The 'State of Wisconsin Blue Book' is one of our state government’s few remaining treasures, so of course Republicans want to get rid of it.
The vicious high-stakes and big-cash attack on Wisconsin’s social and political framework by Scott Walker and other Republicans in 2011 is painfully clear for all to examine in the 90th edition of the State of Wisconsin Blue Book 2011-2012.
Coincidentally or not, the loss of freedoms legislated by Walker and his minions began exactly 100 years after what historian John D. Buenker calls, “What was almost certainly the greatest legislature in Wisconsin history, quite possibly in any state.”
So writes Buenker in his intriguing 72-page article “Progressivism Triumphant: The 1911 Wisconsin Legislature.” With its heroic title, you might expect to read Buenker’s writing somewhere else, FightingBob.com perhaps? Wrong. It’s there in glossy glory for all to read in the latest Blue Book, our state’s venerable almanac faithfully published as a one-source reference volume for generations of citizens since 1853.
“Contrary to what most people think,” Buenker said recently, “the article had nothing to do with the current political situation.” Emeritus professor of history at the UW-Parkside, Buenker is a scholar of the Progressive era and was contacted by Blue Book editor Lawrence S. Barish in 2009. Barish resigned recently after editing 12 Blue Book editions for the state Legislative Reference Bureau. In his introduction, Barish noted the new edition “presented some unique challenges” due to 2011 recall elections and “the uproar which greeted [Walker’s] proposal to limit the collective bargaining rights of state and local government employees.”
Publication was delayed to include recall results, re-districting boundaries, and Walker’s executive decisions to replace the Department of Commerce with the economic development corporation, and to dream up the Department of Safety and Professional Services.
The total press run was 64,700. The Blue Book is for sale for $7.50 at the document sales unit of the DOA in Madison, or for free if you can claim one of the 400 given to Walker, or the 300 given to Rebecca Kleefisch - before they’re recalled - or one of the 600 given to your state senator, or the 350 given to your state representative. The freebies are great for campaigning. My assemblyperson pasted his picture inside and autographed his biography. It’s also available online. You can usually get one by calling or emailing your legislator’s office.
The phone answerer at the sales unit told me that only 178 remained of the thousands of copies they initially had for sale. As always, the books were also mailed free of charge to libraries and schools. “This one was kind of a hot item because of all the protests,” he said.
Hot item indeed! One of the most fascinating photo accounts available anywhere of 2011 Wisconsin Uprising was compiled by the Blue Book staff within the 71-page “Legislative Branch” chapter. It’s an insider look, and ends with four picture pages, in color, of the protests. Included are some priceless shots by legislative photographers who had closer access than most of us to the inside action. A full-page photo of Scott Suder and Peter Barca records some unnamed tension and fluttering papers, and a shot of Democrats wearing orange t-shirts holding hands across the aisle with Republicans to begin a session makes you wonder who might be praying for what.
Missing from that chapter, because the total damage hadn’t yet been done by press time, is a blow-by-blow listing of significant legislation passed in 2011. That should follow with the next Blue Book, if there is one.
The legislative session ending March 15 took with it another attempt by the hard right to discontinue “compilation, publication, and distribution” of the Blue Book. Assembly Bill 351 was written by Tyler August, Lake Geneva, and co-sponsored by eight more Republicans. Claiming prudence, August’s aide said, “It’s just not worth it,” and that left over copies “get dumped in the dumpster.”
AB 351 is a chronic effort. In 2010, Representative Pat Strachota, Republican of West Bend, introduced an odd bill to eliminate giving free copies of the Blue Book to 265 newspapers in the state. “It’s a small savings, but it’s a savings,” Strachota said of the $2,318 “wasted” on Blue Books.
Historian Buenker sees it differently. “Why anyone would want to get rid of the Blue Book is beyond me,” he said. “It’s a treasure trove. I doubt that it works online. You’d have to scroll back and forth constantly.”
For the record, the Blue Book contains nearly 1,000 pages. Its attractive hard cover shows “our house” (the capitol) on the front with a detail of the gilded “Forward” sculpture on the back. Along with information about officials, political parties, the Constitution, elections, state symbols, branches of government, and Wisconsin history, is Buenker’s “Progressivism Triumphant” article with numerous illustrations of notable progressives and their detractors. Fighting Bob LaFollette is pictured four times. President John F. Kennedy is shown with Gaylord Nelson unveiling a 1961 postage stamp memorializing the 50th anniversary of the workmen’s compensation system, a creation of the 1911 Legislature. The book’s spine is recognizably in keeping with its long line of predecessors which, for yours truly, provided a self-contained reference library at the one-room country school I attended in Fond du Lac County.
But there’s nothing nostalgic about the Blue Book, then or now. Ironic maybe, but not nostalgic. In the latest edition, Walker wrote the mandatory governor’s letter. His first sentence: “Wisconsin is open for business.”
Further along, Walker wrote: “Appropriately, the 2011-2012 Blue Book highlights our state’s reputation as a national leader of government reform, specifically examining the accomplishments of the 1911 Legislature. We are continuing this great tradition by leading the way in education reform and the nation’s economic upswing.”
Coming from Walker, as my mother might have said, “That’s enough to gag a maggot.”
Preserving traditions for their own sake isn’t useful. But the wholesale destruction of things long-standing and valuable is what we got in 2011 from Walker et al.
Voting rights, rail funds, jobs, collective bargaining, child labor laws, corporate taxes, environmental protection, tax credits for low-income people, public school funding, health care coverage, and clean elections fell by the wayside. The progressive ideals germinated and enacted a century ago by the “greatest legislature in Wisconsin history” aren’t merely traditions. They’re the fabric of the quality of life we in Wisconsin have grown to love and cherish, and which we will protect.
The threat is a reality. The FitzWalker style of elections bought and paid for with millions of self-interested dollars is a travesty in Wisconsin. The Tin Cup Movement will challenge corrupt money and keep it from controlling our electoral process. The People’s Legislature of FightingBob.com on March 25 is a return to Wisconsin’s clean electoral reputation. Candidates who limit the size and sources of campaign contributions to $250 from individuals only are welcome. Tin cups will be available, and so will a return to decency, transparency and common sense in campaign financing.
March 20, 2012
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David Giffey is a freelance journalist and FightingBob.com contributing editor who lives in Arena. He is the author of "Long Shadows: Veterans’ Paths to Peace" (Atwood Publishing), "Struggle for Justice: The Migrant Farm Worker Labor Movement in Wisconsin," and "The People’s Stories of South Madison."