The Blog

The Northernmost Banana Republic

You won't believe how low Wisconsin Democrats have stooped. Or maybe you will.

11:00 PM, Nov 2, 2002 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"IT LOOKED LIKE A FOREIGN COUNTRY, like one of these fledgling democracies."

That's how Milwaukee voter Jack Zimmerman described the chaos of the 2000 presidential election in Wisconsin. Zimmerman, a Republican, said that he spent Election Day listening to so many stories of vote fraud at polling stations near Marquette University that by the end of the day he decided to check things out for himself.

"I'm seeing a guy, a preppy, college-aged kid, high-tailing it out the door with a huge stack of ballots under his arm," he said, in an interview shortly after the election. "The machine was totally unattended. I could have just walked right up and voted a bunch of times."

Days earlier, Wisconsin made national news when a local television station taped a major Democratic donor, Connie Milstein, distributing cigarettes to the homeless after driving them to the polls. Though Milstein had hosted a $25,000 per person fund-raiser for Al Gore at her posh Park Avenue apartment and was chairman of the Democratic National Committee's Major Supporters Committee, DNC head Joe Andrew had insisted that she was not a Democrat "heavy hitter." He also said that Milstein had come to Wisconsin on her own, a claim she cast some doubt on by telling a local TV reporter, on camera, "I am here representing the Gore and Lieberman campaign and I was asked to get out the vote in Wisconsin."

The 2000 election cycle was certainly a black mark on Wisconsin's proud history of clean politics. The state has boasted a long line of reform-minded politicians--from Progressive Robert LaFollette in the early part of the last century, to campaign-finance scold Russ Feingold in the early part of this one. But if the last two years are any indication, the dirty politics of the2000 election were less an anomaly than the beginning of a trend.

To wit: Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist (D) was involved in a Clinton-like sexual-harassment scandal; Milwaukee county executive Thomas Ament (D) and members of the county board were recalled by voters after disclosures that they appropriated to themselves millions in taxpayer-financed pensions; and last month leaders of both the Wisconsin state Assembly and Senate (a Republican and Democrat, respectively) resigned after felony extortion charges were filed in connection with a campaign-finance scandal. To put it simply, today Wisconsin politics are among the dirtiest in the nation.

Which brings us to the gubernatorial race between Gov. Scott McCallum, a Republican, and attorney general Jim Doyle, a Democrat. At the beginning of the cycle, McCallum was widely considered one of the most vulnerable incumbent governors in the country. Whoever emerged from the Democratic primary was thought to have an easy ride to victory in the general election. But the scandals in Wisconsin have disproportionately involved Democrats--a fact that Republicans are eager highlight. And while Doyle still boasts a lead in each of the statewide polls, one recent survey found just two points separating the two candidates. (Libertarian Ed Thompson, brother of HHS Secretary and former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, polls at about 10 percent in most surveys.)

Just as time began to give Democrats some distance from these various scandals, a local Milwaukee television station ran a story concerning a Columbus Day party at a residence for the mentally disabled. In this case, two Democrats working for gubernatorial candidate Jim Doyle sponsored a bingo game at the facility. Frank Santapoalo, a Doyle campaign volunteer, and Angela Arrington, a local Democrat worker, wore Doyle for Governor t-shirts as they ran the bingo game. (Arrington took off when TV cameras for WTMJ in Milwaukee began taping. Guilty? Who, me?) Residents of the home were given food and quarters by the campaign workers, and after the game were provided absentee ballots for Tuesday's election.

Doyle says he had no knowledge of the bingo party. Democrats argue that everything that took place--the campaign workers, the Doyle t-shirts, the distribution of food, money, and absentee ballots--was legal, and had nothing to do with votes. A special prosecutor assigned to the case, Ted Kmiec, didn't go quite that far in a report issued late Saturday afternoon. But he said that he could not meet the "reasonable doubt" standard required for prosecution. "I've argued reasonable doubt hundreds of times to judges and juries on both sides of the courtroom," he said. "I trust my understanding of what it takes to prove that concept."

(That no serious charges will come from this episode--which, again, was caught on tape--should not be a surprise. Connie Milstein, the cigarette distributor, was not charged with vote fraud--a felony--but settled in small claims court for $5,000. That's pocket change for someone who gave Democrats more than $600,000 in the 2000 election cycle alone.)