A Letter From the Battlefield

Digging through some of my great-grandfather’s old personal belongings, I found the following note:

December 17, 1918

My dearest Mabel:

I hope this letter finds you in good spirits. For nearly a year here on the Western front, I have longed to once again gaze upon your honeyed visage. As the nights fall to below freezing in our fetid trench, my memories of you are all I have to warm my heart. And I cannot say how long that will be enough to keep me alive during this, the greatest of all wars.

As we continue to pound away at the German lines, the unmistakable specter of death has us surrounded. The food we are being fed isn’t for consumption by any living thing. My company loses a dozen men a day from German cannon fire, sniper attacks, disease, or from the cold. The only positive thing to happen in the past month was the time a barely-clothed woman leapt from our trench and defeated an entire German battalion by herself armed with only a shield, a sword, and some bullet-resistant arm cuffs.

Otherwise, the smell of corpses is beginning to overwhelm our trench. Desperation has taken hold of our men – even late at night, we can still hear the cries of our brothers left wounded on the battlefield, begging for their mothers and wives. Their final pleadings are close enough to hear, yet they are too far to attend to. It is almost enough for some healthy men to wish for a swift death themselves, rather than having to endure another day in this nightmare.

Perhaps I should provide some more clarification about my previous reference to the comely, near-naked woman who ended up killing hundreds of Germans by herself. It was a very curious event; she shed her jacket, then walked straight into no-man’s land while donning a glittering crown and some very alluring boots, all while defending herself against thousands of bullets being sprayed her way. Having drawn the attention of the Hun, we were able to then attack and defeat their heavily fortified line, providing the Allied powers with a rare victory indeed.

Yet despite this temporary victory, few men have hopes of ever winning the war. The Germans will stop at nothing to crush France, Britain and the United States on their path to world domination. To many, this was a war begun by the assassination of a worthless archduke nephew of an equally worthless emperor; and yet troops are seeing their best mates cut down in the prime of their lives. We can only hope that the Lord blesses our mission with his divine grace to stop the barbarism being inflicted on Europe by the Kaiser.

The weird thing is, why were the Germans shooting at the most beautiful woman in the world while she was completely unarmed? I mean, she’s twice as hot as any of the flamethrowers they’ve been using on us. If you looked hard enough, you could see a pretty solid side-boob – why would an entire battalion rain all their gunfire on this glorious figure while completely ignoring the hundreds of Allied troops carrying their own guns and rushing towards the German trench?

Anyway, I may have gotten sidetracked there for a moment. It is a question left only for the history books. Hopefully future volumes will tell of the heroism of the men fighting in the Great War and the blood they have shed to free the world from the shackles of imperialism. I am willing to die for our cause – with God on our side, what glory awaits!

My pencil is getting dull, so one final note – once the war is complete, my commander has commissioned me and several of my comrades on a mission to Themyscira, an island that is…um… evidently very dangerous and is of vital strategic importance. As it is the birthplace of this wondrous woman, it must be defended at all costs, as there are no men on the entire island. It is a mission of such prestige, literally every man in my battalion has volunteered for service! What a brave sacrifice we are all willing to make!

I must leave you now, dear Mabel. Please do not weep if you do not hear from me again. In my remaining days, my mind will be busy thinking of you, my own mortality, the morality of war, and what it would be like to perform battlefield CPR on literally the most unbelievable woman in the world.

U.S. Corporal S. Schneider

Veld, France

Time to Put the “Social” Back in “Social Media”

A couple years back, a liberal writer friend of mine suggested we work together on a project: we’d take a cross country trip and keep a journal of our discussions. His elevator pitch: “What would a conservative and liberal talk about in the car on a road trip?”

I told him I presumed I would talk about the usual things I discuss with my liberal friends. Sports, movies, music, sandwiches, girls, work, funny drinking stories, how I got the scars I have, why dogs are great, mustaches, World War I, Twitter, Harley Davidson motorcycles, what animals you think you can beat in a fight, etc.  All the usual stuff.

In short, everything but politics.

(Also, this “cross country, cross-ideology road trip” idea was the conceit behind Michael Ian Black and Meghan McCain’s book, “America, You Sexy Bitch,” which I keep on hand in the event I ever plunge into depression thinking nobody will ever publish my book.)

The lesson, of course, is that as regular people moving around in the world, we all have interests that may overlap or diverge, but that have nothing to do with political affiliation. It’s find to have an ideology, but honestly – people who identify themselves politically before everything else are a total bore.

I was just thinking about this in the wake of rock star Chris Cornell’s shocking and saddening suicide last week. On social media, Cornell’s fans began to emerge to express their sadness and pay tribute – and it crossed ideological and cultural lines in way few things on Twitter or Facebook do.

I was particularly struck by an ode to Cornell written by conservative Weekly Standard writer Mark Hemingway, who I’ve always enjoyed following on Twitter. On most things we align politically, but sometimes we don’t.

But aside from politics, who knew Hemingway played in a rock band in Seattle in the early 1990s, or that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of grunge music? How many conservative writers can painstakingly break down the unique time signatures of Soundgarden’s biggest hits?

As a lifelong Cornell fan, I immediately felt a kinship with Hemingway in a way I never had before. And the same goes with progressives that began popping up on my social media timelines telling their stories about their Chris Cornell fandom. I’ve reached out to some of them and been able to talk about a common interest I never expected to share with them. (In 1992, I saw Soundgarden in Milwaukee when they shared a bill with Blind Melon and Neil Young; it was just after Cornell shaved off his famous long locks of hair, and thinking he looked awesome, I went right home and did the same thing. He looked like a badass – I looked like an eraser.)

That’s what makes Twitter and other social media venues such an odd thing; people are so desperate to lord their moral superiority over others, we miss out on the things we actually have in common. How many of the same people out there that are quick to slam my politics would have fun sitting and talking about how I think Pee Wee’s Great Adventure is the pinnacle of American movie making? Or my theories about how one day plastic surgery is going to be so good, we won’t be able to tell the young from the old, and people who look like teenagers are just going to start dropping dead in the streets? (That one’s kind of a thinker.)

I mean, I’m proud of being a libertarian-leaning conservative; but it’s really a small part of the things that comprise my brain. It seems we spend most of our time fighting over a small percentage of who we are, and we’re missing out on all the other connective tissue that makes us a society. We’re neglecting the “social” part of “social media.”

Of course, there are no people more irritating than the “can’t we all get along” hippies that complain about gridlock. It is incumbent on people who have ideas about government to fight for their convictions, and conflict is an important part of the system of checks and balances. As the saying goes, if you think government runs too slow, wait ’til you see the damage done by one that acts too fast.

But for too many people, politics is now all we know about them, and it makes them far easier to dismiss. Cardboard cutouts are easy to knock down – if you think people aren’t interested in your thoughts about culture or movies or music, you’re wrong. And you might be missing and important connection with someone who shares your thoughts, as weird as they may be. We’re all riding in cars of our own ideologies, never slowing down to meet the other travelers on the road to ask what they’re listening to.

In the early days of the internet, scientists marveled at its potential to bring people together; instead, it has fractured us over political lines. Or, as David Burge put it in a profound set of tweets in January, “10-15 years ago, the internet connected me with best friends I never knew; now it’s the least pleasant thing in my life.”

As Burge correctly counseled, “Shared politics are shitty basis for a friendship.” So stand up and fight for what you believe in, but always remember – literally the least interesting thing about you is your politics.

My Best Albums of 2016

Another year, another list of my favorite albums.  As always, these have been carefully selected through a strict scientific method; now that I have taken the lab coat off and turned off all the Bunsen burners, these are the 10 albums the formula yielded.  It’s just science.

10. Chance the Rapper, “Coloring Book”

All year, friends had been telling me to listen to this album, and I’m really happy I finally gave in.  A groundbreaking album in the “gospel hip-hop” genre, it’s steeped in the optimism America needs right now.

“Summer Friends”

9.  Laura Gibson, “Empire Builder”

My love for Laura Gibson is well documented.  Over a year ago, her New York home burned down, taking many of her valuable instruments with it.  I contributed to the fund to replace her belongings – now I’m just hoping I make her year-end Top 10 list of favorite fanboys.

“Caldera, Oregon”

8.  Mitski, “Puberty II”

This song will make you cry. That is all.

“Your Best American Girl”

7. Thee Oh Sees, “A Weird Exits”

Unapologetic psychedelic rock devoid of nuance.  They manage the rare feat of capturing the frantic energy of their live shows on their recordings.

“Gelatinous Cube”

6. Petal, “Shame”

Catchy guitar-driven pop from singer-songwriter Kiley Lotz of Scranton, PA.  Came out in January of 2016 and remained a lock for my Top 10 all year.

“Heaven”

5. Tribe Called Quest, “We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service”

Tribe has been out of the public spotlight for more than a decade, so it’s not like the public was clamoring for a new album.  But that makes “We got it from Here…” all the more impressive.  They had something to say and came back to say it – it doesn’t feel at all like a cash grab that you see from lesser acts.  Plus, the world needed to hear the late Phife Dawg one last time.

“We the People”

4. Russian Circles, “Guidance”

Instrumental, emotional nerd metal.

“Vorel”

3. Bleached, “Welcome the Worms”

Another stellar guitar-pop album from L.A. based Bleached.  Every song an earworm, front to back.

“Wednesday Night Melody”

2. Avalanches, “Wildflower”

A sprawling album in which each song winds into the next, mixing disco, hip-hop, soul and general silliness.  While not quite as good as the Australian band’s 2000 debut, it’s great to have them back after 16 years.

“Because I’m Me”

1. Radiohead, “A Moon Shaped Pool”

I know, I know – “White Guy in 40’s Likes Radiohead Album” isn’t exactly breaking news.  But the album deserves all the praise heaped on it during the year – it checks all the boxes that make an album great. And the fact that Radiohead is still breaking new ground after two decades makes it all the more remarkable.

“Burn the Witch”

The Perils of Being “Almost Famous”

Almost_Famous

The first Sunday I appeared on television as a political commentator, I was also scheduled to attend a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game later in the day.  It was March of 2008, and the show was on in the morning, while the game was in the afternoon.

Before the game started, I wondered whether anyone would actually recognize me from the show – it was, after all, on one of the four major networks in the Milwaukee TV market.  What if I said something someone didn’t like and they took a swing at me?  What if people wanted to talk to me about politics?  I briefly considered wearing some sort of disguise.

When I got to the game, in looking for my seats, I walked from one end of the stadium to the other.  I received not a single look, not a comment.  I then retraced my steps, walking the length of the stadium and back again.  Still nothing.  It appears my instant fame had somehow gone missing.

I would soon join a small, but interesting subset of people in the media: those who work in the public eye, but aren’t actually “famous.”

Humorist John Hodgman describes himself as a “minor celebrity.”  This is apt – he has a small, but intensely loyal following (among which I count myself).  But on the rungs of fame, there are people who are even below “minor.”  They are the people who live normal lives, who have regular jobs, but whose faces are in public from time to time.  They aren’t “famous,” they are merely “recognizable.”

Until last week, I hadn’t even been in the “hey, you’re that guy from that thing” crowd.  But a dad at my daughter’s basketball game started pointing at me and saying my name over and over.  It was the first time I had ever been recognized in public, and I pray that it’s the last.

I’ve had friends point out that complaining about being noticed in public is a “humblebrag.”  But being a marginally notable person is frequently unsettling.  Before people meet you, they often have preconceived notions of what you’re like and how you think.  I’ve had total strangers recite back personal facts I’ve written in my blogs that I had forgotten I long ago disclosed.

For the few people who know who you are, your public persona always precedes you – and you never know who might admire your work and who can’t stand you.  But they’re out there in the public, walking among us, and it’s impossible to tell who they are.

I’ve had local TV reporter friends tell me horrifying stories of people approaching them in the grocery store, commenting on their appearance or on-air demeanor.  Lisa Manna, who used to be a morning anchor in Green Bay, told me she once received a manila envelope filled with pornographic pictures.  The eyes were scribbled out and her name was written on the women.  The pictures were accompanied by a letter detailing the things this man would do to her, which earned her a police escort to work. And of course, this is all for a job that doesn’t pay a great deal – working in TV news isn’t exactly a license to print money.  Stations know there’s always someone else coming up the ranks willing to do your job for cheaper.

One female reporter who does frequent live reports from downtown told me there are some people who will watch the broadcast, then rush over to where she is to confront her about something she reported.  The most annoying thing, she said, is being recognized when she’s in an awkward place – like, sick at the doctor or at the gym after working out.

And, of course, in my line of work, not everyone is favorably inclined to your work.  Small cadres of anonymous critics frequently whip up online fiction in an attempt to demean me.  The comments sections on my stories are always full of people thinking I’m corrupt, or bought and sold by this group or that group.

Would they say that to my face?  Do I actually unknowingly talk to any of these people on a regular basis in real life?  It’s entirely possible – I’ve had creepy anonymous commenters say they’ve known me from working with me in the past, before they rip me in their diatribes.  Did I ever actually really know that person? I’ll never know – but they’re using our alleged interactions to bolster their supposed knowledge of how I “really” am.

These are the times when I think it would be nice to have a job that wasn’t so public.  I’ve often dreamed of a life just making sandwiches at Cousin’s Subs, where people wouldn’t flock to the internet to deride my hoagie making skills.  Would be nice to be able to accomplish something at work without being accused of being under the influence of Big Mustard.

Typically, being a notable person is seen as a trade-off; you put up with people recognizing you in exchange for wealth or influence.  But trust me, the marginally recognizable enjoy neither of these advantages.  Surely, Leonardo DiCaprio has his critics – but he can blow them off by spending a weekend churning through a private island stocked with super models.  The merely notable are resigned to having a drink, rolling up in a blanket, and watching Leonardo DiCaprio movies, helping him in his quest to buy an extra island.

I do have several advantages, however.  The picture that accompanies my photo in the newspaper was taken before I needed glasses.  And as Superman has taught us, throw on a pair of thick rims and literally nobody – not even your love interests – can recognize you any more.  Also, I am frequently unshaven, looking as if I was off to do some modeling for the “JC Penney for Hobos” catalog.  (I also look like a lot of other people – if I ever got any public comment, I assume it would be someone saying, “man, Keanu’s really let himself go.”)

Oddly, enough, ancillary stardom is something more and more people now seek.  Young women armed with only cell phones now become “Instagram models,” which seems a little bit like being a “Twitter comedian” or “Facebook novelist.”  It used to be that one would create something worthy of notoriety, then benefit from that exposure.  Now, more people seem to believe fame is an end in itself.  Not for me.

Of course, none of this is enough to keep me from doing what I love for a living.  But being someone that other people form public opinions about is something I’m still getting used to – maybe I never will.  Until then, I’ll keep being a walking contradiction – a newspaper columnist that doesn’t particularly like attention.

Why I Love Being Old

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“Youth,” Oscar Wilde once said, “is the one thing worth having.”

As I exited my youth and aged into my thirties, and now forties, I felt much the same.  How nice it would be to once again get out of bed without my ankles shooting pain through my legs.  My belly button has begun to flee my abdomen as if it had just robbed a bank.  At age 42, a good bit of every day is devoted simply to being a human in the world – exercising, trying to eat well, finding new places I need to shave – all things one takes for granted in the prime of youth.  I feel like they should build a statue of me outside my house every time I successfully get my socks on.

But while most of our culture is geared towards making me feel terrible about succumbing to the horrors of aging, I’m starting to feel good about getting old.  In fact, I wouldn’t swap being 42 for being 21 for anything in the world.

So I thought I’d jot down some of the benefits of being a near-senior citizen.  Y’know, before I forget them all.

Having Money

Most of my early 20’s were spent with all my possessions in the back of my car, and all my money paper-clipped together in an envelope.  I worked primarily as a waiter, stuffing dollar bills in my back pocket after a shift.  I had no credit, no bank account, and couldn’t afford to pay attention.  The extent of my money management skills was knowing it was better to bounce one big check rather than a series of smaller checks, since you only have to pay the one-time bad check fee.

When you’re old, those days have passed – you typically have savings, can afford to eat, and can pay for a stable roof over your head.  I can buy the car I want, rather than my dad paying the neighbors $200 for a rusted-out 1981 Chevette with a bumper sticker that says “I Brake for Unicorns.”

And, of course, having money leads to…

Drinking Better Alcohol

There’s a reason I perfected the art of bonging cheap beer in college – because it was typically terrible, and I wanted to get it in my stomach with as little interaction with my taste buds as possible.
But when you’re old, you have no time for bad alcohol.  (That is, unless you are trying to be an Ironic Drinker, in which case the worse the beer, the higher your stature.)

The secret of “old drinking” is that the more expensive the booze you buy, the less of a hangover you end up with.  Drink all the 12-year old scotch you want – a couple of ibuprofen before you go to bed, and you wake up ready to wrestle an alligator.  If college students figured this out, it would bankrupt them all.

Old drinking is also preferable because people don’t judge you nearly as much for engaging in it.  If you drink a lot when you’re young, people worry about its long-term effects; it could cost you jobs, relationships, and keep you from reaching your potential.

However, once everyone sees you’ve pretty much maxed out on the potential scale, you’re free to pickle yourself as you see fit.  When you’re young, you drink to make new memories.  When you’re old, you drink to forget the memories you’ve made.

Once you hit 40, drinking at home isn’t a sign of loneliness, it’s an adorable personality quirk that doesn’t really hurt anyone.  People aren’t like, “aw, now poor Christian’s never going to be an astronaut,” they’re more like, “yeah, seems about right.”

Aristotle once said that “young people are in a condition like permanent intoxication.”  Clearly he said that before he turned 40 and he was in a state of actual permanent intoxication.

Knowing Things

Whenever I go back and read a column I wrote just a week earlier, I think of all the things I learned in the days since it was published.  And it feels like someone else entirely wrote the column.  I picture myself just a week earlier, being naïve about how the world works and not really knowing what I was talking about.

Now multiply this by a thousand weeks, and you get a sense of how much I feel I’ve learned in the past 20 years.  Would I give up all the things I’ve seen, all the events I’ve experienced, and the books I’ve read just to be young again?  Of course not.  To surrender my experiences would be to entirely change who I am now, which is way too risky of a proposition.

That’s not to suggest young people don’t know things.  I’m just partial to the things that I know.

The Wooderson Effect

Everyone remember the famous Wooderson line from Dazed and Confused – “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man – I get older, they stay the same age.”

What Matthew McConaughey’s creepy-but-still-cool character doesn’t realize at the time is that his own perception of the opposite sex will change as he gets older.

When you’re a young man, you’re obviously attracted to girls your own age – older women seem out of reach. (This seems different for young women, who are more open to dating older men.)  If you’re a 25 year old guy who prefers 40-year old women, you’re viewed as kind of a weirdo. But as you age, you begin to find women your own age attractive – your preferences grow older along with you.

So when you get to your 40s, more people are attractive.  Younger women are attractive, older women are attractive. Part of it is, the older you get and the more flaws you recognize in yourself, the more accepting of other peoples’ flaws you become.  Plus, who wouldn’t want to live in a world where “My Cousin Vinny” Marisa Tomei and “The Wrestler” Marisa Tomei can exist in harmony?

No Wasting Time

In my 20s, I spent a lot of time experimenting with things out of my comfort zone.  I listened to all the music I could get my hands on, no matter how avant garde; at one point in college, I found myself listening to a CD of a German band who made music by banging on shopping carts with spoons.

When you’re old, you no longer need to pretend to be into things you’re not.  You are free to do what you wish with the few remaining years you have on this earth.  If all your young hipster friends demand that you like The National, you just shrug, and say “not for me” and move on.  Your time left on this mortal coil is too valuable to dabble in ephemera.  And especially not when “The Bachelor” is on.

Kids

When you’re older, you get to have children.  And the wonder of having kids narrowly cancels out the glory of not having them.

People generally think that having and raising children is a selfless act.  But it’s the exact opposite – having children is the ultimate act of vanity.  For old people, making children is the eternal selfie; you’re cementing your legacy for eternity with little people who look just like you.

Further, having kids immediately brings clarity and focus to your life.  No matter how disjointed or scattered your life was up to that point, once a child emerges, you know exactly what the purpose of your life is.  From then on, you cease to be the author of your own biography – your life story is being written by a 10-pound human.  And your only reason for existing is to take care of that mini-you.  You could pay a life coach a million dollars and they wouldn’t convince you to get your shit together like a baby does.

Feigning Ignorance of Technology

Even if you’re old and technologically savvy, you can always use your age to get you out of uncomfortable situations.  If someone from work texts you with immediate instructions, take your time – you can always say something like, “all these blinking lights confuse me!” or “what’s this internet I read about in the newspaper?”

People Listen to You

For some reason,  when you’re old, people automatically assume you know what you’re talking about.
It is true, that when you age, you have perspective.  If any one emotion characterizes youth, it is the belief that one is the axis upon which the universe turns.  But the older you get, the more you see the world around you and grasp your relative insignificance.  It’s nice knowing that fads will come and go, and the world will not cease to exist.  You just sip your expensive alcohol and enjoy the ride.

Connection to a Specific Time

Perhaps this one is more personal, but not only do I like being old, I like being old exactly at this time in history.  It means I got to be in college during a revolutionary era in popular entertainment – the “grunge” era – when artistry and skill was actually valued.  I wouldn’t trade the experience of being body passed to Jane’s Addiction at the first Lollapalooza for Mumford, his Sons, or his Grandsons.

I love that I grew up before the internet, so I know what it’s like to not have to feel like I’m missing out on every news story, joke or meme.  I can find my way to places without using GPS, and I can have arguments without having to dive into my iPhone for information to back me up.  I love that when I was ten, my parents would kick me out of the house with instructions only to be back by dinner time – a practice that led to a great deal of tree climbing, garter snake handling, fort building, and basketball shooting.

Christopher Hitchens wrote that “A melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realisation that you can’t make old friends.”  It is true, nobody will know you like the friends that you had when you were kids.  They’ve seen you at your best and your worst, and kept you around for all of it.

But being older and having a strong connection to a specific era with someone else is actually a pretty decent stand-in for long-term friendship.  Meeting someone your age and realizing they, too, thought Pearl Jam was overrated is a solid foundation for future friendship; and the older you are, the more cultural touchstones you are able to share with other people.

So yeah, being old is good, but being old in 2016 is even better.

George Bernard Shaw is often credited with saying something along the lines of, “youth is wasted on the young.”  But I, for one, refuse to accept this as my fate.  The young can have their youth – I have my memories. If only I could remember them.

Albums of the year, 2014

Well look at that – it’s album of the year time again already.  My full discussion of these picks will soon be up at our podcast website, but here’s a quick look at my list.

10.  Grouper – Ruins

9. Beck – Morning Phase

8. Ex Hex – Rips

7. Jeremy Messersmith – Heart Murmurs

6. Alvvays – Alvvays

5.  St. Vincent – St. Vincent

4.  Wye Oak – Shriek

3.  Real Estate – Atlas

2. Cloud Nothings – Here and Nowhere Else

1. Ty Segall – Manipulator

Some First-Rate Detective Work

As part of a potential work project, I’ve been going through some old newspapers from 1916.  Of course, there are plenty of odd anachronisms that catch one’s eye while reading papers from a century ago.  But this story, which is absolutely true, really caught my eye.  It’s from the February 11, 1916 Milwaukee Sentinel.

According to the article, Milwaukee police detectives Jacob Laubenheimer and Harry Ridenour were paging through the newspaper one day when they saw the following advertisement:

“Wanted: Strong, husky young men as private detectives.  Opportunity to travel all over the world.  Apply at Asiatic Pacific Detective agency, Room 713, Majestic Building.”

Thinking the ad was a bit too good to be true, Laubenheimer and Ridenour headed down to the agency to pose as potential enrollees.  There they met Brightley Severinghaus, who claimed to be the head of the agency. “You look like a detective and where it usually takes us a month to train candidates for our private force, I think I can get you through in about three weeks,” Severinghaus told Laubenheimer.

“Fine,” said Laubenheimer.  “When do I get my first lesson?”

“You will have to put up $5 and then the same amount every week,” said Severinghaus.

Laubenheimer fumbled around and found $2 in his pocket – Ridenour fronted him the remaining $3.  Laubenheimer then paid Severinghaus, and after receiving a receipt, put him under arrest.

“I thought you would make a good detective when I first saw you,” said Severinghaus.

Later, a court sent him to an emergency room to have his sanity tested.

For some reason, this made me laugh for a good couple of hours.  I’m sure Laubenheimer felt good about passing Severinghaus’ class so quickly.

How a Bill Does Not Become a Law: An activist Dane County court has brashly upended the rules of lawmaking

Schneider22.1Every two years, the Wisconsin Assembly issues an activity book for schoolchildren. The book includes a cartoon called “How a Bill Becomes a Law,” which details the happy life of an ebullient piece of legislation named Bill.

Bill leads a simple life — all he wants to do is one day earn the governor’s signature on his belly and become law. The cartoon follows his traditional journey, from hearings held on his merits, to committees voting him out, to both houses of the Legislature passing him before sending him to the governor to become law.

Such has been the legislative process since Wisconsin’s inception in 1848. Yet in recent years, Bill’s celebration upon being signed by the governor would be a bit premature. Having lost control of the Legislature and the governorship, Wisconsin Democrats have added another step: To become law, Bill must first pay a visit to the Dane County Circuit Court.

Dane County has the distinction of not only being the home of state government; it is also indisputably one of the most politically liberal counties in America. And despite being only one of Wisconsin’s 69 state circuit courts, it has essentially become a second legislature.

Our friend Bill may have earned the imprimatur of legislators elected from all over the state and the signature of a governor elected by a majority of Wisconsin voters, but a single Dane County judge can derail Bill’s attempt to find a cozy home within the pages of the state’s statute books.

This is a problem not just for poor Bill, but also for the unfortunate citizens around Wisconsin who elect Republicans to the state Assembly, Senate and governorship. The ballots of millions are counteracted by the vote of one robed master elected by a strongly progressive electorate, whose elevated position is not earned by any specific legal skill or expertise, but instead his or her proximity to State Street. In fact, until recently, any lawsuit against the state of Wisconsin had to be filed in Dane County, giving its Circuit Court an elevated importance over any other local court in the state.

And thus, the Dane County Circuit Court has become a legal ATM for the state’s progressives: Insert a court challenge, and out comes a favorable opinion that will cost your opponents buckets of cash to appeal.

So-called “venue shopping” like this isn’t all that new. For instance, the federal court in Marshall, Texas, has been traditionally known to be friendly to those seeking money for patent infringements, and large companies from around the nation typically end up in this small Texas town. Quick trials and plaintiff-friendly juries are the norm in Marshall (as is its annual Fire Ant Festival), making it a popular vacation spot for lawyers.

Of course, picking a friendly federal appeals court is tricky, given that you have to predict what the lower courts are going to do. But those looking for anti-business outcomes are generally served well by filing cases in the jurisdiction of the notoriously liberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers nine western states. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court either reversed or vacated 19 of the 26 cases it reviewed from the 9th Circuit; two years earlier, the supremes shot down 94 percent of its cases.

The Dane County Circuit Court has proven itself another great haven for liberal venue shoppers. In March 2011, it found itself in the middle of a national controversy when Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne filed a lawsuit attempting to block implementation of Gov. Scott Walker’s new law restricting public sector collective bargaining. Unable to prevail legislatively, Democrats attempted to sink the bill in the courts. And they found a very sympathetic ear in Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi.

It was important that Democrats get a lawsuit moving quickly; on April 5, Supreme Court Justice David Prosser was up for election in a race that would decide the high court’s ideological balance. Having a case pending in a state court would bolster the impression that the Prosser election was really an election about whether Walker’s broadside to the public unions would stand.

On March 16, seven days after the Wisconsin Senate passed the collective bargaining bill, Ozanne filed a lawsuit seeking not to overturn the law, but to prevent it from being published in the first place. Two days later, Sumi heard one day’s worth of testimony, issued a temporary restraining order stopping publication of the law and quickly left town on a weeklong family vacation.

On his blog, Marquette University law professor Rick Esenberg said he was “astonished” at Sumi’s ruling, noting that in 1943, the state Supreme Court held that judges may not enjoin the publication of a law on the basis that it is or might be unconstitutional. “A bill, in the court’s view, is not enacted until it is published such that publication is part of the legislative process with which courts may not interfere,” noted Esenberg.

On April 5, Prosser narrowly defeated his liberal challenger, JoAnne Kloppenburg. On May 25, attorneys at the state Department of Justice sent Sumi a letter indicating that they might seek her recusal. The very next day, Sumi issued her opinion striking down the law in its entirety.

Within months, the state Supreme Court assumed its role as the state’s legal janitor and cleaned up the mess Sumi had made. (She ruled that the state Senate violated the open-meetings law, but failed to acknowledge the pertinent exemption for legislative actions.) In a contentious decision that led to accusations of justices choking each other, Prosser excoriated Sumi, writing, “In turbulent times, courts are expected to act with fairness and objectivity. They should serve as the impartial arbiters of legitimate legal issues. They should not insert themselves into controversies or exacerbate existing tensions.”

While the Supreme Court vacated Sumi’s decision, the pro-union litigants were not done. On Sept. 14, Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas once again struck down Walker’s law, this time based on a challenge from Madison schoolteachers and Milwaukee city employees. The ruling blocked the law from being applied to school and local government workers, but it remains in effect for state workers and employees of the University of Wisconsin System. The case is being appealed.

Yet another case of “Walker nullification” took place when Dane County Circuit Judge David Flanagan, who had signed the recall petition against Walker, struck down a Walker-approved law requiring photo identification to vote. Inexplicably, Flanagan did not disclose that he had signed the petition.

While the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a similar voter-identification law in Indiana, Flanagan ruled that his opinion should effectively trump the Supreme Court because the Indiana law allows a voter 10 days after casting a provisional ballot to produce identification, while the Wisconsin law allows only three days.

The fact that Dane County always got the first crack at adjudicating lawsuits against the state clearly irritated Republicans, who in 2011 passed a law allowing plaintiffs suing the state to pick venues other than Dane County. Legislative Republicans took advantage of this new law during the Walker recall process, when they sued the state Government Accountability Board in Waukesha County, which they considered a friendlier venue.

This new law, however, does nothing to stop liberal groups from filing suits in Dane County. Esenberg noted that constitutional challenges to enacted legislation are “nothing new,” and that challenges aren’t always illegitimate. But he notes that cases filed by Democrats in Dane County have become uniquely problematic, given that Dane is a “company town.”

“You have exceptionally politically charged cases being brought in a county which has this sort of this toxic combination of being both politically homogeneous and politically aroused,” said Esenberg. “You had these pieces of legislation coming before elected judges in a county where people were marching in the streets, pretty much all in opposition to these things, which raises questions about the political pressures that may be brought to bear on a judge who finds himself or herself in that situation.”

And while the ability of circuit courts to strike down state laws is not new, the recent hyper-partisan way in which the courts are being asked to function will have long-lasting impacts on Wisconsin law. Scott Walker and the GOP Legislature may only be with Wisconsin for the span of a few years; the precedent of litigating everything as a political weapon may be with the state forever.

Those ideological pressures placed on circuit courts will likely boil up again now that the Legislature has passed a much-discussed bill to allow an iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin. Environmental groups are expected to file suit at some point to block the mine. And that move for an injunction will almost certainly be filed in Dane County.

Some judicial observers have argued that it doesn’t matter where cases like this begin, as long as the Supreme Court is there to serve as a backstop to Dane County. For conservatives, this reasoning is problematic.

First, while the makeup of the court currently leans conservative, the court is usually only one April election away from switching ideologies. Liberals need but a single seat, in other words, to turn the court from a stop sign to a green light for Dane County opinions.

One thing is certain — the more the lower courts are seen as mere political arms, the worse it is for the reputation of the Supreme Court. Some conservatives have grown frustrated that the Supreme Court hasn’t yanked jurisdiction away from the appellate courts and struck down Flanagan’s photo identification ruling, for example.

But as one justice told me, that’s not at all how the Supreme Court should work. The court, instead, should almost always let the process work itself out. Setting a precedent of clutching politically expedient cases away from appellate courts could be terrible for the right, especially if liberals regain control of the Supreme Court.

In the wake of the recent Dane County decisions, the Republican Legislature has also proposed changes to how cases are handled. One proposal, for instance, would have prevented circuit courts from blocking duly enacted laws. Esenberg believes this would be a mistake, not only given that some laws should be invalidated, but also because politics are cyclical, and one day Republicans will need lower courts to block the actions of a Democratic governor.

Esenberg proposed a potential remedy for over-politicization of the courts: If a circuit court wants to issue an injunction to block a state statute, the party opposing the injunction has 10 days to appeal.

According to Esenberg’s proposal, if the ruling isn’t appealed in 10 days, the stay is lifted and the injunction is effective. If the ruling is appealed, the stay would remain in place, and the appeals court would have to lift it. If both the appeals court and circuit court agree on the injunction, then it stays in place.

But regardless of what reforms might pass, Republicans will not be able to legislate Dane County out of existence. Challengers to Scott Walker’s agenda will continue to look to the Dane County courts to block the will of the people. And liberal judges will continue to garner awards like Sumi’s for being the State Bar of Wisconsin’s “2011 Judge of the Year.”

And this will be bad news for our good friend Bill, who will have to routinely pack his bags for Dane County. Maybe the state can get him some Badger football tickets to make his frequent stays more pleasant.

Walker or Ryan? Here’s the early line on their 2016 chances

Schneider-Walker-RyanEvery now and then, two major talents emerge in close proximity. In 2011, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers finished first and third, respectively, in the National League’s Most Valuable Player voting. Twelve times, two actors (including, in one case, three) from the same movie have been nominated for Oscars for Best Actor. (The most recent was 1984, when F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce were both nominated for “Amadeus.” Abraham won.)

In politics, Wisconsin is experiencing such an embarrassment of talent. Virtually every other part of the country is honored to have one elected official with the chops to be considered presidential material. Yet in the Dairy State, the only debate is over which of its two top Republican stars would make a better commander in chief.

So who has the better chance? Gov. Scott Walker or Congressman Paul Ryan?

Walker and Ryan grew up within a car drive of one another. Ryan lived in Janesville, while Walker was raised 20 miles away in Delavan. Each considers Ronald Reagan a key figure in his political development. And both dominated national news in 2012 on their way to becoming national GOP stars.

Ryan, of course, had his taste of a presidential run, having served as Mitt Romney’s capable vice presidential sidekick. While the party faithful initially worried about how Ryan’s aggressive plans to scale back Medicare and Social Security would play with voters, it appears that Ryan may have been a net boost to the Romney campaign. While Romney lost the election by a wide margin of electoral votes, his slim margins of defeat in key states like Ohio, Virginia and Florida show those states ended up being closer than the polls indicated before the Ryan pick. He most certainly didn’t harm his status with the party faithful, who now know Ryan can stand up to the pressures of a nationwide campaign.

Yet with congressional Republicans faring so poorly nationwide, many party faithful think it is time to look for a governor like Walker. He’s taken his licks and won a recall election by a larger margin than he won his first gubernatorial contest; his toughness is appealing to a party that currently lacks it.

Of the two, Ryan is the better public speaker. His 14 years in Congress have honed his skills; he can speak knowledgeably and extemporaneously, no matter how arcane the topic. Walker has improved as a speaker, but he is cautious and more reserved than Ryan. His appeal is immense with Republicans, but he still makes progressives scream at their televisions.

Walker has history on his side. The only president elected directly from the House to the presidency was James Garfield in 1880 — a singular event that solidified Garfield’s status as either the best campaigner or worst president of all time, depending on one’s perspective. Governors, on the other hand, routinely ascend to the presidency, as voters appear to see their executive experience on the state level as a plausible dry run.

Of the two, Walker also appears to be the more ambitious. Following the November election, Walker went on an aggressive speaking tour around the country and has coyly avoided ruling out a run in 2016 (assuming he is re-elected in 2014).

Conversely, despite being a key player in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, Ryan has disappeared from the public eye and has uniformly downplayed his desire for higher office. He genuinely seems to enjoy policy over politics.

For Wisconsin Republicans, it is an impossible choice. Eventually, it may be up to the other 49 states to decide for them.

Podcast: Our Favorite Albums of 2012

Naturally, our favorite podcast of every year is the one where we reveal our “Top 10” albums of the year.  Here’s my list for this year:

1. The Men – Open Your Heart

2. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Alleluljah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

3. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE

4. Best Coast – The Only Place

5. Mount Carmel – Real Women

6. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse

7. Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory

8. Hospitality

9. Sonny & the Sunsets – Longtime Companion

10. Tennis – Young & Old

You can listen to the podcast here:

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Or download it directly here.

As you can see above, The Men’s “Open Your Heart” topped my list.  Here’s a live performance of theirs from Seattle earlier this year:

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Que Pasa Republicano? To win again, the GOP needs to appeal to Hispanics

mexicoFollowing the 2012 presidential election, pundits of all stripes began appealing to retroactive prescience to explain what cost Mitt Romney the presidency. Whatever their pet issue, it suddenly became the reason Romney blew it — the Republican “war on women,” climate change denial, etc. Members of the Star Wars fan club thought Romneygot hammered because he didn’t take up the cause of Ewok independence.

But the most cited reason for Republican failure was the fact that Hispanic voters continue to drift away from the GOP. According to exit polls, Mitt Romney received 27 percent of the Latino vote, down from the 31 percent John McCain received in 2008 and down even farther from the 44.1 percent George W. Bush garnered in 2004.

In recent years, Republicans have tried to appeal to Latinos by stressing the similarities of their core beliefs: Hispanics are industrious and family-oriented, and their religious convictions make them a natural constituency for the GOP.

Earlier this year, I sat down with Gov. Scott Walker, and he explained that if Republicans stuck to a message of freedom and lower taxes, Hispanics would become allies. “The vast majority of Latino voters I know in Milwaukee County and statewide are very much driven by the small-business, entrepreneurial, hard-work mindset, and they really don’t want the government in their way.”

“I try not to ‘silo’ voters. I try to listen to what their concerns are,” he said. “I’ve actually spent a lot of time with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and… I realized that their members care about barriers to growth in small business — excessive regulations, excessive litigation, property taxes are too high, the sorts of things that I talk to everyone about. So I don’t say, ‘Here, my Latino message is going to be different than my message anywhere else out there,’ and I think voters appreciate that.”

But as Hispanics continue to jump ship, Republican campaigns become less about persuasion and more about simple math. There just aren’t enough white voters to maintain the GOP’s slim margins of victory in swing districts.

Still, as Walker’s statements indicate, it is simply not in the Republican DNA to start slicing up voters by race. Democrats are the ones who see voters in groups and tailor their message accordingly. Republicans see voters as individuals and expect their messages of liberty and self-sufficiency to have broad appeal. For Republicans, appealing to minority voters is like speaking a second language.

But it is something they have to do.

There is a small, fairly well-reasoned contingent of conservatives who would support modifying the Republican hardline stance on immigration. Despite the left’s dismissal of George W. Bush as a right-wing ideologue, he proposed the “guest worker” plan in 2004, accurately recognizing, I think, that we’re not just going to pack up 12 million illegals and ship them home. That plan was burned to the ground by his own party.

Republicans would be wise to follow the Jack Kemp “bleeding-heart conservative” blueprint. Kemp and his Empower America cohort Bill Bennett were outspoken proponents of immigration, calling immigrants “a blessing, not a curse.” In 1994, Kemp and Bennett opposed California ballot Proposition 187, a measure to bar illegal immigrants from obtaining public services.

Some Republicans think putting a Hispanic conservative on the ballot will bring Latinos home — as if Marco Rubio alone is the answer. But the record shows that Hispanics will vote against other Hispanics if they don’t reflect the interests of the group as a whole.

For Republicans, a lot is at stake: Without Hispanics, they may become a permanent minority themselves.

A Letter from a Crab Trap Enthusiast

I was looking at restaurant reviews on Google and ran across this one, in which a frequent diner at the “Crab Trap” in Amelia Island, Florida, calmly lays out his case for for the restaurant’s superiority:

OK YOU KNOW WHAT!!!!! ALL YOU RICH SNOBBY PEOPLE OUT THERE THAT ARE HATING ON THE CRAB TRAP NEED TO CHILL OUT BECAUSE THE CRAB TRAP HAS ALL FRESH STUFF AND FOR YOUR INFORMATION THE SHRIMP YOU EAT WHERE YOU LIVE ARE ALL FROZEN AND HOW I KNOW THAT IS BECAUSE FERNANDINA BEACH FL IS THE BIRTH PLACE OF THE MODERN SHRIMPING ENDISTRY AND PEOPLE IN TI LAND AND CHINI ARE BUILDING SALT WATER PONDS AND GROWING SHRIMP WITH STEROIDS AND SHIPPING THEM ALL OVER THE WORLD AND I GUARANTEE THAT THE CRAB TRAP GETS THERE SHRIMP FROM THE BACK OF A SHRIMP BOAT RIGHT AFTER THE SHRIMP ARE CAUGHT……… IM TIRED OF ALL YOU SNOBBY PEOPLE OUT THERE THAT CANT ENJOY ANYTHING MY NAME IS LOGAN VOORHEES AND I LIVE IN FERNANDINA BEACH FL AND GO TO THE CRAB TRAP EVERYNIGHT….. IT IS THE BEST SEAFOOD RESTAURANT AND IT DOESNT MATTER WHAT ALL YOU LOSERS SAY SO JUST CHILL OUT AND GIVE IT A TRY AND ATLEAST TRY TO ENJOY IT…….. OH!!! AND BY THE WAY THE HOLES IN THE FREAKIN TABLES ARE TRASH CANS IDIOT!!!!!! AND THE REASON SERVICE WAS SLOW IS BECAUSE PEOPLE LOVE THE CRAB TRAP AND THERE IS A LINE FROM THE PALACE ALL THE WAY TO IT SSO…. GET IT STRAIGHT!!!!!!!!! AND FOR THE THING THAT SAYS OVERPRICED ITS BECAUSE AGAIN!!! IT IS ALL FRESH UNLIKE THE SHRIMP IN DIFFERENT PLACES AND MAYPORT HASNT BEEN OPEN IN FREAKIN 4 YEARS!!!!!!!!!! AND THE ISLAND GIRL IS THE SHRIMP BOAT THAT THE CRAB TRAP GETS IT FROM AND IF YOU DONT BELIEVE ME ITS DOWN THE ROAD BY ALL THE SHRIMP BOATS GO ASK FOR YOUR FREAKIN SELF………………… AND IT IS SOPPOSED TO LOOK FREAKIN OLD THATS WHY IT GETS A FREAKIN AAAAAAAA ON ALL ITS INSPECTIONS!!!!!!!!!!!!!! IDIOTSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Case closed.

Political Misdirection: Candidates sometimes reveal more about themselves than they’d like

flagAn old Democratic campaign manager once revealed to me the key to successful public relations: “The more liberal your candidate, the bigger the American flag has to be on his bumper.”

It’s a simple illustration of how candidates are free to write their own narrative, no matter the facts. As George Armstrong Custer once said, his goal was “to make my narrative as truthful as possible.” Candidates are free to accentuate the things that make them look good, even if doing so provides a window into what they really think.

For instance, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Eric Hovde began his campaign this year by emphasizing his ties to Wisconsin. In one of his early TV ads, he proudly announces that he was born in the state and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Surely, any candidate wants to show voters he’s one of them, but Hovde has a special challenge: He hasn’t actually lived in Wisconsin in a quarter of a century. Hovde’s job as a hedge fund manager took him to Washington, D.C.; consequently, he’s ready to don a cheesehead, paint his chest green and gold, and change his two daughters’ names to “Harley” and “Davidson.”

Certainly this isn’t dishonest, but it’s clearly an attempt to make Hovde’s “narrative as truthful as possible.” Messaging misdirection is as endemic to politics as noodles are to lasagna. They go together like “beef” and “stroganoff” or “cole” and “slaw.” (Side note: Is there any other kind of slaw? Can we drop the “cole,” or is there a “Citizens for Cole” interest group out there keeping it alive?)

On May 17, the state Department of Workforce Development issued a press release announcing new statewide jobs numbers. The new Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers were of particular interest, as the gubernatorial recall candidates were sparring over different sets of employment numbers. Gov. Scott Walker’s numbers showed the state was gaining jobs, while Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett relied on a BLS report indicating that Wisconsin was last in the nation in job creation over the past year.

The headline of the DWD release said it all: “Wisconsin April unemployment rate declines to 6.7 percent.” I read it and immediately thought: “Oh, no, the state lost jobs.” Because if the state had gained jobs, that would have been the headline. When the BLS numbers show the state losing jobs, the unemployment rate is the last refuge for a positive headline. Sure enough, there in the last paragraph, on the second page, was the number: The BLS estimated a loss of 6,800 in the previous month.

Barrett himself wasn’t above shifting the topic. In fact, the whole recall election was a change in subject, as Barrett was loathe to mention public-sector collective bargaining even though it was the overwhelming reason why the recall petition got traction in the first place.

At one point, Barrett issued a memo showing his campaign “gaining momentum” in the polls. Translation: “I am losing this race.”

Regular people understand how ridiculous some efforts to control the narrative can be. Imagine your spouse joyously telling you that you can spend more time together… because Ryan Braun just got eaten by a leopard that ran out on the baseball field. Or picture your wife telling you the “great news” that you can finally go buy that Harley-Davidson that you always wanted… because she’s moving to Sweden with Sven, her personal trainer.

This isn’t simply reading between the lines — it’s reading outside the lines. So watch political ads very closely; generally, candidates will emphasize an area where they feel weakest. By trying to tell you nothing, they will often tell you everything.

Wisconsin Unions are No Stranger to Presidential Politics

flagLast Tuesday night, shortly before Tom Barrett strode to the stage to accept his party’s nomination to take on Scott Walker in Wisconsin’s June recall election, Barrett received a big atta-boy from the White House. In a statement, President Obama announced he was “proud to stand with Tom Barrett,” because the Milwaukee mayor would “move Wisconsin forward.”

It wasn’t the first time Obama had involved himself in the Wisconsin imbroglio over public sector collective bargaining. At the outset of the Madison protests last year, he called Walker’s proposal an “assault” on government workers. As a presidential candidate, Obama vowed to “put on a comfortable pair of shoes” and “walk on that picket line” to preserve the “right” to collectively bargain.

Obama’s interest in Wisconsin is easily explainable; a Barrett victory would aid the president’s prospects in the state immeasurably come November. Wisconsin is one of a handful of states that will determine the presidency in 2012; if Walker is seen as vindicated, it could demoralize the state’s Democrats. For this reason, many see the recall as a precursor to the presidential election; in many ways, November could be Wisconsin writ large.

Of course, the current recall effort is unprecedented. But this isn’t the first time the issue of public sector collective bargaining in Wisconsin was inextricably intertwined with a seminal presidential election.

In September of 1959, telegenic young U.S. senator John F. Kennedy made the third of what would be many trips to Wisconsin to build support for his eventual run for the presidency in 1960. Wisconsin was the first primary in the nation, so Kennedy needed to win the state to show he was a serious player on the national scene.

On September 25th, Kennedy’s plane landed at Truax field in Madison; he was greeted by newly-minted governor Gaylord Nelson, Madison mayor Ivan Nestingen and state Democratic Party chair Patrick Lucey. They immediately shuffled Kennedy off to a meeting with 40 state labor leaders at Madison’s Park hotel.

Kennedy’s relationship with labor was tenuous, at best. He had served on the famous Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management, which investigated the rampant corruption of Teamster’s president Jimmy Hoffa and his predecessor, David Beck. Kennedy’s brother, Robert, served as the chief counsel for the committee, and was widely regarded as an aggressive prosecutor of union misdeeds. (Robert Kennedy later documented his experience uncovering widespread union corruption in his book The Enemy Within.)

Inspired by his work on the committee tasked with exposing union corruption, John F. Kennedy introduced legislation that reformed union financial and reporting structures. In 1959, the Kennedy-Ervin union bill was merged with a much stricter President Eisenhower-endorsed Republican House version (the “Landrum-Griffin” bill), and became law.

Yet unions believed the final bill too closely resembled the original Republican version, and held Kennedy’s support of the final bill against him. At the September meeting in Madison, organized labor leaders excoriated Kennedy for voting in favor of Landrum-Griffin.

Madison Federation of Labor president Marvin Brickson asked Kennedy why he supported legislation that was “detrimental to labor unions.” Kennedy answered that Landrum-Griffin actually helped unions, as it would have prevented the corruption that had sullied the name of organized labor. (Hoffa had been creating so-called “paper unions” with phony members, which he then used to gain more control of the Teamsters.)

Harold Rohr, president of the Madison City Council and a representative of Painters Local 802, told Kennedy that the bill made “second class citizens” of honest workers. “The rank and file of labor people didn’t want to be harassed by this type of legislation,” Rohr protested.

Michael McMahan, business agent for the construction workers’ union, complained that the legislation unfairly targeted building trades. “I’ll say it as bluntly as I can,” Kennedy responded. “The building trades came out pretty well in this bill.” Kennedy then asked McMahan what he would suggest should be done. “I suggest you leave labor alone,” McMahan shot back.

That very day, in a show of solidarity with organized labor, Governor Nelson approved the nation’s first law allowing local employees to unionize. The 1958 election of Nelson, only the second Democrat elected in Wisconsin in the 20th century, made all the difference for labor unions.

Due to the Progressives’ takeover of the state Republican Party in the early 20th century, elected Democrats in Wisconsin were scarce. By 1958, it had been 26 years since a Democrat had won the Wisconsin governorship.

Democrats had been in the minority in the state senate and assembly since 1893. For four straight legislative sessions (1923–1929), there were no Democrats in the Senate.

Yet in the 1950s, Democrats began to emerge as a serious party in Wisconsin, in large part due to the money they raised from labor unions. When Democrat William Proxmire ran for governor in 1954, 55 percent of the money he raised was from organized labor. Labor also offered Democrats vote mobilization, phone banks, Election Day transportation, and independent expenditures. In The History of Wisconsin Vol. 6, author William F. Thompson speculated that “the triumph of the Democratic party in the late 1950’s would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, without these various contributions of the unions.” Republicans still outspent Democrats two to one, but organized labor was able to close the gap considerably.

Republicans, sensing the threat, in 1955 passed the Caitlin Act, which prohibited labor unions from contributing to political parties, committees, or candidates for state or local office. After passage of the act, union donations to Democrats plummeted.

But Democrats quickly adapted, and soon the state stopped enforcing the Caitlin Act altogether. In Nelson’s successful gubernatorial race in 1958, 21.7 percent of his money was raised from labor.

Shortly after Nelson took office came the law allowing collective bargaining for state and municipal employees. Soon, government unions flourished — and so did Democratic fundraising. Thanks to contributions by organized labor, a Democratic Party debt of $10,000 after Nelson’s election was turned into a $50,000 surplus by 1963. Soon, Democrats became the dominant political party in Wisconsin.

But while Nelson was pushing ahead for the unions, organized labor remained skeptical of Kennedy. Many Democrats thought Kennedy was simply trying to buy a Wisconsin primary win, although he and his competitor, Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey, both spent about $150,000 in the election. Humphrey, who was an expert in labor politics, and who at one point in the campaign joined a union picket line and sang “Solidarity Forever,” despised the wealthy “Kennedy machine.” At one point, Humphrey likened himself to a “corner grocer running against a chain store.”

On election night, Kennedy got the Wisconsin win he needed; albeit by a slim 56 percent majority. Kennedy won six of the state’s ten congressional districts; the overwhelming majority of his votes came from the four most Catholic of those districts. Humphrey took the results as good news and stayed in the race to fight on in West Virginia; later, Stuart Symington, Lyndon Johnson, and Adlai Stevenson would all join in the Democratic primary to unsuccessfully thwart Kennedy’s ambition.

Had Wisconsin labor not been so skeptical of Kennedy, it is possible he could have cruised to his party’s nomination, and avoided the convention fight he would eventually face. In the general election, Kennedy would go on to lose Wisconsin by four percentage points to Richard Nixon, although, of course, he would win the presidency.

So while it may seem like Wisconsin is swimming in unchartered waters, it isn’t the first time union angst in the state has altered a presidential election. Only this time, Democrats have to hope a Walker win doesn’t erase some of the pages of their blueprint.

-May 14, 2012