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Mar 2013: We’re just keeping up the tradition in state of bizarre politicians

Mike Nichols Mike Nichols

We’re not New York or Chicago. We’re a little more modest.

A gourmet restaurant in the Badger State is a place that offers more than one type of cheese on its burger. A particularly fashionable Wisconsinite is one who owns shoe polish, even if he’s never used it. There’s a humility and common sense here on the bar stools. And, yes, we know we have too many of those. We admit our faults.

One of them is that we too often tolerate politicians who won’t admit theirs.

I am alluding to Brett Hulsey, the Democratic state representative from Madison whose increasingly bizarre conduct includes taking a box cutter into the Capitol and asking an officer if he could bring a muzzle loading rifle onto the Assembly floor. Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., too. I suspect his recent musings about Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele having “penis envy” left even members of his conservative base covetous of something else: a quieter sheriff.

Is there something in our once-pristine waters of late? Or has it always been there?

I recently asked a whole bunch of smart people who’ve spent a lot of years observing politics for their recollections of particularly bizarre statements or behavior by Wisconsin politicians. Most only remember the recent stuff.

But the very first response I received was about an incident in Ashland over 25 years ago. A state senator who was also the mayor of Ashland at the time, Daniel Theno, was pulled over at 2:30 one June morning for allegedly speeding. After getting up close, the cop thought he was also exhibiting all the symptoms of a guy who was drunk.

Theno proceeded to argue that he couldn’t be arrested because he had legislative immunity. Amazingly, according to a media account at the time, the argument worked. Just as amazingly, there really was – and is – a provision in the state constitution stating that “members of the legislature shall in all cases, except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest.”

In fact, former state Sen. Brian Burke, who was convicted of using workers in his Capitol office to help him campaign for attorney general, cited the same passage in an effort to deter prosecutors back in 2002. Luckily, the judges ruled that no one is above the law.

Otherwise, Jim Lewis, the one-time representative from West Bend who pleaded guilty in 1979 to lying to a federal grand jury investigating an alleged plot to sell a laser gun to a colonel in the Guatemalan government, might never have been prosecuted, either. (Yep, you heard that right, a laser gun.)

Years later, Lewis told me he would have fought the charges instead of pleading guilty if he’d had the money to do so. He also told me, quite accurately, the whole episode was “bizarre.” It was. But we have a history of that in this state, and apparently always have.

I asked Wisconsin historian John Gurda if he knew of instances of bizarre statements or behavior by politicians long ago.

“Boy, where do you start, Mike?” replied Gurda.

He told me that one of our territorial governors in the 1840s, James Duane Doty, was once called “a corrupt and designing knave” known for his “egregious vanity, impotence and imbecility.”

Some would say the author of that quote, Byron Kilbourn, was in an unusually good position to know. In addition to being a newspaper publisher, Kilbourn was himself a politician. He would also become the president of a railroad before being forced to resign because of alleged fraud and mismanagement.

Looking back, I guess it makes me feel better to know we’re not the only Wisconsinites who’ve voted bizarre and flawed men into office.

The question, though, is whether folks in a modest state known for common sense will leave them there.