Art by David Michael Miller
2016 was full of surprises, some pleasant, many not. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. And Donald Trump was elected president.
Way to go, Cubbies!
Quite a few great people died in 2016. David Bowie. Prince. Gene Wilder. Patty Duke. Leonard Cohen. Muhammad Ali. Gwen Ifill. We also lost Phyllis Schlafly and Antonin Scalia.
The comedian John Oliver ended his season by letting a cross-section of people curse and flip off the year, before igniting a huge pyrotechnic depicting the numbers 2-0-1-6. Merriam-Webster picked “surreal” as its word of the year.
Let’s face it: 2016 was, in many ways, a deplorable year. Our politics has never been more degraded, our nation more divided. One survey found that 70 percent of American voters felt the presidential campaign “brought out the worst in people.” And the other 30 percent? Screw them.
But as the year fades into what we hope will be a brighter tomorrow, it’s time for an old tradition, a series of parting recognitions we call “Cheap Shots.” That these are low blows is right in the name, so don’t complain.
Brownnoser of the Year: Scott Walker
Quite a few Republicans competed for this honor by cozying up to Donald Trump after he repeatedly insulted them. But our only governor rose to the top of the dung heap with his eventually full-throated support for the man who, to quote a Washington Post headline, “destroyed Scott Walker’s presidential chances” by stealing his thunder as a regular-guy contender. Trump even prompted a Janesville audience to boo Walker, blasting his performance as governor and taunting, “He certainly can’t endorse me after what I did to him in the race, right?” Not if he had a smidgen of principle, he couldn’t. Oh, wait....
Most Spineless Politician: Paul Ryan
The Wisconsin congressman and House speaker intoned that Donald Trump’s dissing of a federal judge for his Mexican heritage met “the textbook definition of a racist comment,” but continued to back him. Ryan said Trump’s crude comments about women left him “sickened,” but not enough to rescind his support. Ryan proclaimed he was done defending the Donald, but then voted for him. And, immediately after the election, Ryan assumed his new role as a Trump defender, starting with backing his pick of white nationalist fave Steve Bannon as a top strategist. People like Ryan are why supporters of Trump loathe politicians; in this case, they got it right.
Rationalize This! Award: Alberta Darling
This longtime Republican state senator proudly served as co-chair of Wisconsin Women for Trump, even after the release of video showing her candidate boasting about grabbing women “by the pussy.” Darling called Trump’s comments “indefensible” and then proceeded to minimize them, saying “he’s since married, has a wonderful little child.” There are just two things wrong with this defense of the indefensible: 1) Trump made his comments in September 2005, eight months after he married his third and current wife, Melania, while she was pregnant with their impending wonder child; and 2) everything.
Oh, What a Lucky Man He Was Award: Ron Johnson
This Wisconsin senator was seen as vulnerable for many reasons. He’s an Ayn Rand acolyte who blames climate change on sunspots and plans to disinherit his children if they are convicted of more than one felony or have more than one child out of wedlock. He was largely unknown among state voters even after years in office and trailed former Sen. Russ Feingold in the polls. But then he threw his support behind fellow “change agent” Donald Trump and was embraced by dark-money groups and — voilà! — he won another six-year term. But now, into the future, he’ll have to own his president’s and party’s actions. Will his luck hold out?
Toughest Teflon: Rebecca Bradley
While seeking election this spring after being appointed by Gov. Walker, this state Supreme Court justice came under fire for things she wrote in college. Not your normal, embarrassingly college-y sort of things, but things like suggesting that people with AIDS (“degenerates”) deserved to die and branding then-President-elect Bill Clinton “a tree-hugging, baby-killing, pot-smoking, flag-burning, queer-loving, bull-spouting ’60s radical socialist adulterer.” Bradley won anyway, saying this was all in the past and branding the criticism it drew “blatant mudslinging.” Wouldn’t want any of that.
We Knew Thee Perhaps a Bit Too Well Award: David Prosser
This Wisconsin Supreme Court justice hung up his robe in July after 18 years on the bench. His fiery tenure included calling one fellow justice a “total bitch” and vowing to “destroy” her, and putting his hands around the neck of another female colleague and then blaming it all on her. His court colleagues failed to act on a Judicial Commission recommendation that he be disciplined, but had no problem renaming the state Law Library in his honor. And maybe that’s a perfect emblem for what the court has become.
Throwback of the Year: Daniel Kelly
In picking Prosser’s replacement, Gov. Walker passed up applicants who appeared to have the inside track in favor of this Milwaukee attorney, who has likened affirmative action to slavery (“morally, and as a matter of law, they are the same”) and warned that letting gay people marry “will eventually rob the institution of marriage of any discernible meaning.” These are not ancient views uncovered through deep opposition research; they are from a 2014 book chapter that Kelly included with his application. Both Walker and Kelly insist these extreme views will have no impact whatsoever on how he does his job. Of course not.
Delaying the Undoing of Injustice Is Just Unjust Award: Brad Schimel
Wisconsin’s Republican attorney general went to the mat to keep Brendan Dassey in prison after his conviction for aiding his uncle, Steven Avery, in a 2005 murder was overturned. A federal judge ruled — as millions of people plainly saw, in the Netflix series Making a Murderer — that Dassey, then 16, was duped into admissions after his ability to answer freely was “overborne.” Schimel’s office is appealing that decision, even though Dassey’s confession was so incredible it was not even used at Avery’s trial. Dear Mr. AG: Want to come out a winner on this one? Accept this loss.
Unlikeliest Sex Symbol: Dean Strang
This Madison attorney found himself the object of international swooning after “Making a Murderer” showcased his well-developed principles and adorable rectitude. There was even a Buzzfeed spread of Valentine’s Day Gifts for fans of Strang and co-counsel Jerry Buting, including an “I Dream of Dean” coffee mug, and “Integrity is Sexy” t-shirts. Strang took it all in stride, vowing to use his celebrity to “talk about what’s wrong in our courts and the weaknesses of the system.” Gosh, don’t you just want to pinch his cheeks?
Double Your Standard Award: John Doe Leak Plumbers
When John Doe probe target Eric O’Keefe was openly violating court secrecy orders by leaking select documents to certain media, the backers of unlimited and unaccountable spending on elections uttered not a peep of protest. (In fact, almost everyone liked getting to peek behind the veil.) But when The Guardian published documents it obtained showing how Gov. Walker and others schemed to funnel money to “independent” groups, GOP lawmakers demanded that the culprits be tracked down and punished. Even after Wisconsin’s conservative-dominated Supreme Court refused to get on board, the state Department of Justice plans a grand jury probe — conducted in secret, of course. Sort of makes you want to leak.
Most Ethically Challenged Ethics Overseers: Wisconsin Ethics Commission
One of the first things the state’s new partisan Ethics Commission did this August was to allow its members to donate to political campaigns, including those of candidates they may have to decide ethics complaints against. Then, in October, it tried to purge from its mission statement language about “furthering Wisconsin’s tradition of clean and open government.” By year’s end, appointee Robert Kinney resigned, the headlines said, “in disgust.” He got that right.
Phoniest Issue: Voter Fraud
In striking down Wisconsin’s voter ID law, federal Judge Lynn Adelman noted that the state had not identified “a single instance of known voter impersonation occurring in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past”; the law, he warned, would “prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes.” Adelman was overturned and voter ID reinstated, but his prediction proved correct. In the fall election, there was no sign of voter fraud, and hundreds of state residents were turned away or made to cast provisional ballots, most ultimately uncounted, because of voter ID. Mission accomplished.
Contempt for Democracy Award: Mary Lazich
According to sworn testimony this spring by former GOP legislative aide Todd Allbaugh, Republicans in a 2011 closed-door caucus session were “giddy” about passing a voter ID bill. “They were talking about impeding people’s constitutional rights, and they were happy about it,” Allbaugh stated in federal court. Lazich, a Republican state senator from New Berlin, allegedly stood up and said, “We’ve got to think about what this could mean for the neighborhoods around Milwaukee and the college campuses around the state,” where voters tend to favor Democrats. Lazich was “unavailable” for comment at the time and did not respond to an email query from the guy writing Cheap Shots, meaning that she has not denied it.
Hypocrites of the Year: Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce
Shadowy groups with right-wing agendas often seek to sway elections without even mentioning the issues they care about, like school choice, instead bashing candidates for loving taxes or cuddling criminals. The state’s big-business lobby group took that to a new level this fall when it ran an ad ripping a Democratic state Senate candidate for favoring a gas-tax hike that WMC itself has backed! Remarked Scot Ross of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, “There is no explanation for this dishonesty other than they are more interested in electing Republican politicians than advancing an issue agenda.” Sounds about right.
Amnesia Award: Jesse Kremer
This Republican state representative from Kewaskum in June criticized President Obama for his “divisive racism, hatred of Christianity, and lambasting of the military and law enforcement.” As if that were not crazy enough, he went on to say, “I don’t remember race ever being a problem before he took office.” Maybe Kremer should visit the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., to jar his memory.
Enabler of the Year: Paul Soglin
Madison’s so-called Red Mayor, who rose to prominence as a student protester, has become the sort of leader who once shrugged as cops bashed in the skulls of people like him. After police brutalized a 105-pound woman at East Towne and killed a mentally ill man in the throes of crisis, Soglin declared that the city had a serious problem — of people not complying with police orders. His comment sounded like it came from a comic book villain: “Resistance is not an option.” The conduct of officers in both cases, no surprise, was deemed hunky-dory, with no protest from Soglin, who reserved his ire for restaurants that serve alcohol and people who doze off on sidewalks.
Most Worthless Public Body: Madison Ethics Board
When Kathi Hurtgen, an assistant director at Monona Terrace, alleged that center executive director Greg McManners violated city ethics rules, this arbiter of city ethics came together to decisively...dismiss the matter in minutes without even letting her talk. The see-no-evil, hear-no-evil board did not conclude that no rules were broken. Rather, it decided that Hurtgen’s complaints were filed too late (which she disputed) or alleged illegal behavior beyond its jurisdiction, even though the city’s Ethics Code expressly states that city officials “shall not exceed their authority or breach the law.” But hey, the board got to go home early that night.
Hothead of the Year: Mike Koval
Madison’s volatile chief of police blew his stack over a proposal to study ways to reduce the number of unarmed people his officers kill, first in an incendiary and threatening blog post and then with his publicly peevish behavior at a Common Council meeting. Koval treated council members with open contempt, rolling his eyes, pounding his fist on a table and at one point threatening to walk out. But Koval was probably right about one thing: The $400,000 the city allocated for this study will be a colossal waste of taxpayer money — as long as he is around to disregard its recommendations.
Safest Prediction: PFC Inaction
The Madison Police and Fire Commission in November heard testimony in complaints against Koval filed by the grandmother of Tony Robinson, an unarmed young man killed by a Madison cop in 2015. Koval admitted that he twice called the woman “a raging lunatic” and that “I did not retain the composure I would have liked.” But we expect the PFC will impose no discipline when the case wraps up next year, because it is just as useless at policing the police as Soglin.
Microaggressions of the Year: UW Bias Complaints
One of the complaints filed with the UW-Madison’s Bias Response Team during the last school year, as reported by The Capital Times, was from a student angered that another student wouldn’t listen to her opinions, which “implied that I am not as good as her.” Another student complained about a professor for supporting a student who was arrested by police, saying this “encourag[ed] hatred and violence” and was “incredibly disgusting and personally offensive.” Hey kids, have you heard about your new president?
Good Riddance Award: Bo Ryan
This longtime UW-Madison basketball coach abruptly left his job last December, saying he had decided after talking to his wife “that now is the right time to step down.” In March, it emerged that a woman with whom Ryan had a long-term extramarital affair accused him of misusing university resources; the charge was not sustained, although the woman is now suing UW officials over their handling of the matter. Ryan called the probe “absolutely unrelated” to his retirement, and maybe he was correct. As the State Journal reported, “the Badgers were playing poorly and had a 7-5 record when Ryan left” — an offense far worse than infidelity.
Child Poisoners of the Year: UW-Madison
For at least a decade, residents of University Housing raised concerns about peeling paint that could pose a danger to children, according to a Wisconsin State Journal report. But the university apparently ignored the issue until a confirmed case of child lead poisoning this April prompted officials to send in crews wearing hazmat suits. And while photos taken just a month before show pillars with peeling paint, the housing agency’s director insisted it had “a consistent record of appropriate responsiveness.” Yeah, and those kids probably ate only appropriate amounts of paint.
Most Tone-Deaf Corporation: iHeartMedia
This national radio outfit, which specializes in extracting money from local communities while providing as little as possible in return, pulled the plug on Madison’s progressive talk station, 92.1 The Mic, the day after the fall election, even though the station recently earned what was said to be “the highest share in liberal talk radio in the U.S. registered by Nielsen.” The company (formerly Clear Channel), whose other Madison stations are 96.3 WMAD FM, 101.5 WIBA FM, 104.1 WZEE FM, 1070 WTSO AM and 1310 WIBA AM, went from serving a vital community function to playing, initially, holiday music. Hey, iHeart, here’s some holiday music for you: Go bleep yourself.
Dire Prediction of the Year: USA Will Be the Next Madison
In an appearance on “Meet the Press” just before the election, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich forecast that if Donald Trump were to be elected — as Gingrich hoped — the nation’s future would be rife with strife. “It will just be like Madison, Wisconsin, with Scott Walker. The opposition of the government employee unions will be so hostile and so direct and so immediate, there will be a continuing fight over who controls the country.” He added mournfully, “I wish it wasn’t true.” Don’t we all?
Rosemary Lee: She died last Dec. 21 at age 78, several months after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer. She never ran for election or drew pay from any interest group, but was as engaged a citizen as Madison has ever seen, earning recognition as the city’s “21st alder” for religiously attending Common Council meetings and serving on committees. “She really took tremendous pride in civic engagement and bemoaned the lack of interest on the part of the public,” recalled longtime Madison Ald. Mike Verveer. She set an example we can all look up to.
Jim Baughman: This beloved UW-Madison journalism professor helped train generations of students to become thoughtful and conscientious members of the Fourth Estate. “He commanded respect and demanded excellence, yet he never let the work seem out of reach,” recalled his J-School colleague and former student Katy Culver. “Through him, his students came to believe in themselves and deliver their very best.” Baughman died from lung cancer on March 26 at age 64.
Tom Laskin: Any editor who has worked with lots of writers can tell you: Some people just have it. Tom Laskin had it. As his former colleague Dean Robbins recalled, he “never used a cliché in a quarter-century of writing for Isthmus. [H]e always had an original take, an original turn of phrase — just what you’d expect from this thoroughly original personality.” A musician as well as writer, Tom — or Laskin, as we called him — died in Amsterdam on June 15, at age 59, of a kind of brain cancer.
David Medaris: Former Isthmus editor Marc Eisen, in his tribute in these pages, was right: We all had our reasons for loving David Medaris. The paper’s longtime calendar editor and staff writer was such a happy presence in our lives, so full of curiosity and gratitude and so absent of meanness or guile. He died of brain cancer on Oct. 18 at age 57, after beating back his illness for many years. We are all the better for the time we spent knowing — and loving — him.
Sherry Masters: This longtime mathematics instructor at MATC was a key source for a series of Isthmus articles in the late 1980s about problems with indoor air quality at the college’s then-new Truax campus. But she was also a source of much more: redemption for math-phobic students; affirmation for those with deep passions, like she for Johnny Cash; and joy over her dear companion, online phenom Chauncey Poodle. She died on Nov. 3 at age 70, three weeks after being diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. Chauncey passed some months before.
— Bill Lueders