughout the state. "I think excessive usury is wrong," he says. "I don't have a problem saying that's not a part of the free market."
In a similarly populist vein, Grothman finds the extreme wealth of some American business people morally wrong: "It does offend me when CEOs of big corporations make millions of dollars without risking anything."
So does he have a plan to rein these fat cats in? Grothman says that would not be prudent. "We can't really solve it here in Wisconsin," he sighs, "because then corporation headquarters would leave the state."
Man of the people
Despite Grothman's anti-government mantra, he comes from a tradition of public service. His father was an attorney for the state of Wisconsin, and his mother was a schoolteacher. He doesn't remember hearing his parents talk about politics but says he was raised in a "conservative lifestyle," meaning a two-parent home with a stay-at-home mother.
This "lifestyle," however, did not prevent Grothman from experimenting in leftism as a young man. He attributes his dabbling with the dark side to magazines he read in high school.
"On just about every level, I just believed what The Nation or The New Republic or The Progressive would tell me," he says, referencing the magazines' views on Vietnam, environmentalism and economics.
Ironically, it was Grothman's time in liberal Madison in the early 1970s - first for college and then for law school - that transformed him into a conservative. In four years, he went from believing the 1972 presidential campaign of George McGovern was not liberal enough to believing that the 1976 GOP presidential primary campaign of Ronald Reagan wasn't conservative enough.
His attitude toward liberals today reflects his belief that many on the left have yet to outgrow the naiveté he conquered as a college student. "They're misguided people," he says of liberals. And Madison is a place where they've taken root, because their big-government philosophy serves the capital city well.
"I think sometimes the Madison legislators can afford to have a little bit of an anti-business, pro-tax bent because it doesn't affect Madison," he muses. "And the university types can too. If you have tenure here, it doesn't matter if the businesses go out or the unemployment goes up. You will have your job."
Grothman's district in eastern Wisconsin includes large chunks of Washington, Sheboygan, Fond du Lac and Ozaukee counties. He says his constituents represent the heartland, and are neither too rich nor too poor - both defects Grothman believes can lead to an irrational affinity for the left end of the political spectrum.
"I mean, you could ask yourself why frequently very wealthy kids become very leftist and very anti-American," he says. "Wealthy people are sometimes isolated from certain realities in our society."
Like, for instance, George W. Bush?
Grothman doesn't miss a beat. "He's not a conservative Republican, though, at all," he says of the former president. "I would barely call him a Republican. I think most of the Tea Party [has] distanced itself from the Republican Party because of Republicans like George Bush."
And while Grothman allows that some wealthy people are very conservative, "I think your very conservative people are your middle class, your upper middle class - not your wealthy people."
He says people who have stability are more likely to lean right - as opposed to those who are unmarried, "drinking or doing drugs or just living off the government." Indeed, he sniffs, "I think sometimes leftism comes from a personal unhappiness. You don't want America or you want to tear down America because you personally had an unhappy upbringing."
Bias, what bias?
If there are "leftists" who think the way they do because of unhappy upbringings or past injustices, Grothman is quick to finger the leaders who encourage them to think that way. For instance, the "so-called community leaders" who blasted Grothman and his Republican colleagues on the Joint Finance Committee for gutting collective bargaining rights in the budget repair bill. Grothman is just disgusted:
"Nobody's dying because of this budget. Nobody's getting sick. Nobody's even getting laid off. In the real world, if my boss tells me we've had a bad year and we're taking away your 401(k) match, you get over it in about 30 seconds. You shouldn't get people like Rep. Schilling or Rep. Grigsby or Sen. Jauch or Sen. Taylor telling them that horrible things are going on here."
Government employees aren't the only victims of the manipulation, however. Again and again, Grothman describes people living in poverty, minorities, women, gays and lesbians as targets of a propaganda machine that makes them believe they are victims, and encourages them to live nontraditional lifestyles. To wit: "I think we have more low-income people because public policy encourages people not to work."
Even worse, Grothman believes government encourages women not to marry. Last month, his office put out a pamphlet detailing the benefits available to a single mother of two who makes $15,000 a year. It estimated that she was eligible for $38,036 in benefits, which would not be available to her if she married a man making $35,000 a year. The implication was that many such women avoid marriage in order to extract benefits from the government.
Grothman believes other government programs work in conjunction with welfare benefits to cover up the real problems in society. "AFFIRMATIVE ACTION WILL DESTROY AMERICA," reads the headline on a piece of literature put out by his office. The pamphlet expresses outrage over a number of state and local government diversity policies. It includes a column Grothman wrote in 2008, in which he chastised then-UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley ("who makes $300,000," Grothman groused) for boasting of a dorm floor in which "everyone is different...African Americans, Asians, LGBTs."
As Grothman explained for his readers, "LGBT means lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (men who dress like women)."
In January, Grothman made his staff work on Martin Luther King Day, saying the holiday is nothing more than an opportunity for state employees to take off while most of the private sector has to work. He sees racism as a myth that those in power use to distract people from more important issues.
"I think there is pressure, sadly, on black politicians to become race-hustlers," he says. "I think it is a lot easier today for a black politician to say that the problems on the north side of Milwaukee are because of racism than the problems are because of the breakdown of the family."
Looking to the future
While Scott Walker clearly believes this is his moment in history, Grothman does not think the pendulum has swung far enough for him to prevail on some issues that are near and dear to his heart.
Other legislative Republicans, he says, are scared to confront the many problems that "atheistic socialism" poses for our society. He doesn't believe there is the political support for a variety of policies he wants, including a ban on embryonic stem cell research and an end to affirmative action.
But he is looking forward to a few things: lower taxes, deregulation, cuts to state programs, less gun control, perhaps the elimination of required sex education. And he's hoping that his Democratic colleagues in the Senate will return from Illinois so the budget bill can pass, and that the protesters will finally go home.
"Some of these people have been really nasty," he says of the demonstrators, whom police have uniformly praised as well behaved. "Especially with women [staffers], you know, grabbing at their dresses."
But if there's one thing Grothman is sure of (and, actually, there are lots of things), it's that the protesters will not prevail. As he told WTMJ last Thursday, 10 days into huge daily demonstrations, "We're not going to get upset if a bunch of childish academic staff and teaching assistants walk a mile up to State Street."
The wit and wisdom of Glenn Grothman
On the good old days: "Homosexuality was not on anybody's radar. And that's a good thing." (As quoted in The Capital Times, Feb. 11, 2010)
On government waste: "I've interviewed over a dozen people who check out people who pay with food stamps and all felt people on food stamps ate better - or at least more costly - than they did." (Grothman opinion column, April 14, 2004)
On holidays: "Hallmark sells Kwanzaa cards. The Post Office sells Kwanzaa stamps. The rest of us should treat Kwanzaa with the contempt it deserves before it becomes a permanent part of our culture." (Opinion column, Dec. 9, 2003)
On the threat to America: "In this country, can we continue to exist if we have a government that is actively discouraging businesses from hiring men? Our country is not going to survive if we continue this war on men." (Tea Party speech, Aug. 7, 2010)
On the UW-Madison: "There are all sorts of people who are conservatives who want to be history professors or journalism professors and they're scared to death they won't get tenure because people on the other end of State Street don't want to hear the truth." (Remarks at "Rally for Marriage" rally, July 28, 2010)
On the UW's diversity mandates: "Does the university hate white men?" (Press release, March 5, 2009)
On stem-cell research: "Some people enjoy creating babies to experiment on, but I don't." (As quoted in Isthmus, Jan. 21, 2011)