David Michael Miller
The stories that get the most press aren't always the ones that mean the most in the long run. Here's my list of the 10 state and local stories from 2014 that I think will have the most impact in the New Year.
10. Gary Andersen leaves. In the big scheme of things, who coaches the local football team doesn't matter much. They all play them one at a time and ask their players to give 110%. But Gary Andersen seems to have left the Badgers at least in part because he didn't like the UW's slightly tougher academic standards for players. It's a significant story because of what it says about the school's priorities, but the real question for 2015 and beyond is whether the whole concept of the "student-athlete" is passé.
9. Basketball Badgers make the Final Four. One guy who has stuck with the UW athletic program for the long term is Bo Ryan. But while always producing a competitive team with players who stay out of trouble, academic and otherwise, he could never break into the elite Final Four in the NCAA tournament. He did it this year, proving that nice guys finish no worse than fourth. It looks like he might do even better in 2015.
8. New transportation taxes proposed. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation proposed $750 million in new taxes. This sets up the Republican-controlled Legislature for a crisis of identity. Absolute opposition to all taxes in any form runs up against a lust for big roads. If Republican lawmakers vote for tax increases, they hand the Democrats an issue. If bridges start falling into rivers, they hand them a bigger one.
7. Isthmus sold. After four decades, founder and publisher Vince O'Hern called it quits and sold the alternative weekly to a group of young investors. Breathless readers wonder if an unusually insightful former mayor will continue to write for the publication. He, in turn, wonders if Isthmus can appeal to a new generation of readers and still keep its sharp-edged focus on state and local politics.
6. Judge Doyle Square drags on. The big civic project spins its wheels for another year, actually moving backwards to square one. It could be a central issue in next year's mayor's race. Not because of the project itself (which is generally unpopular) but because it's a classic example of a failure of vision and leadership at the highest levels of city government.
5. Underdogs at the starting gate. Speaking of the mayor, Paul Soglin faces two serious, smart and energetic challengers in Ald. Scott Resnick, who is 27, and former Ald. Bridget Maniaci, who is 30. Sure, they're underdogs, but Madison likes underdogs. Moreover, it seems that our city is poised to finally break free from the past. Next April we'll see if we have the courage to put our future in the hands of, well, the future.
4. Parisi takes over 911. Contrast the malaise over Judge Doyle Square with County Executive Joe Parisi's decisive move to take control of the troubled 911 center from a dysfunctional and unaccountable board. Parisi could have hidden behind the board, but instead he displayed strong leadership by taking responsibility. It's the kind of leadership we might like to see in a governor in, say, four years.
3. Local reaction to Ferguson. We can't sweep race, crime and punishment under the rug any more. This year's attorney general's race was awful for its lack of focus on two really important issues: drunk driving and Wisconsin's nation-leading incarceration rate for black men. Ferguson and similar cases like it elsewhere could force us to confront at least the latter of those problems.
2. Republican majorities expand. It's all out of whack. A state that voted for Barack Obama twice has a state Assembly that has 63 Republicans and only 36 Democrats. A state that just two years ago elected the nation's first openly lesbian (and openly liberal) U.S. senator with better than 51% of the vote has an Assembly that is 63% Republican. The disconnect between the independent purple character of the state and the deep red nature of its government sets up long-term frustration with extremely conservative leaders who don't reflect the much more moderate, if not liberal, views of the electorate they are supposed to represent.
1. Gov. Scott Walker again. Look, the guy's won three elections in four years. He's the only governor in the nation's entire history to survive a recall. Say what you want about him, and people certainly do, he is already a historic figure in Wisconsin. Assuming he won't be the next president (and that seems like a safe assumption right now), he could move to the center, heal some of the wounds he inflicted, and become a historic figure worth remembering. He could start by vetoing right-to-work legislation or ensuring it never gets to his desk. Not likely, but hey, a guy can dream.
And we can all dream of better times during the next trip around the sun. The economy is getting better, the Badgers still win a lot of games, and elections lost can be races won next time around. Even tragedies like Ferguson are forcing us to confront issues too long ignored. Have a happy new year. Really.