I have been asked if I am bitter now that I have been unceremoniously dumped (jettisoned, flushed, deep-sixed) by a confused electorate after 12 unimaginably productive and historic years as the leading voice of the people on the Dane County Board of Supervisors.
The cataclysmic tragedy of my defeat this spring has forced me to look deep within my soul. (I do have one, although it is a prosthesis.) I must conclude that yes, I am bitter. But I was bitter before the election, too.
As yet another service to the public, I have been asked to share lessons learned, but not to settle scores. I'm happy to do the former, but you get a few seeds with the melon. Asking me not to dish dirt is like asking Truman Capote not to drop names or sibilant S's.
The fact is, I still don't know why I lost. And I lost big, by a 56%-44% margin after six victories and no indictments. I'm not one to lead an unexamined life - I tend to obsess. But a big part of me has already moved on. Three months after the election, I don't miss being on the County Board one bit, even though it was a huge part of my life for 12 years. Strange, that.
So here are 12 lessons I learned at the public trough - one for each year.
1. It's never too early to go negative. In the race that ended my County Board career, there's no denying: I ran a good, clean, issues-oriented campaign. I'll never make that mistake again.
Good press for playing clean looks great in the scrapbook but appears nowhere on the ballot. If you don't point out the flaws of your rival, who will? (Psst! My opponent has done little in the 12 weeks he's been on the board!)
Karen West, my opponent in 1996, was gracious in defeat. But she pointed out that I missed no opportunity to reference her day job as the teachers union boss for school districts in Columbia and Sauk Counties. At the time, John Matthews was menacing the parents and children of the Madison school district with "job actions," an us-versus-them mindset that eventually bore bitter fruit: the defeat last year of two school spending referendums.
As Harry Truman once said, "Just tell the truth and they'll think it's hell." The other side never squeals so loud as when you've caught it by the tail.
This last election was the only time I did not do at least a "compare and contrast." But I should have known the jig was up the moment The Capital Times joined the Wisconsin State Journal in endorsing me. Through six contested elections, my alma mater (I was once a Cap Times reporter and state editor) hurled every bit of invective it could my way. Then the Progressive Dane newspaper, hagiographer of every would-be Wobbly, unreformed Socialist Worker and attenuated Lincoln Brigade Communist, changed tactics and put me on its Wheaties box.
On top of that, Isthmus ran a column suggesting I'm unbeatable. That's more jinx than three Sports Illustrated covers and Wrigley Field's billy goat put together.
2. Get it right the first time. Somewhere in the mid-1990s, yet another spiral-bound tome on the need for a new county courthouse arrived on our desks, its contents reduced to an executive report, then further trimmed to a two-page briefing paper. Everything but hand puppets. The consultant finished his presentation and took questions. Supv. Mark Pocan, whose demagoguery would later be rewarded with election to the state Assembly, asked: "We've had other reports saying we need a new courthouse. What's so different about this report?"
The consultant put both hands on the podium, looked Pocan squarely in the eye, and answered: "Maybe nothing. But how many more reports will it take before you get the message?" He shoots, he scores.
In the end, the courthouse was built, but the board compromised by leaving several programs out of the new structure. Since then, the county has been trying to squeeze the toothpaste back into the courthouse by using the empty space reserved for future courtrooms.
Now Dane is planning a new work-release center with alcohol and drug abuse treatment. Fine and dandy. But we're sending 1,100 high-risk inmates to 12 counties at a cost of $1.98 million a year. No other county ships more inmates or spends as much money.
Before I got kicked off the board, I worked to add what the county clearly needs: more "hard" jail cells. Instead, the county executive implies she possesses some magic elixir that will "cure" alcohol and drug abuse for all comers. News flash: Kicking booze and pills is not like getting a flu shot.
3. Executives use their posts to amass power. I danced the can-can with Kathleen Falk at the old Luther's Blues to celebrate Dave Cieslewicz's election as mayor. I have been assured that no photos exist of that spectacle, but some nights I bolt upright in a cold sweat at the thought of this image circulating on the Internet.
Kathleen and I worked together with the city of Madison, liberals and conservatives, to merge the public health departments. But I fought her effort to bring high-stakes gambling to Madison. She said she could support the imposition of a new tax - a wheel tax - if enough supervisors voted for it. I voted against that, too. I guess that makes me an independent of sorts.
Election morning 2004 rolls around. I've decided to sleep in because my race against Maureen Marrinan has totally drained me. (I won by 37 votes.) I truly do not think I have recovered to this day. In seven elections, I had six opponents - all fresh horses and only one of them outside of Falk's stable.
I am awakened by the telephone. It's a tip: Turn on Mitch Henck's show on WIBA. Guess who is his special guest? None other than The Kathleen herself. "Voters of the Seventh District," she snorted, "you are being duped - duped - by David Blaska."
Seems I had transgressed by using the Great Kathleen's image and likeness without her express, written permission. But the photographs were my property, taken at a press conference on the health merger to which I was invited, by The Kathleen herself. I thought it would come in handy when my opponent made the usual claims that I was "divisive."
I called in: "Mitch, you were going to put me on, right?"
"I've got Lyman Anderson in the next hour," Henck advised. "I can't put all you conservatives on."
First question to Lyman in the next hour: "What do you think of David Blaska's tactics?"
There is no local political machine like Kathleen Falk's. She and her New Deal coalition of unions, enviros, Dems, Prog Danes and a complaisant news media.
4.They might be giants - or not. In 1994, my brother Mike told the freshman class of Dane County supervisors: "When you first get on the board, you wonder how you got elected to this august body. After a few years, you wonder how they got elected to this august body."
Perhaps it is my own overnurtured ego, but I got to that point mighty soon. I admire three qualities in an elected official: intelligence, courage and heart. The intelligence to understand the facts, the heart to do the right thing, and the courage to wage the good fight no matter how often you lose.
That was Mike Blaska, Lyman Anderson, Don Heiliger, Jim Mohrbacher, Sam Simon, Kelly McDowell, Bill Hitzemann and a few others.
So many local officeholders today are a combination of Scarecrow, Tinman and Cowardly Lion. Paul Soglin said it well: 80% of the people in local government today shouldn't be there. The Madison Common Council, for instance, resembles a Congress of nonprofits. We have people who have never owned a home, run a business, or raised a family making decisions on how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, annually.
Elective office is, truly, a parallel universe, only tangentially connected to real life.
5. Political allies stick together, even when they shouldn't. Imagine if John Gard had demanded special treatment from a government service provider, threatened to kill public employees, cursed, disrupted meetings and left threatening phone messages to colleagues. That was former County Supv. Regina Rhyne. The poor gal has been raked over the coals enough, so I'll just mention this vignette:
Young Ech Vedder, then still a UW student, accused me of racism for trying to remove Rhyne as County Board sergeant at arms. So did The Capital Times (while, curiously, Regina herself never did).
But I was holding aces. "I'll have you know, young man," I told Vedder, "that I marched with Father Groppi."
"Who's that?" Ech asked.
Never again did I attempt to defend myself. Charging racism remains the last refuge of a scoundrel. I could never understand why I was supposed to hold a black woman to a lower standard than I would hold myself. Still, I like Ech. Never took himself too seriously. Which was fortunate.
The Progressive Dane goo-goos, I learned, are no different from Boss Tweed's crowd. Regina may have been a scoundrel, but she was their scoundrel, and they fought like ferrets to defend the indefensible. The conservative-moderates did the same in 2005, when the man we put in power, Kevin Kesterson, was caught in a web of his own spinning. I argued for his censure too.
6.The business community is reaping what it has sown. I am looking at a list of Dane County's 100 largest private-sector employers: The CUNA Mutuals, Epics, Oscar Mayers, AmFams, General Casualties. Now I'm looking at the rosters for the Dane County Board, Madison Common Council, and Madison school board. There's a total of 64 people, and not one of them works for any of the top 100. Thank God for the tavern keepers, real estate agents, farmers, body shop owners, and the like, or there would be no private sector on the County Board.
All the aforementioned, by the way, are conservative. The Chamber of Commerce and Wood Communications can do all the Civitas training they want to help business people better understand government. Meanwhile, Progressive Dane is fielding candidates.
Jennifer Alexander is doing a stalwart job trying to turn things around at the Chamber, but too many of her directors still act like a bison in Buffalo Bill's rifle scope - slightly annoyed the beast he was standing next to has dropped but mainly relieved it wasn't him. You can't help people who won't help themselves.
7.Those who disagree with liberals are 'divisive.' "New supervisors," Lyman Anderson intoned, "should be seen but not heard for the first six months." By Month Five, I could bear it no longer. From the seat directly behind, I tapped his shoulder. "Permission to clear my throat, sir." The Great Man turned to face me. "Permission granted," he intoned in his Old Testament voice. I didn't speak for another month. Some would say I have been making up for it since.
Dying, as was said of Elvis, may be a good career move, but we tend to forget that Lyman was one fierce, partisan, political infighter. Fully the equal of Mark Pocan on the other side. I despair of the postmortem hagiography that Lyman "brought people together." On the big issues, he won or lost by very close votes. But that's the point: he fought the big issues!
I do give Pocan credit. After 24 years of liberal hegemony, he began blaming board conservatives for being "divisive." Mark Pocan! That rhetorical roadside bomber himself! But it stuck. The cry of "divisiveness" was never more shrill than when - on my initiative - we ended the general relief welfare program for childless adults in 1994. (Odd that no liberal has ever moved to restore that program.)
In the 1994-96 session, Supv. Jack Moore, a retired elementary school principal, a soft and gentle man, started a "Common Ground" committee to "bring people together." (Notice the snotty quote marks.) He was widely praised for doing so. The libs took him out in the next election.
8. Don't just be somebody! Do something! Lyman used to say: "Some people are elected to be somebody, others are elected to do something."
My first few votes, I obsessed that I would vote "wrong" and thereby precipitate a recall movement or violent putsch. Brother Mike took me aside and recalled that he had led the fight for the Monona Terrace Convention Center in the 1992-94 term even though his rural Sun Prairie district voted against it in the advisory referendum.
"Do what you think is right and the rest will take care of itself," Mike said.
I am convinced the construction of Frank's Place ignited the building boom that continues apace in downtown Madison. That took political courage. And leadership. Brother Mike and Tommy G. Thompson had it in spades. I would rather serve two years and take one principled stand than serve 20 years and get along just to go along.
Now, let me break from the herd one more time and nibble at Ald. Warren Onken's pedestal. All the paeans he got for...what? Being the local government equivalent of Chance the Gardener in the Peter Sellers movie Being There? Being the biggest and most docile sheep in the flock? (God, I'm bitchy.) What did the man stand for?
I asked Warren to work the council for me on behalf of the public health merger. His answer? "Let's see what the mayor does."
One of my colleagues early this year asked whether the jail issue would be good for my re-election. On the evidence, it was toxic. But I said then and say now that I don't care. Someone has to raise the tough issues. Otherwise, what's the point?
9.Politics is the business we have chosen. For three generations, politics, in some regards, has been the Blaska family business. But I always regarded myself as more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. Remember those promotions where the housewife gets to cram as much into a shopping cart as she can in 15 minutes? That's how Tommy Thompson storms a room, looking for every hand he can shake. That ain't me, babe.
I frighten my co-workers with a vicious, gagging cough. Unlike a certain former president, I did inhale in the '60s. But it will be the radiation from all those negative lung X-rays that kill me. I think they are panic attacks and I trace them to that first election in 1994. I'd turn off the Jeep, tie my lucky Chippewa work boots, grab the campaign literature, and then choke and sputter like a cheap Soviet Lada.
Then I'd gather my courage and storm the beaches of Wicklow Way and Barton Road, door by door, house by house like a Midwest Fallujah. Eight hours a day on Saturdays and four on Sunday afternoons. (I skipped the Nader signs.) Never did weeknights. Never felt people wanted to see a man at their doorstep after dark. Especially me.
"Doing doors" was so important that, in the far southern part of my district, just north of County PD, even Mother Nature was an intruder. I figured I was wasting 20 minutes driving to my home on the north side of the district just to use the loo. So I acquired a hospital-approved piss jar. The Jeep was never far away and, in the dead of winter, passersby who looked through the steamed-up windows of my jeep would see a very "relieved" candidate.
10.Old friends are not forever. I guess I just ran out of gas. I actually grew to be pretty good in the doorway: a little soft-shoe, a little seltzer in the pants, how are the kids? Nice dog. In most cases, people are at least tolerant. You hand over a piece of paper with your message and, if you're lucky, you get 30 seconds to make your case.
But my political career came close to dying stillborn across from my house on Loruth Terrace the first day of my first campaign back in 1994. I ventured across the street to a dear and beloved neighbor. I could not make even that small foray without the accompaniment of my long-suffering wife, Lisa. I announced that I was a candidate for public office.
"But isn't that nepotism?" she responded, in reference to my brother, who was already County Board chairman.
That dear lady, a great neighbor, is dead now, her widower husband moved away and, I have come to realize, so are a great many of my original supporters. The fact is, I did better with older voters.
The other evening after work, I was gazing across my backyard in my enforced, Elba-like idleness and saw kids playing soccer in Orchard Ridge park. "That's strange!" I thought. When did that start?
My neighborhood is gentrifying and these young children have young parents who vote young - that is to say, liberal. I'll get them back in another 15 years.
11.Be true to your school. Harry Truman, then a U.S. senator, visited his benefactor, Boss Pendergast, at Leavenworth Prison - so I figure I can say something nice about Scott Jensen for hosting a fund-raiser for my campaign. Thanks, Scott.
That's what's so sad about Ray Allen's stumble into the mayor's race. You don't get anywhere running from your past.
Yep, I'm a card-carrying Republican in a town where the Democrats are the moderates. No apologies. Maybe that caught up with me, too. I always separated my County Board activities from my state and national politics.
But when my opponent talked about "sharing our values," he was talking George Bush and tying him to David Blaska. I grant you, Bush is truly hated around here. History will vindicate him. Then it's my turn.
12.Keep moving. I didn't mind the all-night board meetings. My personal record was the one that started at 7:30 p.m. and continued until 4 in the morning. It was the campaigning that wore me out. I tried to find someone else to take my place. Couldn't. Didn't knock on a single door this last election.
Put that down as another thing that beat me. Despite brilliant literature (thanks to Rick Berg and Ann Shultz), I saw it coming. I spent election night in Las Vegas watching the volcano erupt at the Mirage Casino with my son Max. This is where Blaska did his Roberto Duran: "No mas, no mas."
I thought back to one of my first campaigns. I'm knocking on doors just north of McKee Road, a long way from my home base near the Beltline in Orchard Ridge.
It's January, and the resident does not answer his doorbell. The shelter of his porch would be a good place to reconnoiter. Frostbitten fingers pry open the city map. I calculate that I've got just enough campaign literature to circle around the block and then take one side of the road up toward my parked vehicle. Then I'll have to pee and it's almost lunchtime anyway. In the midst of these deliberations, a voice emanates from the closed door behind me: "Please, just go away!"
It took awhile, but he got his wish.