Monday, April 21, 2014

Walker, His Team And The Games They Play

(Updated, Sunday, 11:00 a.m., updated Sunday, 10:38 p.m.) A long time ago when I was a twenty-something, and learning the ropes as Madison Mayor Paul Soglin's Administrative Assistant, an old-timer gave me the lay of the land:

"There are two kinds of people in this building," he explained. "Game players and policy people. The policy people want to use government to help people, and the game people just want to play the game."

Sure, it was a generalization, but it helped me over the years sort allies from obstructionists, and serious people from the superficial, in and around the Madison City-County Building.

I'll bet today it describes your office situation, too.

The veteran official's tip served me well in Milwaukee City Hall more than 20 years later when I worked in several positions in Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist's administration, including Chief of Staff.

And it continues as a good analytical tool in 2014, because in the Wisconsin Governor's Office we now have a leader who has gathered a like-minded-and-motivated team of game players  - - including some who got their start in or near the Milwaukee County Executive's Office in April, 2002 after Walker won a special election to replace the recalled, ousted Tom Ament.

Walker and his team are determined to bring their love of the political game-over-policy to the national field as the 2016 Presidential election looms.

My time in Milwaukee Mayor Norquist's office over-lapped less than two years of Walker's County Executive tenure, but it was time enough to see Team Walker's default to the inside, partisan and self-serving game over service to public policy. Some examples:

*  Norquist, Walker, and their Mayoral or County Executive counterparts from Racine and Kenosha met to discuss whether to support committing $91.5 million in available federal funds to the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter train proposal.

I was also at the meeting. It produced an agreement among six chief executives to back using the funding for the KRM. No one dissented. 

But after the meeting, Walker's staff told our office that under no circumstances were we to disclose if Walker was even at the meeting - - and that was a big problem because our office was always open to media contacts about rail and transportation policy, a Norquist priority.

The directive from Walker's office thus undermined the meeting's purpose, which was to create a unified regional position on the disposition of the funding to communicate to federal transportation officials. 

The goal was to simultaneously protect the funding - - earlier decision delays had reduced the original grant by about 15% - - and keep the KRM alive as an option in a region with major transportation deficits.

Walker's concern was less about starting a train system, or not, and more about pleasing right-wing, anti-urban talk radio ideologues who objected to spending public funds on any kind of passenger rail transportation.

Talk radio had helped Walker win the election and he did not want to disappoint the hosts.

In those days, there was still discussion of light rail for the City of Milwaukee, but our office was told by Walker's office on more than one occasion that if City Hall pushed hard for Milwaukee light rail - - a different kind of rail service than the KRM - -  Walker would then push hard against it.

As with the KRM, the more disagreement among local officials about rail spending, the more likely it was that federal or state officials would withhold the money.

The rail game was being run by talk radio. Walker was not the engineer, but he was an important passenger.

So everyone in local government had to walk on egg shells around Walker on rail issues because his top priority was to stay on the good side of his talk radio enablers.

And their out-of-city audiences, which supported Walker and which he would continue to cultivate.

The federal money never got moved to the KRM rail line, and Walker eventually helped sideline it

There was an eventual split of the $91.5 million lost to the KRM - - a division made by federal officials over Walker's objections - - that sent some of the funding to the County bus system and the lion's share to finance another City of Milwaukee-only rail project, the streetcar.

An excellent history of Walker and the rail projects he had opposed or blocked, here.

in 2010, Walker played the game again, running against, and blocking $810 million in pledged federal Amtrak-to-Madison expansion and train-manufacturing dollars. 

The money went to other states, principally California.

He was even willing to sacrifice the jobs it would have produced in Milwaukee and across southern Wisconsin, because the game trumps policy.

And Walker and his allies, not content with having killed both the KRM and the Amtrak activity, are keeping the anti-rail game going against the streetcar through conservative legal advocacy in front of the Walker-controlled Public Service Commission.

*  A few weeks after Walker's election to County Executive, and with budget-writing for the following year under way in both the Courthouse and City Hall, Mayor Norquist had our office propose to Walker's that to eliminate taxpayer-paid service duplication, the County could merge its tree-growing, nursery and greenhouses with an existing City operation.

Word came back from Walker's office: 'What do you really want?' 

When we said, 'Nothing: it's just to save the taxpayers some money' - - and that was the truth - - we were told, 'forget it.'


Because Walker and his crew were conditioned to look for a game - - even when policy people were not playing one. The Walker people were prisoners of their own assumptions and biases, and that is a reflection of how the boss thinks and acts.

Too bad. Team Walker's one-dimensionality cost local taxpayers some money.

Just as it cost Milwaukee workers building or maintaining Amtrak trains their jobs, and will cost even more work that would have run for several years installing a modern, higher-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison.

Here is a fully-documented history of Walker's hostility to the Amtrak option and the jobs it cost Wisconsin.

And taxpayers will pay again because Walker's cancellation of the Amtrak expansion including breaking a contract with Talgo, the train-manufacturer which had built an assembly plant in Milwaukee. 

Two Madison-Milwaukee train sets were built, but sit mothballed, and even if Michigan buys them as has been reported, it is still likely that a final settlement over the broken contract will require taxpayers to write Talgo a substantial check.

Which is what happens when public officials put gamesmanship over job-creation, and ideology over provision of non-partisan public service.

Here is how a rail industry publication explained it:

Wisconsin’s arch-conservative, Tea-Party-favorite governor, Scott Walker, may have gotten more than he bargained for (or didn’t bargain for) when he killed his state’s department of transportation plan to acquire new passenger trainsets and build a higher-speed line connecting Milwaukee to Madison shortly after taking office in 2011.
Talgo USA Inc. has filed a $65.9 million claim against the State of Wisconsin on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, setting up a probable lawsuit and reviving contentious debate over Gov. Scott Walker’s rejection in 2011 of $810 million in federal stimulus money for a higher-speed rail passenger line. The claim is top of an existing lawsuit that Talgo filed in November 2012 to take possession of two trainsets it built for the state but have been idled due to Walker’s canceling of the planned Milwaukee to Madison line.
Walker's actions following talk radio's lead do shed light on why job creation in the state lags the nation's, ranks us 35th among the states - - and behind most Great Lakes states - - and certainly fast-growing Minnesota, and dooms Walker's pledge of 250,000 new jobs on his first-term watch.

You can also see the Team Walker preference for game-players over policy people - - and the consequences - - if you look look at how Walker hired publicly-paid county employees onto his Executive's staff where they used county time to politick and raise money for Walker's 2010 gubernatorial effort, and for the Lt. Governor campaign of Brett Davis, a GOP state legislator, which Walker was supporting.

This represented unprecedented chutzpah - - a game of personal and political advancement for Walker run through secret emails from laptops on a clandestine Internet router set up by and used by apparatchiks in Walker's office suite.

And when outside tragedies intervened in the life of the County and its government that jeopardized Walker's electability, and trashed his leadership, the game players grabbed the network's joysticks and took the controls.

*  When a teenage boy was crushed to death and his mother was maimed by falling concrete in the County-owned O'Donnell Park garage, Walker's campaign manager, Keith Gilkes swung into action

He issuing jaw-dropping orders to taxpayer-paid county employees, including then-Walker Deputy Staff Chief Kelly Rindfleisch, that surfaced in a subsequent probe of Walker's office:
Gilkes wrote to Walker aide Kelly Rindfleisch, advising her on the day of the O'Donnell death, June 24, 2010: "Keep on top of (parks director) Sue Black, (budget director Steve) Kreklow, (administration director Cindy) Archer and all staff to make sure there is not a paper anywhere that details a problem at all."
*  After a patient was raped at the County Mental Health Complex, Gilkes told Rindfleisch by email to get a County-paid lawyer more focused on protecting Walker from the political fallout, as the Journal Sentinel noted in this excellent summary story:
"Just do me a favor and tell him that we are getting the crap kicked out of us by the County Board," Gilkes wrote. "At some point I would like him to stop being a lawyer and think political for a change and let us fight back." 
* And after a patient had starved to death at the mental health complex, Gilkes and Rindfleisch - - remember, she was working on public time - - discussed in emails the need to keep the patient death settlement details out of the media until after the November, 2012 election.

"Buried" was the operative word.

Now flash forward to April, 2014. 

Walker is running for re-election as Governor, but will not say - - wink, wink - - if he will serve out his term if re-elected in November.

Like his book 'co-authorship,' and national fund-raising and speaking forays, the dodge is a signal that he's reaching for a new player level in The Higher Office Game.

It's reminiscent of his cat-and-mouse behavior when he ran for re-election as County Executive in 2008 and wouldn't commit to finishing that four-year term because everyone knew he was eyeing a run for the Governor's office.

And had been prepping for it all along.

In fact, he'd abandoned an earlier run for Governor while County Executive in which incumbent Democrat Jim Doyle went on to beat then-GOP US Rep. Mark Green in 2006.

Walker has been been playing the County Executive-to-higher-office-game since 2002, using an office in which he had no real nut-sand-bolts policy interests as a stepping stone from the get-go - - courting donors, kissing up to talk radio and assembling a county staff which would implement campaign operatives' orders to put Walker's image and advancement first.

Walker's game, following an undistinguished legislative career and an incomplete college education, is now more than a decade old.

And it's gotten more consequential - - Kelly Rindfleisch was convicted of felonious misuse of public time - - and several others brought in to serve Walker were swept up and into jail in the first of two John Doe prosecutorial probes after being convicted of crimes in office, too.

The game has winners and losers, doesn't it?

Now Team Walker is perhaps headed for the ultimate American political Zero-Sum Game of all - - the 2016 Presidential race.

Whom do you want there? A game-player or a policy person?


Anonymous said...

There's a term for a political system in which the executive branch's staff openly and unabashedly work towards reelecting the boss. "Parti prix." It's how things work in France.

That's right, wingnuts. Your man is a Frenchie.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Frenchman are socialists who love the nanny state of big faceless government.

Jake formerly of the LP said...

So does Walker. He's big-government and cronyism all the way.

Great article James. Rage only results Walker has ever cared about is how much money and power he and his allies could accumulate. And because our corporate media is owned by people who get big money from playing the game, they refuse to examine the legacy of failed policy that defines Scott Walker "leadership".

TJP said...

Brilliant James - get more exposure for it.

Unknown said...

Politics and extremism over sound, balanced policy is killing us. Literally. People are dying because of these "games."