Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

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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:


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

Book End: Imagine a World Without the Printed Page

booksA few days ago, I stood in the local big box electronics store for 20 minutes, gazing at the array of e-book readers lined up on the counter. I felt myself aging ten years per second as I navigated between Nooks and Kindles, gigabytes and dual core processers. In the end, I decided I couldn’t take part in euthanizing the book industry, in which I one day hope to be a participant.

My stolid on-site review of these devices led to an instantaneous reflection on the role of good, old-fashioned books in our lives. The cultural influence of the printed page is impossible to measure; once ink becomes a relic, the unintended consequences could be severe.

Consider, for example, the obvious physical footprint books have on our topography. Some of our largest, most ornate buildings exist solely to house books; at some point, these libraries, bookstores and archives will simply serve as empty, cavernous remnants of the pre-digital era.

When books vanish, no longer will you be able to dazzle dinner guests with your imposing bookshelves full of mahogany-bound Russian poetry. A computer hard drive is a much less exciting conversation piece, and certainly a more difficult item about which to brag. (I always keep a book of poetry in my car, in hopes that if I die in a car accident, the headline will read “Area Man, Lover of Yeats, Decapitated in Horrible Flaming Wreck.”)

On a personal level, many readers will miss the tactile sensation of leafing through books. Devout bibliophiles even like the pain they feel in their necks after perusing bookstore shelves with their heads cranked to the side in order to read the vertically oriented spines. They buy books they will never read, but feel better about having them on their shelves at home. They relish finding hidden treasures left in used books, whether they’re notes scribbled in the margins or clues to the previous book’s owner on a slip of paper used as a bookmark.

The move towards digital books will also likely bring about the same type of information egalitarianism we’ve seen with the internet. In the days of the printed word, publishing was more or less a meritocracy; if a publisher was willing to back a book with the type of cash it takes to print a few thousand copies, it meant it was at least a professional product. (Those that want to point out that a publisher actually issued a book penned by The Jersey Shore’s “Snooki” may have their say at this point.) It will be much more difficult sorting through texts that don’t bear a publisher’s imprimatur, since all one needs to be considered an “author” now is to be able to turn on a computer.

Perhaps most importantly, physical books also provide a cultural permanency that would go missing if everything were stored on digital files. Right now, it doesn’t matter how arcane the issue is about which one might want to learn; somewhere, there’s a physical book that contains that information. Sometimes, the value of certain texts aren’t apparent within the same decade they are written. Yet if the value of historical information was left up to the capriciousness of e-book readers, it could all vanish with a few keystrokes. (Undoubtedly, had the U.S. Constitution been written on an iPad, it would have contained a few more references to Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video.)

Similarly, physical books grant authors eternal life. The literary world is replete with names of writers who received lukewarm reviews during their lives (Nietzsche, Blake, Thoreau), but who became posthumously indispensable. Emily Dickinson’s first compilation of works wasn’t published until four years after her death, when her sister found her secret stash of nearly 1,800 poems. Yet authors in the digital age are just a few “delete” button presses away from eternal extinction.

It seems unlikely that there will be a day where books disappear completely. As long as there are wealthy people, rare books will be sold as commodities and held as investments. Middlebrow texts will become the realm of book fetishists, much as vinyl records are today. But once our cultural mores are untethered from the book standard, we could be set adrift in an age when everything is possible, but nothing is real.

Of course, the primary beneficiaries of the new digital age are the stately trees and critters that live amongst them, who will not be sacrificed to the paper mills. But next time you see a squirrel, see if he can get Tom Wolfe to sign your Kindle.

-April 16, 2012

The Real History of the Recall

Yesterday, when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel posted my op-ed describing the history surrounding enactment of the Wisconsin recall, I expected the usual suspects to flood the comment thread.  The process usually goes something like this: I spend weeks swimming in microfilm and documents at the State Historical Society in order to produce a fact-based report.  Then, anonymous commenters explain how wrong I am because, well, they know how to turn on their computer.

One comment early in the morning struck me, mostly because it contained complete sentences.  The commenter’s name was “Fallone,” and criticized me for failing to mention the circumstances of the 1911 recall effort, in which the recall resolution was amended to exempt the judiciary from the recall process because some senators thought it would be abused by socialists.  Of course, in the report that served as the basis for my op-ed, I talk all about the 1911 recall effort and the move to exempt judges; but given the limited space allotted to me by the Journal Sentinel, I didn’t mention it yesterday.  The commenter ended his critique of me by saying “The Journal Sentinel does the public a disservice by printing polemics masquerading as objective history.”


By 4:34 P.M. , Marquette law professor Ed Fallone had read my original piece, and -oops – realized I discussed everything he wanted me to about the 1911 election in my “polemic” writings.  But obviously, he had it out for me, so he needed a new specious line of argument, which he lays out on the Marquette University Law School Faculty blog.  Not only is his critique of my research weak, it doesn’t even lay a finger on my central thesis; that the recall isn’t being used in any way envisioned by the constitutional amendment’s original authors.

Fallone begins with this questionable syllogism:

The original push to add recall provisions to the Wisconsin Constitution, conducted during the 1911 legislative term, was clearly modeled on the nationwide campaign to adopt recall provisions.  I have previously written about the history of the recall movement here.  None of the other states that recall advocates in Wisconsin looked to as models in 1911 had exempted executive branch officials from the recall power.  Moreover, far from being directed at judges, the original provisions in 1911 were amended in response to criticism so that they exempted judges from the scope of the recall (see page 139 of this history by the Legislative Research Bureau).

Given this record, it is impossible to conclude that the original legislation adopting recall provisions was primarily directed at the removal of elected judges.  However, the original legislation was rejected by the voters in 1914, and did not become part of the Wisconsin Constitution.  Mr. Schneider appears to argue that when the recall provisions were introduced once again, in 1923 by State Senator Henry Huber, they were no longer intended to apply broadly to all elected officials.  Apparently we are to believe that between 1911 and 1923 the intent of the recall provision had changed from an intent to apply the recall to all elected officials except judges to an intent to apply the recall provisions primarily to judges.

Is it really the position of a Marquette law professor that two legislatures, a dozen years apart and comprised by almost entirely different members, could come to two different conclusions about how the recall amendment should be drafted?  The move to exempt judges in 1911 was due to the concerns of a handful of senators fearful of socialist dirty tricks; it’s impossible that either those senators were either gone, or their fear of socialists had been ameliorated?  Is it far-fetched to think that in 1923, new legislators buoyed by the progressive surge in popularity, thought they could pass a more expansive recall amendment?

Take, for example, the issue of concealed firearms.  A decade ago, legislators drafted a very modest proposal to allow concealed-carry.  It never made it past the governor’s veto.  Now, ten years later, emboldened by a changing political landscape, the GOP passed a much more expansive concealed-carry law, knowing many of their political obstacles had been eliminated.  By Fallone’s reasoning, this new law never would have passed because it was rejected 10 years ago.

I have a mountain of evidence that suggests that the only real question on the ballot in 1926 was whether judges should be recalled.  Fallone’s evidence is simply his confusion that different legislatures twelve years apart draft different constitutional amendments for different reasons.

Fallone also criticizes me because, in reaching my conclusion, I use statements by opponents of the recall:

Second, it is never proper to attempt to divine the original intent of a constitutional provision by relying upon the arguments of its opponents.  Almost all of Mr. Schneider’s evidence in support of his proferred interpretation comes from editorials and statements of persons who opposed the ratification of the recall provisions.  The statements of opponents are no evidence at all of the intention of supporters.

Of course, he ignores the sections where I use statements by supporters of the recall to demonstrate that it would be used almost solely against judges.  Take this editorial from the Wisconsin State Journal, a paper that supported the recall of executive offices:

“Men and women of Wisconsin, going to vote Tuesday, will be confronted by the recall amendment.  Do we want it?

This is not a very hard or complicated thing to understand.  The proposal is that if 25 per cent of the number who voted for governor at the last election petition for it an election shall be held to say whether an elective officer stays or goes.

In Wisconsin, this would amount to little in the case of any official except a judge.  For the men who propose it have hedged it with such conditions that an official could not be recalled until he had been in office at least 13 1/2 months.  What was left on a 2-year term would not be important enough to hold a recall election on…

The best thing the proposers of the recall seem able to bring up is that they have so hedged it with restrictions that it would be hard to use.  A fine reason surely!  If a recall is needed, it ought be made easy to use – not so hard that only wealthy interests or organizations which have piled up large funds for political purposes can employ it.”

A later editorial explains that while they favor the idea of the recall, they oppose the way it would affect judges:

“In our judgment, [the recall] is an instrument of popular control of public administration which is useful as applied to executive officials.  Its use as to these, we believe, is in its potentiality more largely than its practice, because the frequency of our elections of administrative officers gives the whip-hand over them in any case, and so the recall as it affects them serves more than anything else as an admonition.

We believe the recall as applied to the judiciary, however, positively to be detrimental to public service…”

Virtually every account of the recall amendment in major Wisconsin newspapers in October and November of 1926 referred to it as the “judicial recall,” or the “recall of judges.”  If Fallone would like to do his own research to prove otherwise, he is welcome to it.  Here are just a few:

Burr Jones Asks Defeat of Recall: Ex-Justice of Supreme Court, in a Letter to Journal, Points out Evils of Measure – Wisconsin State Journal, October 29, 1926.

Lawyer Supports Judicial Recall, Says Judiciary Should Not be Exempt, Milwaukee Journal, November 1, 1926

Lawyers of State Unite to Beat Recall Measure, Milwaukee Sentinel, October 26, 1926

Lawyers Unite Against Recall, Milwaukee Sentinel, October 26, 1926

Prelate Also Opposes Recall of Judges, Milwaukee Sentinel, October 31, 1926

On Wisconsin: The Recall, Wisconsin State Journal, October 31, 1926

Vote “No” on Recall, Bar Advises, Milwaukee Sentinel, October 28, 1926

“Judicial Recall,” Wisconsin State Journal, October 29, 1926

Furthermore, if Fallone would like to point to any politician in the state with a 2-year term who has been recalled, or who has even been the subject of an attempted recall, even in the height of recall fever in which we find ourselves right now, I’d be happy to correct myself.  But all the evidence shows that it was the understanding then, has been the understanding throughout the state’s history, and is currently the understanding that it is implausible to recall politicians with 2-year terms.

We get it.  Ed Fallone likes the recall.  In his own derivative history of the recall, Fallone cites the need to lessen the influence of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has become a shibboleth for individuals who are either anti-Scott Walker or who don’t have proper ventilation in their offices.  The only people who say ALEC is secretly pulling Scott Walker’s strings are people who are trying to defeat Walker.  But wait – weren’t we supposed to not draw conclusions based solely on someone’s opponents?

I am willing to show my work.  The professor has none to show.


Hiding Behind the Kids: Citing family, too many pols duck electoral duty

Last August, Congressman Paul Ryan announced for the 43rd time that he would not run for president. He’s always maintained that the ages of his children — three kids between the ages of 6 and 9 — are a factor in his decision. His standard line? “My head isn’t big enough, and my kids are too small.”

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels begged off, saying he didn’t want to subject his family to the scrutiny of a presidential campaign. “In the end, I was able to resolve every competing consideration,” he said, except for the most important consideration of all — “the interests and wishes of my family.” And when irascible New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie bowed out of the race, he deemed it a “family decision.”

All of these family considerations have left Republican presidential voters with a choice of C-list emetics for candidates. Mitt Romney is a Republican when he deems it necessary to win Republican elections. Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry all flamed out before the primaries were even held. Newt Gingrich is so toxic, he should wear a Mr. Yuk sticker on his lapel. (Poor Mitch Daniels: He hesitated to run because his wife once left him and returned to remarry him. Yet GOP voters warmed up to Gingrich, who changes wives more often than he flosses.)

And while “do it for the kids” is an aphorism in politics, more and more politicians are deciding not to do it for the kids. They want to protect their children from the Palin-ization of presidential politics, where every offspring’s missteps could translate into blogging frenzy.

But exactly how many of these kids are pleading with their parents to eschew a run for president? Think any politician’s 10-year-old-son wouldn’t love to say, “Hey, Dad, I’m having trouble with my footwork — can you call Peyton Manning and have him come over and show me the three-step drop?” You think “My dad is president” might be a good icebreaker with the ladies at high school parties?

The whole “I want to spend more time with my family” excuse is worn out and meaningless. Ambitious men have always run for office to get away from their families — generally, they only rediscover their progeny when it seems like they can’t win again. But that’s the beauty of being president — you get to take your whole family with you and live in the same house.

Furthermore, blaming the family when you decide not to run is a bit unseemly. Suddenly, your kids become impediments to the realization of America’s greatness. Suppose you spend all your time talking about how America is going to implode without changes to its entitlement programs — and then decide not to change those programs because you might miss some T-ball games?

How does that sound to military families, who have to do without fathers and mothers for extended periods of time (and sometimes forever) to preserve the American idea?

Sasha and Malia. The Bush daughters. Chelsea Clinton. All of us would be proud to have children as happy and well-adjusted as these kids — and every one has lived through the apparent horrors of growing up in the coolest house in America. We know politicians love their kids — but so do hundreds of millions of other American families that are looking for visionary and inspiring presidential candidates. We’ll chip in for baby-sitting, we promise.

A Festival of Anachronisms

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, the Wisconsin State Historical Society is one of my favorite places to hang out.  If I had the time, I could spend full days just combing through microfilm, plucking oddities from hundred year old newspapers.  In fact, when I need to scroll through old papers to do work research, I have to discipline myself to only read the stuff I absolutely need – otherwise, I could be there for hours.

The glory of old newspapers is in the shocking anachronistic language they use; their pages are replete with terms that have long been shelved in the name of political correctness.  Take, for instance, this front page headline from the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1923:


Of course, in 1923, “moron” was an actual psychological term, used to describe someone who was slightly mentally retarded.  So the headline made perfect sense.

But it isn’t just words that are out of place in 2012 America; the subject matter is often fairly shocking, as well.  Take, for example, this 1923 editorial from the Milwaukee Journal, which contests a study that argues Native Americans have no “racial odor:”

1923 was also a year when divorce was a very public act; when everyday couples divorced, it often made the front page of the newspaper, with reasons given for the split.  Here’s a pair of divorce notices from 1923: in one, the husband alleges his wife “used abusive language,” and in the other, the wife alleges the husband married her before the legal one-year waiting period had passed.  (Presumably, if the marriage was going well, she wouldn’t be as quick to seek an annulment – maybe the old wife came back around and caused trouble.)


1923 was also a time when the Klu Klux Klan was still very much a part of American life.  Apparently, many Klan members thought the KKK was missing something:  a feminine touch.

In March of 1923, a new women’s chapter of the KKK began meeting.  They called themselves “Kamelia:”


This editorial was placed on the front page of the Milwaukee Journal, and is funniest how apropos of nothing it really is:


“Try to change a woman’s mind – YOU CAN’T DO IT!  Am I right, fellas?

Given all the hand-wringing about illegal aliens in 2012, I found this picture from 1926 to be entertaining:


Another example of how certain words have changed meaning over the past 100 years: Somehow, I think this characterization of George Washington would be a little more controversial these days:


Finally, I wrestled with whether to include this one – and I won\’t post the picture here.  But while the other examples serve to show how long ago those words had different meanings, this example demonstrates how recently one specific word was still a part of acceptable American lexicon.  It appeared on the front page of the Milwaukee Sentinel on October 24 of 1926, and involves a talented dog with a curious name.


Fan Mail of the Day

From today’s inbox, a comment by someone at Ohio State University:

Saw your article “It’s Working in Walker’s Wisconsin”. History does seem to repeat itself and go in cycles. I guess the public will just have to relearn why their grandparent’s generation fought the robber barons and those extremely exploitative jobs. I wish someone would do an analysis on the types of jobs Walker is bringing in. I can tell, Mr. Schneider would never want to work that type of job. Corporate sluts like Walker and yourself will never know what it’s like to work and be stuck in a labor intensive job, though karma would tell us it’s exactly what you deserve.

You, sir, are no friend of mine, you hate your common brother enough to send him to the sweatshops. All for selling out to money from Walker or the Koch bros. The suffering you contribute to will hopefully be put on your shoulders by St. Peter.

I’m only offended because I am more of a standard slut, not the corporate variety.


The 2011 Year in Review

My Year in Review column for the Isthmus is up.  It discusses, naturally, the goings-on in Wisconsin politics over the past year.  Here’s a snippet:

It was a year that granted the definition of the word “democracy” a previously unimaginable elasticity. While bullhorns around the Capitol blared “this is what democracy looks like,” 14 Democratic state senators fled to Illinois to prevent democracy from occurring. Later, a single Dane County judge would overturn Walker’s law, which irony-deficient Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca called “a huge win for democracy in Wisconsin.” The law would later be reinstated by an incredulous state Supreme Court.

It was these same “democracy enthusiasts” who decided to use Wisconsin’s 85-year-old recall law to cast a number of democratically elected Republicans from office. Since the law was passed in 1926, only two state elected officials had been recalled from office; in 2011, nine state senators faced that fate, demonstrating that this is what democracy has never looked like. Despite over $40 million being spent on the senate recalls, Republicans won four of the six contested seats and retained control of the state senate by a one-vote margin.

In some districts, Republicans won by more comfortable margins than they ever had before. Of the two GOP senators who lost, one was in a district Barack Obama carried by 18 percentage points. The other was embroiled in a personal scandal involving a 25-year-old mistress. Thus, after the rancorous recall process, the enduring lesson was: It\’s probably a bad idea to cheat on your wife.

It was a year where Madison teachers showed parents how much they valued their kids by walking out on them for a four-day sick-out. Some teachers even brought their pupils down to the Capitol to help them protest. When a group of Madison East high school students were asked why they were marching on the statehouse during a school day, one young man said he was “trying to stop whatever this dude is doing.”

Read the whole thing here.

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