Chris Rickert: I reached out with an invite, but who will show?

2011-10-30T07:00:00Z 2012-05-23T17:50:30Z Chris Rickert: I reached out with an invite, but who will show?CHRIS RICKERT | crickert@madison.com | 608-252-6198 | @ChrisRickertWSJ madison.com

Recalling Gov. Scott Walker, nonpartisan legislative redistricting, overhauling the state Supreme Court or any number of popular ideas floating about among the pundits and editorial boards might heal the wounds wrought by Wisconsin's hyperpartisan and fractious politics.

But only temporarily.

The permanent cure will come in the form of more people like Katie Songer, Ron Dolen, and Carol and Scott Grabins.

These founding members of the nonpartisan citizens group Reach Out Wisconsin did something increasingly rare late last year: They purposely engaged in a civil give-and-take about politics over dinner with their ideological opposites.

I'm hoping that the people in power can emulate their model; what's more, I'm inviting some of them to prove it.

Now three months old, Reach Out Wisconsin will hold its fourth public forum, called "People's Movements: Understanding the Tea Party; Understanding Occupy Wall Street," on Nov. 15 at The Brink Lounge in Madison.

I knew immediately when I read about the group last week that I wanted to be a part of it.

But I also know I've been well served by a strict adherence to the old Groucho Marx maxim never to join any club that would have me as a member. (I suspect the clubs have benefitted from this as well.)

So instead, with the blessing of Reach Out's founders, I invited 16 people who self-identify or have been identified as political partisans to the Nov. 15 event.

They range from lawmakers to radio talk-show hosts to state Supreme Court justices, but all arguably share some amount of responsibility for the ugly divisiveness of Wisconsin politics today.

I don't know how many will ultimately show up for the forum, but by Friday afternoon I was starting to get some responses.

Vicki McKenna, the fire-breathing conservative radio talk-show host, said she will not be attending because she will be in Milwaukee doing her show that week. But John "Sly" Sylvester, the fire-breathing liberal radio talk-show host, is counting himself in.

Scot Ross of the liberal One Wisconsin Now said he will be out of town that day, but Brett Healy of the conservative MacIver Institute, RSVP'd his attendance.

The heads of the state Democratic and Republican parties had not gotten back to me. As for the eight state legislators I invited, only one had so far said no. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald will be in his district that day, spokesman Andrew Welhouse said, but Welhouse plans to attend in his stead.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson emailed to say she cannot attend, and Justice David Prosser told me he has a conflict that day but if invited again said he will do his best to make it.

These are, at best, mixed results, and unaffiliated politics watchers had their doubts about the likely success of my open-hearted invite. 

"I am afraid that the GOP invitees might see this as a possible platform for critical comments on how they are governing," said Joe Heim, a political science professor at UW-La Crosse.

Barry Burden, a political science professor at UW-Madison, said most probably wouldn't go to the forum, and even if they did, it probably wouldn't be very helpful.

"Politicians and public figures ... probably need a week-long retreat together somewhere in the North Woods," he said.

Charles Franklin, also a political science professor at UW-Madison, was even more blunt.

"OK, you are a dreamer," he told me. (I had prefaced my question with "Call me a dreamer, but ... .")

I admit it: I am a dreamer, and about a lot more than just politics. My motto is the only way one loses hope is to stop hoping. 

Or, if we're talking politics, to keep voting for two dominant political parties that in their current forms spend more time on divisiveness and power-grabbing than they do on problem-solving.

Reach Out Wisconsin strikes me as a genuine attempt to change that, and I'm looking forward to donning my listening ears on Nov. 15.

I'll let you know who joins me.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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