The Winter of Rebirth


By Charles J. Sykes

Everything changed for the better, from politics to sports, in Wisconsin.


Winter was the season for transformation. A crippling blizzard paralyzed the state, but its effects were ameliorated by the Green Bay Packers’ extraordinary run through the playoffs to the Super Bowl championship. There was joy in Titletown, underlying a remarkable turnaround for Cheesehead Nation.

In Madison, the new governor pushed his reform agenda at breakneck speed, and the Legislature cranked out an array of business-friendly bills, including tort and regulatory reform, tax cuts, and a budget bill that transformed the political and labor landscape by gutting the power of public employee unions.

It was a good be a Cheesehead.

Let’s count it down: In a single week, the Green Bay Packers won the NFC Championship in Chicago; American Idol was broadcast from the Calatrava wing of the Milwaukee Art Museum, showcasing the city in a way that most of America had never seen; Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan delivered the GOP response to the president’s State of the Union speech; the president himself visited the state the next day, underlining how Wisconsin has become ground zero in American politics; Kenosha native Mark Ruffalo was nominated for an Oscar; and freshman Sen. Ron Johnson delivered the GOP response to the president’s weekly radio address.

Think of it as Wisconsin Cool.

It was a bad season to be a Ted Thompson basher.

The Packers general manager and Packers coach Mike McCarthy enjoyed the rare pleasure of being completely, absolutely, and utterly vindicated for their decision to dump an aging interception-prone quarterback for the current Super Bowl MVP.
Brent who?

It was a good be a Republican.

The rest of the country took note. The Washington Post chronicled Cheesehead Domination:

“The Green Bay Packers aren’t the only Wisconsin team having an impact these days,” the paper wrote shortly before the Super Bowl. “A trio of young Wisconsin politicians are now positioned to have a substantial influence on the future direction and success of the Republican Party.

“Their names are Scott Walker, Reince Priebus and Paul Ryan. Walker is the newly elected governor of Wisconsin. Priebus is the newly elected chairman of the Republican National Committee. Ryan, perhaps the best known of the three, is the new chairman of the House Budget Committee....”

The Post went on to describe the three amigos as friends and “political soul mates,” who all grew up in southern Wisconsin, and shared “a worldview, a set of conservative values and a determination to show the country that conservative governance can solve many of the nation’s problems.”

It was a bad be a boondoggle.

The not-so-high-speed train was not the only absurdly expensive boondoggle to bite the dust. With considerably less fanfare, the Walker administration also canceled plans for a $250 million biomass power plant on the UW-Madison campus.
The Doyle administration had opted to go with the costly plant, even though (a) the plant cost roughly twice as much as the alternatives, (b) the far-cheaper natural gas alternative scored highest on environmental and economic grounds, and (c) the regional market was already “awash in excess power,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

With a single stroke of the pen, Walker not only put the Doyle years further in the rearview mirror, but also likely saved taxpayers upwards of $70 million.

It was a bad season...for a border war with Wisconsin.

As Walker declared Wisconsin was “open for business,” Democrats in Illinois voted to raise the personal income tax by 66% and corporate taxes from 4.8% to 7%.
The tax hikes frustrated Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who noted that “We have a new governor-elect in Wisconsin, a lot of competition comes from Wisconsin.”

Walker promptly revived the “Escape to Wisconsin” campaign, which drew national media attention to Wisconsin’s about-face. And the Packers beat the Bears twice — in the final game of the regular season and then in an epic NFC Championship game.

It was a bad season...for civility (at least on the left).

In the wake of the tragic shooting in Arizona, the left hammered on the need for a “new tone” in political debate, even though the shooting was unconnected with political rhetoric of any sort.

The “new tone,” however, got off to a shaky start in Wisconsin: One union website featured a cartoon comparing Scott Walker to Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.

In Madison, a local theater company staged a play in which a group of smug progressives get together every week to kill a conservative. As a review in the Madison weekly Isthmus explained, the right-wingers were invited to dinner and “when their dinner conversation proves repellent, they are given poisoned wine and buried in the backyard.”

Isthmus gave the play a favorable review, but had the grace to muse that “it’s almost eerie that a play about extreme political rhetoric and vitriol would open just two weeks after the terrible shootings in Tucson.”

Not to be outdone, liberal Madison talk-show host John “Sly” Sylvester took to the airwaves to joke that Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch got her job by “giving fellatio” to talk-show hosts.

Assuming a falsetto voice, Sylvester said, “Then I got colon cancer and ran around the state to tell people: Even though I have government health care, screw everyone else.”

He and a female news anchor then joked about whether Kleefisch wore a wig as a result of her chemotherapy treatments.

The American Cancer Society was not pleased, calling Sylvester’s remarks “inappropriate and offensive to all those who have been touched by cancer, no matter their political affiliation.”

Sylvester apologized, but feminist groups, including Women in Wisconsin Government were... (cue the crickets) silent.

It was bad be a union boss.

Shortly after Walker’s election, Marty Beil, the blustery boss of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, fumed that Walker was “the plantation owner talking to the slaves.” (These “slaves” have unusually generous health care plans, pensions and civil service protection.)

“We’ve moved in Walker’s mentality from public service to public servitude,” declared Beil.

The MacIver Institute later pointed out that Beil pulled down a cool $161,847 in 2008 — more than the governor is paid.

In presiding over the dismantling of his union, Beil’s political skills seemed perfectly matched to his rhetorical prowess.

It was a good be a voter.

The Legislature acted to ensure that votes were legally cast and counted, despite opposition from Democrats like Rep. Gwen Moore.

Moore charged that requiring voters to have photo IDs would suppress the turnout. A no-show at the press conference: her son, Supreme Solar Allah, who is something of an expert on voter suppression.

In 2004, Supreme and three other Democratic activists slashed the tires on 25 vans that Republicans had hoped to use to drive voters to the polls. He was convicted of a misdemeanor, sentenced to four months in jail and fined $1,000.

Moore later put Supreme on her campaign payroll as a “consultant.” As the Journal Sentinel noted: “He obviously had a soft landing. How many other criminals can walk out of jail and into a job on a congressional campaign payroll?”