Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Hope from afar

By Bill Kraus

In Wisconsin we still have Senator Fitzgerald who is in denial, Speaker Vos who is in opposition, Governor Walker who is in absentia.

In Ohio we have the Republican legislature and Governor Kasich enacting and signing a redistricting statute which creates a bipartisan process to draw districts which are more competitive.

It ain't Iowa. But it ain't bad.

Motivations are not revealed, but a not far afield guess would be that the governor has his sights set on something beyond Ohio and wants to get rid of baggage that a wider audience might consider gerrymandering friendly.

Scott Walker could take comfort and action from this, and use his proximity to Iowa to do likewise.

Simultaneously we learn that the state of Alabama is in court defending district packing to reduce the number of districts where black votes are significant by putting a lot of them in as few districts as possible.

If the Supremes do the right thing for this minority, is it possible that the strategy of district packing for any questionable purpose could be put into disrepute?

It might be.

An anti-packing decision and a move by our openly ambitious governor to de-gerrymander himself could bring rays of light to what seemed to be a pretty dark 2015.

Where there's light there's hope.

Happy Holidays to all.

Bill Kraus lives in Madison, is the former press secretary for Governor Lee Dreyfus, and is the Chair of the State Governing Board of Common Cause of Wisconsin.

Follow Bill Kraus on:

twitter / wmkraus

Friday, December 12, 2014

Voter Photo ID

By Bill Kraus

You may have noticed that many state legislatures have put a lot of time and effort into crafting legislation that would require voters to identify themselves with a driver’s license, a passport or an authorized card with their picture on it.

Irrespective of the motivation behind these laws—-voter suppression, a response to polls which show a very high percentage of citizens think this is a good idea, fear of voter fraud, or something else either real or imagined—-they have spawned a long series of lawsuits, court decisions, and appeals from decisions.

In one form or another the lawsuits opposing voter photo IDs are contending these laws are really poll taxes in sheep’s clothing.

Not real taxes of course. But complying with the requirement, even if the ID is provided free, is said to cause inconvenience and expense which are annoying at best and probably unconstitutional to boot.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Now what?

By Bill Kraus

Scott Walker’s icon status is intact, and he is running for President. His obligatory denials or half denials are mild enough to indicate he knows that icon’s lose luster with age. With Walker out of the way, Robin Vos is running for governor.

These tacit ambitions can influence behavior in major ways.

The newly empowered Republicans exercised the dominance they won in 2010 vigorously. Act 10 was a surprisingly effective surprise which did a lot of things up to and including igniting the above mentioned ambitions for 2016.

The unexpectedly loud and physical backlash to Act 10 had many many side effects on the governor and on the legislative leaders.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Post Mortem/Goodbye and Good Riddance

By Bill Kraus

The campaign started with an iconic incumbent, a sent from heaven opponent, and a predictable central issue about which neither of the candidates if elected could do much: jobs specifically, the economy predominantly.

The icon never wavered.

The Dems ran a traditional campaign with a non-traditional candidate; not good. What was worse was instead of featuring their candidate they chose to follow their misguided notion that everybody who knows the governor and what he has done hates him and everything about the famous Act 10 which made him an icon because they do.

After losing two referendums on the governor, they went for the third instead of running a positive campaign featuring their candidate and the interesting qualities their non mainstream candidate brought to the campaign.

A strategic misstep.

Both campaigns inevitably turned to the politics of personal destruction which demeans the perpetrators, the targets, and the trade.

Monday, October 27, 2014

George Will’s Hit Piece on Wisconsin Undermined by Factual Inaccuracy and Non-Disclosure

By Jay Heck

Long-time columnist George F. Will has deep Midwestern roots, but his baseless, factually-challenged assault on the ongoing investigation of serious political corruption in Wisconsin suggests he’s lost touch with Midwestern values.

Will has made an assassination attempt on the character of a conscientious district attorney, John Chisholm, along with the non-partisan Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (G.A.B.) and Wisconsin’s effective “John Doe” investigation process.

Will’s attack relied heavily on outrageous and unsubstantiated accusations made in the Wall Street Journal by Eric O’Keefe, the long-time head of Wisconsin Club for Growth and a central figure in the two-year-old criminal investigation of illegal campaign coordination between the Club and Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign apparatus in 2011 and 2012.

Will also draws on a discredited and unsubstantiated attack by a right wing, out-of-state writer who simply invented a false story about Chisholm’s wife and claimed it provided an ulterior motive for Chisholm’s involvement in the investigation.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The "Debates"

By Bill Kraus

What is good about the debates?

They put opposing candidates on a stage together.

What is less good?

For openers. They are not debates. What they are is kind of a public editorial board meeting.

They are a showcase for talented broadcasters and a promotion for the quality of television newscasters where two instead of the usual one victim is on stage.

They cover so much ground that no subject gets the attention it deserves and some really trivial questions get more attention than they warrant.

They promote and promulgate sound bite politics.

They are an attack/counterattack medium. They promote incivility, even disrespect at a personal level instead of a discussion of multiple solutions to complicated problems.

The participants have figured them out. No one tries to seriously promote an idea. Compromise is not rewarded. No points are awarded for positives. The dangers to be avoided are all negative. They are a minefield that has to be crossed very cautiously, because a small misstep will be publicized and has known to be fatal.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Three Things Wisconsin Needs to Change to Improve Our Elections

By Cal Potter

I read with interest the first in a series of articles in some Gannett papers aimed at describing political changes in our state. As one who served in the legislature for a number of years, and has been a political activist since the 1960's, let me suggest several major subjects for inclusion in that series.

The first of these recommended items is the major political "coup" that has occurred in this state and nation in recent years which is gerrymandered safe legislative districts. This well-orchestrated and financed takeover goes to the heart of the power of the extreme right, and the reality of creating today's non-responsive and non-working government. Here in Wisconsin, in several decades prior to 2010, the federal courts did a reasonable job of drawing legislative districts, necessitated by a party divided government.

All that has changed.

The unpopularity of Congress and many politicians today does not seem to influence those in office, because the reality is that public opinion doesn't matter; legislative districts are mostly non-competitive and officeholders are now largely bought and paid for by big special interest campaign contributions, and then become lapdogs for interest-group agendas.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Back to the future (please)

By Bill Kraus

In 1964 a Canadian Philosopher named Marshall McLuhan wrote a book entitled Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man and coined the phrase, "the medium is the message." At the time I had no idea what he was talking about. I do now. And as I look back across my last 62 years I see how dramatically that idea has played out in my life in political campaigns.

When I was getting my start in the early 1950s, political communications was in what I like to think of as the Plunkitt of Tammany Hall era.

This small book was a biography of a young New York man named George Plunkitt who wanted to become politically active and found the route to whatever fame and fortune he achieved in that trade was about him and the thousands like him.

They were the medium. They wrote and delivered the pamphlets. They made the telephone calls. They organized the precincts. They delivered the votes and the voters to the polls for their candidates.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The 10 percent solution

By Bill Kraus

I suppose the most important, and distressing, takeaway from the August 12 primary is that most of the races in the state Assembly and more than a few in the Senate were settled that day. They joined the large number of other candidates who had no opponent. To summarize: A majority of the state legislature was picked by 10 percent of the voters.

The fact that the primary is now held before the middle of August didn’t help. But, beyond that, wondering how important it is to require stringent identification standards to a process that doesn’t draw flies, it’s hard to figure out how to excite voters about being disenfranchised by gerrymandering. Or maybe that’s why they aren’t voting. Why bother when you and your votes don’t count? The voters are not stupid. They know that the game is rigged.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Mushroom communications

Political leaders think we are best when kept in the dark.

By Bill Kraus

A couple of the tacit assumptions that made the founding fathers think that the democracy they were inventing would work have fallen on hard times.

They assumed there would be open, communicative, accessible, and responsive legislatures and legislators.

They assumed that there would be a common public communication system which would provide the voters with the information they needed to select their legislators and judge their performance.

In reverse order then…the common communication system was for most of our history the print press. It was not common in a monolithic sense, but it was journalistically comprehensive, maybe overly so.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Legislators or lemmings

By Bill Kraus

The candidate for the Assembly is running in a district which traditionally votes 70 percent Democratic, and he is running against an incumbent who once was mayor of a city within the district which comprises a substantial portion of the Assembly district.

This is not a promising opportunity.

He is running as a Libertarian.

This diminishes his already-almost-hopeless prospects of winning.

As we talked it became clear that he is about as libertarian as most Republicans are and he really should be running as a Republican.

Although the Republican who ran for the seat in 2012 got less than 30 percent of the vote, a Libertarian surely would have gotten even less.

So why isn’t he running as a Republican?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Wisconsin Supreme Court Creates More Confusion With Voter ID Ruling

By Jay Heck and Jay Riestenberg

In a split decision last week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court said the state can require voters to produce a state-issued ID card at the polls but can’t require them to pay for it.

The ruling adds a new and confusing wrinkle to an already befuddling scenario for the November election. The state legislature has not created a mechanism for providing free-of-charge IDs to voters and the court didn’t impose one. Meanwhile, a federal district judge has blocked enforcement of the ID law on other grounds, declaring that it’s unconstitutional and violates the federal Voting Rights Act.

Talk about a rock and a hard place.

Some clarity may come from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is expected to rule before Election Day on Wisconsin’s appeal of the district court ruling striking down the ID law. If, as expected, the appellate court also rules against the law, it would be a win for Badger State voters, providing some relief from the impact of a reduction of in-person absentee voting opportunities, elimination of weekend voting, and stringent new voter registration requirements.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The debate about debates

By Bill Kraus

A very long time ago a wacky guy ran for District Attorney in Wisconsin promising he would only enforce good laws. Everybody laughed, and he lost.

Not so long ago a public official who was under investigation for behavior which had led to the imprisonment of some of his peers got the prosecution of his case moved to a more politically friendly part of the state. The District Attorney there said his caseload was full to overflowing and declined to prosecute the case.

A few sighs of relief may have been heard, but no laughter.

In the current four-person race for Attorney General of Wisconsin there have been some disturbing suggestions that candidates for that office may opt in or out of cases based on what they consider the virtue of the laws on which the cases are based.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The rules

By Bill Kraus

The rules about how elections are to be conducted in this country have been set over the years by legislators and endorsed or modified by three centuries worth of supreme courts.

What has survived into the 21st century are a few guideposts and a pretty consistent trend.

In the 19th century the court said that a corporation is a person when it comes to political participation and regulation.

This meant that any rules about political activity or the funding of political activity had to include this interesting characterization.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Filing Day, 2014

By Bill Kraus

June 2 was Filing Day for 2014 legislative candidates, and a lot of things were settled.

Sixteen Republicans and 16 Democrats were elected to the Assembly as were two senators, maybe three.

None of these people will have to campaign for themselves or answer any embarrassing questions.

The same can be said for the six candidates who have no major party opposition in the primary and whose coronation will have to be delayed until August when their third-party opponents will be dispatched.

There are also going to be seven Assembly candidates facing intra-party opposition in August. Five of these will result in an unopposed Republican on the November ballot.

Thursday, May 22, 2014


By Bill Kraus

At a time when Craig Gilbert’s masterful and depressing series “Color Us Divided” was appearing I attended a visitation where I could bid a fond, admiring farewell to Pat Lucey.

Almost simultaneously I got a copy of a letter that Mel Laird wrote to the Director of the Fogarty International Center about his long (and long ago) partnership with his friend, colleague, and collaborator on health care and research John Fogarty (D-Rhode Island).

Pat Lucey was, among other things, the most self-effacing politician I ever met, and I have met a lot of politicians.

I was chair of the 1966 Knowles for Governor campaign against Pat which Warren Knowles won.

We got over that.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Bluer and redder than ever

By Bill Kraus

Craig Gilbert’s brilliant analysis of how Wisconsin votes (it's the first of three chapters in the May 4 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ) is not a death sentence for redistricting reform, but does warn us of the limitations of this still worthy effort.

It also raises some questions and conundrums.

It is obvious, and has been for a long time, that we tend to cluster and that there is more to this clustering than geography. It is racial, with Milwaukee being the most dramatic example. It is economic, with whole counties in and around Milwaukee and suburbs everywhere generally being examples. It is hereditary, with ethnic roots in places like Portage County and other areas that are creatures of history and long ago immigrations. It is more and more political.

The political clustering is exacerbated by the gerrymandering and vote packing that majority party incumbents can be expected to permanize and expand until and unless the map making responsibility on which redistricting is based is put in the hands of the dispassionate and disinterested. Before 2021 one hopes.

The conundrum that remains and that is puzzling is that the predictability and party loyalty is intensifying in an era when the parties themselves are less important than they were in history, excluding George Washington’s first term when they didn’t exist.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Six questions and five answers

By Bill Kraus

Many people who know I have spent 62 years in and around politics think I know everything about this arcane, wonderful business. They also expect me to be knowledgeable, even wise, on all matters political, which I am not. The compilation that follows of some of those questions I'm asked and answers I've given will be all the proof needed of that.

Q: Why can’t we have shorter election periods like, say, the British do?

A: The main reason is that the British elections are called not scheduled. It’s hard to figure out how to enter a game when you don’t know when it starts. The other reason is that too many candidates have enough money to spend recklessly and wastefully, so why not start boring us to death early?

Q: Why can’t we have part-time legislatures?

A: Conceding that the world is a lot more complicated than it was when part-time legislators were up to the job of coping with it, the real reason is that the full-timers who occupy most of the legislative seats in Madison and all of the them in Washington would have to vote to go part-time.

Q: Why is so much money spent on campaigns?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Purity and paralysis

By Bill Kraus

Let’s hear it for the moderates and the mavericks with their ideas and adaptability. Enough already with the absolutists and extremists and their pat answers.

If the absolutists who are surer of everything than I am of anything were in charge, would they have approved of Democratic Governor Lucey’s tax break for job producing corporations or Republican Governor Dreyfus’s quick and decisive signing of the nation’s first gay rights bill or any of many unpredictable solutions to intractable problems enacted during Governor Thompson’s long reign?

Don’t even ask.

The “Tea Party” (in quotes because it isn’t a party) is predictably, even admirably, frugal. It is also preprogrammed and inflexible on a large collection of questionable social ideas. One of their prominent members has been quoted saying, “Compromise is surrender.”

This position is at one with the generals who fought World War I. Dig a trench and hold to a long series of untenable positions.

Is this the kind of government and country we really want?

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Sad Farewell to a Unique Political Reformer

By Jay Heck

The sudden speed with which it knocked him out of Wisconsin politics after 44 years in the Legislature was shocking enough.

But the content of the conversation contained in the secret video taken of longtime State Senator Michael Ellis, filmed without his knowledge at a bar on the Capitol Square, hit me like a blindside kick in the stomach.

His discussion about setting up a “hypothetical" outside spending group, funded by wealthy long-time Ellis supporters, to attack his Democratic opponent, State Representative Penny Bernard Schaber, seemed absolutely inconceivable to me.

It’s an illegal scheme, of course. But that’s not what was most shocking to me. What really hurt was that he would even conceive of doing something like that.

I first met Mike Ellis in 1988 when I moved to Madison from Washington, D.C. to work in the Capitol for the Senate Majority Leader at that time – State Senator Joe Strohl, a Democrat from Racine. Ellis was the assistant Republican Senate Leader, and it was quickly evident that he was among the smartest in a State Senate that had a lot of very smart people back then, counting among its members: Russ Feingold, Joe Leean, Lynn Adelman, Brian Rude, Chuck Chvala, Margaret Farrow, Gary George, Mordecai Lee and others. Bright, intelligent lawmakers.

Mike Ellis

By Bill Kraus

My relationship with Mike Ellis got off to a serendipitous start in 1978.

That was the year that Mike and Lee Dreyfus crossed paths for the first time. They liked each other. Their political lives were idea driven. They both wanted the government that they had been elected to serve to work better in many ways for as many of us as possible.

The tragic, too early death of 6th District Congressman Bill Steiger in the fall of 1978 set off a chain of events that worked to Mike's advantage. Almost all of the members of the Assembly who had a better call on leadership there and who lived in the 6th District, including the formidable Tommy Thompson, jumped into the special election race to succeed Steiger.

While they were otherwise engaged, the Assembly met and organized for business. One of the choice openings in that arcane, surreptitious process was choosing Assembly members for the always powerful Joint Finance Committee. Dreyfus and his minions suggested Mike for the job.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Not all bad news is all bad

By Bill Kraus

My sainted mother once told me that I could find something good to say about anyone even if it’s, “He’s a good bad example.”

The same can be said about what looked like bad campaign regulation news recently.

The U.S. Supreme Court, as predicted, found a way to open the door for money getting into campaigns even wider than what most already thought was wide open. The court ruled to allow those with more money than they knew what to do with to spend it on as many campaigns as they want to.

For those of us who thought that political spending was already egregiously excessive, this sounded like bad news.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Attacks and wedges

By Bill Kraus

This is an election year. This means that we will all get to vote for a candidate for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and state treasurer.

Those of us in one of 68 Assembly districts in which competition is more than a fantasy will get to cast a meaningful vote for that office. The other 31 are walkovers for one party or the other due to clustering which is natural and redistricting which is not.

Those of us in 14 of the state Senate districts up for election this year may have a choice. The other three districts are what might be called pre-loaded for one party or the other.

In fairness, the 34 legislative seats which have a history of incumbents winning with more than 70 percent and up to 99 percent of the vote might be contested in primaries. But the winner of the general election is a foregone conclusion.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Milking it, part 2

By Bill Kraus

The realities:

Money--the mother's milk of politics--is going to find a way into political campaigns.

Big money has made minor leaguers of the business organizations, unions, and other interest groups that used to be the 500-pound gorillas of politics.

The once dominant political parties are fiscally anemic paper tigers.

The Supreme Court is now in its third century of saying that corporations and other organizations are people and that money is speech. It is not going to change its mind. This means the courts are not a route to spending rules and limits.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Milking it, part 1

By Bill Kraus

Money has always been, to quote Lyndon Johnson, “the mother’s milk of politics.” In the last 40 years it has traveled a steadily upward path to becoming the appetizer, entree, and dessert as well.

It all started in the wake of the Watergate scandal when the reformers who targeted the abuses by the Republican Party’s Maurice Stans inadvertently opened the Pandora’s box of campaign funding.

They did this by creating an additional route for contributions called political action committees (PACs). This, unexpectedly, was a contributor's dream. For years political contributions had mostly flowed through the political parties which recruited, slated, funded and managed candidate campaigns. What contributors got with PACs was a direct route to candidates themselves. What the parties, who the esteemed Ody Fish labeled “a kinder mistress,” got was bypassed and a lesser role in the election process.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The invisible administration

By Bill Kraus

The governor is always the main event in any administration, and rightly so. But there is usually a prominent supporting cast.

The people in the governor’s office itself if not well known when they arrive, quickly become so.

The cabinet officers as well get profiled and make news on their own as attention to what their departments are doing waxes and wanes in the usual course of doing the state’s and people’s business.

The governor’s inner circle, which is not a part of the official government, is usually easily identified and occasionally newsworthy. Every governor has roots and friends and to a certain extent those friends identify and help them do this complicated job.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The invasion of the super PACs

By Bill Kraus

They are not below the radar. Their assumption of power from what were once considered the legitimately powerful, like those we elect, is somewhere between widespread and universal.

A prominent state senator calls attention to the drift of power downward to the primary election level, and he describes it as the battle of the billionaires.

The once-powerful public unions have been defunded and dismissed.

The influence of the state’s largest business organization has waned as well. When WMC spoke up on an issue and idea that offended the totalitarians in the Capitol they got their knuckles rapped and beat a quick retreat.

But nobody messes with the super PACs.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


By Bill Kraus

The pre-eminent example of leaders undermined by staffers is called Watergate. It brought down a president. Richard Nixon had no knowledge or role in the decision to break in to the Democratic Party headquarters in Washington.

The whiplash in the wake of this event which was a mishmash of lies and cover-ups that he tacitly endorsed put a lot of people in jail and the president in a kind of exile in California.

What has happened to Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Chris Christie in New Jersey falls into the category of staff over-reaching and serious stupidity as well. Or so it seems. So far neither incident threatens the two incumbent governors’ status. Better yet there does not seem to be any attempt to cover up and no one seems to be telling punishable lies about the events that are drawing so much press attention.

What has resulted, however, is a kind of diminishment.

A shadow has been cast on the governors’ iconic status.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Then and now

By Bill Kraus

What Republicans have known all along is that theirs is a minority party. Their efforts to win high offices were necessarily concentrated on wooing the undecideds and uninterested with occasional raids into Democratic precincts for converts. The party leaders and the elected Republicans were in the forefront of these efforts. Lee Dreyfus said that his run for governor was prompted in part by his fear that the party in Wisconsin was headed from minority to insignificant. His campaign brought in thousands of new voters for the GOP. Reagan did much the same thing when he ran for president. Tommy Thompson was deservedly famous for a lot of things and especially for branding the party as a big tent organization which welcomed any and all.

Presumably other candidates in other places did much the same thing as the Republicans became increasingly competitive even dominant.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Wisconsin and its brains

By Bill Kraus

There were two important presentations made two floors and 11 hours apart on Wednesday, January 22, in the State Capitol.

The more prominent one was the governor’s State of the State message which he delivered in the Assembly Chambers. It was mostly about money. Due to too pessimistic projections the taxpayers sent in about a billion dollars more to the state than the state said it needed.

The governor decided that this overage should be returned to those who were overcharged. Doing this precisely is probably impossible, but rough approximations get close enough.

The governor, unsurprisingly, took a lot of credit for this happy accident even though he and we were beneficiaries of events more than of actions taken locally.

There was a lot of show and tell sprinkled through this presentation which has become traditional. There was also a lot of talk about jobs and job growth that was occasionally specific.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The perils of power

By Bill Kraus

The first warning to everyone and anyone who is introduced to positions of power is “Handle with care.”

The last is “It isn’t you; it’s the position.”

To take the last first I cite the comment of my great and good friend Bob Froehlke whose career in public service culminated as Secretary of the Army. The day he left the job, there was a full dress parade with troops and military bands and a reception for hundreds of guests and subordinates hosted by the Secretary of Defense. He rode home from that event in his chauffeur driven limo.

The next morning when he was leaving for less lofty duties in the Midwest, a sergeant in a jeep showed up to take him to the airport.

“Oh,” he said to himself. “It wasn’t about me after all.”

It never is.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Some questions for the New Year

By Bill Kraus

Is anyone thinking about realigning the property tax so every property owner pays for the costs that attach to property, and other taxes pay for social services and education which do not?

What everyone knows is that an essential ingredient of a democratic form of government is an informed electorate. Most communications about what the government does and how it spends its money are deliberately hidden or so overwhelming they are indecipherable. Open Book Wisconsin is due to be posted in 2014. The so-far-unanswered question is whether communication experts have been involved so that it tells the voters what they need to know and presents that information in ways that make it easy to understand. Pictures would be nice. Will Open Book do this? Will anyone open the Open Book?

And speaking of an informed electorate. Has anyone noticed that journalists (a profession trained to ask questions) are an endangered species?