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Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2009

The Strange Turns of 2009

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2009 began with exhilarating promise for Wisconsin Democrats after the state’s landslide support for President Barack Obama helped them win the Assembly, giving them control of the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature.

Somewhere along the way, however, Democrats decided they were far more comfortable in their usual state of disarray.

And as media turned increasingly tabloid, some prominent leaders had prurient details of their personal lives passed around for our entertainment. 

Here’s a review of some of the more bizarre political developments of the year.

The Incredible Disappearing Governor: Gov. Jim Doyle has to take most of the credit for heading off the Great Democratic Unity Scare.

Doyle’s budget vetoes intentionally alienated Milwaukee Democrats by blowing apart hard-won agreements on transportation funding, assistance to the poor and even his own initiatives to reduce incarceration.

He came out foursquare for a divisive proposal to take power over Milwaukee Public Schools away from the elected school board and give it to whoever Milwaukee’s mayor might be.

Then, when the governor had Democrats and many of their most active supporters at each other’s throats, he announced: “Oh, by the way, I’m out of here.”

The Milwaukee Aphrodisiac: While Doyle was dabbling in Milwaukee politics to divide the Democratic base, the state Republican and Democratic parties suddenly appeared to fall head over heels for Milwaukee’s leading politicians despite the long-held belief that no Milwaukee candidate could ever be elected governor.

With Doyle leaving an open governorship, both parties seemed enamored of pitting Republican Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett against each other.

The dozen or so voters outside of Milwaukee County who go to the polls could tip the election either way.

 The Milwaukee Aphrodisiac, Part II: Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn, whose first year coincided with nationally falling crime rates to make him a hero, fell a bit himself by failing to do a proper background investigation.

Jessica McBride, a local journalist who first covered and then married former Waukesha District Attorney Paul Bucher after his marriage broke up, seems to have a thing for law enforcement. Flynn publicly apologized to his wife and family, as well as the community, for having an affair with McBride after she wrote a story about him.

Bucher, who once had aspirations to higher office, has learned well how to work the media. For gossips, it’s the gift that keeps on giving as new accusations and details keep surfacing.

Zero Tolerance Lives: The peremptory firing of Darnell Cole, president of Milwaukee Area Technical College, a week after he was arrested for drunken driving set a horrible public precedent for dealing with alcohol abuse.

Management and unions almost universally agree that first-time misdemeanor drunken driving should be dealt with through employee assistance and treatment that can change lives forever for the better.

Treating an African-American college president differently because unions and board members at the school opposed him for other reasons was bad public policy promoting intolerance and unequal treatment.

Too Much Tolerance: On the other hand, the Wisconsin Supreme Court was way too tolerant of unethical conduct by its own members.

The court previously handed down a reprimand—a rather strongly worded tut-tut—against Justice Annette Ziegler for failing to recuse herself as a circuit judge from cases involving a bank where her husband was on the board of directors that coincidentally also had loaned her and her husband $3 million.

Now the court’s on track to issue no punishment at all for Justice Michael Gableman, who was charged by the Wisconsin Judicial Commission with lying in a racially inflammatory ad that helped him defeat former Justice Louis Butler, the only African American ever to serve on the court.

To head off all those pesky challenges for their unethical conduct, the Gableman-Ziegler majority on the court also voted against recusing themselves from cases just because one of the parties may have contributed millions of dollars to their election campaigns.

Sick Business: One of the positive developments at the beginning of 2009 was that Milwaukee voters in the November 2008 elections had voted—with 69% approval—in a binding referendum to require employers to provide some paid sick leave to employees who get sick.

Since most decent employers already provide sick leave, the common-sense ordinance mainly served to protect the public health since an overwhelming number of employees without sick leave work in food preparation.

Even as the swine flu pandemic hit Wisconsin harder than most states, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce went to court and used its political clout to get local Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper to declare the ordinance unconstitutional.

Now protecting the public will depend upon appealing to the Wisconsin Supreme Court where Ziegler and Gableman won’t have to recuse themselves just because business interests contributed millions of dollars to their elections.


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