The Doyle Disappointment

By Marc Eisen

It's no surprise that conservatives have a long list of Doyle's failures. Now we find that even liberals shake their heads over the missed opportunities.

Judy Wilcox is a stalwart Madison liberal. She did a stint in the Peace Corps, serving in Gambia; put in 12 years on the Dane County Board representing a district where anarchists probably outnumber Republicans; and she retired from state service in November 2008 after 20 years of working on programs first for the disabled and then the homeless.

Wilcox's background makes it all the more surprising when she names the worst governor she worked for: Jim Doyle. A Democrat? "I found it much easier to work with Gov. Thompson," she says. A Republican? Yup.

"I had several sessions personally with Gov. Thompson. He would call people into his office, sit them down and say, 'Lets try to figure this out'," she recalls. "I always got along with him very well."

In contrast, she says she couldnt get the time of day from Doyle's office when she needed its imprimatur on a housing issue for the feds. "It took repeated phone calls and me harassing them to appoint the study committee," she says. The whole experience - the governor accepted the committee report but didn't approve it - left her "mystified" as to where the governor stood.

Judy Wilcox isn't alone. During the Doyle years I've had seven or eight lengthy conversations with veteran state workers: all serious Democrats, all people who see their job as a calling, and all expressing profound disappointment with Gov. Jim Doyle. They worked in agencies and departments as varied as Transportation, Housing, Administration, Corrections, and Family Services.

Wilcox speaks for these good liberals when she says, "I just expected more from him."
Of course, it's no surprise that Republicans and elements of the business community disapprove of Doyle's performance. Or, for that matter, that polls show that the recession-battered public has turned against the governor.

But state employees too? Liberals and loyal Democrats in state service? In some ways their disapproval is even more telling because they saw the Doyle administration up close on a daily basis. And didn't like it.

Their judgment represents a particularly deflating outcome for Wisconsin Democrats: They waited 16 long years to regain control of the executive branch, only to elect a governor who couldn't articulate a coherent liberal vision for running state government in the 21st century.

"He didn't care about that," says a Department of Administration retiree. "That's not what governing was for the Doyle administration. It was about exercising power as opposed to actual governing."

I'll return to that point, but let's first cut Jim Doyle some slack. He's occupied the East Wing in a bummer time. As Tim Cullen, who was the Democrats' Senate majority leader in the 80's, says: "You govern in the times you're handed. He governed during difficult economic times. He inherited a tough Republican legislature. One thing he gets credit for is playing defense."

Doyle's role as the Democrats goaltender on issues like abortion and gay rights is praised even by otherwise disenchanted liberals.

On the program side, Doyle will be remembered for his incremental but substantive expansion of health insurance to low-income people through BadgerCare Plus and other measures. Not all is peaches and cream, though: There is already a waiting list for applicants, and whether the state can afford the expense is an open question.

Doyle's Wisconsin Covenant program - it promises a college spot and financial aid to high-achieving high school graduates - also draws applause. But details are so few that it's hard to predict its success. The price tag and the degree of student interest won't become clear until 2011, when the first class of high school students who signed the covenant reaches college age.

Still, education is a priority for Doyle, and observers give him measured praise for protecting school aid in an era of depleted coffers. Not that school officials got all that they wanted, but those observers say that the governor treated school aid far more gently than other programs that got the knife.

But most of all, Jim Doyle will be remembered as a hellaciously good politician. Begin with the fact that Doyle ousted sitting incumbents at each stage of his career - Dane County district attorney, Wisconsin attorney general and now governor.

"The man has never lost a single election," says Jim Haney, his former press secretary in the AG's office (and not the business leader of the same name).

"You have to put Jim Doyle down as one of the most successful politicians in recent Wisconsin history," says Haney, who's now a college administrator at UW-Stevens Point. (I wound up talking to Haney because the Doyle team - never the friendliest of folks when it comes to dealing with reporters - refused interview requests on the basis that it was too early to discuss the governor's legacy.)

Haney isn't alone is his characterization of Doyle as a great campaigner. Mordecai Lee, a former Democratic lawmaker and now a political scientist at UW-Milwaukee, says, "He's a fabulous politician." He cites Doyle's emergence as a conservative Democrat on taxes as the masterstroke to his victory in the 2002 election.

"Jim Doyle was the first Democrat to ever say, 'I will not increase general taxes on the middle class, ever, period'," says Lee. "That took enormous discipline because he had to stand up to the standard constituencies of the Democratic Party."

Doyle's 2002 campaign was a marvel of strategic calculation. He deliberately steered to the right of his Democratic competitors Tom Barrett and Kathleen Falk, winning the primary with a trifecta of conservative-friendly pledges - no new taxes, support for "single factor" taxation long sought by the business community, and an extravagant promise to cut the state workforce by 10,000 or so.

That was enough to convince Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce to train its big guns on the legislative races and stay neutral in the gubernatorial contest, which featured the lackluster Scott McCallum on the Republican line.

Four years later, Doyle was sagging in the polls, but rallied to rout GOP challenger Mark Green. Doyle's first TV ad of the campaign bludgeoned the Green Bay congressman in the killer fashion of today's political advertising: A mother looked into the camera and said that "Washington politicians like Mark Green" wanted to ban the stem cell research that might cure her daughter's diabetes.

Never mind that the ad distorted Green's position (and even earned a rebuke from the Doyle-friendly Journal Sentinel editorial board); it effectively labeled him as an extremist.

"Doyle stole a page from the Republican playbook," says Lee. "He invented a wedge issue [i.e., an issue that pries a voter group away from the opposition] out of thin air, which is essentially what Republicans have done for two generations. Nobody was talking about embryonic stem-cell research as a political issue until Jim Doyle."

Doyle knows exactly how to beat up and take down an opponent, says Lee. "What an ice-blooded politician he is."

As masterful as his two gubernatorial races were, they sowed the seeds of the problems that have bedeviled the Doyle administration. Take, for example, WMC's questionable decision late in the 2006 election to dump a ton of issue money attacking Doyle even though most polling showed Green on the fast train to Palookaville. Whatever WMC's logic, Cullen says the Doyle team overreacted.

He brings an interesting perspective to the Doyle-WMC dogfight. Cullen was one of the reigning princes of the Democratic Party before leaving the state Senate to run the Department of Health and Social Services for Thompson. He moved on to become a health insurance executive and then returned to public life in retirement. Today, Cullen serves on the Janesville school board.

The governor, he says, "tried to use the power of the office to get even with WMC instead of saying, 'You guys made a bad bet. I tried to work with you. Now I'm going back to my base and pursue my legislative agenda'."

"But there was no legislative agenda," he says. "The Doyle people spent their time trying to dismantle WMC. Some people might get a kick out of that, but it doesnt accomplish anything."

Cullen's point is hard to refute. With the state mired in a recession and a staggering 156,800 jobs lost since December 2007, what could be more dysfunctional for Wisconsin residents than the governor battling the state's biggest business lobby? There are no winners here.

But Doyle as the consummate political scrapper has never really been wedded to the sort of agenda that Cullen wanted. State Rep. Mark Pocan, a very liberal lawmaker from Madison, sees the same problem. While he praises Doyle as "rock solid" on progressive social issues, he says, "If anything the governor's biggest failure was the lack of a more productive agenda. There were missed opportunities."

Doyle just didn't like working with the Legislature and couldn't accept that lawmakers had their own standing as elected officials, says Pocan. Doyle's staff was even more disdainful: "They exacerbate the problem of him being an executive with no connection to the Legislature."

Doyle's relative indifference to policymaking played out badly in the bureaucracy, according to the disaffected state employees I've talked with over the years. They complain the governor named lawyers and political apparatchiks to run the departments, as opposed to policy pros and experienced administrators. His efforts to cut those 10,000 state employees had no guiding vision and blew up in the Department of Transportation in a particularly ugly fashion when staff engineers were replaced by outside consultants.

In 2004, a study that circulated internally found that consultants were costlier to use on road projects than state employees.* When longtime DOT legal counsel James Thiel, in response to a reporter's open records request, released the study to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he was promptly demoted from a job he had held for 31 years. The lesson for other public employees couldn't have been plainer if the Doyle team had hung Thiel's body from a telephone pole: Don't do anything that undercuts the governor.

With some chagrin, a veteran social services program administrator told me he had been foolish enough to openly criticize cost-cutting measures in his program. He says he was reprimanded and his career damaged: "The message was, don't you dare criticize us or we'll go after you," he says. "They were more interested in loyalty than competence."

I heard a similar story a few years ago when I wrote about Cheri Maples, a retired Madison police captain who had no fear of retribution when she talked publicly about her brief, unhappy tour in the Doyle administration.

A 20-year veteran of law enforcement with a law degree and a master's in social work, Maples was exactly the sort of reality-tested progressive you would have expected the Doyle administration to embrace if it was going to put its stamp on state government.

But once onboard to run the parole and probation division in Corrections, Maples found her hands tied by her political overseers. Her memos and speeches were screened by the secretary's office. Contact with the press had to be cleared. Worse, innovation wasnt encouraged in what she described as a "fear-based" environment.

"Everything was designed to protect the governor from any potential bad publicity and risking his reelection," she told me when I detailed her experiences in the Madison weekly Isthmus. "It was insane. If youre so concerned about these details, how can you see the big picture?"

Blocked from plotting a new course for probation and parole, Maples resigned after nine months. As I wrote, her departure illustrated one of the biggest failings of the Doyle administration: its refusal to tap into the small army of progressive-minded thinkers and technicians waiting in academia and government for a chance to retool state policy after 16 years of Republican rule.

"What depressed me the most," Maples said, "is that many of the liberals and progressives in the department said they were better treated by the Thompson administration."

"The big picture" that Maples talks about has never been part of the Doyle agenda. It's not even honored by gesture anymore. All those blue-ribbon commissions and special task forces that would occasionally ignite a governmental transformation during the Warren Knowles, Pat Lucey and Thompson eras aren't even appointed anymore.

"Brain dead" may be too strong a term to describe the Doyle team, but its failure to address the big issues of state government is stunning in light of the problems that have festered and grown worse over the last two decades.

Most anyone who spends any time at the Capitol knows what they are: The school aid formula has blown a gasket and is belching blue smoke; the state aid system for local communities is byzantine and maybe lunatic for how it separates spending and tax raising; the funding and maybe governance of the UW System is in crisis; and why is it, by the way, that we send so many more people to prison than Minnesota?

None of these big issues seems to pique the incrementalist Doyle's interest. But even if the governor thought big, the seemingly endless structural deficits confronting every biennial budget- typically ranging from $500 million to $700 million - have sucked the air out of innovation. As Todd Berry, the president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, points out: Reform costs money. Its much easier to achieve it if you can grease the transition with bucks for the losers.

But the cushion for reform no longer exists. Strapped for money and publicly committed to not raising the major taxes, the Doyle administration has looked under every rock and raided every cookie jar to balance the biennial books.

Indeed, the notion that Doyle has held the line on taxes would have come under furious assault had he sought a third term. The new budget closed a shortfall by raising $2.1 billion in taxes and fees, including a new income tax bracket that will nick the highest earners for $287 million, and imposing higher fees on everything from cigarettes to birth certificates to securities transactions to boat registrations.

Pocan talks wistfully if only the governor were willing to raise revenue, i.e., taxes, even higher. But I wonder how much stomach the public has for more taxes when their take-home checks are already shrinking. A far more palatable alternative would be a stoked-up Wisconsin economy generating more income and sales taxes like it did in the Roaring 90's, when state coffers overflowed not because of higher taxes but because of the booming economy.

But as Tom Hefty and John Torinus Jr. chronicled in these pages last issue, the Wisconsin economy has dramatically stalled during the Doyle years, throwing Wisconsin residents into an economic squeeze that has translated to Doyle's declining poll numbers.

It's not a pretty picture. Still, more than one person has told me that Doyle could win a third term if he wanted it. Lee, for one, expects the economy to be turned around by next fall. And he argues that Doyle, the ever-resourceful campaigner with ice blood in his veins, would knock off a Republican challenger with the same cool efficiency that he dispatched Green.

I don't know about that. Too many Democratic loyalists look at the Doyle years with profound disappointment. The old Peggy Lee song comes to mind when I think of their disillusionment. She sang in that weary and wistful voice: "Is that all there is?"

I suspect that Jim Doyle, the man who never lost an election, knows that such disaffection would have ended his winning streak.

* Nothing has changed. The Legislative Audit Bureau reported in May that 125 of the 214 road projects it reviewed could have been built for less money if state construction engineers had been used rather than consulting engineers.

Marc Eisen is a Madison writer and editor.