Monday, January 21, 2013

Pipelines and cauldrons


By Bill Kraus

The discussion was about empty pipelines. It started with an obvious question. Who will the Dems run against Walker? The follow up was less obvious but beyond probable. Who will the Republicans run if Walker heads for greener and friendlier national pastures while he is still an iconic figure?

Two things immediately became evident. Both parties' pipelines are empty, and what once was a bubbling, boiling cauldron of ambitious wannabes--the state Legislature--is cold and dormant.

What happened?

There have been occasional forays by outsiders like Lee Dreyfus, but most candidates for governor in Wisconsin have come with a legislative history. The main exceptions have come from the other traditional spawning ground: the attorney general's office referred to by insiders by its initials AG, which often stood for "Almost Governor."

The 2010 election was a breakthrough year in all respects. A county executive ran against a mayor, which was very unusual. None of the 132 sitting members of the state Legislature ran for an open seat for the office they were all expected to aspire to. Shocking in itself. Made more so by the history of Wisconsin electoral politics.

In the not-so-distant past the state Legislature had been the predominant and preferred stepping stone to higher office for five governors, seven members of Congress (with two more on the way), two Supreme Court justices, and uncounted mayors and county executives. There was even an incongruous route to power and/or riches which many Milwaukee legislators took from Madison back to jobs in their home city and county which others considered a step down, but were highly valued by Milwaukeeans.

These numbers, impressive as they are, are dwarfed by the numbers of candidates with state legislative credentials who ran for and lost races for Congress and governor. In all instances the cauldron effect was alive and stirring.

Again I ask "What happened?"

A lot of things.

A kind of creeping careerism has accompanied the rise in pay for and time of and staffs for legislators. The jobs have become more of a way of life than was once possible.

Outsiders say that the rise in toxicity and cost in campaigning is a factor. They think this alone, this "Why would I do this?" question shrinks the pool of citizens who might give it a shot and catch the bug of political ambition which often infects those who win Assembly or state Senate races early and never look back.

I concede that the barriers to entry, which were never low, are more and more daunting as the costs go up, the respect goes down, the attacks get more vicious and more personal. Other lifestyle options look more and more appealing. Power is still a major aphrodisiac, but the price candidates pay gets stiffer and stiffer.

Maybe the question isn't all that important and we should get past it to make sure we are voting for the kind of representatives who have a more ambitious view of governing than serving a narrow cause or settling into a safe job.

Can we fill the pipelines without reigniting the legislative cauldron? I don't think so.

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