A longtime friend who now lives in Washington, D.C., called the other day.
“What the hell is going on in our state?” he demanded. “People are making jokes about Wisconsin all over the place.”
He’s right, of course. Our once proud state that long had the reputation for being on the cutting edge of everything from social justice to clean, honest government has become a laughingstock to many outsiders.
Just take a look.
At the height of one of the most contentious political disruptions in state history, the governor, who had refused to take calls from legislative Democrats, does take a call from a blogger posing as one of the wealthy, right-wing Koch brothers and has a cordial conversation during which the governor says he thought about planting troublemakers in the crowd of protesters to spark an incident.
Despite orders from a circuit court, the Department of Administration closes all but two doors to the state Capitol. Even after protests end, security personnel are ordered to pat down and screen workers and visitors even as the Legislature votes to give citizens the right to carry concealed guns virtually everywhere.
As votes are tallied in a razor-thin Supreme Court contest, the Republican county clerk in the state’s most Republican county somehow “misplaces” 14,000 votes from an entire city, but finds them after the GOP-supported candidate appears to have lost the election.
During a recount of that election, several opened bags of ballots are discovered along with information that the clerk took election information home on her personal computer.
Before the election, the Supreme Court justice who benefited from the found votes admits calling the court’s chief justice a “bitch,” but says she has a penchant to provoke him with her sarcasm.
Most recently, the same easily provoked justice has a physical altercation with a different woman justice after he sides with the majority in a hastily crafted opinion supporting implementation of the governor’s contentious collective bargaining bill, saving the GOP-dominated Legislature from having to vote on the issue again. Legal observers throughout the country admit they’ve never seen anything like it on a supreme court.
Is this Wisconsin government today or a chapter from the gang that couldn’t shoot straight?
As John Nichols pointed out in a column last week, this all comes on the 100th anniversary of what many political experts believe was the most productive and progressive Legislature in American history. A century ago Wisconsin lawmakers enacted the first workers’ compensation law, put limits on child labor, encouraged the formation of cooperatives among farmers, passed forest and water power conservation acts, and created regulations for banks, railroads and insurance companies — just for starters.
That 1911 Legislature propelled Wisconsin to the top of national lists on what good government could and ought do. It built the foundation on which the University of Wisconsin’s “Wisconsin Idea” was based and it began what was to be nearly a century of environmental safeguards and innovations that preserved much of the state’s fabled beauty and attracted tourists by the millions.
From all that to today’s laughingstock.
But it really isn’t funny at all. It’s sad. And it’s time we started paying closer attention to who we elect to lead us.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org