New York Times - Story - 05/19/02

In Wisconsin, Scandal, Outrage and Deficit Churn Up a Storm of Political Change


MILWAUKEE, May 17 — One of the first things Scott Walker did after being sworn in as Milwaukee County executive last week was to swap the soft sofas in his office for a large table from the break room.

"They were just way too comfortable," said Mr. Walker, 34, a conservative Republican who won a special election in this Democratic stronghold.

The new décor is the tiniest wave in a sea of political changes throughout Wisconsin in the last few months. Those asked to comment on such things have taken to calling the situation "The Perfect Storm."

First Mr. Walker's predecessor, F. Thomas Ament, resigned under threat of recall after revelations that his administration had approved huge lump-sum pension payouts, including $1.2 million for him. (He left without taking it.) Then Milwaukee's four- term mayor, John O. Norquist, decided not to seek re-election and spent his campaign treasury on a $375,000 settlement with an aide who claimed he had coerced her into repeatedly having sex with him.

Now the scandal has seeped into the Capitol in Madison, where leaders of each party could face indictment on charges of making government employees do political work, and perhaps on charges of trading legislative action for campaign contributions. The release last week of $500,000 in legal bills for legislators and their aides in the two-year investigation created an uproar and drove State Senator Brian Burke from the race for attorney general, in which he was the front-runner. Mr. Burke cited his health.

All this comes as the state's budget deficit has grown to more than $1 billion and approval of Gov. Scott McCallum has declined.

"It's a horrible set of circumstances that have all come together, at either precisely the best or precisely the worst time," said Don Kettl, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "It's an unparalleled opportunity to rethink all these things, but all of that is going to require that somebody step forward to do it."

Wisconsin is renowned as progressive and open. A generation ago, the biggest outrage in the capital was over lawmakers running up $25 in charges for personal phone calls, a blip that would hardly merit a mention elsewhere.

"I think it's something Chicago's dumping in the water," said Chuck Grapentine, a lifelong state resident.

Mr. Grapentine, 62, is Mr. Walker's nominee to run Milwaukee County's human resources department, replacing Gary J. Dobbert, the architect of the pension scheme, who faces felony charges because he did not get an actuarial analysis before the plan was adopted. Mr. Walker estimates that the pension plan, which includes payments of six and seven figures for employees who keep working after they could retire, is responsible for nearly half the $50 million deficit he inherited.

In Mr. Walker's first 30 days, he promised to cut his salary to $72,000, from $132,000 (he also reduced his staff payroll by $250,000); make the county's department heads reapply for their jobs; and get the 25 elected supervisors to vote on a resolution to make their jobs part time.

Mr. Walker's election is the strongest sign of what many here see as a growing citizen revolt, set off by anger over the pensions and sustained by the other scandals. A hastily organized group, Citizens for Responsible Government, quickly collected 181,000 signatures to recall Mr. Ament and is trying to recall 13 of the 25 supervisors in elections that will begin on Tuesday.

"You wake up a lion, he's going to be active," said Ralph Lisowski, vice chairman of the group.

Besides the higher-profile events here and in Madison, a write-in candidate defeated a three-term incumbent for mayor of Oconomowoc, just west of Milwaukee, and mavericks in two other suburbs won mayoral races this spring campaigning for change. In Door County, a vacation spot in the state's northeastern peninsula, 15 of the 20 county board members were ousted in a February recall after approving construction of a $30 million justice center.

In a March survey, 45 percent of residents said Wisconsin was on the wrong track, up from 34 percent last year and 20 percent in 1999. The portion saying the state was on the right track fell to 47 percent, from 74 percent three years ago. A separate poll found that just 40 percent said Milwaukee had good government, down from nearly 70 percent in 1999, while 37 percent named government as the most important issue facing the region, more than double the percentage in any previous year.

Political analysts say these changes stem not just from the scandals but also from increased civic awareness since Sept. 11 and rising concern about the state budget deficit. At the same time, state politics have become increasingly competitive, with the electorate evenly distributed among Republicans, Democrats and independent voters, making politicians uneasy about taking strong positions.

"The state of Wisconsin is very definitely going to change," said Jeff Browne, president of the Public Policy Forum, a nonpartisan government watchdog in Milwaukee. "Some people see it as an opportunity; some people see it as a threat."

At the county courthouse in Milwaukee, budget analysts sharing a brown-bag lunch with Mr. Walker on Thursday showed the scars.

"People are still extremely uneasy about the change," said Clare O'Brien, a county employee for five years. "All this has unfolded in just a few months. People are shellshocked."

"And embarrassed," added a colleague, Bonnie Pettit. "You used to be proud to be a public servant. Now I'm not going to let anybody know.