One of the many benefits of a vacation is that you don’t have to be tethered to your computer or iPhone and obsess about instant access to “the news.”
At the same time, habits die hard. My husband and I were thousands of miles away from Milwaukee during our two-week getaway this August — but more often than I’d like to admit, we checked the online version of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
By the time we returned this week, I realized that most of the news wasn’t really that important. Yes, there was the Todd Akin foot-in-mouth outbreak, interesting in part because his views are not that different from those of Wisconsin’s own Paul Ryan. It’s just that Ryan is better at dressing up his draconian positions in acceptable rhetoric.
County Executive Chris Abele’s firing of Parks Department director Sue Black was also definitely of interest. But the media’s coverage was frustrating. It devolved into guessing games and pro-Abele rationalizations that never really addressed a key question: isn’t it a good thing that Black passionately defended the parks and wasn’t just a “yes” person who acquiesced to year after year of budget cuts?
And then there was the media’s coverage of the Aug. 14 Democratic primaries in Milwaukee. This time, frustration was replaced with amazement.
I had more than passing familiarity with the primaries in Milwaukee for various state legislative seats. In particular, I had blogged about education as a key issue in the Democratic primaries and the behind-the-scenes involvement of the Republican-dominated, pro-voucher American Federation for Children. (Because there are no serious Republicans running in those races this fall, the Democratic primary was, in essence, the election.)
Among other things, the American Federation for Children paid for robocalls and flyers, with its support of six pro-voucher candidates reaching at least $100,000.
The federation is the most powerful national group in the Republican-dominated movement to use public tax dollars to fund private and religious schools. Wisconsin, home to the country’s largest and oldest voucher program, has always been a key battleground.
The federation is led by Betsy DeVos, who is married to the son of billionaire Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, and who once boasted that the family is the “largest single contributor of soft money” to the national Republicans. “Other than possibly the Koch brothers, few billionaires have a more established place in conservative America than the DeVos clan,” notes a Forbes.com article last year. Despite its national influence and deep pockets, the federation was unsuccessful in convincing Milwaukee voters that it had their interests at heart.
All of the federation’s candidates in Milwaukee lost.
It was the most stunning defeat for voucher proponents in Wisconsin in recent memory.
The defeat of incumbent Jason Fields was particularly striking. First elected in 2004, Fields had assumed a national role in promoting vouchers. This May, for instance, he was on a panel of “legislative champions” at the federation’s 2012 National Policy Summit in Jersey City, N.J.
Given the dominant role education has played in Wisconsin politics in the last year — to say nothing of vouchers as a key plank in the Republican national agenda — you would think it would be news that candidates strongly supporting public education overwhelmingly defeated pro-voucher candidates.
So imagine my surprise at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s editorial analyzing the Milwaukee races.
The results, it said, were an example of Democrats enforcing an “ideological code” that mandates “ideological purity” and “fealty to the [Democratic] party agenda.” Just to make sure readers didn’t miss the point, the headline declared: “Purging of moderates bodes ill for Wisconsin.”
The editorial cited Daniel Riemer’s defeat of incumbent Peggy Krusick and Mandela Barnes's defeat of Fields as evidence of moderates being purged. It proclaimed not just vouchers but abortion as the key issues. (Krusick opposes abortion, Riemer supports reproductive rights; Fields supports private school vouchers, Barnes is an advocate of public education.)
When I read the editorial, even though I was thousands of miles away on vacation, I was flabbergasted.
Since when did support for public education and women’s reproductive rights become examples of ideological extremism?
What’s more, how did abortion become a central issue in the primary?
I understand that education was a fundamental dividing line. Both Riemer and Barnes had made the protection of public education a key focus of their campaigns, as did other primary winners. What’s more, Gov. Scott Walker’s unprecedented cuts in education funding, his attack on public sector unions and his expansion of the voucher program have ensured that education is page one news across the state.
But bringing up abortion as essential to Krusick’s defeat was odd. Yes, abortion remains an ongoing and ever-present political controversy. But Reimer didn’t raise that as an issue.
Which made me wonder. Was the abortion issue thrown in to help make the editorial’s case that ideological extremists led a purge of moderates?
After all, it would have been hard to make such an accusation merely because a candidate supported public education, which is an essential right enshrined in the state’s constitution. Until the Republicans decided to malign public schools and push their agenda of private school vouchers, support for public education was as American as apple pie.
Throughout their campaigns, Riemer and Barnes demonstrated a willingness to work hard. They will take to Madison fresh energy and a reinvigorated commitment to public education. They deserve better than the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s editorial.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Purple Wisconsin project.