Saturday, December 26, 2015

Tim Cullen's Ringside Seat to Capitol doings

My wife got me former State Sen. Tim Cullen's new book Ringside Seat , and it's a great read if you care about how state government works. Apparently, it's selling very well, as my wife indicated the local bookstores were having trouble keeping it in stock before the Christmas holidays, which is a nice sign that people are caring about items in a book that often deal with arcane "inside the Capitol issues."

In Ringside Seat , Cullen often contrasts the way the state was run in the '70s and '80s with the partisan, dysfunctional way it's operated in the Age of Fitzwalkerstan. Yes, there is a decent amount of the book devoted to the Act 10 fight (Cullen was one of the "Wisconsin 14") and even includes the full transcript of Governor Walker's infamous "David Koch phone call." In that call, Cullen was mentioned by Walker as "pretty reasonable but not one of us," and Walker also admitted to "Koch" that he planned to use Cullen as bait to appear like he was interested in negotiating, when in fact Scotty had zero plans but to follow the desires of ALEC/Koch interests and hardline GOP partisans that pushed Act 10 for political advantage (and make no mistake, Act 10 was a political move that had next to nothing to do with balancing budgets).

But what I find interesting in the book is how Cullen contrasts the way the State Legislature ran things in 1975, when he began his first term in office, and compared it to how things look when he left for good this January. Cullen mentions that 30 and 40 years ago, while there were differences between the state's Democrats and Republicans, there still was enough of a general consensus on core issues which did not cause the bitterness and rash behaviors that we see today. There also was a willingness to defer to the people on key issues and use the people's input to form policy.
Wisconsin state government for at least 60 years before Scott Walker became governor was a "participatory" government. Governors went out of their way to involve citizen groups in studying proposed changes to state government. A key element of this "participatory" approach to governing was to not spring "surprises" on the people of Wisconsin. I believe this had become a "given" in the expectations of most citizens for how their governor would do his job. They often used "blue ribbon commissions" or other panels that were composed of citizens from all points of view on the topic being studied.
Cullen goes on to contrast the number of Governor's Commissions appointed in the last 45 years, and it dwindles from an average of 5-6 from the 1970s through the Tommy Thompson years, down to 3 a year under Jim Doyle, to barely 2.5 a year under Walker. In addition, Cullen points out that Walker has yet to appoint ONE of those "Blue Ribbon Commissions" in his nearly 5 years in office, and completely ignored the recommendations of the few commissions that were created, such as the Transportation Finance and Policy Commission's report from 2013.

Another way Cullen says that things have changed over the last 40 years of Wisconsin politics is how power was consolidated with the party leaders in the Legislature, and reduced the ability of legislators to be independent and district-based (this makes sense, do you think Robbin' Vos gives a flying fuck about the needs of people in Rice Lake or Reedsburg?). In addition, Cullen says that legislative campaigns and staying in power have become more important than doing casework for constituents, and a lot of that has to do with the influx of big money and special interests that now dominate state politics.
Republicans have a big problem, only worse now because they are in the majority. Their interest groups know they have the votes to deliver whatever the interest group wants. Republican leaders can't walk away from WMC, the Koch brothers, mining companies, the NRA, school vouchers supporters, on any issue those groups want. It's interesting that the legislative leaders have centralized the power in themselves in regard to running campaigns and fundraising, but then have lost control of the process to those that have all the money. Their power over their colleagues then comes by appeasing those who give the big money to the campaign. Here's the irony. Those [legislative leaders] who wanted to centralize power wound up losing it. Power is now in the hands of a relatively small number of groups with huge chunks of money. The legislative leaders took power from their members but then lost it to the money!...

No staffer when I was at the Capitol in the 1970s and 1980s raised money. It was unheard of. When that changed, it led to the centralization of power. The more staff leadership would send out there, the more money that needed to be raised, and the more money that could be raised, the more beholden the leadership is to the contributor. You start having elected officials going to Madison who were beholden to their leadership on their first day in the Legislature. The leadership had their claws in them on day one.
Cullen also makes an intriguing point in Ringside Seat where he points out that very few State Senators these days come directly from the private sector or local government level, but instead were State Representatives first, and ensconced into the ways of the Capitol and party leadership before going into office (25 of 33 State Senators in 2012 had previously been Reps, Cullen says that same number was 11 of 33 in 1978), Cullen finds this to be a distressing development, which I find interesting because a top-ranking Democratic official told me earlier this year that one of the things the party wants out of State Senate candidates is prior experience in the Assembly, because it makes them more likely to win. Maybe that explains something about the current minority status of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, compared to their general dominance of the Legislature in the '70s and '80s.

It's not all doom and gloom from Cullen, as he has confidence Wisconsin will find its way back from the mess of Fitzwalkerstani governance that has made the state take a different course from where it previously went. Cullen concedes that this restoration takes time, and I think his confidence may be the mark of a man who comes from an older generation that used to see the benefits and consequences of policy first hand, leading them to work out their differences over those policies, instead of retreating to their bunkers and refusing (or not having to) listen to the needs of the people that are allegedly being represented.

I'm not so sure we ever come that close to getting all the way back to the era of 1970s and '80s consensus that Cullen describes. The right-wing media Bubble has taken hold in far too many places of the state for a common compromise to be reached with these radicals, and the areas many of those legislators from suburban Milwaukee and Racine "represent" are too gutless set in their voting habits for much negotiation and reasonable legislation to happen. The only way I see a major change happening is for the GOP to get its ass kicked statewide in both 2016 and (especially) 2018, with a Democrat taking over as governor, which would guarantee the end of gerrymandered districts after 2020.

Then, and only then, do I see things getting righted in the relatively near future to the general consensus that Cullen talks about in Ringside Seat. And even then, I have doubts we ever regain the clean government and high quality of life that we used to take pride in for this state. I fear the money and special access that it buys has gotten too big, and barring a national reform movement that changes campaign finance for all elections, we're going to remain damaged by the dark, corrupt Age of Fitzwalkerstan.

1 comment:

  1. I've heard much the same from the other side from my uncle, Robert Goetsch, who served as a Republican in the Assembly for 18 years. He had Jeff Fitzgerald's seat before Jeff did, and served in the Assembly with people like Russ Feingold, Tammy Baldwin, and Gwen Moore.

    He said that the moments he was proudest of where the times when everyone would come together after fighting and compromise and pass what the state needed to have. Russ, Tammy, and others have all told me that, although they disagreed with his politics, he was an honest man who listened, who had the best interests of the state in his heart, and could be counted on to keep his word.

    Once Scotty Fitz and Scott Jensen took over, he left. Because there was no longer any room for an honest Republican.