I'm sorry now that I once said Jim Doyle looks like a cross between a basset hound and Richard Nixon.
It was unfair to the hound and trivializes the Nixonian side of Doyle's character. Make no mistake, the chilling aspect of last week's banana republic moment at the state Elections Board was its Nixonian overtones.
"What's really scary about this," one business leader told me, "is that we have now have a governor who is willing to use the powers of government to punish political appointees. This time, it's the Elections Board. Next time, will it be the Department of Revenue? The DNR?"
You probably know the story: In trying to rig a vote of the state Elections Board involving Republican Mark Green, a lawyer for the Doyle campaign laid out the strategy to Democratic appointees. The goal was to embarrass Green by retroactively changing elections rules and forcing him to return more than $400,000 he had transferred from his federal account.
That sort of transfer had been considered legal for 28 years and when former Democratic Congressman Tom Barrett did the same thing, the Elections Board said it was perfectly okay. But the Doyle team, faced with mounting scandals, set out to find some way to accuse Green of being as much of a crook as the governor.
The clock was running. Doyle Administration official Georgia Thompson had been convicted of a felony for rigging a state contract to benefit a contributor to the Doyle campaign. (At her sentencing last week, she got 18 months.) The federal investigation is ongoing and the media continue a steady drip of stories about state contracts with suspicious links to Doyle campaign cash.
And so Doyle's lawyer, Michael Maistelman, reached out to Election Board members. The board then voted 4-3 (three Democrats joined by a Green Party rep) to ignore the advice of its own lawyer, George Dunst, who had said Green's transfer should be allowed to stand. It declared the transfer illegal and ordered Green to divest himself of the cash, just two months before the November election.
Almost immediately, Doyle began a television ad barrage attacking Green for his "illegal money."
That, of course, was the whole point.
In an e-mail the day before the vote, Maistelman advised one Election Board member that "the Gov's Campaign and the Dem party and others will give you cover on this in the media. Even if this ends up in Court it is a PR victory for us since it makes Green spend money and have to defend the use of his Washington DC dirty money."
In other words, it wasn't about the law; it was about using the board's actions to damage Doyle's opponent. The language could hardly have been balder.
Other e-mails recount how Maistelman got other appointees "on board" the plan to whack Green. At one point, he assured a supine board member, "I ran this by the powers that be and was given a ‘green' light on this idea." The strings had been well and surely pulled; the supposedly independent watchdog had been turned into a pliant lapdog.
Much of the media have taken to calling Maistelman's involvement "lobbying" the Elections Board. It wasn't. The lawyer for the Democratic governor was giving marching orders to his party's appointees, who promptly complied.
This, in itself, is hardly news. In fact, it could be argued that it's perfectly consistent with the way this governor has done business. But who knew his minions would be so arrogant as to actually put it in writing?
Doyle's response has been predictable. He denied knowing that Maistelman was his lawyer (yeah, that's the ticket); seized on a story that a GOP official had also called a member of the Elections Board (apparently to ask, "Is it true the Dems are going to screw Green?"); and has continued to run ads decrying Green's "dirty money," while the dispute wends its way through the courts. In other words, the scheme worked exactly as planned.
As collateral damage, the gambit exposed the lawmakers (primarily Republican) who scuttled plans to reform the absurd practice of letting partisan hacks dominate the Elections Board.
But primarily, it gave us a glimpse of the new face of politics in Wisconsin. Doyle defenders have half a point when they note that Doyle did not invent aggressive fundraising or hardball politics, citing his predecessors including Pat Lucey and Tommy Thompson.
What they gloss over, however, is how far Doyle has taken this " from the shakedown of companies bidding for state contracts to the casual cynicism of his political thuggery. It is one thing to use spin to cover deficiencies of substance, but Doyle has turned to outright deception and official bullying to cover up an ethical meltdown.
In 1972, Richard Nixon survived Watergate to win a second term. Doyle may well survive Travelgate and other scandals, but his second term could well turn out to be as eventful as his new role model's.