By Kevin Binversie
If historians and political scientists could describe one moment as the portent of the 2011 Wisconsin political environment, it had to be what happened one year ago this week.
The then-outgoing majority of Assembly Democrats — as lame a duck as the term could ever possibly apply — sprung Chippewa Falls Assemblyman Jeff Wood from his jail cell, so he could be the decisive vote in a mad rush by state public employee unions to have new contracts approved by outgoing Gov. Jim Doyle before incoming Gov. Scott Walker could be sworn in.
At the time he was freed temporarily from his jail confines. Wood was serving time in a Marathon County Jail after multiple convictions for operating a motor vehicle under the influence of a controlled substance. The surrealism of the moment definitely helped bring new meaning to the phrase “work release.”
The vote was a last grasp at power for a party voted out of office in record numbers in the November 2010 elections. The power grab came to a dead end, however, when former Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, D-Weston, himself defeated on Election Day, ended up torpedoing the contracts by being the deciding vote against the new contracts.
For this act worthy of a “Profiles in Courage” Award, Decker was removed as leader by his caucus and publicly called a “whore” in a tantrum by Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents some of Wisconsin's unionized public employees.
Isn’t it great to know we might be handing the keys to the kingdom here in Wisconsin back to this gang in just a mere six or seven months’ time in a possible Walker recall?
The only reason I even remembered it has been a year since that blatant political power grab and nadir in political sportsmanship is because Jeff Wood was in the news this past week.
Wood, elected in 2002 as a Republican and switched his classification to independent in 2008 in a backroom deal to avoid a Democratic opponent, was sentenced last week in Chippewa County court to three years probation and 250 hours of community service for prescription tampering. Wood confessed to adding a zero to his pill bottle's label with the intent of obtaining more pills illegally.
So why am I taking time today to “celebrate” what was clearly a despicable political act in the unprecedented legislative action of trying to approve contracts in a lame duck session? Because this one action showed us just how low into the gutter Wisconsin’s public employee unions were willing to take Democratic politicians.
We have seen a lot in the year that has followed. The entire state Senate Democratic caucus fled to Illinois for three weeks to avoid a vote on the budget-repair bill that reformed public-sector collective bargaining.
Tantrums have been held during nearly every legislative debate by Democratic Assembly members, some while they wore pro-union T-shirts. We've seen papers and water bottles thrown in the air, if they didn't get their way, and a death threat made by one Assembly Democrat against a Republican colleague on the Assembly floor.
Countless, nearly nonstop protests have gripped and paralyzed the state for months. Wisconsin has seen everything from mass marches to organized boycotts of businesses. It's had an occupying mob of the state Capitol and college students dressed as zombies disrupt an awards ceremony for Special Olympians. We've seen recall election after recall election of state senators on both sides of the aisle as part of a chess game orchestrated in part to try to overturn the result of the November 2010 election.
After all, when you can pull a guy from jail to try to ensure public employee union contracts became a reality, what do you think the unions will do to ensure the rest of their policy dreams come true?
Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native who has been blogging on the state’s political culture for more than eight years. He has served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous Wisconsin Republican campaigns in various capacities, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.