Following the Democratic Party of Wisconsin convention, two potential candidates for governor are gaining increasing notice as the party struggles to find a challenger to face Gov. Walker next year.
One is an outstate Democrat popular among the progressive grassroots who might have an incentive to leave the legislature, and the other is a Madison socialist stalwart who, while a longshot and already being dismissed, might be a dark horse.
State Senator Kathleen Vinehout, of Alma, is the Democrats’ preference, according to WisPolitics.com:
More than a third of Democratic Party of Wisconsin conventioneers voting in a WisPolitics.com straw poll favored state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout for the party’s 2018 gubernatorial nomination.
Vinehout, of Alma, was favored by 184, or 38 percent, of the 489 delegates, alternates and registered guests who voted in the straw poll. State Rep. Dana Wachs, of Eau Claire, was backed by 61, or 13 percent.
Bob Harlow, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in California last year, is the only announced Democratic candidate for governor. He received less than 1 percent of the vote.
Vinehout, in her third term as a state senator from western Wisconsin, was weighing a 2014 bid for governor when she was involved in a car crash and decided against a run as she recovered from her injuries. She also sought the party’s nomination in the 2012 recall attempt of Gov. Scott Walker, finishing a distant third in the Democratic primary with 4 percent of the vote.
One-third is a pretty convincing number for a straw poll, especially considering that Bob Harlow, the only declared Democrat for governor so far, got just one percent. Harlow is a 25-year-old who ran for Congress last year – in California.
If she’s taking all the governor talk seriously – and there’s every reason to think she is considering she has already sought the Dem nomination once – Vinehout has a tough decision to make. Her seat is up again in 2018, so if she runs for re-election, she will be gambling that it won’t be another good year for Republicans.
If 2018 looks anything like 2016, Vinehout could lose re-election.
But if she runs for governor, despite her pluses, she will be walking into a bandsaw – the well-funded, well-oiled, experienced Walker re-election machine.
Why should she be an appealing candidate for the Dems to rally behind? She’s popular among the progressive grassroots – not just in Madison, but statewide. Hailing from Alma, she’s from a rural district along the Mississippi in western Wisconsin, which would immediately render any attack against her as being a “Madison liberal” useless.
She’s possibly the one Democrat from outside the Madison-Milwaukee stretch who stands a chance (Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson recently made a fool out of himself by trying to confront Gov. Walker in a phony, staged stunt where he crashed one of the governor’s press conferences. Having lost in a landslide to Mike Gallagher for Congress in a historically swing district, it’s a good bet that any statewide ambitions he might’ve had are toast).
Vinehout also has a folksy, down-to-earth style and likes to run a grassroots-driven campaign. As is the longstanding tradition of campaigning in that part of the state, she’s been successful because the people have met her and see her as one of them. That would be a problem if the Democrats nominate another standard liberal from a major market.
That said, Vinehout’s hold on her seat is potentially tenuous. In 2014, she held on against Republican Mel Pittman with just 52.5 percent. That’s typically “safe enough,” but Pittman – a very nice guy in my experience – just wasn’t exactly the most dynamic challenger imaginable. Her district, Senate District 31, is also trending Republican. After her near scrape with Pittman, the 31st became one of 710 state legislative districts that swung from Obama to Trump in 2016.
Also, the only incumbent Democratic Assemblyman to lose his seat in 2016 was Chris Danou. His former Assembly district, now represented by Republican Treig Pronschinske, makes up a geographically significant chunk of Vinehout’s district.
While Vinehout would have to hope for a good year for Democrats if she runs for re-election, and might have solid statewide appeal even if 2018 isn’t a wave year for Democrats, another candidate floating his potential candidacy would have to ride a wave – and might just have the socialist street cred to fire up the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin – a socialist septuagenarian (age 72) who pours himself into the mold of Bernie Sanders – is also now considering running. Soglin, who has a J.D. from UW-Madison, has been the mayor of Wisconsin’s most liberal city on-and-off for decades. Per the Wisconsin State Journal:
A longtime stalwart of Madison’s political scene, Soglin, 72, got his start in activism in the civil rights movement and antiwar protests of the 1960s. He first was elected to office as a city councilman in 1968.
Since then Soglin has served three stints as Madison mayor: from 1973–79, 1989-97 and again from 2011 to the present. He was re-elected in 2015 and his current term ends in 2019.
If he were the Dem nominee, Soglin could complete a Democratic trifecta of Madison attorneys running for statewide office. Josh Kaul, son of former attorney general Peg Lautenschlager and a Madison lawyer, is running for AG against Brad Schimel. Tim Burns, another Madison lawyer, is running for state Supreme Court against conservative justice Michael Gableman.
The solution to Dem woes in statewide elections is often said to be recruiting a progressive candidate from outstate – like Vinehout – instead of clinging to creatures of liberal enclaves – the epitome of which is Soglin.
Walker and other Republicans have said the Democrats’ nominating Soglin, who they would certainly write off as a far-left Madison radical, would be a godsend. But Soglin might be onto something when he cites Sanders’ dominating performance in Wisconsin in the Democratic primary as a reason he’s looking at a run.
While it’s certainly difficult to imagine Soglin defeating Walker under any normal scenario, he could pose a real threat under certain conditions:
- A bad midterm cycle for the party in unified control both in Wisconsin and Washington (the GOP), as is often the case.
- A candidate who can unite the far-left (a la Sanders) and drive turnout in liberal bastions like, eh hem, Madison.
- Continued turmoil and squabbling among Republicans in Madison.
Add to that a dark horse candidate who is clearly not taken seriously, a demoralized and possibly sleepy, complacent conservative base, and a fired up left-wing base, and it’s not completely impossible to envision a way for a candidate like Soglin to win, especially if the zeitgeist swings to the left in 2018.
If I were Republicans, I wouldn’t be dismissing any candidate – nor would I be broadcasting to the base that “we got this” – no matter who the Democrats nominate.
Update: To assume Paul Soglin would have the Madison progressive vote on lock is evidently off the mark. I’ve heard from several people much more familiar with City of Madison politics than myself that Soglin is hardly a hero among the left in the state’s capital, despite having been elected the city’s mayor three times over the decades.
That makes any quest by Soglin to gain the Dems’ nomination a bit more quixotic.
In a rematch virtually nobody saw coming just weeks ago, former State Senator Dan Kapanke will challenge Sen. Jennifer Shilling for the 32nd State Senate. Shilling defeated Kapanke in a heated 2011 recall election in the tempest of Act 10.
Kapanke filed papers with the GAB this week. He will hold an event tomorrow where he’ll likely formally announce his challenge of Shilling.
Since he lost his state Senate seat, Kapanke has returned to private life as the owner of the semi-pro La Crosse Loggers baseball team, which has transformed the main park on La Crosse’s north side into a family-friendly venue.
He retains a sort of heroic status among Republicans throughout western Wisconsin and will therefore put together a strong grassroots operation. He will also likely raise all the money he needs to run an extremely competitive campaign.
Shilling’s state Senate committee reported $64,480.18 cash on hand in its most recent report. That’s a good starting place, but total spending in the race could realistically push $1 million.
Shilling defeated Kapanke by about nine percent in the white-hot 2011 recall, just months after Act 10 generated massive protests in Madison and recall attempts around the state. Shilling got 33,193 votes to Kapanke’s 26,724 in the recall – her voters were highly motivated by Act 10.
Kapanke and his family endured significant harassment in the run-up to the recall. While Kapanke has typically demurred about the vile behavior and threats, it’s commonly known that his wife, a nurse, found roofing nails on several occasions scattered around their driveway late at night when she returned from work.
Kapanke was also harangued by school boards, groups of protesters gathered at his house late into the night, and Kapanke and his family were the top target of at least one death threat sent to state legislators.
Despite the low turnout in the recall, in which government workers were motivated to show up and vote, Kapanke has always enjoyed strong bipartisan appeal in the district. In his 2008 re-election Kapanke got 45,154 votes to opponent Tara Johnson’s 42,647. That election coincided with the Obama wave election in which Barack Obama won upwards of 60 percent in the 32nd Senate district.
In her first general election in 2012, Shilling won 51,153 votes to challenger Bill Feehan’s 36,545. Still steeped in Act 10 fervor, that race hinged on a classic “October surprise” in which Shilling sent a series of mailers accusing Feehan of being a domestic abuser. The mailer relied on a police report from 2000, but the charges had been dismissed 12 years prior to the election (a fact conveniently omitted from the mail campaign) . Shilling’s margin in that election was likely greatly inflated as a result of the smear campaign.
Given the nastiness of her two most recent elections combined with Kapanke’s wide popularity and grassroots appeal, Shilling might once again turn to negative campaigning. That would be a risk for Shilling given Kapanke’s wide respect, painting the race as a bitter partisan versus an upstanding community leader with sky-high name ID.
Turnout in the general election will also matter. While Kapanke may be able to peel away a large chunk of moderate Shilling voters (there were thousands of Obama-Kapanke voters in 2008), Republican turnout will also be a major factor in bridging the 45,000 Kapanke got in ’08 and the 51,000 Shilling got in ’12. If theories of depressed Democratic turnout hold true in November, that could help propel Kapanke to victory.
Kapanke’s candidacy is also likely to motivate Republican voters and activists in the district, who are eager to win. Concurrent with Shilling’s recall win, Democrat Steve Doyle captured Republican Mike Huebsch’s Assembly seat in 2011 when he joined the Walker administration, leaving Lee Nerison as the only remaining Republican legislator in the 32nd. A negative campaign by Shilling could backfire by motivating Republicans into action. Such a strategy could also enhance Kapanke’s image as a well-liked leader with broad appeal and pigeonhole Shilling as an unscrupulous partisan.
In the five years since Act 10 was signed into law, public opposition to the law has largely transformed into support as the law generates more and more taxpayer savings. A recent estimate by the MacIver Institute shows Act 10 has saved Wisconsin taxpayers about $5 billion since its enactment. Local governments have been given the ability to reduce taxes or put more money into classrooms, tax cuts, or other operations.
Kapanke says he knew his vote for Act 10 could cause him to lose an election, but he voted for it because the state was on an unsustainable fiscal path. With rising taxes a major concern throughout the district, Kapanke’s vote for Act 10 could be viewed as a positive now that it’s 5 years in the rearview mirror. At the very least, the fervor over the law has certainly subsided.
Kapanke is clearly motivated by an intrinsic desire to serve. At the La Crosse GOP’s Lincoln Dinner in February, he quoted a favorite motto of his: “It’s not the years in your life, but the life in your years.” He said he realized to his dismay that he’d become comfortable with his life and thus felt compelled to get back into action.
Kapanke versus Shilling will be an interesting race that will capture statewide attention and change the complexion of both parties’ electoral strategy for the Senate.
Disclaimer: I work for the above-mentioned MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly my own.
Ronald Reagan spoke to his contemporaries in the tone of the eloquent, dignified film actor that he was. His appealing style was complemented by a dignified, eloquent, and inspiring leadership style that made it clear he, and America, were to be disrespected only at great cost.
Imagine yourself a voter in 1980. For you, film – that is to say, the art of telling stories and connecting with audiences on the screen – had been the sort of entertainment you and generations of Americans before you had been accustomed to.
Now, return to 2016. While the art of storytelling is still alive and well – I would argue more on the small screen than the big ones, these days – another kind of entertainment has bloomed and flourished for the past several generations.
At the risk of sounding snobbish, low-brow entertainment has become the norm. What we watch today are badly behaved housewives tearing out each others’ hair, stories about how sex sent people the ER, shows about naked dating, women kicking each other in the face, and finding out on live TV which of the five guys is the father.
We can’t get enough celebrity sex tapes, raunchy dance routines at awards ceremonies, cheap shots, insults, name calling, and drama. In 2016, internet porn just might be the world’s biggest industry.
Massively popular is “sports entertainment” (Vince McMahon’s term for what our dads called wrastlin’ in the days of “Hacksaw” Jimmy Duggan). WWE, previously WWF (the “E” is for entertainment) is a multibillion dollar worldwide phenomenon, and we all know what it regularly features. Pro wrestling by design is a cauldron of everything both good and bad in our society – cheap shots, cheating, insults, tawdry sexuality, skimpy clothes, and also the rise and tragic falls of heroic figures.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not proposing some solution to low-brow entertainment, or that one is needed. I have, in fact, been watching WWE for 20 years. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Donald Trump shave Vince McMahon’s head after assaulting him outside the ring at Wrestlemania in 2007. I miss the days of Stone Cold smashing together cans of beer after stomping a mud hole in a referee or some other loser, or predicting Triple H, the heel, would win by cheating after hitting his opponent with a sledgehammer while the referee was conveniently distracted.
Pro wrestling is great at creating characters, good guys and bad guys, whose goodness or badness is universally recognized by audiences that dutifully cheer or boo, and often-unpredictable, shock-value storylines that seem spontaneous.
Donald Trump uses all the tricks of a pro wrestler as a presidential candidate. He’s successful because he’s an expert marketer, reader of audiences, creator of personas, and instigator of emotional reactions. He’s actually been involved with wrestling itself for some time, maybe learning some tricks from McMahon himself – or teaching him some. I sum up his “Battle of the Billionaires” WWE appearances here.
1980 had Ronald Reagan the film actor. 2016 has pro wrestling protege Donald Trump. Given the changes in the kind of entertainment our society enjoys and has gotten used to – that people have been immersed in since my dad was growing up – the reality of Donald Trump the viable politician should come as no surprise. The public’s shrugged shoulders at the vulgarity of his comments should surprise no one who has lived in the trenches of the “unwashed masses”…I count myself among them.
Which brings me to the events of this weekend. We saw a Trump event in Chicago shut down because of violent protesters, and some Trump supporters returned in-kind. In Ohio, an angry protester rushed the podium in an effort to steal the mike and proclaim Trump a racist. Trump, for his part, looked willing to jump the guy had he not been surrounded by secret service agents.
And while thuggery is no new phenomenon on the ends-justify-the-means, subjectivist-ethics left, Trump has hardly risen above as Reagan certainly would have. He’s offered to pay the legal fees if his supporters did the cops’ job and “escorted” protesters out of the venue.
In what looked like a pro wrestling skit, one Trump supporter sucker punched a protester in the face as he was being peacefully escorted out of an event. You could almost hear Jim Ross shouting, “Oh my God, has the man no dignity!? This could be a real slobberknocker!” (That’s no diss to J.R., whose commentary I miss “bigly” at the announce table).
Trump also tweeted to Bernie Sanders that if Sander-nistas were going to show up at Trump events, Trumpkins would show up at Sanders events.
Bernie Sanders is lying when he says his disruptors aren't told to go to my events. Be careful Bernie, or my supporters will go to yours!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2016
There’s a distinctly ominous tone here, especially considering Trump’s blasé view of sucker punches and violent clashes. In a democratic republic that traditionally abhors the condoning of political violence, it’s a symbol of something.
There’s no place for violence in American politics – that philosophy and belief is what makes our country so great.
That’s certainly not to say there hasn’t been violence in American politics. Bullets have taken down many presidents and other leaders in politics. Violent protests happen. The difference is that in America, we have typically mourned violence and canonized murdered leaders, regardless of their contemporary popularity with this side of the aisle or that.
A movie celebrated by the Left that depicted the assassination of President George W. Bush may have presaged a shift in that attitude.
Donald Trump is a character created by contemporary culture in a society that is used to seeing things that would’ve shocked the average person just a few generations ago. Yet the king of one-liners on Twitter has now accumulated real political power.
(By the way, here’s the quintessential Trump Twitter construction, colorful declaratory statements that often attack people rather than ideas, and usually end in exclamation points.)
The failing @nytimes is truly one of the worst newspapers. They knowingly write lies and never even call to fact check. Really bad people!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2016
Is it unrealistic to imagine that this bridging of two separate worlds – the culture of the trashy with the ornate edifice of politics – could also erode our revulsion for political violence?
Ironically, the vast majority who still abhor the idea of violence entering the political process will feel a sort of sympathy for Trump, who is now the victim of left-wing thuggery from whom violence has never been a turnoff.
In this way, political violence that Trump has done little to tamp, and in fact has stoked, could become a downward spiral in American political discourse – such as it is today.
The Wisconsin Left’s dishonesty – indeed, seeming eagerness to straight-up lie – could be the theme of a publication unto itself. Once again, they’ve been caught with their pants on fire by claiming Wisconsin ACT scores plummeted to 41st in the nation. This is of course a total lie.
In a news release (that’s still up on the DPW website as long as the link works), the party breathlessly exclaimed:
Newly released information from the Department of Instruction shows a dramatic decline in student ACT results in the past year. Test scores dropped Wisconsin from 2nd in the country to 41st in the nation among states where more than half the students took the exam.
Without getting into the weeds of how ACT test scores are calculated and can legitimately be analyzed, the truth is that the state’s scores stayed the same as the previous year, 22.2 on average. That puts Wisconsin second among states where more than half of graduating seniors took the ACT.
Basically, the DPW claim compares apples to oranges to wring the worst possible number out of the data.
Politifact, to its credit, called this a “pants-on-fire” lie – the lyiest lie rating they give:
For years, Wisconsin leaders have expressed pride in how the state’s high school students perform on the ACT exam, which assesses students’ academic readiness for college.
From 2008 through 2014, with Minnesota ranking first, Wisconsin has battled, usually with Iowa, for second or third.
That is, among states where more than half of the students take the ACT.
“Newly released information from the (Wisconsin) Department of Instruction shows a dramatic decline in student ACT results in the past year,” the news release stated, blaming Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
“Test scores dropped Wisconsin from second in the country to 41st in the nation among states where more than half the students took the exam.”
Such a free-fall should have produced blaring headlines.
There were no headlines because it wasn’t true, and news outlets typically avoid reporting outright lies.
A DPW spokesman issued a quasi-mea culpa, claiming the party “flubbed” the data. But this is dubious given their history.
The DPW also straight-up lied about Scott Walker’s early exit from Marquette University. At the time, as is the case now, they didn’t even bother taking down the lie. A webpage peddling their fictional narrative that Walker was expelled for trying to rig a campus election persisted at least through the 2014 election.
They’d hate to let the truth, or even a variation of it, derail their attempt to portray Walker as a nefarious dolt.
They also straight-up lied when they edited a video of Walker nodding, juxtaposed against a question of whether he’d been involved in a “criminal scheme” to make it seem like he was admitting wrongdoing. Walker has an unnerving tendency to tacitly acknowledge (by nodding along or just being nice to the reporter) the premises of questioners, which hurt him during the presidential campaign when he seemed to endorse a wall along the Canadian border.
In that case, the DPW was peddling a narrative that Walker was the head of a nefarious criminal enterprise teeming with evil mustache-twirling conservatives. Like the defunct, discredited John Doe probes that pumped out misinformation to advance the “criminal” storyline, it’s always full speed ahead, truth be damned.
Both lies also earned the pants-on-fire rating from Politifact.
Sure, both parties stretch the truth and even lie. But the ongoing, relentless bald-faced lies by The Left in Wisconsin never cease to amaze, especially in a state like Wisconsin, where decorum and honesty are still valued. Maybe their dishonesty is the cause of the beat-down Republicans have put on them in recent years, not the cure.
It appears that even with failed former DPW chairman Mike Tate off the party payroll (and on the payroll of the Bucks, oddly) and new, doe-eyed new chair Martha Laning, nothing has really changed on the other side. The professional Left in Wisconsin seems born and bred to constantly lie.
In case the DPW actually takes down the press release, I’ve kept it for posterity below:
Wisconsin ACT scores plummet
Newly released information from the Department of Instruction shows a dramatic decline in student ACT results in the past year. Test scores dropped Wisconsin from 2nd in the country to 41st in the nation among states where more than half the students took the exam.
“The latest information released today is another glaring failure of the Walker Administration to make sound, smart policy decisions to improve education in our state,” Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Martha Laning said on Thursday. “As a parent with children who have recently graduated from high school I’ve had a front row seat to the destructive changes that have short-changed our children and their futures. When budget cuts force schools to do more with less it’s no surprise that the quality of the education our children receive inevitably declines.”
In last year’s State of the State address, Governor Scott Walker claimed his education policies were working, boasting that “ACT scores are up and Wisconsin now ranks second in the country.” Now, five days away from Walker’s next State of the State it’s clear that the policies of the last six years have failed schools, students, and parents.
Out of a top score of 36, the average test score in the state dropped from 22.0 to 20.0, which pulls Wisconsin to dead last in the Midwest and tied with Kentucky for 41st in the entire country. Due to funding cuts, damage has been made to Wisconsin’s traditionally high-quality education system and now our kids, businesses and communities will suffer. Nationally, Wisconsin saw the fourth largest cut to K-12 general school aid funding in 2015-16 according to the nonpartisan research policy institute, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
While Wisconsin has traditionally ranked above average in terms of ACT scores, these latest numbers place Wisconsin dead last in the Midwest and among the bottom ten states nationally.
“I can only empathize with the parents across the state who see this news and grow ever more concerned with the direction of our state. Our kids deserve the same high-quality education we had as kids and the choices the legislature has made is stealing that from them..” said Laning. “The state of education in Wisconsin is not strong. The newest numbers should be a wake-up call to the governor and the Republican legislature that their misguided priorities are hurting our education system and, therefore, our kids, businesses and communities.”
In a January 7 column, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote that Donald Trump’s nomination would “rip the heart out of the Republican Party.”
Ever certain to keep my arrogance tank filled to the brim, I write simply to state that Mr. Gershon is a month behind me. He writes:
The nomination of Trump would reduce Republican politics — at the presidential level — to an enterprise of squalid prejudice. And many Republicans could not follow, precisely because they are Republicans. By seizing the GOP, Trump would break it to pieces.
I’m sure Mr. Gershon is a smart man – indeed, I’m writing on a political blog in Wisconsin and he’s…well, prominent. Nonetheless, a month ago, I made the same point:
The choice writ large is a possible inflection point for the conservatism of modern times, which is a strong scaffolding built over the past 60-plus years from the ashes of classical liberalism. Efforts by thinkers and leaders from Goldwater to Buckley to Friedman to Reagan has built that scaffolding plank-by-plank since even before Buckley founded The National Review in 1955. In many ways, the electoral culmination of the work of the aforementioned visionaries was Reagan’s presidency.
Gershon isn’t the first national commentator to have stumbled upon the consequences of a Trump nomination. There have even been whispers…very very quiet, and probably kooky ones…have been emerging in the blabbosphere about an “establishment” (traditional conservative) alternative candidacy of some sort, should Trump win the GOP nomination. For my part, I’m not sure jumping off the USS Grand Old Party would be a great strategy.
It seems that commentators with traditional conservative beliefs rooted in the Buckley/Reagan tradition are uniting around the idea that Trump would be a wrecking ball for the unified conservative movement that has slowed the advance of the progressive state thus far.
By contrast, I believe a Rubio candidacy would easily beat Hillary Clinton and carry with it U.S. Senate victories in key swing states like Wisconsin. With both houses of Congress and The White House, conservatives would be able to roll back progressive victories under both Obama and Bush.
By contrast, a Trump candidacy would likely dock points from each Republican running for re-election, in addition to smashing the conservative platform that, brushed up for the 21st Century, will lead America to prosperity.
In short, I was right.
The Wisconsin legislature is in high gear ahead of final sessions for the year.
Plans to move the offices of La Crosse County’s administrative center have been in the works for some time. But the word plan implies something predictable and well-run. For La Crosse, the plan has been a boondoggle and a joke, the butt of which is the La Crosse County taxpayer. But you’ll have to read this whole piece to reach the punchline.
By way of background…
The current La Crosse County Administrative Center (the interior of which is pictured above, someone pointing out what we must assume is a nest of asbestos bees) was built in the 1960s. Like many buildings from that era, its walls and ceilings cover beams and pipes sprayed with asbestos, a carcinogen that’s no joke. The asbestos currently sits undisturbed and is a relatively benign problem in a building that’s seen recent renovations and boasts more modern amenities that most of the buildings at UW-La Crosse. Across the street is the county jail, and lying diagonally to the administrative center is a large parking lot covering a city block. Also located nearby is an office building owned by Associated Bank. Ok, got it?
I’ll make the implied explicit: I am a cynic when it comes to ostensibly unassailable estimates, costs, and projections presented by any political leadership. My chronic inability to believe the “facts” and “figures” proffered by County Board chairwoman Tara Johnson, former chairman Steve Doyle, county administrator Steve O’Malley, and others is informed by a basic distrust of those in power and my assumption, born too often from experience, that these people hold some level of disdain for the intelligence of the people they represent, and thus a disrespect for their rights as taxpayers.
Now back to the story.
The La Crosse Tribune reported that the supposedly intransigent asbestos has actually been removed in some areas of the building in this persuasion piece from November of 2013, discrediting the argument that an entirely new building was needed. But the basic proposition of renovation rather than razing was apparently not the focus of extended consideration by any official; instead that boring option was the target of a propaganda-driven effort to justify building anew. Eight-figure numbers are thrown around in this piece like an out-of-control tennis ball launcher, but the basic idea was that renovating the current building while removing all remaining asbestos would run about $23-24 million.
In that same story, that same firm, River Architects, estimated the cost of building a brand new building in the aforementioned parking lot at several million less than remodeling the otherwise-fine current building, for a total cost of $21.2 million. Shocker. That the preferred outcome of those in charge would just happen to cost out cheaper isn’t the question, the question is who in the county knew who at River Architects.
I remind you: I doubt these numbers’ core veracity not only out of the agony of a chronic cynicism, but because the liberal majority has never produced any competitive bids or even offered proof that such bids were solicited; they have refused to prove the numbers undergirding their arguments have not been rigged, or at least slanted to fit the purpose of a new building. Someone at the county made a call to River Architects, brought in a guy, and cranked out some numbers with sufficient specificity as to sound credible for presentation to the newspaper. That’s most likely what produced these figures – because to assume a half-asked job was done on behalf of using a patsy newspaper to report slanted figures is simply to err on the side of realism.
Shiny and new.
The decision to remodel or move wasn’t agonizing for the County Board, particularly because it’s controlled by a large spend-happy majority who no doubt would love to start new rather than remodel the current building. That’s just what liberals do, and the 6 or 8 conservatives – some of whom have themselves been some combination of wet-waffle and a patsy in supporting this scheme at one turn or the next – are powerless to stop them. So to build new is where they started.
The plan initially was to build an entirely new administrative center in the parking lot, which spanned (it’s now a hole full of cranes) the entire block across the street from both the current administrative center and the county jail, which itself was recently nearly doubled in size. Facing headwinds as to the need for a new building, the loss of parking, and the concurrent loss of City of La Crosse property tax base by not putting something private-sector on the parking lot, the next option was to buy and move into the Associated Bank building mentioned at the top of this piece.
As for the current county administrative center? It was sold for nearly the average cost of a single family home in Onalaska: $250,000. It will be redeveloped into student housing by a partnership of local developers with whom the county has gotten too cozy. To this cynic, the low price sounds a lot like back scratching that throws the interests of the taxpayer, yet again, under the bus.
In an undue haste, a deal was made that forced county leadership, and, less-wittingly, city leadership, into a very tight and financially risky timetable.
Banking on Plan B.
The county decided to buy the nearby Associated Bank office building for $4.6 million, remodel it, and move in – at a cost of about $19.4 million. The bank building promised to be modern, right-sized, and – most importantly – free of asbestos. It’s also near the current county campus of buildings including the jail and relatively shiny and sound Health and Human Services building.
A complex series of deals and digging has ensued in which the parking lot (formally called Lot C for the sake of convenience) is being redeveloped by local businessman Don Weber. A strict timeline that Weber’s organization is strictly holding to is necessary to make sure Associated Bank can move into new digs at that development site before the county moves into the bank’s old place. The parking lot will also host additional developments, from retail to office to residential.
I’m the last to argue that turning a weed-strewn old glob of pavement into a new development is anything but good for downtown La Crosse, but a very important question was kicked down the road by a listless county board: where will all those people park? That’s a huge parking lot that’s being eliminated. To put it briefly, the answer is still elusive. The new development will feature some underground parking to replace the surface lot it’s supplanting. Now, Weber’s organization may be forced to purchase another nearby property and build another parking ramp, potentially exposing the City of La Crosse (a unit of government we must distinguish from La Crosse County; the two have been at odds) to financial risk.
One thing’s clear thus far: were it not for the leadership of Weber (in other words, if the county was handling this by itself), the unnecessarily complex and tight timeline that hasty decisions by the county necessitated would have devolved into unmitigated failure.
Another option considered early was to expand the nearby county Health and Human Services Building and convert the building into a nexus of county operations. That option was quickly nixed in favor of buying the bank due to its size and smaller impact on the already-short parking situation.
As it happened, the bank was never big enough to meet the county’s needs, despite earlier reporting that the current asbestos-ridden hellhole was actually too big. Reported the Tribune early last year, “While the bank’s drive-through area would be enclosed and converted to offices, the approximately 50,000-square-foot building still doesn’t have enough space to completely meet the county’s needs.” So the HHS addition will be needed, anyway.
An old restaurant saying goes, “proper prior planning prevents pisspoor performance.” Perhaps if county admin Steve O’Malley, whose current contract essentially shovels a million dollars into his early retirement/yacht fund, bought into this crude phrase, homeowners in La Crosse County wouldn’t have tire tracks on their face.
So in an article entitled “Firm Recommends HHS Building Addition,” the paper reported that millions more would need to be spent to expand the HHS building, in part to support jobs that are currently at the whim of temporary federal grant money, risky money which is somehow portrayed by the paper as a financial windfall, like a desperate job-seeker who buys a new Tesla after getting a temp job at a concert venue.
Oh, and the firm cited by the article is a familiar one: River Architects.
Taxpayers pay the price.
The County Board recently voted to more than double the county’s debt load to more than $100 million to fund this interlocking series of hasty decisions and boondoggles that will continue until Don Weber and La Crosse mayor Tim Kabat figure out a way to solve the parking disaster the county has created.
Just a few weeks ago, the Tribune again pressed the plunger on the morphine syringe, reporting a relatively manageable impact on taxpayers from these projects “The $23 million in bonding for the three projects will raise the county tax rate by 6 cents in 2016 and 2017, then another 8 cents in 2018. It will add about $20 to the annual tax bill on a $100,000 home, officials said.” That sounds like a good deal!
I urge La Crosse taxpayers to adopt my suspicion of numbers proffered by officials interested in self-promotion and the retention of their own jobs. Figures presented don’t take into account recently relieved debt service on the first jail addition; it doesn’t account for the tremendous expenditures at the county landfill; it doesn’t account for the pressing need for road improvements, which is now spurring its own new tax, a wheel tax surcharge on vehicle registration. These and others were potential inflection points for tax rates – up or down? The current leadership chose the upward trajectory.
More importantly, in a region in which municipal, school, county, and technical school property taxes have continued to rise far faster than wage inflation, area districts are referendum-happy, and tens of millions disappear without notice into unquestioned projects like the Hillview Nursing Home revamp, the real lost opportunities are 1. Tax savings by adopting fiscal restraint and 2. The itinerant financial flexibility such a course opens for frivolities like filling potholes.
Rather than take regional growth for granted, La Crosse County needs to adopt a more fiscally responsible modus operandi. Nay – simply a more responsible one.
Brad Williams of WIZM recently reported that asbestos has been found in the bank building; this, the bank building whose purchase plunged La Crosse County taxpayers into a debt spiral because it would be the right size, and because it didn’t have the asbestos.
Asbestos is a bad thing. But when an incompetent local government sets out to fix it, it manages not to do so, make a huge mess that others must clean up, all the while spending tens of millions, doubling taxpayers’ debt load, debt which today’s first graders will still be paying when they’re looking for their first house in La Crescent.
La Crosse taxpayers: this is a joke, and it’s on you.
Between the media’s failure to pursue truth in the Candyland Scandal and attacks from the right on Paul Ryan, we’ve had enough with politics!