Dark Days in Wisconsin
March is always the cruelest month in Wisconsin. A winter storm that has not quite finished dumping 6 to 9 inches of snow on Madison reminded everyone that it takes a lot of fortitude to make it to spring.
But if Wisconsinites are feeling beleaguered anyway at this time of year, last Friday's news was particularly bleak.
First, the long-running John Doe probe of Governor Scott Walker's aides, appointees, and campaign donors ended--with, after all this time, no charges against the Governor.
After the recall effort against Walker failed last summer, a lot of his opponents were holding out hope he would be removed from office by uniformed police.
After all, Walker paid over $200,000 to top criminal defense lawyers. Every time he transferred another big chunk of money to his criminal defense fund, it made the news.
But Milwaukee County district attorney John Chisholm wrapped things up, having convicted six of Walker's closest aides and supporters for misusing funds, campaigning on the taxpayers' time, setting up a secret communications network to do so, and, in the most lurid charges, stealing money from Iraq war vets and their widows and orphans for personal use, as well as using the governor's name in a handle on an internet porn site to trawl for underage sex partners.
None of this hurt Walker in the end--either politically or legally.
None of Walker's indicted friends and staff pointed a finger at the governor. His claim to know nothing about what his staff was doing ultimately held up.
The disappointment seemed to drive Wisconsin Democratic Party communications director Graeme Zielinski temporarily nuts, as he repeatedly sent out tweets on Friday comparing Walker to another well-known Wisconsinite, cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice--who has written more about the John Doe investigation than any other journalist in the state--covered Zielinski's outrageous remarks, and Zielinski was removed from his job later the same day. He is currently working for the party, but not as a public spokesman.
All in all, a pretty lousy Friday for Wisconsin progressives.
Like a lot of journalists, I personally enjoyed talking to Zielinksi quite a bit more than I enjoyed talking to your run-of-the-mill careful, political types.
When he interrupted a Tea Party Express member from Texas who came to Wisconsin to "monitor"--read intimidate--voters suspected of "fraud" ("Yee-haw! Get out of our state!"), he may have been impolitic, but it was both a hilarious and a totally justified response.
Was Zielinski over the top? Absolutely.
Are his loose-cannon remarks among the major problems faced by Wisconsin Democrats and progressives in this grim season? Absolutely not.
The fact is, our state has been so thoroughly whipped by the Walker's Republican Party, outrage seems like a perfectly rational response.
Having redrawn Wisconsin districts so our solidly blue state (which just elected both Barack Obama and Tammy Baldwin) is looking at another decade of rightwing Republican control of the legislature, the Walkerites are now busy pushing through the items on their agenda that were too rich even for moderate Rs in the last term.
We are about to see a massive extension of voucher schools in communities like Madison that have stated loudly and clearly that they don't want them.
Progressive writer Rebecca Kemble has been covering the give-away of our public lands through legislation written by a mining company executive that explicitly kills public health and safety and environmental protections, despite the loud protests from the people who live near the proposed mine and their elected representatives.
I could go on.
But the final bummer is there is no clear Democratic opposition.
Talking to Graeme Zielinski was always fun because he was not only outrageous, he was passionate about defending Wisconsin from pillage by Walker's corporate cronies who want to liquidate everything good about our state, from our environment to our great public schools, technical colleges, and university system.
How many people do we have with the passion and the platform to stick up for the regular citizens who are getting creamed by the Walkerites?
More to the point--who do the Dems have to challenge Walker in 2014?
It may be snowing, but I think that's the sound of crickets.
Among prospective Walker opponents, the only name that's getting any buzz right now is Kevin Conroy, an unknown millionaire who could self-finance--if he ever decided to run. That's his main asset, as far as anyone can tell (and a big one, given the Walker out-of-state-billionaire-fueled machine).
Problem is, Conroy, besides being a political tabula rasa, has business before the state as he seeks approval to pursue lucrative biotech research--and is unlikely to start blasting the governor as he waits to hear if his business can move ahead.
So who else have we got?
Please don't mention Russ Feingold, the dream that never came true last time.
Why is there no state Democratic Party bench? Why aren't Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl and David Obey part of a statewide structure that can produce a strong, connected, viable candidate?
Because the party, on the whole, is weak and disconnected from the grassroots energy that caused so much excitement so long ago in another dark, early spring.
That, not Graeme Zielinksi's outrageous remarks, is the real problem.
Let's hope the Democratic Party is spending some time thinking about how to fix it, and not just how to sound a little more smooth.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Wall Street Cheers the Austerity Bomb".
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter
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