A Wisconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
November 24, 2009
By Bill Kraus
There is an open seat in the race for governor of Wisconsin. The Democrats have arm wrestled the mayor of Milwaukee into running for a job he really doesn’t want over the dead bodies of most of the people in Milwaukee who want him to continue in the job he has. The principal reason for wanting him to stay, incidentally, is because there is no one in the wings in Milwaukee who they consider a worthy replacement.
The Republicans are offering up a County Executive of a dysfunctional county and a former member of Congress who lost a long ago (in political terms) race for the U.S. Senate. The other candidates who have expressed an interest in running are unknowns who are being discouraged from doing so by the Republican powers who are also quietly trying to get Mark Neumann to drop his candidacy.
The Journal Sentinel has already decided it’s a two-candidate race, discounting rumblings about Tommy Thompson from D.C. and Elroy.
The stated reason that there is this remarkable paucity of candidates is that it will cost at least $12 million to win this election. This is certainly not an inconsequential barrier even if it’s only half true.
The less obvious reason for the empty pipelines is that the unintended consequences of the Watergate reforms neutered the political parties.
Before 1975 the political parties not only recruited, groomed, promoted, and slated full-fledged candidates for the top offices, they filled the slates down to county coroner to back up these selections.
When a friend of mine who was a Republican county chairman told the state chairman that he didn’t think he would be able to find a candidate to run for the Assembly, a race anyone of that persuasion would surely lose in that county, he was told, “Either find a candidate or be the candidate.” He found a candidate; so did county chairs of both parties all over the state.
This kind of activity filled the wannabe pipelines with seasoned, accomplished political leaders who would have been elbowing each other aside to run for governor in an open-seat year.
The most important problem is neither of the above, although both of the above have contributed to it.
It is careerism.
I encountered an early form of this phenomenon in the late 1970s when I discovered that many of the state legislators from Milwaukee ran for those jobs not because they were ambitious for higher office, but because they were stepping stones to what they hoped would be successful campaigns for seats on the Milwaukee City Council or the Milwaukee County Board. They were looking for lifetime careers.
At that time most legislators from other places were still hoping to rise to higher office, and indeed that Legislature produced candidates galore and several members of Congress, a U.S. Senator, a covey of governors and lieutenant governors, and even a couple of Supreme Court Justices.
The incumbents in the state Legislature are, for the most part, in it for the job. They are settling in and careering out in what they hope will be safe seats; seats which they will not put at risk by proposing changes or ideas which endanger their chances for a long string of re-election victories.
Every once in awhile a Mike Ellis makes noises about running for governor, and a Jon Erpenbach tosses a hat towards a ring or two, but these spasms quickly pass.
The result is what used to be kind of a potentials pipeline is clogged by people who are not regarded as being upwardly mobile by either the voters or by themselves.
Is the U.S. Congress any better or any different? The lines of challengers for the redistricting-protected incumbents don’t seem to be very long. Anybody up for a run against Russ or Herb?
To paraphrase a Peter, Paul and Mary hit: Where did all the wannabes go?
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