Monday, December 26, 2011

What 'government-by-recall' begets

By Bill Kraus

The recall frenzy is either a grassroots reaction to an abuse of power by a radical group or it is an unjustified expansion of what the recall provision of the Constitution intended to be a response to personal perfidy into policy disagreement.

If the latter, it is a dangerous departure from the design of our system into something approaching those parliamentary democracies where governments are overturned on bad or unpopular decisions not bad behavior.

Our response to bad decisions has been to throw the rascals out at the next election. The expanded recall definition/option throws them out immediately.

Justified or not, this clearly changes the way we do business in this country. Elections here are for stated terms. In the parliamentary system, elections are mostly indeterminate in length. Usually, new elections are called when those in power wear out their welcome or don’t produce the expected results. They could also be a response to abuses of power or other mis- or malfeasance.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The incredible shrinking reform agenda

By Bill Kraus

Not too long ago there were high hopes that an inventive combination of spending limits on candidates accompanied by a dose of public money into campaigns and an offset feature that would have provided matching funds to protect candidates from campaign spending by hostile, outside forces would become law in Wisconsin.

This didn’t happen. The Republicans never liked the public money idea, the Supreme Court didn’t like what they regarded as suppression of free speech, the Obama campaign passed on public financing, and free marketers everywhere, including our own Democratic Governor Doyle, didn’t support this attempt to starve the campaign beast.

The reform movement shifted to what the Republicans had said and the Supreme Court did say was the best option: disclosure. The candidates wouldn’t get any money or any protection against hijacked campaigns, but at least they would know who their enemies were. The Republicans backed off when organizations like Right to Life, which had supported them with collateral campaigns, told them their money would dry up if their donors were revealed.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The moderate's dilemma

By Bill Kraus

Judging from the ideas being forwarded and the appeals being made by candidates today it is easy to conclude that the moderates are being marginalized at best, ignored at worst.

Candidates who had the problem of being attractive enough to win the primaries, where immoderates and immoderation are disproportionately represented, without poisoning the general election well don’t appear to be worried about that as much anymore.

Those who vote in primaries are no longer regarded as a stepping stone to the general election. They have become the main event.

This is not surprising at the legislative level, where partisan redistricting has made most general elections irrelevant. Statewide and even presidential candidates are behaving as if that is true in their elections as well. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Representative democracy

By Bill Kraus

I know, I know. It isn’t perfect. It never was. There were always representatives who represented something other than the people who elected them. Like money. Or even something purely self serving.

With “advantage” redistricting doing maximum damage, there are more and more “representatives” who represent a segment or two of the electorate and markedly fewer representatives who believe that while they were undeniably elected by a percentage of the voters they represent everyone in the district they were elected to represent.

These untoward trends and developments are naturally exacerbated when the representatives of one party win majorities in both houses and control the executive office as well.

The question then is whether the two main ideas being used to offset these inherent flaws in this imperfect system are really improvements.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Interesting Political Times

By Cal Potter

One can surely say that we live in very interesting political times. Conservatives are already hard at work pinning all the political and economic problems and decisions of the last ten years on President Obama. Massive corporate dollars and many irresponsible talk show hosts and politicians are fueling a political atmosphere that defies fact and intellect, and has too many civic illiterate citizens buying this trash talking propaganda as the truth.

The basic facts being perverted are that if our nation still had the tax rates of the Clinton administration; had not been fighting, mostly through deficit spending, two multi-trillion dollar wars; and did not have the great recession brought to us by irresponsible Wall Street and major banking actions, this nation today would have no national debt at all - None. The political and financial community decision makers over the past ten years have given us a real economic mess, and a political climate wherein cooperation and compromise, needed if a divided and pluralistic society such as ours is to function in behalf of the citizenry, is impossible.

The voters are indeed fed-up as is reflected in the 9% positive rating given to Congress in recent national polling. One would think that Congress, faced with this unbelievable negative report card, would be falling all over themselves trying to regain some semblance of public support. Herein lies another facet of our interesting political times, the reliance for re-election on one issue voters, who when added together, can still give politicians victories in spite of over-all dismal performance ratings.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What do you know?

By Bill Kraus

The Know Nothing movement of the mid-nineteenth century was a semi-secret political organization (an oxymoron?) which was dedicated to protecting the country from a takeover by German and Irish Catholic immigrants. The name resulted from their members’ keeping their association secret. When asked about the movement they, not unlike TV’s Sergeant Schultz, replied “I know nothing.”

The 21st century version of know nothingness is not a movement but a condition. It describes the citizens who have outsourced, abandoned, and ignored politics and politicians.

The result of this behavior has two deleterious effects. The first is the obvious one of letting the righteous righties who want governments to do nothing and the loony lefties who want them to do everything rise in influence. These are the “bases” to which the candidates must play to get nominated and elected. They used to be marginalized by the dominant moderate middle of both persuasions. No longer.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Change in a time of beholdenism

By Bill Kraus

As the occupiers, recallers, and other malcontents are about to learn, the mostly invincible incumbents who occupy our legislatures are largely deaf, dumb, and blind to their supplications.

As a veteran of multiple failed attempts to alter the electoral status quo, I feel equipped to offer several warnings and a little helpful advice.

The first warning is that enormous power has devolved on legislative leaders. The political parties, since they lost the power to recruit, slate, fund and manage campaigns, are noisy paper tigers. The tea party types and possibly the occupiers (if they get serious about acquiring power) could do some of this, but for the most part the legislative leaders are filling the pipeline. Are they filling it with rambunctious, aggressive, creative talents? They are not. They want lemmings. Empty suits. Followers. To a very large extent they seem to have gotten what they want in our state.

This means that anyone who wants something the legislative leaders do not want has his or her work cut out for him or her.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Representative democracy and its mutation

By Bill Kraus

The idea was that the people would elect people to represent them and their interests. Those they elected would become more expert at the job of governing and would lead where leadership was needed never losing sight of their followers.

If they tried to lead where their followers didn’t want to go or if they were defective in other ways, their constituents would lead them. To the door. At the next election.

For many reasons this simple idea has been complicated and corrupted.

The forces, events, whatever, that have warped what the founding fathers wrought and envisioned, in no particular order of importance or sequence, include:

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Supreme disappointment

By Bill Kraus

What the responses to my last blog post about de-partisanizing redistricting reminded me of is how far below the radar this whole subject is.

This is not what you would call a high-profile item. A good half of the people who contacted me or who didn’t respond to my contact urging them to join a movement to turn the every decade legislative district map-making over to people who don’t have a dog in the fight seemed wary of my motives.

What had been made clear is that the present system puts competitiveness into the criteria mix. Negatively. As long as the map-making is in the hands of the legislators who occupy these districts, they will favor making fewer districts and the elections for those districts less competitive. So far so good.

The next assumption among the doubters was that the Iowa system, which I admire, tries to make more districts and elections more competitive. This may or may not be the result of disinterested redistricting, but it is not the objective of it. The genius of the Iowa system is that it simply takes competitiveness out of the list of criteria.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Reasons to run

By Bill Kraus

Where have all the candidates gone?

Actually, maybe the question should be, “Where have all the traditional candidates--or the candidates from traditional places--gone?"

There used to be a lot of lawyers in the state Legislature. Running for office was a way to meet people, get known, and for those who didn’t have a warm enough fire in the belly to want to seek higher and higher office, it was a way to start a law practice.

No more. The new graduates need to make money fast to pay off the debts those degrees burdened them with.

Another steady source of legislative candidates was county boards and city councils. Except for Milwaukee where candidates did just the opposite. They ran for the Legislature as a stepping stone to the city council or the county board where the pay was better, the hours shorter, and the travel nonexistent.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Health history

By Bill Kraus

When Frances Perkins came to Washington as Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of labor, she brought along a “to do” list. All of the programs that became the New Deal were on the list. Almost all of them were enacted. Most survived the displeasure of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Health care reform was on the list. The more urgent, Depression-driven items had a higher priority. By the time health care got to the top, it was pushed aside by the demands of World War II as were most social issues and a lot of other stuff as well.

When the war ended the new labor government in England put health care at the top of the priority list and passed what was called socialized medicine for that country.

Meanwhile, back in Washington President Truman (with the help and at the urging of still-Labor Secretary Perkins) presented his version of a national health care system to what he called “The 80th Worst Congress.”

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Protests and recalls

By Bill Kraus

Protests are a fixture in banana republics everywhere, the mideast more or less continuously, and parts of Europe and Africa more recently.

Wisconsin had a notable one this year, and now Wall Street and bankers everywhere have taken center stage as targets of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Protests are usually rooted in frustration and anger. They are spawned by organizations or collections of people who are not getting attention, action, or are simply being brushed off by those with power, because those with power have different agendas and priorities or are simply indifferent to the causes or needs of those without power.

Protests worked in a big way on Vietnam and civil rights. The draft was ended (which was probably necessary at the time and may or may not have been a good idea) as a response to the Vietnam War protests, and the giant step forward of civil rights in the 60s is unimaginable without the widespread protests of that era.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Only so angry

By Bill Kraus

What are the "angry" voters going to do about Congress? Not much.

One thing is clear. The polls are unanimous. The Congress is below unpopular on the way to being disdained, which is a step away from being despised. The conversations on the street confirm the polls.

The protests spreading across the country, however, are about banks and other brigands. The Congress is mentioned obliquely for not punishing the bad guys who ruined the country and are being protested against.

The protests are not going to overthrow the Congress.

It’s up to the voters. Will the voters do what the voters are supposed to do when the people they elect don’t perform up to the voters’ expectations?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Lessons in cartography

By Bill Kraus

I am now, finally, in possession of the maps of the legislative districts that the new law created and that Wisconsin will adhere to for the next 10 years. I think.

Everyone knows by now that the tradeoff of counties in the north and west has presumably made the 3rd congressional district safe for Ron Kind and any Democrat who runs there forevermore and the 7th congressional district safe for Sean Duffy and any Republican ditto.

My own view is these carefully sculpted results are not as permanent as the sculptors imagine. These districts have a long history of choosing people they like without regard to political labels. I attribute this to their Progressive Party roots, probably unjustifiably.

But if the intended results are achieved, this rearrangement means that there are no competitive congressional districts, none, in Wisconsin. If the voters dislike an incumbent, they will have to dislodge him or her in a primary election. The general elections are wired.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Two State Senators Should Be Inducted Into Civility and Compromise Hall of Fame

By Roger Utnehmer

If Wisconsin had a Civility and Compromise Hall of Fame for politicians, State Senators Tim Cullen and Dale Schultz would be the first to be inducted.

It is a cliché to decry the lack of civility and compromise in state politics. Partisanship has polarized all branches of government. That’s why what Senators Tim Cullen, a Democrat from Janesville, and Dale Schultz, a Republican from Richland Center are doing to restore civility has profound potential.

Cullen and Schultz have visited each others’ districts. Each listened to the concerns of the others’ constituents. They are working together finding common ground on issues that matter to people regardless of political affiliation. Their reciprocal visits have already resulted in both recognizing the importance of rail service to rural Wisconsin as a tool for economic development.

More positive results will follow.

Both have been around state government long enough to remember the days of bi-partisan cooperation when legislators built bonds of friendship across the aisle. Congratulations to Senators Cullen and Schultz for attempting to restore that rich Wisconsin tradition. May their efforts be an example for their colleagues to follow.

Their bi-partisan cooperation is proof we have hope for better discourse in a state government troubled by discord and incivility. Thanks to two veteran legislators for restoring optimism and hope that things will be better.

That’s my opinion. I’d like to hear yours. I’m Roger Utnehmer

Roger Utnehmer is President and CEO of, and a member of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Destiny for appointment

By Bill Kraus

Two years ago a panel of jurists and lawyers and political types, with the exception of the State Journal’s prescient Scott Milfred, told former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who had come to town to advocate appointing instead of electing judges, the following:

1. Wisconsin’s DNA strongly favors elections, of everyone. We invented open primaries. We elect coroners. We elect state officials to jobs that really don’t exist. It’s beyond an obsession; it’s an addiction.

2. We have a full funding law for Supreme Court candidates that spares them the indignity of dialing for dollars and the risk of having to recuse themselves from cases in which donors to their campaigns are involved.

3. We have a tradition of bi-partisanizing candidates, by putting prominent Democrats and Republicans in tandem on the top of judicial campaign organizations.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Stuffing the beast

By Bill Kraus

We have known for a long time that campaigns are too long and too expensive.

We have also known that the remedy for both maladies is easy: Starve the beast by shutting down the flow of money.

This is not happening. This is not going to happen. The flow of money into politics has become a flood as the U.S. Supreme Court took the open door off its hinges. It is getting bigger every day in every way.

The incumbents have been deluded into thinking that this is to their benefit. They won’t even enact the mild suppressant which the otherwise complicit Supremes have recommended: making third-party organizations which are running parallel campaigns disclose the names of the people who are funding those campaigns.

This combination of forces has led to invincible incumbents whose main ambition is keeping their jobs, and it bursts the bubble of ideas like part-time legislators.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The road to dysfunction

By Bill Kraus

From polarization to dysfunction turns out to be a short trip. A short trip that everybody seems to be taking in Wisconsin.

Even the state Supreme Court, whose members are elected as non partisans, has developed an “aisle” that is as wide or wider than those in both houses of the intentionally partisan Legislature. Outside forces are more in evidence than ever in Supreme Court elections, and outside forces do not come in search of things like dispassion, fairness or openness. They come in search of favor. Are they getting what they come for? Can we predict the vote on politically tinted issues that come before this “fact and law driven body”? Does a chicken have lips?

A call is issued for new solutions to the troubles that assail the state government’s primary responsibility: educating its citizens. The organization that represents the teachers who are mainly responsible for delivering on that state obligation turns down their invitation to sit at the table with the lawmakers who will put up the money to do what those at the table decide to do. “We don’t see any reason to discuss and negotiate with people who have vowed to destroy our organization,” they say, not without justification. This begins to sound a lot more like Israel and Palestine than Wisconsin.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cates and Watergate

By Bill Kraus

One of the lessons learned at the memorial service for Dick Cates is that there is a storytelling gene. Dick was a remarkable storyteller. All four of his sons and his daughter inherited the gene. The memorial service was graced by great stories by great storytellers about their great storyteller father.

The service, the eulogies, the day were about everything about the man and inevitably stirred memories about his and Wisconsin’s role in the Watergate story.

New Jersey Representative Peter Rodino had the job of assembling the team of investigators and prosecutors to examine what would come to be known as “Watergate.” He asked Wisconsin Representative Bob Kastenmeier, another member of the House Judiciary Committee, if he knew of a lawyer with trial experience who he would recommend. Bob did. He knew Dick Cates.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Review session

By Bill Kraus

The protest itself was inspiring, hopeful, and puzzling. Inspiring to see so many people so heavily engaged for whatever reason. One could hope that the era of 30-second messages and couch potatoes might be over.

It ended in a whimper not a bang when the recall elections which were the instrument chosen for a referendum on the governor, the Legislature and the radical agenda and steamroller process came up short.

There are those in the Democratic Party who think the fat lady hasn’t sung yet. They are trying to tell us that the purpose of the recalls was satisfied when two hopeless incumbents were ousted sooner rather than later and because the challengers to the four incumbents who survived actually won because they ran competitive but losing races in difficult districts. Really? Do I not hear the sound of spin doctors whistling past a graveyard.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Another kind of disclosure

By Bill Kraus

One of Lee Dreyfus’s favorite quotes was, “Never underestimate peoples’ intelligence or overestimate their information.”

This is an aphorism that is currently seriously in play. Thanks to widespread dysfunction in Washington everyone now knows that the feds are like a teenager with a cellphone and no money.

Several years ago, the people began to turn their backs on the credit card life. The shift from credit cards to debit cards was pretty dramatic, except in Washington. A lot of people wonder why they get it and their leaders don’t.

The public’s possible over-reaction to public debt spawned a lot of things including giving the momentary illusion that the tea party movement had more support than it does and that the voters like people who take a hard line and won’t budge. The second take on macho politics is still underway, but doesn’t appear to be as one dimensional.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Anarchy on the North Shore

By Bill Kraus

The non party tea party is not in the majority.

What it is or what its self-defining adherents are is a controlling minority.

Welcome to Israel.

Its non caucus is numerous enough to unravel the presumed GOP majority in Washington. The Fitzgeralds are not having Boehner’s problems in Wisconsin. This may be attributed to the fact that the GOP majority here is more like the tea party than it admits or cares to admit.

Whatever the names and alignments and difficulties this new third force is spawning it is fundamentally a new name for an old faction. This faction was generously described as libertarian, less generously as anarchistic. This tea party grandparent was something called The North Shore Republican Club. This was, may still be, a party within the party composed of residents of the northern suburbs of Milwaukee. The club was powerful enough to pick the delegates to the Republican Party State Conventions in the 1960s when being a delegate to the Republican Party State Convention was politically important.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Redistricting follies

By Bill Kraus

The Fantasy:

Once the disenfranchised majority learned that they were disenfranchised, they would rise up and demand reform.

The legislative leaders would want to give their endangered recallees something to talk about in these elections so they will be more winnable than a referendum on the governor might be.

The governor would like to get this contentious turf battle (all turf battles ultimately become both contentious and petty) off his agenda and desk.

A virtual organization in favor of the idea might not clutter the Capitol grounds but thousands of citizens would sign petitions in favor of taking the fox (the Legislature) out of the redistricting henhouse.

Legislators who have had a tough winter would flock to the cause and rush to sign on to the Iowa system bill to show they haven’t forgotten fairness and good government.

The press would jump on the issue as a news story and editorial issue and would cover every move every day to keep the attention and pressure levels high.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Giving people what they don't want

By Bill Kraus

The legislative leaders' chance to cap campaign spending ended when the Supreme Court opened the money floodgates to everybody, making campaigns both expensive and endless.

The people did not like this.

The legislative leaders who have succeeded to the jobs of slating, funding, and orchestrating campaigns from the eunuched parties responded to this costly, to them, development, by redistricting legislative districts to reduce the number of campaigns that are unpredictable enough to be worth contesting.

The people either didn't notice this or care enough to protest.

The result is that the hold on the political agenda by the money and the zealots increased, because both are inordinately important in the low-turnout primaries which have become the main battlegrounds for otherwise invincible incumbents.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Football and Baseball

By Bill Kraus

In the latest decision from the U.S. Supreme Court displaying that body’s obsession with free speech and indifference to collateral damage, the chief justice said “politics is not a game.”


That great Wisconsin political sage Charlie Davis introduced me to an adage coined by a long forgotten German philosopher.

Said German said: “Politics is the only game for adults. All other games are for children.”

I agree.

The single biggest source of dysfunction in the political game is that the Supreme Court has come down in favor of funding the political game the way Major League Baseball is funded instead of the way the National Football League is funded.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Pointing toward appointing

By Bill Kraus

Among the longest running lost causes in Wisconsin is the occasional attempt to move away from an elected judiciary to one of the several systems many other states use to appoint judges is the least likely to change.

Or not.

Electing judges is in our Constitution.

Electing everybody is in our genes.

Former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor spoke to the annual meeting of the Wisconsin State Bar Association last year and urged that organization to urge the state’s political leaders to change the Constitution so the state could appoint instead of elect judges.

With the sole exception of the Wisconsin State Journal’s editorial page editor Scott Milfred, every other member of the panel picked to discuss this subject pretty much dismissed the prospect of this ever happening.

“We elect coroners,” one panelist pointed out.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sticking with your own kind

By Bill Kraus

In his new book David Brooks comments on the state of politics thusly:

“Once politics became a contest pitting one identity group against another, it was no longer possible to compromise. Everything became a status war between my kind of people and your kind of people. Even a small concession came to seem like moral capitulation.

“Politics was no longer about trade, it was a contest for honor and group supremacy. Amidst this partisan ugliness, public trust in government and political institutions collapsed.”

This puts him in the group I described recently as the people who feel the same way about the loss of good feeling and the dismissal of compromise and anyone who seeks to practice it.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Talking to each other

By Bill Kraus

Everyone I know and everyone I talk to or who talks to me complains loud and long about the radicalization of the political discourse. Without exception the question, “Don’t these people talk to each other?” is always raised. The answer, of course, is “No.”

The reaction ranges from disdain to horror.

The people in a position to do something about this sad state of affairs are either deaf or are not talking to the people who are talking to me.

I do not dismiss the possibility that I am talking to the wrong people, that there are people who think politicians, to be effective, should hate each other and that discourse is dangerous because it leads to compromise and weakens the resolve to do the “right” thing.

Is this a majority view? If it is, we are doomed.

I object.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Outsourcing our democracy

By Bill Kraus

An article by Judith Stein in Dissent magazine is an uncomfortable reminder that the decline and fall (the almost fall in one case) of the Roman and British empires was due to outsourcing.

That’s the economic dark side.

The political dark side is devastating as well.

Abraham Lincoln’s vision that ours was a government of, by, and for the people was never achieved.

We have had a government of the elite, by the bureaucracy, and for the people at best. Like in baseball, the people batting .333 is pretty darn good.

Unfortunately, because of outsourcing even this seriously downgraded version is no longer realizable.

The elites have outsourced their role to the professional campaigners who now use the elite’s money to make beholders of the people we elect.

These beholders too often owe their offices and their power to the money they raise and the segmented factions the professionals are wedded to and whose votes they pursue. The winners increasingly ignore the old mantra that “you are elected by your friends, but you govern everybody.”

The symptoms of these shifts in the formula and the batting average are:

* The campaign industry as a permanent institution an endless campaigns keep it prosperous.
* Dialing for dollars by the candidates themselves instead of arm’s length fund raising by the elite staffed and managed finance committees.
* The undeserved influence of the show business participants of which talk radio personalities are only the worst examples.
* The rise to prominence, often dominance, of third-party campaigners with their money and ideas that promote their world view by hijacking campaigns.

These are the things that the increasingly disenfranchised people dislike and complain about on the mistaken assumption that they are the “trouble with politics.”

The trouble with politics is that the elite who still put up a lot of the money that propels the professionals and third-party organizations shun active participation in politics which they now disdain as being “dirty.”

Let’s be clear about politics. It is not bean bag. But it need not be beholdenism either. The political wisdom of former NYC mayor Ed Koch ("If you agree with me on 9 of 12 subjects, you should vote for me; if you agree with me on all 12 you should see a psychiatrist") and Jesse Unruh ("If you can’t eat their food, drink their whiskey, take their money and vote against them, you don’t belong in this business") no longer prevails.

If politics is dirtier than it was or should be, it is because the elites are no longer hanging around to run the laundry.

The outsourcing by the increasingly absent elites distances them from the joy of political participation. A wise political philosopher once described politics as the only game for adults. Outsourcing puts the adults in the stands and takes them out of the arena and they and the rest of us are the worse for it.

Until and unless they come back to play their role in the Lincoln trilogy it will not be an honorable trade practiced by superior people, and all those awful things people are saying about politics and politicians are going to continue to be true.

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Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Stuck out of the middle

By Bill Kraus

The trouble with zealots, of course, is that they’re zealous. I’m sure they think that the trouble with moderates is that they are moderate, which they are.

There is an important distinction though.

The zealots seem to be more interested in advancing a cause than in running a country, state, or city than the moderates are.

The moderates are more interested in a government that works than the zealots seem to be.

Unfortunately the moderates have been pushed aside in recent years. UW prof and former candidate for Congress John Sharpless characterizes this development as the inmates taking over the institution with predictable results.

A kind of political trench warfare has broken out with the zealots in both trenches exchanging hand grenades and having a common goal only on those rare occasions when a moderate ventures into the no man’s land between the trenches. Then both sides direct their firepower at the moderate.

Monday, May 30, 2011

How power gets made

By Bill Kraus

Most of the coverage of the current Wisconsin legislative leaders has focused on the fact that the Speaker of the Assembly and the Majority Leader of the Senate are brothers, which is interesting. What is overlooked is the more obscure phenomenon that the jobs they hold have become more and more powerful over time.

Legislative leaders were always powerful, and usually attracted the best and the brightest from the elected members even though the main talent on view and needed was akin to herding cats in a venue where the cats had large egos and demanding constituencies.

The cats, for the most part, came to them courtesy of the recruiting, slating, funding and campaigning of the political parties.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A problem and an opportunity

By Bill Kraus

Every indication is that the flurry of recall elections coming this summer will be referendums on Governor Walker.

They will not necessarily be about what he has done or proposes to do but on him....personally.

The bumper strips “Recall Walker” say it all.

The pro- and anti- interests that have dogs in this fight will weigh in with their money and their ads which will oversimplify, stretch, and/or distort the truths about the things they like or dislike.

Disagreement will be displaced by demonization. Adversaries will become enemies. Irrespective of the winners of these elections the effect will be to deepen the partisan divide.

The losers will be compromise, civility and mutual respect for the trade and the people who ply it.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Instant recall

By Bill Kraus

Power is an uncertain, unreliable, often volatile, mistress.

Newt had it in the '90s. It began to erode when he let Jim Sensenbrenner’s judicial committee abuse the impeachment process. The fact that Clinton was slowly sinking and the Democrats were doing nothing to impede his trip to the bottom was quickly reversed by the push from the power-overplaying Republicans.

Newt finished off his run by deciding to shut down the government. He’s back, of course, but hardly at full strength, and everybody now knows he didn’t know how to handle power when he had it.

Even the late, great FDR wounded the progress of the New Deal agenda by thinking he was bigger than the Supreme Court. The odd, historically important fallout from this diversion was that the next item on the New Deal agenda, health care reform, never made it to enactment. Delayed by the power play against the Supreme Court. Bumped aside by WWII.

Power comes with a caveat. Don’t overreach. There will be a recoil. Nobody likes a bully.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Hot button bungle

By Bill Kraus

The legislative leaders plan to fast track the not-yet-enacted and may-have-to-be-reenacted proposals on their short agenda makes it a sure thing that all the upcoming replacement and recall elections will be what those already decided have been: a referendum on Governor Walker.

This worked out well only in a couple of Assembly districts that were safely Republican. Not so well for the Republican who hoped to succeed Mike Huebsch.

It was almost catastrophic for the heavily favored Supreme Court Justice David Prosser when he failed to dump the campaign aide who implied that David would be a rubber stamp for the governor. But for the unexplained and unexpected weak support for her in Milwaukee the Supreme Court election would have propelled the virtually unknown Joanne Kloppenburg to a seat on that court.

So what are the mostly moderate Republican senators being recalled to do in the face of these realities?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

To gerrymander or not to gerrymander

By Bill Kraus

What the responses to my last blog post about de-partisanizing redistricting reminded me of is how far below the radar this whole subject is.

This is not what you would call a high-profile item. A good half of the people who contacted me or who didn’t respond to my contact urging them to join a movement to turn the every decade legislative district map-making over to people who don’t have a dog in the fight seemed wary of my motives.

Imagine that.

What had been made clear is that the present system puts competitiveness into the criteria mix. Negatively. As long as the map-making is in the hands of the legislators who occupy these districts, they will favor making fewer districts and the elections for those districts less competitive. So far so good.

The next assumption among the doubters was that the Iowa system, which I admire, tries to make more districts and elections more competitive. This may or may not be the result of disinterested redistricting, but it is not the objective of it. The genius of the Iowa system is that it simply takes competitiveness out of the list of criteria.

The criteria that remain and which I like are:

1. Where counties or major municipalities have the population to be about one Assembly seat or two or three or more, districts should be drawn within those bounds to yield that number.

2. No counties or municipalities should be divided among districts unless that is necessary to assure approximately one person one vote. And then the districts should be defensible, have natural boundaries like rivers or city thoroughfares or media markets, other political boundaries like school districts, or ethnic conclaves.

3. No wards should be cut.

4. Districts should be as compact as possible. No long fingers or squiggles. Square is a good shape.

5. Population equality is a goal not an absolute. Over the course of the 10 years these districts are in effect a lot of population shifts are going to happen. So getting close to population is good, getting too perfect is probably impossible and not necessary.

6. If within these rules, incumbents can be placed in one district and putting two incumbents into one district can be avoided, that’s okay. Contorting districts to make sure there are no incumbent vs. incumbent contests isn’t justifiable.

No red and blue criteria are recommended.

The idea is to make defensible, almost-population-equal districts and let the voting chips fall where they may.

It seems to me that maps drawn by a dispassionate public agency which has a few geography majors on staff can do this without setting off an epidemic of paranoia: the incumbents’ occupational disease.

And, if what they come up with is at or near what has happened in Iowa, for example, the incumbents will vote for it overwhelmingly, there will be fewer gerrymanders, and more voters votes will count right through the November elections.

How scary is that?

The opportunity to put this idea on everybody’s short agenda at this moment in time and space arrives because there are going to be eight or nine elections in a wholly unanticipated summer season this year. It is my hope that everyone who runs in these elections will be asked to support this un-radical, unthreatening, voter-power enhancing idea.

I would think that none of them would say no thanks, that they prefer gerrymandering.

This is the last chance to make this good thing happen until 2021.

Let’s do it.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Questions, answers

By Bill Kraus

When something goes wrong in computerland, the complaint one files is rarely answered by a human being or is specifically responsive to the question asked. Instead it is referred to an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) website which almost always fails to have a solution to the problem posed.

I can only hope this political FAQ is not similarly faulty.

Q: Why are campaigns in the U.S. almost endless while in other places, like England, they are very short?
A: Because our campaigns are date-specific. Theirs are not. Theirs are triggered by unpredictable events or by occasionally whimsical party leaders. Since they don’t know when the election is coming there is no logical time to start campaigning without looking foolish.

Q: Why don’t we have free TV time on what are essentially public airwaves to replace the mind numbing-deluge of 30-second commercials that dominate the campaign communication system?
A: The incumbents who would have to put this idea into place have been convinced by the professionals who run the big campaigns that 30-second commercials are the yellow brick road of campaigning. The TV stations that rely on political advertising for their profits support this line of reasoning. The Supreme Court which views anything that might limit anyone’s right to a megaphone for the free speech we all revere would probably side with the professionals and the TV stations if it ever came to it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

If not us, who? If not now, when?

I hope that the answers to the questions asked in the following blog are US and NOW. If you think they should be, would you be willing to put your name on the virtual letterhead of a virtual organization that is going to ask the legislature and governor to bring something other than partisan warfare to this year’s redistricting?

If you are willing to lend your name, please send a message to or call 608-256-2686.

- Bill
April 23, 2011


By Bill Kraus

Anyone who has seen the process up close wants nothing more to do with drawing the lines for legislative districts. All turf battles bring out the worst in our political system, and redistricting is a virtual golf course.

And that’s only half of it.

When the opportunity to get a 10 year advantage rears its ugly head, really bad things happen.

This could be that kind of a year. And it’s not like the results achieved in prior decades by legislative fiat often adjusted by judicial revisions have been God’s gift to democracy.

The most recent rearrangement of Wisconsin’s legislative districts have created a map where only one of our eight congressional districts is demographically competitive, and
informed sources tell me as few as nine of the one hundred and sixteen seats in the state legislature that were on the ballot last year were considered “in play.” All the rest were considered “safe” for the candidates of one party or another. This was not an accident. The maps are made by and for the incumbents. The leaders of these incumbents recruit, slate, fund, and manage most of these campaigns. They do not have the unlimited funds needed to compete in all 116 races. Their objective is not admitted or even well known but comes down to “the fewer toss up races the better.”

The maps they have drawn if left alone or have submitted to the courts if not are not egregiously gerrymandered, but the result of these designs have created a democracy where some 82% of the voters who show up for the final vote in November did not have a real choice. The results of the elections they participated in were pretty much predetermined by the people who decided on the basis of how the people in the districts in their maps could be expected to vote.

In short most of us do not choose our representatives. Our representatives choose us.

We are not at the table when the maps are drawn. We do not necessarily share the priorities of the people who are at the table. Most of us might, for example, like to have more rather than fewer contests that were more competitive.

This could be done. This is being done in other places. Right next door, for example, in Iowa a disinterested state agency that doesn’t want to limit the number of competitive elections makes the map the legislature ultimately approves.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s farewell gift to the voters of California was a mapping system similar to Iowa’s. A couple other states follow that path as well. And, astonishingly, in North Carolina the Republicans in the legislature are also trying to turn over this fractious responsibility to non-partisans.

We could do that. It isn’t rocket science. We could turn the mapmaking over to some agency as dispassionate and fair minded as, say, the Government Accountability Board where the responsibility for overseeing our elections already resides.

Why would the legislature and the governor do this for us?

It would get a very distracting issue off the table in a contentious, issue filled year.

It would save money. The legislative leaders wouldn’t have to hire expensive, otherwise worthy law firms to help them do the mapping.

And it would be the right thing to do in a year when finding a proposal that a very large bi-partisan majority of citizens might regard as praiseworthy is as rare as a robin in a Wisconsin spring.

I can guarantee that the the 82% of us who are geographically disenfranchised would cheer.

Anyone willing to wait tell 2021 to do this?

I didn’t think so.

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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Impartial Justice's future (if it has one)

By Bill Kraus

The Impartial Justice bill, which saw the light of day in a reform-averse Legislature only because all the sitting members of the state Supreme Court urged it on them, was supposed to be the poster child for full public funding. It was designed to get the candidates out of the demeaning money raising business and removing the taint of being beholden to their significant donors. It’s companion piece was intended to diminish the role of interest money in these campaigns as well.

The bill that passed was funded at a modest level which made it kind of good news/bad news for the incumbents. Potential challengers would no longer be daunted by the need to raise a large campaign fund to mount a respectable campaign which could open the floodgates. Advantage challengers. The low level of spending allowed by the candidates would make it very difficult for a challenger to produce and run the TV commercials which are widely considered necessary to get the name recognition they would need to be competitive. Advantage incumbents.

The companion piece which would have used the infusion of additional public money for candidates to offset and disincentivise outside spenders did not become law. It did get past the soon-to-be-dead body of the then-majority leader of the state Senate, but the brain dead or duplicitous also soon to be a dead body speaker of the Assembly put it in the trash can instead of to a vote. The Supreme Court by a 4-3 vote rejected an attempt to bring it in through a side door.

The poster child was still there, but less attractive.

The two survivors of the 2011 Supreme Court primary contest which would test public funding and run campaigns that made these campaigns shorter and maybe even sweeter. This, in turn, would prompt the great majority of voters who say they hate the tenor and cost and endlessness of the campaigns to demand an extension of full public funding to all elections. Full public funding ascendant.

Events intervened.

A placid primary which looked like it would lead to an easy victory for the incumbent morphed into something unseen and unanticipated in judicial elections. The outsiders came in with all guns blazing. Some supported the candidates. Most did not. Trashing and demonization dominated the airwaves.

The candidates were outspent and overwhelmed but did their level best to dodge or refute the firestorm of false and exaggerated charges by the outside bomb throwers and stay--er--judicial.

Expectations for the future of Impartial Justice are cloudy at best. The good thing is that those of us who think the election system needs to be repaired are accustomed to celebrating small victories. Despite all the clatter both candidates were spared the indignity of raising the amount of money it would have taken to be financially competitive and the recusal requests that come with taking money from supplicant/donors who appear before the court.

Nonetheless the poster child is pretty banged up. The first clean up is a full disclosure treatment so that the voters know who the outsiders are. If they want to play they should be asked to put prominent upfront labels on the TV commercials that are their main--more like only--weapon, so voters know that these scurrilous outbursts are not coming from the candidates themselves. Those whose money sources or supporter biases are not easily evident (as unions, manufacturers, lawyers, realtors, etc. are) should also be asked to tell the voters where they get their money. They can put in as many chips as they want, but full disclosure should be the price of getting a seat at the table.

Even the freedom-of-speech-crazed-collateral-damage-blind-U.S. Supreme Court has indicated that those who want to play the game can’t do it anonymously. No more blindsiding.

The Legislature has to do its small bit as well and put the modest sum for full public funding that was available to this year’s candidates back in the budget from whence it disappeared. Another letter supporting Impartial Justice from a unanimous Supreme Court would probably make this easier.

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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Our upended state

By Bill Kraus

A Supreme Court justice who was one of the court’s unanimous signers of a letter to the Legislature urging the passage of full public funding for elections to the court says he didn’t mean it and that the law was intended to cripple his election prospects. He said this even though he sailed through the pre-protest primary where the law got its first, unfettered test.

Another candidate for the Supreme Court takes a pass on a golden opportunity to trash the trashers who are demonizing everybody with their attack ads paid for with their anonymous money and who are undermining the Impartial Justice bill which has made her candidacy painless at least and maybe even possible.

A perfectly respectable, church-going, good neighbor family in rural Dane County with no evident dog in the current fight going on at the Capitol is accused of being responsible for telling 16 elected officials to put their affairs in order because they and their families will be killed.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

One pole or another

By Bill Kraus

A recent poll by UW prof Ken Goldstein indicates polarization has reached new heights (or lows) and that the admonition in the rules of government--a stalemate must be broken before there is time to dig a trench--has been cast aside.

The Republicans are dug in on their issues and the Democrats on theirs. The only thing they agree on is that Senator Dale Schultz, who is wandering around in the no man’s land between them, is wrong because he got out of his trench in search of compromise.

The road to total polarization was started when the brilliant and bellicose Chuck Chvala (Democratic Senate Majority Leader) and Scott Jensen (Republican Speaker of the Assembly) convinced their caucuses not only that the ideas coming from the other side of the aisle were lousy but so were the people on the other side of the aisle who were espousing them.

The road from being adversaries to being enemies on a personal basis started then and has exacerbated ever since.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Picking battles

By Bill Kraus

Now that the 1959 battle over public employee unions is mostly over, the trenches are being dug for the next, bigger fight which will include a rerun of the merger wars of 1941.

What we are in for is a war with more fronts than the island hopping of the early 1940s--a little policy and lots of money at stake.

The big battles will revolve around the five major parts of the state budget which eat up 80 percent of the money. At the state level this budget is about dispensing money to others; it’s benefit driven. One step down where the benefits are disbursed the spending is labor driven.

The big five are (1) aid to K-12 education, most for teachers’ salaries (2) shared revenues to local governments, a lot of which goes for fire fighters and police officers (3) University of Wisconsin, money for professors, tuition aids, and lots of other good stuff (4) prisons, and (5) medicaid, where the number of supplicants has gone from 200,000 to 800,000, the frugality destroyer.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Let's not forget Wisconsin's past

One of the newest members of the Common Cause in Wisconsin State Governing Board, former State Representative (1975-1991) and State Senator (1991-1998) Calvin Potter of Sheboygan Falls, reminds us not to forget the good government tradition that used to be what people here and all over the nation thought of when they thought of Wisconsin. Here are his thoughts, as published in The Sheboygan Press on Sunday.

By Cal Potter

As we listen to the public commentary surrounding the heated debate in Wisconsin's current political scene, one often sees a lack of understanding of the role of democracy, as well as too little knowledge of, and respect for, our state's unique political heritage. Improved literacy amongst the public and politicians would help resolve the present hostile situation in order to again have government focus on its true role as for, of and by the people.

While Gov. Scott Walker was elected by 52 percent of the voters, it must be recognized that 48 percent did not choose his leadership and stand on many issues. While democracy is often touted as the rule of the majority, it is not meant to be the tyranny thereof. Democracy is as much, if not more, the protection of the minority and respect and consideration of differing opinions.

We are a pluralistic nation and as we grow from 310 million people to 450 million in the next 40 years, we will see even more diversity. If we are to have our major education, infrastructure, health care, environmental, employment and many more issues addressed in a much more successful manner, the polarized opinion machine that has been unleashed in this state and nation needs to be tempered.

Problem solving in a nation of diversity takes listening, discussion, appreciation and knowledge of differences and ultimately compromise. An attitude of my-way-is-the-only-way-and-all-others-are-wrong will only bring continued strife and ultimately a lack of problem solving.

When Wisconsin celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1998, the observance commission published a pamphlet listing Wisconsin's "firsts," recognizing the uniqueness and leadership this state has held in this nation. The 1997-98 Wisconsin Bluebook Sesquicentennial Edition also contained a section that recognized "Wisconsin's Firsts."

This included: worker and unemployment compensation, the progressive income tax, kindergarten and many other educational initiatives, consumer protection, open meeting and record requirements and ethics codes for public officials. The writing of Social Security and many labor and civil rights laws also have roots in our state.

The list of progressive legislation cannot be matched by any other state. Today's generation of politician appears to be very lacking in the knowledge and appreciation for their political ancestors' work, too often seemingly determined to ignore and reverse those gains.

Wisconsin is in a group of a handful of states which political scientists and historians recognize as special places of good government, responsive to the needs and wishes of their people, not just special interests.

We are not a Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, or a majority of other states; and we should not want to be.

We have been a leader in primary and secondary, academic and vocational education; protecting people's rights; recognizing the value of labor; holding high the expectation of good, clean and open government; and protecting our land, air and water resources to name just a few. These accomplishments have not been easy nor cheap, but have been good, special and the right thing to do.

In a cheap labor surplus world of 6½ billion people, soon to be 9 billion, Wisconsin, a cold energy dependent state, cannot win the competitive race to the bottom. We should not even try.

Yes, we must be frugal and use our limited resources wisely, but we need to play off our assets. A productive, well-educated work force, good infrastructure, clean environment, responsive government and we could go on, are what we need to build upon.

Those who like the opposite can find scores of places to fit their model, but transforming Wisconsin to that lower tier should not be part of the agenda, in spite of the well financed efforts, advocacy and expectation of many special interest groups.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Three lessons learned

By Bill Kraus

1. There is no pleasing the macho true believers. It is their way or no way. Overheard at a Lincoln Day dinner in Wisconsin Rapids: “If Walker gives in on anything, I’ll never vote for him again.”

The Floating Fourteen are undoubtedly getting the same message from their radical adherents as well.

If we take talk, compromise, and respect out of governance, what’s left? Totalitarianism? A caller to a radio call-in show not too long ago accused me of compromising and went on to denigrate that very idea. I asked him how his marriage was going. He hung up.

Hanging up ranks right up there with walking out of the room.

2. The internet is a gold mine of information, but it ain’t journalism. The internet is a miracle, but when used as an information source (excepting, of course, the websites by reputable newspapers which are electronic versions of what they are printing) it is user activated and single sourced. The people who rely on internet sources for their information are a.) likely to go to sites produced by the like-minded and, b.) don’t know or care that what the like-minded are saying has not had to suffer the indignity of validation by the tiresome process of listening to more than one source. The danger of single sourcing is that it susceptible to bias and to dispensing opinions disguised as facts.

Three lessons learned

By Bill Kraus

1. There is no pleasing the macho true believers. It is their way or no way. Overheard at a Lincoln Day dinner in Wisconsin Rapids: “If Walker gives in on anything, I’ll never vote for him again.”

The Floating Fourteen are undoubtedly getting the same message from their radical adherents as well.

If we take talk, compromise, and respect out of governance, what’s left? Totalitarianism? A caller to a radio call-in show not too long ago accused me of compromising and went on to denigrate that very idea. I asked him how his marriage was going. He hung up.

Hanging up ranks right up there with walking out of the room.

2. The internet is a gold mine of information, but it ain’t journalism. The internet is a miracle, but when used as an information source (excepting, of course, the websites by reputable newspapers which are electronic versions of what they are printing) it is user activated and single sourced. The people who rely on internet sources for their information are a.) likely to go to sites produced by the like-minded and, b.) don’t know or care that what the like-minded are saying has not had to suffer the indignity of validation by the tiresome process of listening to more than one source. The danger of single sourcing is that it susceptible to bias and to dispensing opinions disguised as facts.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Gerrymandering: The Next Protest

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
February 28, 2011

By Bill Kraus

The next protest will be about the two thirds (or more) of the state’s voters who are, have been, and will be ideologically disenfranchised by gerrymandered redistricting.

The facts, roughly, are that two senior members of the congressional delegation have reduced the number of congressional districts where a candidate from either party has a real chance to be elected to one.

The state Legislature is less orderly about reducing the numbers of Senate and Assembly districts where the voters pick their representatives than vice versa, but their messy process has produced the same kind of pre-ordination. The results there are that one-third of the Legislature is elected in July when only one candidate files nomination papers for the job.

Another one-third are elected in September when more than one candidate from the gerrymander-favored party dukes it out for that party’s nomination and a sure victory in the November finals.

That leaves one-third of the voters who get to pick a Republican or Democrat to represent them. Actually, it’s really more like one-third of this one-third who live in a district where there will be a real contest for those few seats.

It’s easy to tell if you’re in that last one-third of the one-third. You will have a TV commercial every minute for the entire election and will see big spending in every way and every medium by the candidates themselves and by outsiders who are seeking advantage where advantage can be bought, they hope.

This, of course, is why the contested elections are reduced to this smaller number. There is only so much money to go around. The more safe seats there are where strenuous electioneering and big spending is needed the less the desired disenfranchisement. Reduce the battleground elections and save money.

There is, of course, no way to make every state legislative race competitive. If you don’t believe this I invite you to frustrate yourself, try running a Republican for the state Assembly in Portage County or a Democrat in Green Lake County.

The fact is though that we could get much more competition into these races than we currently have.

It would be cheap and easy. All that needs to be done is to take the drawing of legislative district lines out of the hands of the Legislature.

Iowa did this decades ago.

They have many more competitive races, many fewer places where the fix is in.

Thanks to our neighbors to the west we don’t even have to re-invent the wheel. All we have to do is adopt the Iowa plan.

If we do this, we will take one more divisive issue off the legislative agenda. We will also save the state money that otherwise will be spent to get experts to carve us up into docile districts that favor whichever party that happens to be in the majority at the end of each census taking decade.

More importantly we will free legislators’ time to deal with the problems that affect us--the voters--instead of just the problems that affect them.

Ready to protest yet?

If so, start painting signs and telling the good government groups to do something beyond wailing and gnashing their teeth about the Supreme Court’s indifference to the collateral damage of their recent decisions about money in politics. The Supreme Court is not going to change its mind about money and is not involved in redistricting legislation.

This is something your legislators can do. It is unlikely that they will, however, unless large numbers of us make it clear that we would like our franchise back. We would prefer to pick our legislators instead of having them pick us.

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