Could there have been a more marvelous day for the pro-business leaders of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce than June 21, 2002? WMC President James Haney and Vice President James Buchen must have grinned like schoolkids when they read the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Doyle, in a meeting with Journal Sentinel editors, fully embraced the WMC message. Should he be elected, Doyle pledged not only to rule out a tax increase to deal with the state's looming budget shortfall, but to support an esoteric but crucial issue for business - "single factor" taxation, worth an approximate $80 million a year in tax cuts.
What's more, Doyle outlandishly promised to reduce the state workforce by more than 11,700 bodies over the course of the next eight years to get the state back to 1987 levels.
Did champagne corks pop at 501 E. Washington Ave., WMC's imposing headquarters? Certainly they should have. Here was a Democrat they could work with, probably even more successfully than with the lackluster Republican placeholder, acting Gov. Scott McCallum.
For Doyle, it was a brilliant tactical move, placing him three steps to the right of his bunched and conventionally liberal rivals, Tom Barrett, Kathleen Falk and Gary George. WMC signaled its approval by giving Doyle a free pass to the governor's office as it trained its big guns on legislative races that fall.
Six years in office, Doyle has certainly proved to be every bit as cautious and moderate as promised. What's stunning is how WMC somehow bungled this golden opportunity to build a winning coalition with open-minded Democrats like Doyle.
Instead, WMC finds itself feeling increasingly isolated and harassed. The criticism is not just coming from energized liberal interest groups swarming WMC like so many angry bees, but from elements of the business community fed up with WMC's pit-bull politics.
This was the audacious message delivered by the management of Epic Systems. Disapproving of WMC's conduct in the spring Supreme Court race, the fast-growing software company recently declared it would prefer doing business with firms that didn't belong to the suspect lobby group.
The moral of the story: Sometimes winning ugly has big costs.
By any measure, the business group scored two huge election victories for state Supreme Court seats by helping elect the ethically challenged Annette Ziegler in 2007 and then ousting incumbent Justice Louis Butler for the little-known Michael Gableman in 2008.
Both campaigns were vile by Wisconsin standards and saw WMC knee deep in the mud. (It bombarded the state with TV ads rudely calling Justice Butler "Loophole Louie.") Epic's declaration that the Gableman-Butler race was a "travesty of ethics" seemingly crystallized a growing sentiment: WMC is a political bullyboy, and it must be stopped.
Business' unhappiness with WMC's direction may be wider than thought. We Energies, the state's largest utility, confirmed this week that it quietly left WMC eight years ago.
Spokesman Barry McNulty isn't eager to talk about the split, but says there were disagreements over policies and attitudes. WMC was just too partisan for We Energies, and too focused on disparaging the state's business climate.
"We favor a collaborative approach," he says. "We think the inability to work together hurts the state economy."
The WMC of old took a nonpartisan path. The eminently practical and solidly Republican Paul Hassett, who led the group in the '70s and into the '80s, made the case for business without feeling the need to crack Democratic skulls.
Indeed, the Wisconsin business community scored one of its biggest victories ever in 1973 when Gov. Pat Lucey, a Democrat, seized a Republican issue and convinced the Legislature to exempt manufacturing machinery and equipment from the property tax.
That epochal decision, taken to boost the state out of a recession, casts Wisconsin's changed political culture in sharp relief. The measure cleared a divided Legislature only after leading Democrats - Tony Earl, Dennis Conta and Bert Grover - worked with leading Republicans, namely Bob Kasten and Walter Hollander, to craft a consensus bill acceptable to Lucey.
Yes, it really happened like that: Democrats worked with Republicans. And a liberal governor showed he could lead on important matters of business and economic development.
As a candidate in 2002, Jim Doyle gave every indication that he was ready to be another Pat Lucey for WMC. That the business group didn't seize the opportunity and build a cross-party coalition is simply astonishing.
Chalk it up to Haney and Buchen's WMC being far more partisan than Hassett's WMC. As one observer told me, the business group is now "a wholly owned subsidiary" of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.
What a bad time for that strategy! Not only do the Democrats control the governor's office and the state Senate, but with fall 2008 stacking up as a potential Democratic blow-out, the Dems may capture the Assembly as well.
Compounding its problems, WMC foolishly spent more than a million dollars in 2006 trying to defeat Doyle's re-election bid. The guv cruised to victory against a quickly forgotten Republican. Does anyone think Doyle is still favorably disposed to WMC?
WMC, in short, is in a helluva predicament. But it's a predicament of its own making. I keep thinking back to the late Cal Worrell, who ran the Concourse Hotel when Tommy Thompson held his extravagant victory parties there. WMC might take a lesson from Worrell.
I stopped him one night to ask him why he was sporting a Thompson button on his lapel. Might it not offend his patrons who were Democrats? Worrell leaned over and whispered: "Marc, when the Democrats have their parties here, I wear their buttons."
Cal Worrell understood that his business depended on the support of both Democrats and Republicans, a lesson WMC has clearly forgotten.