Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Why do far-away citizens care about one lousy Assembly election in Milwaukee?

By Dominique Paul Noth

I had several themes when I wrote my article on the JohnHermes race for the State Assembly in District 82, but basically wanted to wake up the citizens in Franklin and Greendale (plus a sliver of Greenfield and tracts of the city) to a harsh reality. Given the holiday shopping date of the special election, December 17, they were in danger of being shanghaied by a minority who always shows up to vote way out of proportion to the community’s genuine rounded interests.

Unlike Brazil or many other countries where voting is high or nigh mandatory,  less than half the eligible US voters turn out for local, district or even statewide elections – a tragedy in itself.  But in this case, less than 5% could determine the new incumbent in the Madison legislature, as a similar sliver just did in nearby Assembly District 21.

However you lean in your philosophy, this is flat wrong and lazy. It robs reasonable and intelligent residents concerned about their communities a fair voice in their own future.

One of the larger themes in my article was political strategy around turnout  -- are we blaming those who run for public office for failures that are the consequences of our own ignorance, inattention or  indifference? The 82nd is shaping up as a precision attack on partisan gridlock at a horrible time for off-year elections. Hermes the Democrat is seeking out a middle ground emphasizing the need for locals to demand a bigger voice in Madison in the face of entrenched party machinery, power games and finances – all intrusions citizens said they loathed in my extensive interviews.  But then, again, few promised they would get to the polls Dec. 17 to express that loathing.

But there was another theme that, somewhat to my surprise, brought instant response by email, social media and phone calls from throughout Wisconsin and from states as far-flung as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Colorado, California and Georgia  where they don’t know John Hermes from Miley Cyrus.

Citizens and journalists had their own examples of local elections driven awry by special interests married to a simplistic narrative or kneejerk label.  One of the most popular labels seems this cry of “no new taxes!” to defeat any effort at local improvement. Yet the cry often comes from people uninformed of how badly their current tax burden already represents special interests running amuck that no one paid attention to.  Nor how that  “no new taxes” mantra actually destroys sensible corrections of current policy as well as new ways of generating jobs, revenue and the “quality of life” that taxes are supposed to be about.

 Legislative races don’t directly deal with local  taxes, but party labels propel some nonsensical  extremist views about lock-step tax and spend ideologies, as opposed to calculated correction and fresh ideas from individuals seeking public office. Meanwhile the “no new tax” cry drives to the polls a gaggle of government haters who don’t want politicians to do anything but follow their commands, whatever those may be.

The  messages to me  – and they came from devout conservatives as well as progressives  – provided  example upon example of what author and historian Thomas Frank explored in  his 2004 best-seller “What’s the Matter With Kansas,” how ideological exaggerations could get people to vote again and again against their own economic interests.

As one Appleton  correspondent told me,  this is not a right or left issue, but a case of whether sensible locally committed citizens show up at these “boring and wonkish” local elections (his description) to take back their municipal or state representation.  A colleague from Georgia shared an editorial about how unforeseen high turnout in a county election provided a surprisingly intelligent outcome:  “When there is a comparative strong turnout it is not the liberals that win, not even the progressives, but rather those who have thought about the matters at hand and reached their own conclusions.

From Pennsylvania as well as northeast Wisconsin  came details of how routine bond issues, property development, school expansions and the like were routinely defeated when 10% of the community controlled the ballot box. But several messages also celebrated the simple turn-around when a mere 30% of residents showed up to vote more reflectively about local needs.

No wonder the billionaires such as the notorious Koch brothers, the Walton family and other groups have shifted so much of their money away from failed national  frontal assaults (such as backing Romney) to targeting local elections, school board races, bond issues and the like.  It is here where citizens are hardest to rouse and a small committed group of ideologists can be stampeded to the polls against the desires of the community at large.

Frankly, though I sell to many outlets,  I had trouble pitching this story about the 82nd district and decided to post it myself.  The resistance  reminded me of the issues facing today’s journalism.  Democracy is indeed hard work, journalism has to explore nuances yet the Internet discourages discussions outside ideological confines or longer than four paragraphs  – and geographical terrain tends to dominate, so if you don’t have a lot of eyeballs in Franklin and Greendale, why run such a story?  The citizens of Milwaukee County are suffering from a narrowing rather than expanding exchange of research and analysis in the local mass media.

How curious that folks in other states picked up on the lesson faster. But they know. The shrunk turnout in local elections at odd times of year has crippled the general future of our democracy and republic and cost many communities forward-looking efforts to deepen community growth.  So this is no longer an issue of narrow geography or  Twitter one-liners but broad social and government policy.  How we get more people to vote is vital. Even in one lousy Milwaukee assembly race.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Hermes rides local desire for sensible middle in Madison legislature

The perfect test tube for a strategy that may roll out in many Wisconsin state elections in 2014:  Emphasize local desires. Downplay the partisan gridlock.

 By Dominique Paul Noth

John Hermes facing Dec. 17 election to Assembly.
During extensive chats in the shops and neighborhoods of Franklin and Greendale after Thanksgiving, residents active in both parties agreed: This time the Democrats have the best known, more energetic and proven candidate for State Assembly District 82.

So much so that two Republican headhunters even sheepishly confessed they had tried to recruit John Hermes for the GOP ticket, until they learned about the Democratic ties and principles of the Greendale village president.  Now he’s even been endorsed by the local Republicans’ original choice in next door AD21, Steve Scaffidi, the Oak Creek mayor who withdrew when pressured to toe the Madison majority line. 

But since the race occurs Dec. 17 the right-wing believes it has the edge. The special Tuesday election is a week before Christmas. A regular Assembly race in a presidential year – such as November 2012 -- drew nearly 30,000 district voters and even in off-year competition can easily garner 23,000.

Yet both parties estimate Dec. 17 could attract a total of 6,000– and maybe not that many if the weather is bad or citizens are behind on holiday shopping.  The GOP remains supremely confident that some 2,500 to 3,000 of their diehards will vote the R side of the ballot whomever.  Buying into that view, much of the local media has ignored this race because it is not partisanly juicy on the surface.

It’s an old off-year story. “The best qualified should win public office” – that’s  what  the people  always say. Yet they let a tiny group that actually turns up at the polls decide -- especially with these bizarre special elections for the Madison legislature that fall way outside the normal voting calendar.

But there is a contrary mood heavily at work when you talk with the residents – an underlying dislike for labeling expectations, a growing agitation about the pundit assumptions about past practices.

The contest is a perfect test tube for a strategy that may roll out in many Wisconsin state elections in 2014:  Emphasize the local desires and downplay the partisan gridlock. Get through to voters’ real concerns even at a weird time in an off-year.

The Republicans are  banking on how Romney won the district over Obama in 2012 and how GOP Rep. Jeff Stone – who rode a moderate conciliatory image in the late 1990s to win and maintain after decades of Democratic control – got  60% over popular teacher but novice politico Kathleen Wied Vincent in 2012.

But there is a relevant counter-narrative that exposes the danger of relying on old labels, past laurels and selective voting data. This is also the district where Tammy won handily over Tommy for US senate in 2012. And Stone lost all vestiges of a moderate label when he jumped away mid-term this fall to take a better-paying job with the Gov. Scott Walker administration, forcing this odd election.

“I know where these families came from,” noted Milwaukee historian John Gurda, recalling how these suburbs on the edge of Milwaukee County grew dynamically through government incorporation after World War II. Even the area’s state senate seat had for decades before Mary Lazich been the domain of Democrat Lynn Adelman, now an influential federal judge.  “This is hardly a locked Republican area,” Gurda commented. “And certainly not in this climate.”

There is no joining at the political extremist hip between Franklin and Greendale (the 50,000 population heart of the district) and AD82 includes a sliver of Greenfield and key tracts of the city of Milwaukee that lean more liberal.

Republican planners concede that their choice, Ken Skowronski, faced a lot of opposition within the party to win its Nov. 19 primary and draws little of the outside money that helped other GOP candidates survive.  He has been described by peers as “notably crusty” and gave a WisconsinEye interview that emphasized his faithfulness to whatever his party leaders are backing in Madison. He actually told a neighbor that he was running mainly because the Assembly would be a “feather in my cap” after combative terms as Franklin alderman.

But even left-leaning Daily Kos senses the right’s confidence. After noting Skowronski is “certainly not a top candidate,” Kos analysts  slyly added, “However, he may not need to be.”

Yet Hermes has won handily in a conservative environment since 1998 as village president (a position he will resign if he wins the Assembly).  He is a leading force in 76th St. business corridor expansion.  He’s an influential leader in the private-public Aerotroplis to interconnect and galvanize regional transit and is a respected commissioner on the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. He champions academic ties to improve southeastern Wisconsin job creation through the Water Council and the University of Wisconsin NanoTechnology Hub.

All that, along with a clean campaign pledge, leads him to expect the opposition to play nice.  “I don’t think the Republicans would dare come after me on economic issues,” Hermes said, who modestly rated his own WisconsinEye interview at “80% okay” though his answers were forthright and his command of the issues voluminous.

But his Democratic roots (including negotiator and committee chair for the Air Traffic Controllers Association during his three decades as FAA controller) are not on blatant display in this contest. His campaign is hardly hiding the fact but rather emphasizing experience, service and rounded support from municipal leaders, education and community groups and such unions as the nurses and operating engineers.

That may not be enough for the Democrats that spit bile at the mere mention of Gov. Scott Walker, his agenda and tactics – an exorcism moment that creates hostility even among traditional Republicans now discovering the governor does not represent the Party they grew up in.

Hermes’ early literature was not developed around his reputation as pro-choice, anti voucher schools, pro equal pay for women and pro environment sensibility – though he frankly discusses all positions at the doors and has given speeches strongly defending women’s rights.  “I don’t think of those as left or right issues, just sensible,” he told me.

As village president he conceded some temporary gains from Act 10 he could take advantage of for taxpayers while excoriating the exclusion of police and fire unions that would have most helped Greendale’s bottom-line.  He also disliked Walker’s methods and treating “professional managers as wimps” incapable of negotiating across an even collective bargaining table. “To pretend we don’t know how to deal with our workers was just insulting,” he said in an interview. That’s a stance on Act 10 that Wisconsin could see more from many Democrats in state races in November.

Hermes was also one of the first municipal leaders to publicly attack the GOP assault on residency rules as destructive of local control.

This  “big tent” approach -- though embraced in national Democratic strategy -- has chilled a few activists in the party’s left-most wing. They want the D more prominent on his campaign literature and more “in your face” political tactics.

 “Everyone has their own style,” said Hermes in an interview. “All campaigns say they will reach across the aisle to work with the other side. The difference is that when I reach out, the other side actually wants to reach back.”

That’s why he has emphasized broad endorsements from municipal chiefs across ideological lines – Whitefish Bay, Cudahy, Brown Deer, city and county of Milwaukee, West Allis and even the mayor of Racine. “They know me as a common-sense facilitator, to get both sides together,” said Hermes.

His campaign manager, Democratic strategist Brandon Savage, thinks Hermes is the ideal candidate for the district and has strictly controlled the messaging, even stiffing more absolutist party voices. 

 “We’ve got to express the urgency of keeping local representation front and center in Madison rather than using the same old playbook,” Savage said. “We have to think outside that narrow box.”

But Dec. 17 still comes down to which voters jump out of the box.  Hermes needs to draw from traditional Democrats (11,854 turned out for Vincent) as well as crossover Republicans and those disenchanted with intrusive state politics.  

Vincent, who withdrew from the race in October with enthusiastic praise for Hermes --- “he’s the real deal,” she told me – has cooled of late, feeling her doorbell and signage techniques were not given fuller hearing by the Hermes managers. “I know he’s the better candidate,” she told me Nov. 30, “but I don’t feel my role should be endorsing anyone directly, more preserving my own options.  These are citizens who should make up their own minds.”

 “It’s the main thing I hear at the doors,” Hermes said. “People are tired of no middle anymore, of being told what brand to vote for. They want party extremists to stay out.”