Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On Being an Only Child

Some people think it is great to be an only child because when we are younger, only children have the best toys, games and clothes. Because my birthday is near Christmas, my presents continued for weeks.

Some call only children selfish. I have been both selfish and self-absorbed. I never felt selfish when I was fortunate to be among any of my 15 first cousins, my friends or when I was with my grandparents in Marshfield. I often seek the company of others to avoid loneliness.

I was not always among friends, my cousins or with my grandparents. I did not know any better. My father was an only child, too. This is one reason why I am a father of two siblings. I loved becoming a step-father to three children. I still miss them.

My mother doted on me. I gradually became uncomfortable with her attention. She is a retired teacher. The whole world is currently made up of Kindergarten students no matter how old they are. I have heard her tell many new acquaintances how wonderful I was at three or four. As she ages, her memory problems become more acute. She seems not to remember that I drove her to Orlando every day when my Dad had two separate artery surgeries to head off stroke. He was concerned when stroke felled a neighbor and one of his uncles without killing them.

When he is well, he is her caretaker. As an only child, he holds grudges so white-knuckled that he nurtures resentments I might forgive. His dislikes how my mother has slid. He has disliked my first wife since 1984. Of my two sons, the one who looks like her could do nothing right. The one who looks like me could do nothing wrong. If my father passes away first, I will have to go to Florida to care for my mother and allow her to live her remaining days independently in their family home. I dislike the South.

There are many things that I buy that are like my grandparents in Marshfield and not like the things I associate with my parents as consumers. It is weird to be with my parents because their buying habits are still the same. My grandparents always had brown bread, crunchy peanut butter, strawberry jam and chocolate ice cream. My parents still buy white bread, creamy peanut butter, grape jelly and vanilla ice cream.

Now I chiefly see my cousins from the Twin Cities. Once in a while I see my cousins from Algoma or from California. Now I scan pictures others do not seem to possess because as an only child, I seem to have pictures of them as children my mother kept in albums.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An Atheist Recalls

As far as I can remember, everyone I knew professed to be a Christian. Like many, I was baptized as an infant. I went to School on Sundays even as a high school senior. Confirmed at 13, I spent many Saturday afternoons at Confirmation classes.

Despite this, I asked Jesus into my heart one day at a Christian book store I entered one snowy day en route to a department store to buy the new Black Sabbath album. Like many, this event changed my life. I went to Bible Study with older Jesus Freaks, even though I had to ride there on a bicycle because I was still too young to drive.

I went to a Methodist Youth Fellowship canoe trip in northern Wisconsin and sang a few times with the choir, sitting next to a good singer. Later, I became president of Methodist Youth Fellowship. I organized the youth of the church to vote to retain the pastor who took us on the canoe trip. Adults, however, discharged him.

In college, I wore silver cross necklaces. I went through several because the chains were not sturdy enough. As a young adult, I had to change my diet when I ate with observant Jews. I worked for the world’s nicest Muslims during Ramadan. They brought me wonderful homemade food after sundown. Even the door alarm code was an Arabic word.

I converted protestant denominations for my first wife. My children were baptized in this denomination and one of them played the baby Jesus one Christmas. She and I edited the church newsletter and worked in the nursery together. My second wife and I were married in a different denomination, where I attended Bible Study. I own both a New International Study Bible and a famous daily devotional book by Oswald Chambers. When I moved back to Wisconsin, I only attended church for Good Fridays and Easters. I have attended weddings, funerals and meetings of alcoholics in churches.

Oddly, it was volunteering at a faith-based food pantry where my long faith started to be shaken. One volunteer called for death to gays based on the Old Testament. This especially shook me because an AIDS activist in Africa was killed by HIV-deniers on this very day. A second said gays were outside the love of God. I thought immediately of gays and lesbians that I know have faith in God; some are ordained. A third made a joke at the expense of lesbians. A fourth said the story of Genesis makes clear dinosaurs and people existed together and that science that says otherwise is simply wrong. This view is common among fundamentalist Christians.

A friend suggested I read a New York Times best selling book by well-known atheist Christopher Hitchens. Yes, I know that he is deathly sick but has not recanted his atheism, insulting believers. I have read three books and numerous articles since that first one. I think the jealous, wrathful God of the Old Testament is the God of what we now call ethnic cleansing. Most of the misery of human existence is the result of theism, including worshiping Gods that no longer exist. Almost all exiting religions believe in a virgin birth. I am not as gifted a reader as John Stuart Mill, as organized as David Hume or as good a writer as Mark Twain, to cite just three well-known atheists.

Many of my friends still believe in God. I would never want to insult those who show their faith every day. Some, however, live awful lives because they think one confession would give them eternal life and not eternal damnation. A nearby church left on my door a night-light and self-promotional Christian literature. They meant well.

No, I did not seek to become an atheist. I will always treat others as I hope to be treated. I will never become militant about it. Militants will not rest until they wring every single shred of religious meaning from public space.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Lansing Anniversary

It is nearing 25 years since the fateful decision to take a position in Lansing. I never guessed it would be the first day of 17 years serving the citizens and taxpayers of Michigan. We tend to think success is the collision of preparation and opportunity. For me, there was also economic desperation.

For two years, I worked in Central Hall at little Hillsdale College in Michigan when I met the woman who would become my first wife. After I ran for Congress in Wisconsin in 1984, we moved back to her native Michigan. A Journalism graduate of Michigan State University, Sarah Michaelsen was pregnant with Jens Michaelsen, too. I had interviews for great jobs I was fortunate not to get in Cleveland, Flint and Toledo. We lived in poverty in Hillsdale while I worked at a gas station in Jonesville. After Jens was born, I took a job at an advertising agency in Jackson for more money and challenge.

What finally bore fruit were fan mail and a request to meet Michigan Republican Chairman E. Spencer Abraham. I was summoned to Lansing to meet with him. Suddenly, running for Congress was an advantage, not something to hide. I must have won him in 15 minutes because he sent me to meet with Political Director Jane Hershey, later Mrs. Abraham. She spent 30 minutes with me and offered me a job but it only paid what I was making in closer Jackson. I said no for the first time ever but she suggested I meet with Jerry Crandall, then leading Senate Republican media relations. She called him to say I was coming.

I went into the Farnum Building for the first time to meet Crandall. I must have won Crandall, who had nothing open, but called John Kost in Policy. I spent nearly a half hour with Kost. When I drove back to Hillsdale, I felt pretty good about four meetings in a day in Lansing.

Soon the telephone rang. It was Kost. He offered me a job. It was 50 percent more than I was paid in Jackson. I was glad to take the offer. Then the phone rang again. My beloved Grandpa Porter was nearing death. I went from euphoria to worry. The littleness of Jens, one week old, meant we could not drive 10 hours in hope of seeing him before he died.

I called his room at the hospital. My Grandma answered and said he was asleep. I mistily explained the situation and to let him know how much I love him. She said he knew but she would tell him I called. Her voice broke; it had never broken before so I knew his condition was grave. I hung up and then I sobbed. I quit at the advertising agency soon, starting the two weeks notice clock.

He died the next day, however. I called Kost to explain and to forestall my start date until October. Between the funeral in central Wisconsin, having to stop often to feed and change Jens both ways, progress would be slow. My cousins and I were pall-bearers.

I ascended rapidly through aptitude and desire in policy, even becoming coffee czar. I still think of state governments as 50 laboratories of democracy and it is not an empty phrase to me as it is to others. Friends I made during my almost five years at the Senate Republicans are still life-long friends, regardless of partisan affiliation. I remember the first time I met Saul Anuzis, John Arundel, Lisa Babcock, Dawson Bell, Anne Boomer, Jerry Crandall, Gale Cutler, Dave Doyle, Gary Garbarino, Vern Ehlers, John Engler, Heidi Grether, Jeff Holyfield, Carol Marcinkowski, Jeff McKelvey, George McManus, Anne Mervenne, Jill Murphy, Gary Naeyert, Rick Pluta, Gary Reed, Dennis Schornack, Joe Schwarz, Tom Shields, Norm Shinkle, Jurgen Skoppek, Jon Smalley, Marc Speiser, Dave Waymire and Dan Wyant. They are just a few I know personally in social media. I remember the first day I met John Reinemann, who was then a graduate student at the University of Michigan but from my native Wisconsin. Like me, he was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

Eric Michaelsen was the first baby born under a new Senate Republican paternity leave. I so loved my job, I walked daily in all types of Michigan weather from my parking spot in the dirt lot by the Library of Michigan. I even took public transportation so Sarah could have our only car. Other cool jobs, friends, shocking suicides and better parking spots came later but I never regretted the fateful decision that first took me to Lansing.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Wisconsin Interests Shopping for Venues

Smarter people than me described the behavior of conflicting groups escalating their interests to higher authorities as “venue shopping.” News that Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices allegedly had a physical altercation is more venue shopping.

Because Wisconsin Democrats are in the minority in both chambers of the Wisconsin state Legislature, liberals tried to obstruct legislative action on Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill and impact on collective bargaining. Stymied by legislative creativity, losers in the legislative arena sought an injunction by a judge in Dane County. All of this was venue shopping.

Interest in the pivotal 2011 election for a new term for Justice David Prosser was expensive and narrow. Election losers demanded another venue with a hand recount in all Wisconsin counties. They still lost.

Losers in the Dane County ruling appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. They narrowly won. Aggrieved parties have looked to appeal to a friendlier court. This is now a harder strategy because police and fire unions have been peeled away by the Walker agenda from their previous tight coalition. Sometimes interests only threaten venue shopping.

Liberal activists gathered recall petitions targeting six Republican Wisconsin Senators, not for corruption in office but for casting a vote for the Walker agenda. Conservative activists targeted three Democrats for fleeing to Illinois. This is more venue shopping.

Now losers want to pour cold water on the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling by shopping around a story that Justice David Prosser choked Justice Anne Walsh Bradley before the vote. This is odd because former Assembly Speaker David Prosser is even more civil than me. The faction of Prosser had the votes. The faction with Anne Walsh Bradley did not.

Sometimes I am accused of being a smarty pants. I even discussed research methods with a server in Baton Rouge who was a doctor candidate in Economics. To quote Martin Luther: “Here I stand. I can not do otherwise.”

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Twin Cities Trip

My second cousin, whom I have “met” only on social media, graduated from high school. This autumn, she will start at a private college. I was invited to attend her open house in Saint Paul.

I jumped at the chance to visit her house. I have not been to the Twin Cities in 30 years. I have never met the high school graduate or any of her siblings. Her father and I are among 16 first cousins. I have not seen her Mom or Dad since our Grandma’s 1996 funeral in Marshfield. Her Dad and I were among the pallbearers.

I have spent time with all of his siblings and met most of their children. Her Dad and I are not just cousins. Among all the cousins, he is closest in age to me. There are pictures of us together as babies, toddlers, children and teenagers. I remember going to his father’s funeral when we were still children..

I talked with my cousin quite a bit. He told me things about himself I never knew, such as his ability to jump high enough in high school that he could put his whole elbow above the rim. He remembered many things that I had forgotten. For example, I had forgotten I introduced him at 1977 Marshfield high school graduation open houses as my cousin from Australia. He always has slain me. His delivery is still mock seriousness.

His mother was at the open house. My aunt did not know I was going to be there. She invited me to come to her cabin on Richter Lake in Taylor County when my cousin Lynne and her daughter are there. Like my son, Eric and my cousin, Judy, Lynne teaches public school. Lynne lives in California. I have never met her daughter.

I had forgotten how much I like the Twin Cities. When I was freshly graduated from college, I pursued employment in Minneapolis. The Cities are so unlike Madison in a couple of ways that I dislike about living in Madison again. My preferences are no secret.

Madison is both the whitest and most leftist place I have ever lived. Moderates like me are shamed and lectured. When I lived in Michigan, my moderate views did not stand out. People of color were local news anchors, journalists, Republicans and lobbyists. My views would not stand out in a big place like the Twin Cities. People of color were at my cousin’s open house. So were children of Michelle Bachman.

I have a network of family and friends in the Cities. Saint Paul is a state capital. Maybe I’ll start to look there for employment again.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Predicting the Kohl Seat

Many Wisconsin citizens have opinions about U.S. Senator Herb Kohl announcing that he will not seek another term in 2012. Kohl was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1988 to succeed the late Bill Proxmire. He would be 81 at the end of another term.

Some predict who the major parties will nominate to succeed Kohl. I am no exception to this. I would remind you that I predicted that State Senator Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point) would take the free shot as Democrat nominee against Ashland County Prosecutor Sean Duffy in WI-7 in 2010. Although I targeted my “home” district, I hoped Duffy would win some couties in Lassa’s district. I never expected he would beat her so easily.

Many presume that the Democrat nominee to succeed Kohl will be former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold or Milwaukee Mayor Jim Barett. Both lost statewide in 2010. I think this is wrong.

Feingold might run but he will lose in a crowded Democrat primary for an open U.S. Senate seat. Former Congressman and dermatologist Steve Kagen (D-Appleton) will open his checkbook to enter the race. The winner and elected by a narrow margin to become the next U.S. Senator will be current Congressman Ron Kind (D-La Crosse). He will benefit from the turn-out of Wisconsin votes for President Barack Obama. Kind would have to have a singular terrible campaign manager to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Unfortunately for Kind, there is no shortage of losers. He could always hire staff from Klopfenberg, Feingold or the people who squandered large majorities in the Wisconsin Capitol or in the U.S. House.

Some thought Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Janesville) would leave leadership in the U.S. House to run for U.S. Senate. Some people think Wisconsin Attorney General JB Van Hollen should run. All you have to do is see how much JB loves his wife and how much they treasure their children to know that he would never give up either.

There will not be a Republican primary. If Tommy Thompson is serious about running for U.S. Senate, he will win the Republican nomination in a walk. I have loved Tommy since he was Wisconsin Assembly Minority Leader and mispronounced my name, perhaps confusing me with my father. I served Governor John Engler of Michigan when Thompson was Governor of Wisconsin. Although Engler was better at public policy, he was never as good a public speaker and retail politician as Thompson. If Thompson runs he will get 49 percent of the vote because most people who voted for him have retired and moved to lower-tax states with better weather like my parents.

He was still Governor when I first drove the newer four-lane highway that had been called Bloody 29 from head-on collisions when it was only two lanes. Younger people do not associate the road with Thompson.

Others are poised to enter the race if Thompson opts out. Former Congressman and home builder Mark Neumann (R-Nashota) can spend his own money. Former State Senator Ted Kanavas (R-Brookfield) wants to raise his name identification again. Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader (R-Juneau) has a free shot in 2012. They would be lucky to get 40 percent of the vote.

Sure, I admit time could prove me wrong. If the Democrats err by nominating Congressperson Tammy Baldwin (D-Madison), this is the only way that a Republican becomes U.S. Senator.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Comparing Outsized Media Personalities in Lansing and Madison

Many know that I lived in Lansing for 17 years so I know many who are still working journalists and were once journalists before their current occupations. Married twice to Journalism graduates of giant public universities, I have written for pay since 1981. Thus I know something about media personalities.

Although there are many media celebrities in Michigan, there is no personality that is a bigger media conglomerate than Tim Skubick. Armed with a tape recorder and a microphone at the Capitol, Skubick was syndicated on radio. I have seen Skubic as a commentator on local commercial television. Skubick was the voice of halftime shows at Michigan State University when I went to Badger games. Of course, he is the long-standing moderator of “Off the Record” Friday night on Michigan Public Television. I have watched it on-line in Madison.

Madison has two media personalities that are similarly ubiquitous. One is Channel 15 weatherman Charlie Shortino. He is not just a host of the Channel 15 morning show and does the local component of Al Roker, he is a frequent public speaker. Shortino does weather on local commercial radio. Shortino has even been a celebrity server at the World’s Largest Brat Fest near the Dane County Coliseum.

Compare Shortino to Neil Heinen. Heinen is as reliably politically correct as Madison itself. He writes predictable columns in “Madison” magazine. Heinen has a Sunday morning public affairs show that I never watch because it has poor production values and softball questions of small guests. To Heinen, mob rule is democracy and Wisconsin voters were to blame for electing Governor Scott Walker and firing the heroic Mayor Dave Cieslewicz.

Although busy, Skubick was never too busy to talk with me. Shortino would never be too busy. If Heinen were on fire, I would not urinate on him to put the fire out.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Recalling Recall

Recall of Democratic State Senators has been a huge part of my life and career. As a result, I investigated the possibility of recalling the Wisconsin Democratic State Senators who eluded the call of the Senate by absconding to Illinois. This results in the Wisconsin Senate lacking quorum to act on Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill.

I lived and worked in Lansing, Michigan’s capitol, from 1985 until 2002. In 1983, Senate Minority Leader John Engler led the recall of two Democrat State Senators who voted for their Governor’s hated 38 percent increase in Michigan’s state income tax. Both were replaced by Republicans and John Engler became Majority Leader. After losing to Dave Obey in my native Wisconsin in 1984, I joined the Majority Caucus staff in Lansing in 1985.

For several subsequent elections, the Senate Majority was only two seats so a Republican loss would result in a tie, broken by the Democrat Lieutenant Governor. I was assigned to perform opposition research, policy development, media relations and more pedestrian assignments for the top targeted seats in 1986, 1988 and 2000. All but the most political assignments like doing doors, making vote calls or providing ballot security were expected to be done on state time. Things that were rewarded with my promotion in Michigan would earn me prison time in Wisconsin.

What is the law regarding recall of Wisconsin State Senators? In 1926, we passed Article 12 of Article 13 of the Wisconsin Constitution. It provides for a recall petition anytime after the first year of an elected term. The petition needs at least the signatures of 25 percent of the vote for Governor in the last election. This is a huge hurdle so recall is not taken lightly.

If valid signatures are filed, a recall election happens in six weeks. If there are more than two candidates, there is recall primary. If a candidate receives more than 50 percent in the primary, the candidate wins.

Because I live in liberal Madison, my State Senator is a safe Democrat during normal times. Absconding to Illinois to escape quorum and resulting in the lay-off of state workers means that it is not normal times now.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Killing for Religion

Is there a possibility that the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek will lead to fundamentalist Muslims seizing power like in Iran? Although Egyptians are comforted that the military is supposed to help make the transition to democracy, Egypt had become more fundamentalist even before the demonstrations. I was struck by how many veiled women were shown on television celebrating the fall of Mubarek. Fundamentalist Muslims killed Mubarek’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat.

Pakistanis have recently stoned and beaten members of minority religious sects. The Indian city now known as Mumbai was a city that was home to several religious communities so fundamentalists from Pakistan attacked it. In some fundamentalist Islamic countries, unmarried couples without chaperones have been killed.

In Iraq, Sunnis and Shia kill each other and everyone can kill Christians with impunity. It was typical when the Afghan Taliban dynamited the huge Buddhist statues at Bamiyan, forbade television and hosted Osama Bin Laden. Israel is less about democracy and more about religion. Fundamentalist Jews killed Menachem Begin. I am old enough to remember when Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East before civil war between rival religious militias turned it into a mess of pock-marks and Christian Falangists attacked refugee camps on orders from Israeli Aerial Sharon.

Religious authorities promise various wonderful things in the hereafter but they always want to control current behavior. Most religious traditions promise especially wonderful benefits from martyrdom.

I have been volunteering at a food pantry for the hungry in Madison so I am around what I perceived as nice Christians a lot. I am in demand there a lot because I am physically stronger than most volunteers and know most of the New Testament of the Bible. I was shocked to hear some of them call for capital punishment for people who are gay or call peaceful Muslims worshipers misled by the Devil. The same day that I heard a call for capital punishment of gays, a gay activist was killed by intolerants in Uganda.

I think there are people of good will in the faith community. I would always be willing to go to churches for weddings, funerals and baptisms but I have gradually come to the view that God did not create people in His image, but that leaders of faith created God in the image of people to control behavior in this world. I would never become a militant Atheist like the Freedom From Religion crowd; I will never forgive them for putting the fence around the donated statue of Christ in my hometown.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Petition for Redress of Grievances

Weird news that Jared Loughner opened fire at a Tucson public appearance by U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and shot her and killed several others is a reminder that unhinged people sometimes go postal. He has more in common with the Columbine and Virginia Tech shooters than political assassins who have specific targets. Those of us who have served the public have always joked about the lunatic fringe, full Moon periods and foil hats.

Is it the result of social discourse gone awry? I think it wrong to read too much into it. It is true that the 24-hour news cycle purges moderate voices into more extreme voices on both the left and right. The left blames the right for influencing the shooter; the right blames the left for blaming the right. It is all too predictable.

When Gabrielle Giffords was sworn into office after she won another term, she read the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Sometimes we focus too much on the establishment clause or the right of free exercise of religion. Less understood is the right of people to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances shall not be abridged. Calls for enhanced security of U.S. Representatives and Senators might mean that no one can publicly disagree with someone elected to serve us. I can remember when anyone could enter the U.S. Capitol. Already it resembles an armed camp in the Third World.

Many know how long I have served the public. I have met with disturbed, homeless and those with poor hygiene who arrived without an appointment in Michigan and Wisconsin. I feared for my personal safety in public service only once. It was in Michigan. It was not Detroit, Flint or Benton Harbor; I always felt a sense of safety in those although many do not. I lifted weights about three times per week so I was a fit 200 pounds from 1992 to 1996. We are not talking about moments when my heart raced driving towards the sun going toward Lake Huron, going home from a long day in Pontiac or spinning out of control on new snow in Delta Township streets.

No, my threat of physical harm came in Midland in 1995 when I was a Michigan Tax Tribunal Hearing Referee adjudicating property tax assessment appeals. Petitioner was deranged and a friend of Oklahoma bombing facilitator and Thumb farmer Terry Nichols. I was asking questions about his case and somehow he got behind me. He told me how easy it would be to kill me by snapping my neck. I do not remember how I ruled in his case but it is unlikely that unless there was a mistake of fact that he prevailed.

I needed to get some information from the Midland County Equalization Director on a different case and mentioned this petitioner. I was informed that he had threatened to bring automatic weapons to kill people in county government.

Right of people to peaceably assemble shall not be abridged. The key words are Peaceably Assemble.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Republicans in Charge in Wisconsin Again

Like many raised elsewhere in Wisconsin, I voted for U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Wisconsin State Treasurer Kurt Schuller. They all won.

Some of my liberal Madison friends are in a state of shock and denial. How dare voters in other counties fire U.S. Senator Russ Feingold? How dare Republicans win elections as Governor, majorities in both Wisconsin legislative Houses, and State Treasurer? How dare voters fire Dr. Steve Kagen and not choose Wisconsin State Senator Julie Lassa to replace Dave Obey?

How dare Scott Walker keep his promise to kill the rail plan from Milwaukee to Madison? How dare ousted Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker turn down state employee contracts? Many are silent about springing former Assemblyman Jeff Wood from the Chippewa County jail where he is serving a sentence for repeated intoxicated driving offenses so the employee contracts could pass by one vote in the Assembly.

How dare the Fitzgerald brothers be Speaker of the House and Majority Leader in the Senate? How dare Assemblyman Robin Vos and Senator Alberta Darling rule the Joint Finance Committee and declare the state should live within means again?

For most of my life, the Wisconsin Senate, Governor, Attorney General, and Congressmen around Green Bay have been Republican. When I was a boy, I was photographed with Seventh District Congressman Melvin Laird, a Republican. I was afraid that I would not live to see it again.