To Gwyn Guenther, the Wisconsin Capitol is both a workplace and the place where, in many ways, she grew up.
Guenther's father, the late Dick Wheeler, started The Wheeler Report in 1972 and came to be known as the dean of the state's press corps. Guenther joined her father on the job, and has spent more than two decades covering the inner workings of the Capitol.
Guenther took over the business when Wheeler died in 2011, and she runs it today with her husband, Trevor — and sometimes with the help of their two daughters. The news service, catering to political insiders, publishes a subscription-based newsletter, a bill tracking service and maintains a website.
Recently, Guenther has partnered with conservative communications consultant Brian Fraley to produce a podcast. She likens what she does to "keeping stats at a baseball game."
This wasn’t what you planned on doing with your life, is it?
No, this was not what I was planning on doing at all. I went to college as a double major in chemistry and paper science engineering, and I did a one-year co-op with a paper company in North Carolina. While I was there, I realized I didn’t want to do engineering, and I got my Emergency Medical Services (EMS) license. When I came back to school at Stevens Point, I dropped my degree in paper science and I completed my degree in chemistry, continued working in the emergency room and keeping my EMS license, and I was looking at either applying to PA school or medical school. My dad offered me a position to save some money to go to med school, and I never left.
You basically grew up in the Capitol, right?
I did. As a young kid, I did. My parents divorced when I was 11, so there was a period of time that I didn’t talk with my dad at all, pretty much during high school. But you know, as a kid, one of my favorite things I can remember doing is sliding down the banisters in the Capitol — because they’re like, three feet wide, and as a little kid, that was awesome.
The Capitol can be one of those places that people can get lost, they never remember what wing they are in. But I always remember that I would look for the mosaic of the guy with the long blonde hair, and that’s where the press room was located.
What has changed in the Capitol since then?
The first thing I would say that’s changed since I was a little kid is there was a coffee shop in the basement, and you could get coffee and sandwiches. It was run by a man who was blind, and you could always go to the basement for something. It has been locked down over the years. It seems crazy, but that’s one of the biggest things that I notice, is that the basement isn’t a usable space anymore, that people don’t congregate in the basement for coffee.
I think the introduction of computers and internet and, especially in the past 4-5 years, social media, has really changed the speed at which things happen. When The Wheeler Report started, my dad would take notes all day long, and then he would sit down at a typewriter, type up all those notes, print them off, fold them and put them in envelopes and then bind them based on their zip code, and he’d stop at the post office on his way home every night and drop off the mail. Then it went to faxes, then we went to emails, and now we can send out several emails a day, plus we’re updating people on social media, we send out text alerts. Everything is instantaneous now.
Your job is a little unique. Where do you classify yourself within the political and journalism worlds?
We kind of are a niche market. We have an office in the press room and we’re part of the media, but we don’t write stories on everything the way traditional media do. We’re not staffers, we’re not lobbyists. We’re kind of a niche place where we work with everyone. We work with the media, we work with the lobbyists, we work with the staff and the legislators and the agencies, and some of it is just making sure that we have the information from the Legislature so the lobbyists and the staffers and the people who subscribe to us have that information, but at the same time making sure that we’re aware of everything that’s going on.
What are some of the most memorable things you’ve covered?
When I first started, my dad put me in the Senate, because the Assembly has some more strategic moves that they can do, and there’s a few more technical things. I started with the (debate over the) Brewers stadium.
I was here when (U.S. Rep.) Gwen Moore was a senator and we covered W-2 (Wisconsin Works), and I distinctly remember the night, because they were remodeling the Capitol, so we were across the street in a different building, and the Senate and the Assembly were both in. The Assembly was done at 6 or 7 that night, and I remember calling my dad and saying, “It’s 10 o'clock at night and Gwen Moore has 100 amendments to this bill and the vending machines are empty,” and my dad was like, “I’m done, I’m going home. See you tomorrow!” I was thinking, “What did I sign up for?”
But you know, sometimes at 12, 1 a.m., 2 a.m., are when you actually learn a lot of things about the people in the Legislature. It’s a whole different atmosphere later at night than it is at 4 in the afternoon.
Has the frequency of those late-night sessions changed?
It depends on the leadership. When David Prosser was the Speaker in the Assembly, they had a 9 p.m. rule — they could continue debating whatever they were on, but they couldn’t take up any new things after that time. When (Assembly Speaker Robin) Vos came in, he said these late nights are crazy, so he worked with (Minority Leader) Peter Barca to do a memorandum of understanding — let’s not do these things at 3 or 4 in the morning. In the 22 years that I’ve been here, I’ve seen all sorts of leadership styles.
But you know, the rule is nothing good ever happens after dark. One of the things that used to happen in Joint Finance is they’d go all night, and at 6 or 7 in the morning they’d take the vote, and inevitably one legislator would stand up and say, “Well, at least we did it in the light of day.” So it kind of depends on what the legislators want to do, what leaders want to do and how well they work together.
And we’re in an interesting spot right now, with a late budget.
Yeah, this is nothing new, either. In ‘99, there was a bet going on in the press corps because we were working on the budget, the tiger at the Madison zoo was pregnant, and I was pregnant with one of my daughters. The tiger had its cub first, I had my daughter in early fall, and then the budget was passed.
The press room is named for your father. How did the room come to be dedicated to housing reporters?
My dad stole the press room. He always said he stole it fair and square. When they were remodeling the Capitol, the press room was moved to the basement, and we were in the bowels of the basement of the Capitol. The legislators were talking about turning the press room into another hearing room. My dad said no, the press room has always been here. You can’t avoid dealing with the press by moving us out of the way. So he really worked with people, and they got an amendment stuck in the state budget that said the room located between the Senate and the Assembly on the second floor would be dedicated to the press corps.
They call the press the Fourth Estate because the public needs to keep an eye on its government. Making sure they have access to that government is essential, and my dad fought for everybody’s right to be in that press room and he fought for everybody’s right to cover the Legislature.
We see a lot less coverage of state Legislatures throughout the country today. How has that changed in Wisconsin?
When I first started, we had media from everywhere covering the Capitol, which meant more got covered. I think the downside of having fewer reporters is there seems to be a tendency for everybody to write the same story. Everything moves so fast now, there’s fewer opportunities for people to delve into different points of view and different issues and different things that affect legislation.
What do you see as the future for your company?
My dad always made sure he was always moving forward, and what was the next thing, and I really took that to heart. I had talked to my dad before he died and said I think the technology is there for us to do a bill tracking service. He was intrigued by it but he said I don’t think we’re there yet. So when he died and I took over the company, I took two years to develop the software that runs my database program and have really been moving that forward.
I went to grad school this past year and studied what happens after the first generation of a family-owned company. Through that program I learned what I need to pay attention to with the company and how to build my brand.
One of the best things that my dad did was he was always very nonpartisan and the company has that reputation, so I’m trying to continue to move that forward. I’m trying to make more things available to the public. That’s why we started our blog. And we just started this podcast.
Is there anything you want to add?
Working in politics is one of those things where either you love it or you hate it, and there are days that you love it and days that you hate it. I think the best thing about my job is that I get to meet all of the different people.
One thing that I’ve really been enjoying, specifically this session, is getting to know some of the younger staffers. There are so many things that this next generation does that I’m not aware of, so I’m learning a lot from them. I hope that I’m giving something back to them.
The biggest piece of advice that I always try to give people is you don’t know what you don’t know, so don’t assume things and make sure you have the facts before you open your mouth.