Let 2006 go down as the year two troublesome trends reached their zenith: Citizens lost their ability to be shocked, and politicians lost their capacity to feel shame.
Lies now flow as freely from official sources as water from a spring. Public institutions no longer care about the public; some have stopped pretending. And people seeking elected office will do absolutely anything to win ' anything, that is, except deserve it.
We live in an age of manufactured outrage, where popular prejudices are manipulated at will. Illegal immigrants! Sex offenders! Liberals in Madison! Illegal immigrants who rape children yet get free college tuition, thanks to the liberals in Madison!
And why, really, should anyone be bothered by a president who lies his way into war when John Kerry is on the loose, botching attempts at humor.
Yet 2006 also offered hopeful signs that the public's hawked loogies of disgust may grease the skids for reform. Across the nation, voters turned on the majority party, an expression less of partisanship than of deep discontent. People have had it ' with corruption, with cynicism, even with these gosh darn snakes on this gosh darn plane.
It was, in short, a year that left the body politic with ample psychic aches and pains. To help soothe them, Isthmus, as usual, is ending the year with its Cheap Shot Awards. These include a few positive mentions, to keep you on your toes. And the winners are:
The Devil You Know Award: Jim Doyle
Was there ever a less dynamic candidate for Wisconsin governor? After four years, Doyle's biggest asset was his vetoes of the GOP-controlled Legislature's bad ideas, like bills to legalize concealed weapons and shut down stem-cell research. About the only constituency Doyle bent over backward to please was big business, which repaid his toadying by backing his opponent. Let's be honest: Doyle won because he was less unfamiliar than his opponents. If he wants a better political epitaph, he'll have to earn it.
Lunatic of the Year: Frank Lasee
This Republican state representative from Bellevue, it appears, is not really from the community outside Green Bay, but Bellevue the mental institution. Hence his crazy scheme, following school shootings in Wisconsin and elsewhere, to arm teachers, principals and Groundskeeper Willie. As with last year's call to permit the hunting of feral cats, this was predictably seized on by national media seeking sensation, and Wisconsin ended up looking foolish. Thanks, Frank, but we don't need any more help in that department.
Worst Trend: Media-Shy Candidates
Usually, candidates for public office are eager to make themselves accessible to the press. But this fall, several GOP contenders ' Mark Green, J.B. Van Hollen and Dave Magnum ' hid behind their handlers, refusing to talk to Isthmus, relying instead on dishonest TV ads to get their message across. Two out of three went down in flames. Hmm, maybe elections aren't the best time to make conspicuous displays of arrogance and unaccountability. Ya think?
Against All Odds Award: J.B. Van Hollen
He claimed terrorists are training and raising funds in Wisconsin. He tried to score political points from the death of a Justice Department agent, drawing a rebuke from the dead man's family. He likened reproductive choice to homicide. He pledged to 'restore integrity' while winking at special interests who told lies on his behalf. He filed a patently frivolous defamation lawsuit. He ran as a Republican in a Democratic landslide year. His initials stand for Joe Blow. (Okay, that last one's a joke.) Yet he nonetheless managed to be elected state attorney general. Is this guy the luckiest person on earth, or what?
Runner-up: Dawn Marie Sass
This repeat contender for state treasurer had an interesting complaint about the Republican incumbent, Jack Voight: 'He has been in [office] for almost 12 years and most voters do not even know his name.' Most voters never heard of her either, but nonetheless elected her in a Democratic landslide year, even though she's never before held political office, is at best marginally qualified, and misspelled the word 'received' on her Web bio.
Autocrat of the Year: Robert Morlino
Some people win supporters because they have truth on their side, or are adept at arguing their positions. The bishop of Madison's diocese just lays down the law. This fall, he ordered every parish in his realm to broadcast his rant against stem-cell research and in favor of writing bigotry into the state constitution, decreeing that 'any verbal or nonverbal expression of disagreement with this teaching on the part of the priest will have to be considered by myself as an act of disobedience, which could have serious consequences.' Talk about a bully pulpit!
Wackiest Extremists: Pro-Life Wisconsin
You know a group leans seriously to the right when even Wisconsin Right to Life, which wants to outlaw not just abortion but embryonic stem-cell research, seeks distance. Pro-Life Wisconsin is on a crusade against birth control, which it says 'puts up a barrier against God's creative will.' And it's called on the Catholic bishops to begin a process that could lead to the excommunication of Gov. Doyle, for his failure to toe the Vatican line. Uh, didn't Jesus say something about judge not, lest ye be judged?
Loser of the Year: Dave Magnum
If at first you don't succeed, fail, fail again. That's the motto, apparently, of this Republican congressional candidate. After losing to Tammy Baldwin in 2004 by a 63%-37% margin, he made another uninspired run this year, getting the same result. A radio and TV magnate who, citing business losses, has not paid state income taxes since 1999, Magnum sank more than $500,000 of his own money into the race, money his campaign says he borrowed 'using the clout...and goodwill that he's built up.' Let's hope that by 2008, he'll have finally scraped the bottom of that barrel.
Crash-and-Burn Award: Kathleen Falk
The Dane County executive declared that only she could keep the office of state attorney general in Democratic hands. She gave the race her all, dropping the drunk driving H-bomb on the Democratic incumbent and pulling a Willie Horton on her GOP rival. Then, while other Dems triumphed, she lost, narrowly but surely. Falk is too impressive a politician to write off, but the question must be asked: Are her political instincts as solid as her ambition?
Gulag Operator of the Year: State of Wisconsin
Gov. Doyle and his crew inherited Boscobel's Supermax prison, a vestige of Tommy Thompson's spare-no-expense-to-seem-tough-on-crime reign. But they've kept it going, and now are stuck defending it against a lawsuit filed over shockingly inhumane treatment (cold, naked inmates forced to sleep on bare concrete, toilet paper rationed by the sheet, etc.), which a federal appeals court likened to 'a Soviet gulag in the 1930s.' No more excuses; shut it down.
Deadest Doornail: Wisconsin's Progressive Tradition
A little-known fact about legendary Wisconsin statesman Fightin' Bob La Follette is that, as a young man, he dug up his late father's bones, lamenting his loss. It's a fitting anecdote, since Bob's corpse is regularly unearthed by those who proclaim his continuing impact. But as the successful death penalty referendum and gay marriage amendment proved anew, the man and everything he stood for is as dead as can be. Wisconsin no longer merits any claim, great or small, to progressive governance. Mourn if you want, organize if you can, but let poor Bob rot in peace.
Good Riddance Award: John Gard, Tom Reynolds, Dave Zien
Gard was a callow opportunist, pandering to the right by pursuing bad public policy. Reynolds was just as conservative but even nuttier, posing with his wife for a Christmas card as Joseph and Mary. Zien, revving his Harley and longing to pack concealed heat, was off the charts on both the far-right and far-gone scales. All three got booted in the November elections, a sign that voters no longer see the Right Stuff as the right stuff.
Most Courageous Public Servant: Brian Blanchard,
Dane County's district attorney was elected six years back in part on his promise to take on Capitol corruption. Then, amazingly, he followed through, at great political risk, filing criminal charges against major players in both parties. This drew furious flak, some from a conservative commentator in these pages. But Blanchard persevered, eventually winning convictions in every case. Too modest to gloat, he ought to at least feel vindicated.
Chameleon of the Year: Mike Huebsch
As former legislative leaders headed off to jail, the majority leader of the state Assembly bizarrely proclaimed, 'In Wisconsin, we can be proud of our ethical traditions and ethical standards.' And, after blocking a vote on a campaign-reform bill that sailed through the Senate and had overwhelming public support, he tried to paint himself as a proponent of reform. As Whitman said, 'Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself.' But Huebsch, unlike Whitman, doesn't have the honesty to admit it.
Moral Midget Award: David Prosser
This Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, a former GOP Assembly leader, put his integrity on the line, and left it there, when he voiced public support for former colleague Scott Jensen. Prosser opined that there was nothing illegal about Jensen's use of state employees to do campaign work, admitting he had done so himself. A jury disagreed, convicting Jensen of three felonies and one misdemeanor, for which he was sentenced to 15 months in prison. Shouldn't it be Prosser's turn next?
Biggest Hypocrites: GOP Lawmakers
Lawmakers like Rep. Steve Nass, on a jihad against the UW System, flipped out over reports that some university professors don't use sick days when they miss work due to illness, accumulating a benefit they can later cash in. Turns out the Legislature is also in on this scam, with only two lawmakers claiming sick days in the last four years. It's enough to make the rest of us sick. And guess what most of us can't do when that happens?
Busybody of the Year: Julaine Appling
The head of Wisconsin's Family Research Institute helped pass a state constitutional amendment banning civil unions and same-sex marriage. She said it was needed to protect against liberal activist judges. But among supporters she'd flash a photo of Rosie O'Donnell kissing her sweetie while going on about how straight people are 'wired' to react viscerally to such images. Now she's set her sights on repealing Wisconsin's 'no-fault' divorce law. Apparently, she's such a smashing success at managing her own life she wants to do the same with everyone else's.
Not to Worry Award: Madison Water Utility
Water from faucets running brown and black? No big deal! High levels of manganese, which causes neurological damage, in city tap water and the bodies of people who drink it? It's natural! Carbon tetrachloride, an industrial carcinogen, at levels above the federal health standard? It's good for you! Untreated water being accidentally pumped into people's homes for weeks? Not a problem! An endless flow of official reassurances that everything is under control? Drink up!
Hubris Award: UW Athletic Department
Is it mere coincidence that a godlike sculpture of Barry Alvarez was erected at Camp Randall the same year his minions aspired to new heights of arrogance? They demanded hefty contributions from fans hoping to score season tickets and even heftier ones from those who wanted to keep their disabled parking spots. And they haughtily defended, at least at first, barring a nursing mom from using the stadium's first-aid station to breastfeed ' as if this were somehow less savory than watching the Badgers whomp third-rate teams to help Bret Bielema add to his win column.
Least Dangerous Criminal: Stanley Kutler
The Dane County District Attorney's Office likes to cry bloody murder about its lack of resources, yet it opted to waste plenty of them prosecuting this famed Nixon scholar, age 71, for uttering a transparently non-serious 'bomb threat' against a local health provider. After eight months of legal wrangling and five court appearances, Kutler pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct and was fined $149 ' a suitable tap on the wrist. Is Dane County really this hard up for bad guys?
Overreaction of the Year: UW Campus Police
This fiercely contested award goes to the Barney Fifes at the UW-Madison for their heavy-handed crackdown on activist Ben Masel for (gasp!) collecting signatures at the Memorial Union to run for U.S. Senate. Masel, who eventually snared 51,245 votes, was pepper-sprayed, arrested and cited for trespassing (still pending). The cops also wanted him charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, but the same DA's office that went after Stanley 'The Killer' Kutler declined. What an embarrassment.
Optimist of the Year: John Nichols
The Capital Times associate editor's new book is called The Genius of Impeachment, but it might as well be called The Genius of John Nichols. It documents how this critical constitutional tool has served to protect American democracy and builds a case for its use against the current White House occupant. Throughout, Nichols exudes faith in the indomitable American spirit, as represented by town councils that endorse impeachment as Democratic leaders cower. It's a book full of fighting words, from an American patriot. To the barricades! (BTW, John, there's a typo on page 40.)
How Low Can They Go? Award: The Capital Times
The so-called magic number ' the one pundits once said Madison's afternoon paper could not fall below ' used to be 20,000. But its circulation has been lower than that for several years and, according to the most recent numbers, now stands at a dismal 17,500. This despite a much-ballyhooed redesign and Herculean efforts to attract new readers. And the shame of it is that the paper is as good as ever. It's the readers who have gotten worse.
Boomerang Award: Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce
Yes, Virginia, there is a price to pay for disseminating wildly false claims, even for those who aren't president. The study this booster group commissioned to help defeat a call for mandatory sick time overstated by a factor of 10 the amount that would be lost from all those employers who would flee rather than comply, among other brazen falsehoods. The study was withdrawn, and the chamber lost credibility. Did it learn a lesson? We'll see.
Best Statesman: Dave Cieslewicz
This year Madison celebrated its 150th birthday, and Mayor Dave proved a worthy master of ceremonies. He also showed that, as a better-than-average writer (heck, he even penned an Isthmus cover piece), he was able to give voice to the sentiments of the masses. From his declaration of candidacy for a second term: 'The fall elections are over, and not a moment too soon. We need to put the acrimony, the cheap shots [!], the 'gotcha' politics, the outright lies and the intellectual dishonesty behind us.' Hear hear.
Good Guy of the Year: Austin King
In 1998, when a Madison rape victim was being criminally prosecuted after police pressured her to recant, her defense attorney implored a judge to 'respond to this as a decent human being getting a sense of what this citizen was put through.' Instead, the judge sided with the cops who'd turned against her; so did the city of Madison. That's how it stayed until this year, when King, the Common Council president, pushed through a resolution to apologize and make amends, and take steps to avoid a recurrence. Justice needs such advocates.
Best Birthday Present: Stuart Levitan
In his zesty stew of roles ' labor arbitrator, journalist, politician, committee chair, authority on 'Bob' ' Levitan has long been one of Madison's most colorful and engaged citizens. Now he's capped off decades of civic involvement with an impressive tome on the city's early history, Madison: The Illustrated Sesquicentennial History, Volume I (1856-1931). Levitan calls it a 'municipal yearbook,' but it's also, more fundamentally, a great gift to the city and its people. Thanks, man.
Equivocators of the Year: Madison Song Committee
George Bush boasts that he's the decider, and the group tapped to pick a city song on the occasion of Madison's sesquicentennial sure could have used some of his gumption. After months of meetings, it came up with four finalists, which it later narrowed down to five. Worse, hardly anyone in Madison ever got to hear any of submitted songs. Next contest: Write a song about the committee.
Unwanted Candor Award: John Roach
The Madison Magazine columnist stretched the boundaries of propriety with a December offering containing this bon mot: 'Like many men, for over half a century I've walked through life with a beer in one hand and Mr. Happy in the other....' Whoa, John, that's, like, way too much information!
Nellie McKay: One of the world's most distinguished scholars of African American literature, who co-edited (with Henry Louis Gates Jr., no less) a definitive anthology, McKay had plenty of opportunities to work in other places, for more money and prestige. But for nearly three decades, until her death last January, she made her home in Madison, in her words 'a good place to be,' to the city's enduring glory.
Mike McKinney: The Madison TV newscaster, who died in July after a long illness at age 41, was gracious and giving, with an infectious laugh and megawatt smile. He didn't just say he cared about his community, he proved it, rolling up his sleeves to help whenever he could. It's customary to say when good folks die that they will be missed. Mike McKinney already is.
Doris Hanson: The label 'public servant' is overused, but Doris Hanson earned it. She held cabinet posts under four governors, including her stint as the first (and, to date, only) woman to head the state Department of Administration. She also served as a state rep, McFarland Village Board president, and chair of the Monona Terrace Board, among other roles. She died in November at age 81.
Ruth Ann Doyle: The life partner of federal judge James Doyle was a teacher by training and trailblazer by nature. She served on the Dane County Board and was the first woman to head the Madison school board and represent Madison in the state Assembly. When she died in May at age 89, her son, the governor, had this to say: 'She taught us to work hard, never be deterred by adversity and to focus on public service and opening the doors of opportunity for everyone.' Now that's a legacy.